Arguably, one of the most important Catholic intellectuals of the last thirty years is the French philosopher and theologian Jean-Luc Marion. Marion studied under philosophers Jacques Derrida and Louis Althusser while also cultivating the influences of Catholic theologians Hans Urs von Balthasar, Henri de Lubac, and Jean Daniélou. Marion, who teaches at both the Sorbonne and the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, is also an editor of the French edition of the Catholic journal Communio. In 2010 he was elected to the Académie Française.
My own academic work is in religious literature and how the encounter with God is figured in poetry, letters, memoir, and scientific writing (really), as well as in the more expected genres of mysticism and sermon literature. In his philosophical as well as his more obviously theological works Marion is also interested in the encounter with God which he examines, among other ways, through the lenses of what he calls “the idol” and “the icon.”
Put very simply, the idol, in Marion’s view, acts as a kind of “invisible mirror.” When the viewer beholds it, he ends up seeing himself. He may think he’s seeing God or Truth, but, in reality, he is projecting himself into the image. This ends up in a kind of subjective self-affirmation interpreted as objective fact.
(Jean-Luc Marion at his investiture at the Academie Francaise)
The icon, on the other hand, is an image or idea whose depths can never be completely reached. It opens one to the mysterion, the mystery of God. The deeper one enters the icon, the more it expands.
In contemporary Catholic culture, I think, we need to be constantly aware of the tensions between the idol and the icon. No Catholic in good faith one would ever claim to be an idolator—but how is it possible to know for sure? Believers on the both the Catholic Right and the Catholic Left can be guilty of idolatry, since it is not a matter of theology but of ego-centricity masking as devotion and sincerity. We are all fallen, brothers and sisters, and no one is immune from self-delusion.
The recent uproar over the Vatican’s recent rebuke of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) has given me an opportunity to think about Marion’s ideas on the image. I am, I admit, disturbed by the idea of Catholic sisters undertaking a bus tour to rally support for their position, as if this were a political campaign and not a matter of doctrine, discipline, and obedience. The Catholic Church, need I remind anyone, is not a democracy, but a communion.
It is easy for any of us to let our attention to the image slip into idolatry. It seems to me that “social justice” and Pax Christi Catholics can easily turn “social justice” or “peace” into their gods, even though their gods look a lot like Jesus. Likewise, right-leaning Pius X Catholics or other conservatives can end up worshiping tradition or the Council of Trent at the expense of Christ. And while it may be easy to slip into these habits, it’s not easy to know when it has happened. That’s why Saint Paul admonishes us “cum metu et tremore vestram salutem operamini”—“work out your salvation in fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).
The hard part about this is that one could do all the “right stuff” and still be wrong. Regular prayer, attendance at liturgy, and participation in the Sacraments—though all very good things—do not permanently immunize anyone from idolatry. It’s in the DNA of the Fall.
Modern American culture is a culture overwhelmed by images. Images—most selling something, and therefore qualifying as idols—are everywhere. We even call the little pictures on our desktops “icons.” These so-called icons, however, do not lead us into the mysterion. Usually, they lead us to more images, more idols, more advertising, more fallenness.
In The Cloud of Unknowing, an English devotional text from the fourteenth century, the anonymous author, a spiritual director, instructs those under his care to leave images when seeking the encounter with God and attend, instead, to cultivating His Presence. The Cloud author is not interested in answers, political or theological positions, or “being right.” None of these things, of themselves, leads to heaven. Rather, he encourages his charges to rely on the advice of St. Dionysius the Areopagite: “The holiest knowing of God is that which is known by unknowing.” This is what the icon opens us to.
Since I am not there, I cannot say for sure that this is the way to God. But I’m pretty sure it’s not by bus.
Spero columnist Michael Martin is a professor English literature at Marygrove College in Detroit MI.