In just one month, my new book, The Nicene Option: An Incarnational Phenomenology, will be published by Baylor University Press. As a teaser, I’m here sharing an exclusive excerpt from the previously-unpublished final chapter, “Picturing Revelation: Idolatry and the Aesthetic in Rosenzweig and Marion.” In the chapter, I ultimately argue, not uncontroversially, that the Jewish Rosenzweig offers a more “incarnational” aesthetic than the Catholic Jean-Luc Marion. At stake is their respect accounts of idolatry and how they sketch the conditions of possibility for revelation.
For those unfamiliar, Franz Rosenzweig was part of a renaissance of Jewish philosophy in Europe before and after the First World War. This chapter engages primarily with his seminal work, The Star of Redemption (abbreviated as SR below).
At stake here is an account of revelation, and the framework which determines such. For instance, in Marion and Levinas, revelation must run counter to the structures of created finitude, since it is precisely finitude which precludes the possibility of God’s revelation. But behind this logic is what Rosenzweig would describe as a very pagan—and at the same time modern—conception of both God and revelation which makes God structurally “concealed” (SR 112) and resists any collusion between God and the world. From this pagan perspective, any such relation would “ensnare God once more in the passion of love,” constituting a “constriction of God” (SR 39). The pagan logic of the concealed God bristles at such collusion, because “of course to this end it would be necessary for the infinite God to come more finitely close to man, more face-to-face with him, more proper-name to proper-name, than any sense of sensible men, any wisdom of wise men could ever admit” (SR 39). And it is just such a corporeal donation which this pagan logic of incomparability precludes: “He does not give of himself, does not love, does not have to love. For he keeps his physis to himself, and therefore remains what he is: the metaphysical” (SR 40). From Rosenzweig’s perspective, it is this pagan logic which crept into modern religious thought, particularly in the guise of “historical theology” in the wake of Schleiermacher and Ritschl, resulting in an opposition between “creation” and “revelation,” which translated into an opposition between “theology” and “philosophy.” “The school of Ritschl,” Rosenzweig observes, “asserted a separation between theology and philosophy which involved the neglect of ‘creation’ and an over-emphasis on ‘revelation’” (SR 103). And this is because it has (perhaps unwittingly) adopted a logic of concealment which must posit an opposition between revelation and creation.
Thus Rosenzweig understands his project to be precisely a recovery of creation, challenging the logic of concealment with what we might call his logic of manifestation, beginning not from a “concealed God” but rather “the manifest God” (SR 116). In his words, “creation has once more to be placed next to the experience of revelation in the full gravity of its substantiality;” more specifically, “revelation itself. . .must once more be built into the concept of creation” (SR 103). Against the discontinuity posited by the pagan logic of concealment, Rosenzweig emphasizes a relation of continuity between creation and revelation because “as ‘manifest’ God he cannot do otherwise than create” (SR 116). Notice, then, that this logic of manifestation stems from fundamentally different conceptions of God (as “manifest” and Creator), of creation, and more specifically, of the relation between Creator and creature. For Rosenzweig, creation—and creatureliness—is not the site of concealment, not God’s first hiding place; rather, it is the first revelation. To put it otherwise, creation does not institute an incommensurable “gap” between Creator and creature as suggested by Marion (GWB 158/109); on the contrary, creation is the first movement of manifestation and hence, relation. “God’s creating,” he argues, “is the beginning of his self-expression”—the site where “God’s configuration. . .emerges into visibility” (SR 113). Now, the relation between creation and revelation is, if not quite reciprocal, at least mutual: on the one hand, “revelation is providentially ‘foreseen’ in creation” (SR 108); on the other hand, creation is only seen as creation in light of revelation (SR 182–183). But what difference does it make to see the world as creation?
First, for Rosenzweig, the emphasis here is on being created or being a creature, not having been created (SR 120); it is not a question of origin but rather current status. Second, the notion of creation entails a fundamental affirmation of the world. The “first word” of creation, the “arch-yea,” is an affirmation, a “positive evaluation” which says “Yes!” to the world, which is to say, “good!” (SR 127). Thus central to his “creational” account is the primordial goodness of creation as expressed in God’s “utterly affirming valuation” (SR 153): “Creation consists of this divine affirmation of creaturely existence. [. . .] Existence is affirmed by God’s pronouncing his own work ‘good’: he has made it and it is good” (SR 151). By emphasizing the status of the world as created, Rosenzweig means to communicate this affirmation of its goodness—a fundamental valuation of those conditions which constitute creaturehood: finitude, materiality, and embodiment. So, in contrast to the “concealed God” of paganism and modernity (especially in the Kantian guise which Cohen inherited), revelation gives us “a manifest God.” Even if the mythic God of paganism is revealed, it is an undoing of concealment; in other words, in paganism there is a discontinuity between “creation” and revelation. In contrast, in light of revelation, God as creator is the God that must be made manifest, whose nature impels manifestation: “in this sense we had to designate creation as already a becoming-manifest on the part of God” (159). Creation is the first moment of God’s revelation.
It is with this link between creation and visibility that Rosenzweig makes a unique contribution that contrasts with the aniconic tradition of Maimonides, Cohen, and Levinas; for Rosenzweig, God is “he who is visible in creation” and it is in creation that God “is in the process of becoming visible” (SR 114; cp. 113). If creation is the first moment of God’s “visibility,” then this must entail quite a different understanding of images, precisely because it is grounded in a different valuation of vision which undoes common assumptions about the primacy of the aural in Jewish thought. In fact, Rosenzweig portrays vision as more primordial than speech, because “[t]hat which can be perceived is superior to speech and exalted above it. Light does not discourse, it shines” (SR 295). This is a remarkable inversion of the tradition of thought Rosenzweig inherited from Cohen, but also a bold affirmation that stems from his commitments regarding creation. In explaining why that which is “seen” (“Light” that shines) is superior, Rosenzweig offers a rich concept of revelation and the relationship between transcendence and immanence: “Light does not sell itself, it does not give itself away, like speech, when it expresses itself. Rather it is visible by remaining wholly in itself” (SR 295). In this sense, the transcendent gives itself in immanence, in a mode we might describe as a “real presence,” and yet also retains its transcendence; the transcendent inheres in the immanent without being reduced to immanence. Thus the visible manifestation of God is precisely that mode which protects God’s alterity. In fact, it is just this operation which allows creation to function as a sign since, to be a sign, it must at once participate in the reality it signifies, but also maintain a distance which preserves the otherness or excessiveness of that reality. Thus that which is “perceived” (“Light”) “gives itself” without giving itself away—it manifests itself without giving itself up.