Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida and Marion on Modern Idolatry

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Graven Ideologies: Nietzsche, Derrida and Marion on Modern Idolatry. By Bruce Ellis Benson. Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002, 243 pp., $19.00 paper.

In this engaging study, Bruce Benson focuses on "conceptual idolatry," which he defines as "the creation or the adoption of a concept or idea that we take to be equivalent to God and thus worship as God" (p. 19). This form of idolatry is explored in the context of phenomenological theory. According to phenomenology, theoretical concepts should arise from phenomena of the world themselves, instead of being imposed a priori on the phenomena. Phenomenology highlights the danger present in all philosophy, "that our theories reflect more of ourselves than of the phenomena we are attempting to explain" (p. 28). This is, Benson says, precisely the danger of idolatry-namely, that in seeking to know God we fashion a concept in our own image rather than allow God himself to determine our knowledge of him. Benson argues that both philosophy and theology have been characterized by a tendency towards this kind of conceptual idolatry. What is needed, then, is the detection and deconstruction of idols, such as Jesus performed in his polemic against the scribes and Pharisees and modern philosophers like Nietzsche, Derrida, and Marion performed in their engagement with the Western intellectual tradition.

Benson begins with a study of Friedrich Nietzsche's denunciation of Platonism and Christianity. Platonism (and often Christianity as well) is an attempt rationally to transcend and, therefore to master, truth and reality; but in this attempt, we encounter only ourselves-that is, our own philosophical idols-rather than reality. Benson is sympathetic to Nietzsche's announcement of the "death of God" insofar as Nietzsche is speaking of the God of rationalistic liberalism and "the God of the philosophers," rather than the God of Christian faith. In this respect, "Christians can find in Nietzsche an ally-someone who proclaims what they themselves should have been more vocal in proclaiming" (p. 76). But Benson criticizes Nietzsche's equation of Platonism and Christianity, because in Christian faith it is Christ the Logos who masters us, not we him.

Moreover, for Nietzsche the death of God entails the loss of any metaphysical basis for Christian ethics, so that morality is simply an idol of our own making. Benson suggests that Jesus himself would agree with Nietzsche on this point: "Jesus confounds any formulation of God's law that re-creates it in a human image, any simplification that makes the law easier to master and control" (p. 98). Nevertheless, the positive ethical principles of Jesus and Nietzsche stand in sharp antithesis; the "will to power" is Nietzsche's fundamental ethical principle, while Jesus teaches and exhibits a voluntary renunciation of power. Christian ethics thus involves the transformation of Nietzsche's self-centered "will to power" into Jesus' self-giving "will to love" (p. 108). Further, in spite of Nietzsche's attempt to avoid idolatry, Benson observes that the "will to power" is itself suspect of idolatry, since it becomes an all-encompassing metaphysical principle with which Nietzsche seeks to master reality.

In order to set Derrida and Marion in their proper contexts, Benson turns in chapter 4 to Emmanuel Levinas and in chapter 7 to Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger. These philosophers share with Nietzsche the conviction that Western philosophy's attempt to master reality is idolatrous. Levinas responds to this idolatry with the notion of transcendent "otherness": although we seek to gain mastery over the other, it consistently refuses that control, remaining always transcendent and beyond our grasp. For Levinas, while the God of metaphysics is another "being" among others, the God of the Bible is beyond being and can therefore never be conceptually mastered. Similarly, Heidegger sees all philosophy, or "onto-theology," as an attempt to master God conceptually, so that philosophy and theology should always stand in fundamental opposition. …