The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn

The Inconspicuous God: Heidegger, French Phenomenology, and the Theological Turn

by Jason W. Alvis


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Dominique Janicaud once famously critiqued the work of French phenomenologists of the theological turn because their work was built on the seemingly corrupt basis of Heidegger's notion of the inapparent or inconspicuous. In this powerful reconsideration and extension of Heidegger's phenomenology of the inconspicuous, Jason W. Alvis deftly suggests that inconspicuousness characterizes something fully present and active, yet quickly overlooked. Alvis develops the idea of inconspicuousness through creative appraisals of key concepts of the thinkers of the French theological turn and then employs it to describe the paradoxes of religious experience.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253033321
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2018
Series: Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion Series
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jason W. Alvis teaches Philosophy at the University of Vienna, and is a Research Fellow with the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). He is author of Marion and Derrida on the Gift and Desire: Debating the Generosity of Things , and he currently serves as the European Editor of The Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory.

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Inconspicuous Turns: Heidegger and the "Inapparent" Theological Turn

When they [the French] think, they speak in German.


I wish I had not written my "Zarathustra" in German ... I wish I had written it in French.


God is not a spectacle. While at first this proposition may seem easy enough to accept, its basic tendency is taken for granted far too often, as it goes presumed that the phenomenality, givenness, or revelation of God necessarily is (or would be) spectacular. Recent postmodern theory reflects this pseudo-Christian characterization of revelation, that life is staked on almighty events that must shock and awe us with entertained assuredness and splendor. The greater degree the spectacle, we are implicit to believe, the more sacred an event becomes and the closer to divinity it presents itself. Yet an insistence on the seemingly opposite of the spectacle of God, in nuce, that God is hidden and enigmatically inconceivable, presents more problems than it does solutions to this concern. The proposition that God is inconceivable runs the risk of leaving God unthinkable and — despite all well-meaning hopes to the opposite — therefore reducible to a static idol that conjures only a liminal or provisionary sense of wonder. Reference to such an unthinkable God unfortunately can instill an even greater degree of passivity, inadvertently circling-back to an even more vicious spectacularity. Both the spectacle of God and the pure inconceivability of God could be reduced to the same basic generative belief and anticipation: the phenomenality of God must operate according to a spectacular and bedazzling clarity.

Instead, Divine phenomenality is counterspectacular, revolts against the many spectacles of our present social imaginaries by integrating within them as marginal to the point of even conjuring an attitude of ambivalence. Such givenness is not univocally mysterious or hidden, but is shrouded uniquely in the measure according to that which or who it intends to present and characterize. This God may be found where a spectacular phenomenality is suspended in favor of banality and ordinariness. Such a character trait could be seen as a corrective and shift from the dominant paradigms of understanding God (e.g., invisible and visible, supernatural and natural, present and absent) and toward one that experiences divinity as that which actively destabilizes any presumptions that there is but one, univocal form of phenomenality or presentation.

Whatever slips conscious grasping as marginal and ordinary, and is integrated within the hustle and grind of everyday life is inconspicuous — thus, in following the root conspicere is counter-specere. Inconspicuousness characterizes what is like a wallflower, fully present yet quickly overlooked by merit of not immediately seeming illustrious. As the German Unscheinbarkeit indicates, inconspicuousness is irreducible to visibility or invisibility (Unsichtbarkeit). It alludes the grasp of consciousness while still presenting an intelligibility and draws from the privation of its root schein, a license, ticket, or warrant (e.g., Der Fahrschein, "travel ticket") that references a thing's status as candor or trustworthy. It is not simply — as many have rendered it in French — l'inapparent, but is instead un peu frappant or peu en évidence by merit of not being striking or presenting its evidence on command, and by operating in the peripheries of consciousness. It is in these senses that God can be thought as inconspicuous.

This book seeks to accomplish four primary aims through a phenomenological approach. One involves the constructive development of what Heidegger briefly and somewhat ambiguously referred to as a "phenomenology of the inconspicuous," which, if successful, would be a means of experiencing more deeply that which does not attract attention, yet counteracts the privileged form of presentation today in an era of social phantasm, illusion, and spectacle. The book takes seriously Feuerbach's claim that "anthropology is the secret of theology," and attempts to get beyond how our Debordian "society of the spectacle" has helped fashion also a spectacle of God's phenomenality. It of course is common knowledge that today's Western societies are commodity and spectacle driven. From Hollywood to Wall Street, spectacles seek to command our attention, and we therefore remain aware of the need to limit our intake of them. However, it largely has gone unrecognized that phenomenological and theological thinking also may suffer from their implicit reliance on forms of givenness that are in nuce spectacular, operating with an unrecognizable formation and totalizing education as to what is of value by merit of privileging and relying on matrixes of opposition germane to spectacularity. This kind of formation, which throughout the book is referred to as a "spectacular phenomenality," disguises its operations, relies on its own secret theological devices, and feeds the habitual privileging of what is distinct, branded, and obvious, thereby entailing the autorejection of what is common, insignificant, or marginal.

A second aim is to describe in greater detail the generative relation between Heidegger and those phenomenologists in France associated with the "Theological Turn." The book does so by describing and contextualizing Heidegger's — at times ambiguous — development of inconspicuousness alongside investigations into Henry's autoaffective life, Lacoste's liturgy, Marion's revelation, Nancy's adoration, Levinas's Other, and Chretien's hope — some fundamental concepts unique to this movement. It was Janicaud's harsh critique in 1991 that Heidegger's approach to the inapparent or inconspicuous (which is not a central concept in Heidegger's works) was precisely the corrupt core on which these thinkers relied for warrant to use phenomenology for theological agendas. Since then, secondary scholarship only has continued to reiterate uncritically Janicaud's claim without a careful treatment of this concept, and whether or not Janicaud was right. Here, inconspicuousness is employed as an investigative lever for probing more deeply into some of the essential concepts each of the prominent figures in this movement have contributed to phenomenological theology. In this sense, the book seeks to understand better Heidegger's phenomenology, and how aspects of inconspicuousness are imbedded implicitly within the work of those associated with the Theological Turn.

A third aim, which often is less explicit, is to employ inconspicuousness to issue a challenge within phenomenology to retrieve evidences unique to the description of religious experiences, and to do so in a way that resists a number of matrixes of opposition inherent within it, such as the twin extremes of: (a) an autodilution of phenomenology into epistemology (which abandons entirely Husserl's calls for phenomenology to be first philosophy); and (b) the entrapment of a subjective fideism beholden to a solipsistic, warrantless, and private theatre of consciousness. This dichotomy furnishes an index of questionability as to whether or not phenomenology, the method that prides itself on presuppositionless descriptions of what appears clearly, is to autoreject whatever does not present itself as obvious in this world. Phainesthai, from which phenomenology's namesake is derived, concerns what is made-to-open or is open-able (offen-bar) in this world, and what shines or burns (Phaeithein, IPE root bha) in its being obvious and illuminated (related to the Greek phos). If phenomenology cannot provide some way of at least paying closer attention to the phenomenality of theological life, then this method is diminished from adding anything new to what the ontic sciences of theology already are capable of providing with their own hermeneutic devices. To offer something new for theological thinking, a phenomenology of the inconspicuous would hope to provide a means of being more closely attuned to how things dynamically alter their state in the vicissitudes of consciousness neither as present, nor absent, but as present-absent, oftentimes making the world itself a phenomenon up for description. This could be a path to thinking religious experiences, and while it is no new development to discuss the unique evidence inherent within such experiences, in this case inconspicuousness is employed to furnish more specificity as to how such a type of evidence could overcome dogmatic dichotomies and prejudices held between what does and what does not get illuminated or "shine" in the way most other phenomena do.

The fourth, and most constructive aim of the book is to use this developed notion of inconspicuousness to take the work of each of these thinkers one small step further toward describing the phenomenality of God, which is claimed here to be just as important as the content or character traits of God. One of the most relied on half-truths of phenomenology (the insistence on which amounts to a falsehood) is that it seeks to provide only pedantic and painstakingly detailed descriptions of an experienced phenomenon. Perhaps more fundamentally, it concerns also "the how" of that phenomenon's appearance, as the suspension (epoche) suspends also one's running thesis about a thing's givenness or coming-into-appearance. The book ultimately arrives at the argument that one of the forms of the phenomenality of God can be described as inconspicuous, or put otherwise, that inconspicuousness is an essential means by which God "gives Godself." It of course is nothing new, and indeed au courant to insist that extremities within religious thought are to be torn down, unraveled, or mediated in the name of good, hermeneutically honest thinking. While this book does not run antithetical to this tendency, there are only a few exceptions today in which the how or form of such alternative paradigms are described, not to mention some practical tactics by which it is possible to arrive at an experience of them. Although the notion of the inconspicuous God seeks to negotiate some of the aforementioned matrices of opposition that entrap theological thinking today, it seeks to do so in a way that goes beyond mere mediation.

Each chapter demonstrates how inconspicuousness can provide another tool or means by which the many dichotomies that polarize and entrap theological thinking and cloud our vision of Divine phenomenality today might be rethought. Since the hoped-for result of this book is not only a hermeneutic interpretation of inconspicuousness, but also a constructive development of it after Heidegger, such an approach may be of use, not only for phenomenologists of religion, but for anyone in search of a new topography to describe religious experience beyond the many, half-true oppositions on which we so easily rely. While the topic of inconspicuousness bears a conceptual unity throughout the book, each of the following chapters furnishes a different axis or angle of inconspicuousness. Each chapter also contributes another means by which Heidegger's usages of, and allusions to inconspicuousness (found throughout the Gesamtausgabe in lectures, seminars, and implicitly in Sein und Zeit) might be understood more closely according to Heidegger's overall interests, even though this concept is not central to his work. The aim is not to conflate this concept to being a central one for Heidegger, but to use it heuristically to engage more deeply certain aspects of his thought that point the way to a phenomenological theology.


Chapter 1 introduces an inconspicuous revelation that is paraglorious by building out and extending Heidegger's actively counterconceptual, mysterious, and self-concealing nature of Being alongside Marion's notion that revelation is a phenomenon that phenomenalizes by countering other modes of givenness. How do the mysteries of revelation phenomenalize paradoxically in this counter movement? Despite Marion's attendance to revelation as an inherently paradoxical phenomenon that phenomenalizes, the phenomenality of revelation as a paradox remains in need of development beyond a spectacular nature. If no means is only a means (as Anders repeatedly insisted), and if revelation is the paradox of paradoxes as Marion remains convinced, then revelation also is in need of description as a counterphenomenaHty. The status of revelation being only eventful, shocking, and bedazzling runs the risk of contradicting revelation's paradoxical quality. Although Saul was knocked to the ground and spoken audibly to by Christ, most revelations occur to ordinary people in everyday life.

Heidegger understood that eventhood itself usually is inconspicuous and therefore nonspectacular. For most religious individuals, religious moments are presented less through shock and awe, and more through the mundane pots and pans as St. Teresa of Avila knew. This points to how revelation must provide a countershock that disrupts the preference for spectacular phenomenality, to which any dismissal of poor or common law phenomena would seem to autojustify. If it is to be paradoxical, being-given in a way that one least expects, then must not revelation's phenomenality be understood also as running counter to the shiny brilliance of a spectacular phenomenality?

In chapter 2, a step is taken back from religious reflection to investigate more closely Heidegger's inconspicuous phenomenology. After turning to references to the Phänomenologie des Unscheinbaren in his last seminar in Zähringen in 1973, it is argued that there are three possible (though not necessarily conflicting) interpretations of such an approach. It could be that whatever is inconspicuous is interwoven within all forms of appearing (scheinbar) as an active characteristic or form of hiddenness ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], lethe), especially because for Heidegger the a priori of appearance never can be brought fully to light or manifestation. It also is possible to treat this approach as a particular step or reduction that involves one's becoming attuned to the various modes of potential hiddenness (Verborgenheit and its cognates), of which inconspicuousness is a particular form. Or it may be that there are particular, unique, and specific phenomena that give themselves inconspicuously, which entails also a corresponding, particular phenomenology in which one must engage to gain access to these specific things' phenomenal strata.

Is it possible for phenomenology (which often is conceived either to command phenomena into illuminative presentation or to disregard those that cannot do so) to be employed in studying phenomena that present themselves as unshiny, dull, or nonobvious, and does Heidegger supply us with a type of phenomenological experiencing that is irreducible to apprehension and totalizing comprehension? The chapter brings these interpretations into the context of Heidegger's generally understood interests as developed throughout his career, puts forward a proposal for how this somewhat precarious term of inconspicuousness might be handled, and then sets the stage for the remainder of the book's more theologically oriented reflections.

Is there a horizon of givenness irreducible to the glory of the world, and could it be understood without reverting to the totalizing notions of invisibility and incomprehensibility? Chapter 3 aims to demonstrate an inconspicuous religious lifeworld, and does so in three steps. First, after an articulation of how Heidegger radicalizes Husserl's lifeworld and world view as the possibility of bringing the world itself into view, it is shown how Henry's conception of life can be characterized as inconspicuous, as the common and obvious give rise to immanent, autoaffective life. For Henry, living Christianly entails that life and its power of revealing is protected from being reduced to the world's horizon of illumination. Second, it is articulated how, after Heidegger and Henry, the life-world itself is infused with inconspicuous life, which furnishes access points to the phenomenality of the world.

These first two steps lead to the third, more constructive demonstration that there is a religious world of life, in which one might actively engage to set a kind of condition for the experience of the Inconspicuous God. This world of life is brought about through a turn to various conflictive tensions between life and world, the response to which is inherently religious, or the core of religious experiencing. The inherent challenge, to which inconspicuousness hopefully provides some solutions, consists of deprivileging the world's Godlike neutrality, which allows ontotheology to return with an even greater vengeance through relying on pure incomprehensibility, which seems to be but the backside of what Henry pejoratively thought to be the reign of the visible. A central task of living religiously is a carburetion of the tensions between seemingly invisible life and a purportedly obvious and neutral world in a — nondichotomous — way so the pragmatic clarity and totalizing effects of the world are distorted.


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Copyright © 2018 Jason W. Alvis.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: Inconspicuous Turns: Heidegger and the "Inapparent" Theological Turn
1. Inconspicuous Revelation: Marion, Heidegger, and an Antinomic Phenomenality
2. Inconspicuous Phenomenology: On Heidegger’s Unscheinbarkeit or Inapparent
3. Inconspicuous Lifeworld of Religion: Henry’s "Life," Heidegger’s "World"
4. Inconspicuous Liturgy: Lacoste, Heidegger, and the Space of Godhood
5. Inconspicuous Adoration: Nancy, Heidegger, and a Praise of the Ordinary
6. Inconspicuous Evidence: Janicaud, Religious Experience, and a Methodological Atheism
7. Inconspicuous Faith: Chretien, Heidegger, and Forgetting
8. Inconspicuous God: Levinas, Heidegger, and the Idolatry of Incomprehensibility
Conclusion: The Spectacle of God: Inverting the Sacred/Profane Paradigm

What People are Saying About This

Kevin Hart

More deeply than any previous study of the 'new phenomenology' and its attempts to think God, Jason W. Alvis's rich new book meditates on the fecundity of Heidegger's late proposal for a 'phenomenology of the inconspicuous.' In the space that opens when this new beginning is made, Alvis gathers not only Heidegger, Marion, and Levinas, familiar names in European philosophy of religion, but also Henry and Lacoste, who deserve to be better known, especially in the United States. Into the world of phenomenology and religion a welcome is also extended to Jean-Luc Nancy whose deconstruction of Christianity is usually regarded as outside the tightly guarded doors of phenomenology.

B. Keith Putt

Jason W. Alvis accomplishes the worthy goal of giving a creative and provocative reading of Heidegger's phenomenology of religion which was so passionately depreciated by Dominique Janicaud and other philosophers of the French theological turn.

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