Bruce Ellis Benson is not only one of Christianxiety’s founding Advisory Board members, but he is also one of the most import scholars exploring the intersections of theology and philosophy today. This post is a special one, as it features a review of one of Dr. Benson’s books by one of his star pupils. We are very excited to feature this writing by Donnie Boyce of Wheaton University.
“God doesn’t like that,” “God thinks that’s immoral,” and most dangerously “I have God here in this book” – we’ve all come across these kind of claims.
In his book Graven Ideologies Bruce Benson warns Christians of an ever-present tendency to conflate “God” with “ideology.” Instead of holding onto our ideas about god lightly, we worship these self-crafted ideologies as God – “we too often think that our moral ideas are those of God” (51). Benson reminds us that the second we claim to “have God” we’ve attempted to draw a circle around Him, an ill-fated Promethean attempt at being god. We cannot “have” the Word, if anything the Word has us. Drawing insight from thinkers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida, and Jean-Luc Marion, Benson leads the reader through the phenomenological tradition’s battle with idolatry.
“While human tradition is not necessarily suspect, here the problem is that it passes itself off as something divine. Thus the move is self-exaltation: we attempt to take God’s place by devising ideas and theories (idols) that we put in the place of God. By creating our own conceptions of God, we effectively become God (for we are the source of these conceptions).” (27)
One of the most important concepts in Graven Ideologies is the idea of adaequatio – the idea that “the minds conception of an object is ‘adequate’ to the thing itself” (33). Benson points out that if it’s not even really possible for us to have a comprehensive conception of something like Westminster Abby (that is, hold in our mind every corner of the cathedral including all of the inscriptions on the monuments), then how much more is this true for our conception of God. “Of course, even standing before it [Westminster Abby] does not make it fully present to my mind” (35). For this reason even biblical conceptions of God can become idolatrous. “If, for instance, I think of Jesus Christ as ‘my good shepherd’ whose principle purpose for existing is to meet my needs, then I have seriously distorted a biblical conception for my own purposes” (26).
Benson later suggests, following Jean-Luc Marion, a kind of apophatic awareness of the limitation of our language when we speak about God – saying “God is” must always be followed by a kind of “but he is not.” For example, if we say that God is our father, we must immediately recognize that he is not the kind of father that sleeps with our mother. Marion calls this dé-nomination. While in English the word “denomination” means “to name,” by setting apart the “dé” Marion draws our attention to the unnaming that always must occur when we name God.
While Levinas and Marion go so far as to say God is “otherwise” than being or even “without” being in order to avoid making an idol out of God by reducing him to the human category “being,” Benson follows the “phenomenological inquisitor” Derrida here. The hermeneutical “as structure” is the idea that we always experience things “as” something (e.g. when I look out the window I see brown cylinders sticking out of the ground with green tops “as” tree). On Benson account, to experience God at all we need to experience him “as” God – unless we want everything to end up being God.
While it is necessary that we project our fore-structures or “as structures” in order to understand God “as” God, we must constantly allow ourselves to derive new or altered fore-structures from God’s Word as we encounter him in scripture. Just as a woman reprimands a man when he misunderstands her asking, “What kind of girl do you think I am?” so we must allow ourselves “pulled up short” by the Word when it makes us question our idolatrous conception of God. The paradox of the incarnation has to do with the fact that while God “empties himself” (that is, becomes “less”), the fullness of the incarnation (what Marion calls a “saturated phenomenon”) overwhelms us and is so rich with meaning that we cannot expect to comprehend or “have” it – doing so would mean that either we are God or that what we “have” is not God but an idol.