The name "Jean-Luc Marion" conjures up a distinctive, vibrant, and rather enigmatic presence in the world of contemporary Catholic thought. Born in 1946, and a graduate of the Ecole Normale Superieure, he has risen in the French academic ranks by dint of tireless energy, ambition, and brilliance, and is now a professor at the Sorbonne and the University of Chicago and the director of the prestigious collection "Epimethee" at Presses Universitaires de France . The mainstay of his academic career is a long series of contributions to Descartes scholarship, including ‘Sur l'ontologie grise de Descartes’ (PUF 1975; 1981; 1993; 2000), ‘Sur la theologie blanche de Descartes’ (PUF 1981, 1991), ‘Sur le prisme metaphysique de Descartes’ (PUF 1986; ET ‘On Descartes’ Metaphysical Prism’, University of Chicago Press, 1999), and the two volumes of Questions cartesiennes (PUF 1991; 1996; ‘Cartesian Questions’, University of Chicago Press, 1999). These are in the classic tradition of French history of philosophy, a tradition graced by such names as Emile Brehier, Etienne Gilson, Henri Gouhier, Martial Gueroult, Pierre Aubenque, and Marion's Sorbonne contemporaries Alain de Libera and Jean-Francois Courtine, and his disciples Olivier Boulnois and Vincent Carraud.
There is a special wit about Marion's discussions, even in handling the dustiest Cartesian themes. This is perhaps partly due to the influence of his early teacher, Heidegger's friend Jean Beaufret, who recounts the history of philosophy with humour and profundity in his four-volume collection ‘Dialogue avec Heidegger’ (Editions de Minuit). A striking feature of Marion's Descartes studies is the frequency with which theological notes are sounded. Descartes emerges as the one who imprisoned God in metaphysics, in the sense of onto-theo-logy, that is, the systematic explanation of the totality of beings in terms of their common being (onto-logy) and the supreme being (theo-logy) which grounds them and is its own ground (causa sui). But Descartes was unhappy with this imprisonment of God, for from the start of his quest he felt himself addressed by another, and in his meditation on the idea of the infinite he found a luminous and self-authenticating presence of God to the mind. Marion notes how the sovereign freedom of God is championed in Descartes' thesis that God creates the "eternal truths" such as the principle of non-contradiction.
The Divine Distance
In a second series of books, Marion dramatically reveals his theological passion: ‘L'idole et la distance’ (Grasset, 1977; Poche, 1991; ‘The Idol and Distance’, Fordham UP, 2001); ‘Dieu sans l'Etre’ (Fayard, 1982; PUF 1991; ‘God Without Being’, University of Chicago Press, 1991), ‘Prolegomenes a la charite’ (La Difference, 1986; ‘Prolegomena to Charity’, Fordham UP, 2002), ‘La Croisee du visible’ (La Difference, 1991; PUF, 1996). ‘L’Idole et la distance’, published amid the short-lived "nouvelle philosophie" movement, unmasks the idols that have replaced God in modern philosophy. It is these idols, not the biblical God, that Nietzsche referred to when he said that "God is dead." Marion uncovers the authentic divine distance, as it manifests itself in the writings of Nietzsche, Holderlin and, above all, Pseudo-Dionysius, or Denys as Marion calls him. The figure of the Cross, which emerges obscurely as the mark of the distance and nearness of God in the tragic careers of Nietzsche and Holderlin, is exhibited with perfect lucidity by Denys. It is a great X that crosses out the God of metaphysics, shattering the conceptual idols that shatter faith and distract it from its goal. The God of metaphysics is a mirror in which we see only our own face, but the Cross is an icon in which God is not the object of a gaze but addresses his gaze and his call to us. The "distance" of God is a discreet withdrawal which marks both the transcendent holiness or God and his loving nearness to us. It is not a concept, but a phenomenon. It is not established by argument, but simply allowed to show itself.
To know the divine distance requires a conversion on the part of the subject, just as for Heidegger the phenomenality of being begins to appear only when we convert ourselves to meditative thinking. Only the subject who is summoned, arrested, by the divine distance can speak well of it. It is a lordly "I" who constructs the God of metaphysics, but it is a humbled "me" who is summoned into being by the call of the biblical God. Human beings are "me" before they are "I", and it is only in a second step that they assume their god-given identity by responding: "Here I am, Lord". Marion's phenomenology of selfhood chimes with the displacement or decentering of the self effected in different styles by such thinkers as Levinas, Lacan and Derrida.
The whole world exists in the play of the divine distance, as given and for-given from a source which is pure gratuity. Everything that Heidegger writes about the play of the ontological difference between Being and beings, World and things, and everything that Derrida writes about the dissemination and differance writ into the texture of being, is subsumed and surpassed in the theological vision of being as divine gift. In those concluding claims Marion went too far, too fast. Heideggerians objected that the subsumption of Heidegger was based on a doxographic account of his thought rather than a patient dwelling with its texture, and Derrida rejected Marion's interpretation as a tissue of misunderstandings. The task of articulating together the biblical phenomenology of creation and the Heideggerian phenomenology of worldhood is a daunting one, and Marion's later writings approach it in subtler fashion.
God Without Being
In ‘Dieu sans l'etre’, Marion pursues the argument against idolatry, finding that Heidegger, despite his critique of the God of modern metaphysics, himself subordinates God to Being. When Marion first presented this accusation, in the context of a colloquium organized by Richard Kearney at the Irish College, Paris, on June 24, 1979, his warning against accepting Heidegger as an innocent "ancilla theologiae" was a salutary and well-timed one; though it elicited a spirited response from Maria Villela-Petit, who deplored the over-use of the notion of idolatry as an all-purpose ideological weapon (see ‘Heidegger et la question de Dieu’ [Grasset, 1980]). Marion's attendant claim, that God should be thought of purely as love, with no reference to being, struck me then as an unhelpful exaggeration, and the subsequent fortunes of this thesis confirm my misgivings. The biblical God, Marion declares, is not limited by the categories of Being. God's true nature is to love. Love insists on giving, not on being, and the true character of reality is to be divine gift, not self-sufficient being. God is not bound by being, he does not "have to be" (GWB 44). At some point Marion crosses the line from a phenomenology of God's presence as love to an abstact juggling with the notions of love and being, drastically simplifying the entire history of Christian language by ascribing a unique adequacy to the category of love and writing off the equally hallowed language of being, which goes back to the Septuagint translation of Exodus 3:14. This language of being needs to be sifted and overcome in view of its phenomenological basis. Its peremptory dismissal as idolatrous does not make for a fecund retrieval of Christian tradition. But even when Marion is one-sided, he does give hints for directions of questioning which can be taken up and developed in a more historically grounded style.
Just as Heidegger writes "Being" with a St. Andrew's cross barring it, in order to show that the authentic phenomenality of being shatters the objectifying notions of being that block access to it, so Marion writes "God" crossed out, to show that the phenomenality of the biblical God, revealed above all in the Cross, is in constant contradiction with the idol-building proclivities of the human mind, of which metaphysics is one of the most impressive products.Dieu sans l'Etre was taken as an attack on Thomism, for which "being" is the first of the divine names after the Tetragrammaton. On this point Marion has backtracked a little. He now claims that "metaphysics", properly speaking, means only the modern onto-theo-logy that begins with Descartes, and that when Thomas Aquinas speaks of God as "being itself subsisting" (ipsum esse subsistens) he is close to Denys, for this God cannot be brought under the categories of metaphysics but exceeds them at every point. Apart from the implausibility of a definition of metaphysics that does not include Aristotle, I find it disappointing that Marion has not attempted to think through the tensions between his phenomenological approach to God and Thomas's metaphysical one. A phenomenological overcoming of the objectifying metaphysical horizons of Thomism remains one of the great tasks of contemporary theology.
A Protestant reader of ‘God Without Being’ remarked to me that in his emphasis on transubstantiation and episcopal authority Marion seems to relapse into the very idolatry he deplores. For Marion the presence of Christ in the Eucharist – "the violent and insurpassable fact of the eucharistic body" (GWB 179) – thwarts the tendency to self-idolatry which he detects in modern Christian communities. Similarly the acceptance of the bishop as the theologian par excellence and the source whence theologians draw their authority suspends the self-idolatry of theological speculation: "only the bishop merits, in the full sense, the title of theologian" (153). Marion is right to resist the reduction of eucharistic presence to the self-presence of the community and the reduction of theology to an autonomous speculation no longer in the service of ecclesial faith. But in the process he does scant justice to some painfully won insights of the Church of Vatican II. Christ's presence in the Eucharist cannot be abstracted from the totality of the meal event, including the hearing of the Word and the enactment of community. The specific charism of theologians cannot be reduced to that of the episcopacy, and its autonomy must be respected for the health of the whole ecclesial body. Marion would claim that the eucharist and the bishop as he conceives them have iconic status, but sometimes it is not clear in practice how one differentiates between iconodulia and idolatry.
Whatever holes one may pick in Marion's specifically theological writings, they remain of immense significance as opening up a platform for dialogue between Christian tradition and contemporary culture. There is an energy in his thinking and argumentation which one rarely finds in contemporary theology. His concern for the "matter itself" (die Sache selbst) of Christian revelation gives this thinking a stamp of witness, challenging both to philosophers who have written off the transcendent and to theologians who have allowed their language to become stale and predictable.
Marion's Theological Situation
The deepest influence on Marion's theology comes from Hans Urs von Balthasar, with whom Marion collaborated as editor of the French edition of Communio. But in his concern with returning to the authentic phenomena of New Testament revelation Marion sometimes sounds like Kierkegaard or Barth, and his use of Heidegger for this purpose gives his theologizing a fresh impact despite its conservative background. Liberal theologians of the Concilium school tend to distrust Marion, who was a close confidant of Cardinal Lustiger. They point out that Marion has not gone through the mill of a formal theological training, and that his unfamiliarity with scriptural studies gives his account of the biblical phenomena a narrow and arbitrary cast. Conservative theologians, on the other hand, are alarmed by the novelty of his language and the potential dangers of talking of "God without being." Marion notes that his theses "were better received by the philosophers and academics than by the theologians and believers" (GWB, xix). Even in his theological works, Marion's way of thinking is that of a philosopher. The patient assessment of historical sources and authorities, which gives theology its densely positive character, is not to be found here. When Marion takes up historical authorities, it is to substantiate some phenomenological insight of his own, rather than to probe fully the hermeneutical problems.
At the moment Marion is being courted by two schools of postmodern theology or philosophy of religion, the deconstructionist wing led by John D. Caputo and the "radical orthodoxy" of John Milbank. He is likely to disappoint both, because he does not take postmodernism seriously. Indeed Milbank's colleague Graham Ward accuses Marion of cutting off theological questions from the philosophical problematic of postmodernity, thus creating an unnaturally rigid and undialogal theology. The purism of Marion's cult of the phenomena, a purism both Heideggerian and Barthian, is at a great remove from the postmodern concern with the relativity and pluralism of historical, cultural and linguistic conditioning. There is little trace of relativity or pluralism in Marion's thought, and he views involvement with the human sciences such as sociology or psychoanalysis as a menial business, beneath the dignity of the philosopher or philosophical theologian. This purism limits his receptivity to the implications of the critical-historical study of Scripture. The result is that the phenomena themselves are brought into view in an excessively narrow focus. Central to the revelation of the biblical God are the notions of justice and liberation, yet these seem quite absent from Marion's phenomenology of the divine distance and its supreme icon, Christ crucified. Marion does not talk much about sinfulness and righteousness, preferring the sunnier world of the Greek Fathers to the Augustinian tradition that perhaps has produced more headaches than holiness. Thus Marion's Pascal is the phenomenologist of the vanity of the world, the glory of God, and the "order of charity", not a brooder on guilt. Luther, again, is remembered as signalling the opposition between metaphysical and biblical ways of thinking rather than for his dialectic of Law and Gospel, sin and justification.
The Primacy of Givenness
In addition to his Cartesian and theological roles, Marion has presented his own original philosophy in two very rich, though rather sprawling works, ‘Reduction et donation’ (PUF, 1989; ‘Reduction and Givenness’, Northwestern UP, 1998) and ‘Etant donne’ (PUF, 1997; ‘Being Given’, Stanford UP, 2002), to which may be added ‘De Surcroit’ (PUF 2001; ‘In Excess’, Fordham UP, 2002) and ‘Le Phenomene Erotique’ (Grasset, 2003). His aim here is to complete the work of Husserl and Heidegger, by re-establishing the discipline of phenomemology on a new foundation. Whereas Husserl's is a phenomenology of the data of consciousness and Heidegger's one of the being of beings as lit up in the openness of human being-in-the-world, Marion pushes through the horizons of consciousness and of being to reach what lies at their basis : givenness itself, the fact that of every phenomenon whatever the first thing that must be said is that it is "given." Givenness is a more ultimate reality than being itself.
To make this claims more concrete, Marion considers the everyday activity of gift-giving. As the parables of Jesus show (and the same idea is found in Mahayana Buddhism), in an authentic gift the being of giver, gift and recipient disappears from view. The gracious event of giving and receiving a gift is ruined if the giver insists on the substantial value of the gift, on his own merit as giver, and on the obligation incurred by the recipient. Usually gift-giving becomes caught up in a network of quasi-contractual obligations. Jacques Derrida argues that these render pure gift-giving impossible. The gift is something intrinsically aporetic; its conditions of possibility are its conditions of impossibility. Marion agrees that this is so if we remain on the plane of philosophical reason, but Christ reveals and enacts a true gift-giving, the disinterestedness of agape. Perhaps Marion is too much of a purist here too. The Gospel seems cheerfully to accept that all human giving will be circumscribed by economic considerations - and "do ut des" (give that you may receive) arguments are part of Christian rhetoric from the start (despite Marion's efforts to whisk them away). Paul's appeals for contributions to the Jerusalem collection use such arguments: "your abundance at the present time should supply their want so that their abundance may supply your want" (2 Cor 8:14). But God's giving, and Christ's self-giving are an exception to this rule. Wonder of gratitude at God's gift inspires Christians to give freely - but not to examine scrupulously whether their giving is really pure.
Buddhists talk of the virtue of giving as being perfected when there is no longer a substantive giver, gift, or recipient. There we are dealing with an ontology of emptiness, where fixated illusions of substantiality are the great obstacle to spiritual freedom. In the Gospel, the call to be an uncalculating giver is set in the context of the eschatological openness to the Kingdom that transcends worldly economies.
Derrida views negative theology as an inverted form of onto-theo-logy. The negation of all positive attributes of God or the One merely allows a super-essential absolute to be all the more radically affirmed. This is a triumph of the logocentric metaphysics of presence that Derrida abhors. In a lecture titled "Au nom", delivered at Villanova University in 1997, Marion contests this claim, pointing out that negative theology is a leap away from both kataphatic and apophatic discourse to a relating to God in faith, a sort of pragmatic attuning to the divine words and leadings. Affirmation and negation have helped to clear the space for this reaching out to God, but it lies beyond both. It is not bogged down in a pingpong game between kataphasis and apophasis, nor is it a higher level kataphasis, a hyper-affirmation, but it is "other than" affirmation and negation, as a lived relating to the God who makes himself concretely known. Thus conceived, negative theology provides a good platform for dialogue with Buddhist philosophy, notably Madhyamika.
It is not metaphysics but communitarian immanentism that is accused of missing the gift-dimension. The setting of the present in the liturgical temporality of anamnesis and eschatological expectation - nothing particularly new about this. True, he follows Heidegger in overcoming the metaphysical idolatry of the here and now.
What Marion says about God is of great value for interreligious dialogue, for it frees God from rigid definitions in terms of being or substance and urges us to rethink God as distance, a unifying withdrawal, as gift, as call, as love. None of these notions are fuzzy or vague in Marion. Each receives a thorough phenomenological clarification.
The Border between Philosophy and Theology
Marion's effort to think the phenomenality of all phenomena in the key of givenness has been attacked as crypto-theological, notably by the late Dominique Janicaud in ‘Le Tournant theologique de la phenomenologie francaise’ (L'Eclat, 1991) and ‘La Phenomenologie eclatee’ (L'Eclat, 1998) and by Jacques Derrida in ‘Psyche (Galilee, 1987) and ‘Donner le temps’ (Galilee, 1991). Marion himself claims that his strictly philosophical works rigorously exclude any content coming from Christian revelation. Even when his thought is guided by possibilities lit up by revelation, he claims to uncover these possibilities in a strictly philosophical study of phenomenality as such. Robin Horner argues ‘the threads of exclusion regularly unravel in Marion's work’ (‘Rethinking God as Gift’, Fordham UP). If they do, it must be for essential reasons, for Marion is very keen to keep them separate. His philosophy is self-sufficient, depending on purely phenomenological argument, but at the same time drawing on Scripture as a source of phenomenological hypotheses and showing that phenomenology cannot exclude these as possibilities. Thus it is at once an autonomous "separated philosophy" and a Christian "philosophy with presuppositions" (to use the terms of Gery Provoust, ‘Thomas d'Aquin et les thomismes’, Cerf, 1996). His theology is also self-sufficient, in a Barthian way; it is a clarification of the biblical phenomena which `has no need of the thinking of being' (Heidegger). It is thus unfair to accuse him of giving a dogmatic religious answer to philosophical questions. For Marion phenomenology stumbles on a basic aporia which only theology can resolve. Here again the critics suspect a theological orientation of the philosophical quest, despite Marion's disclaimers: "All this is sewn with an immaculate thread," remarks Janicaud ironically.
Marion prefers to translate `donation' into English as `givenness'. This is to ward off the accusation of surreptitiously introducing theological connotations. Donation as act is not God's act. ‘The possibility of a giver' never appears in Marion's philosophy – the giver in his theology (God) probably does not have so direct a reference to his philosophy as is often assumed. The discussion of the call in ‘Reduction et donation’ (p. 295) comes close to overstepping the border between philosophy and theology, but Marion claims that he has no intention of `invoking revealed authority to enlarge the field of phenomenology'. An abstracted call-structure, suggested by the Bible, enters phenomenology, and this entry is prepared by the opening up of a dimension ‘before’ being; but the construction of this dimension may depend on an ironing out of the diversity of Heidegger's being-language and Husserl's modes of givenness. This biblical call and gift structure is developed much more concretely in Marion's theological writings, but in principle he respects scrupulously the distinction of the two genres. ‘Reduction et donation’ is not about `the relation between phenomenology and theology' but like ‘Etant donne’ it attempts to construct pure phenomenology with some help from theological ideas (which are not imported as such into the phenomenology) – the call-structure is constituted as a phenomenological datum, independently of bibical revelation. Marion's ultimate goal is theological, and he uses phenomenology as a prooemium to theology, but nonetheless he carefully marks the autonomy of phenomenology as first philosophy, to which he believes his theory of donation offer a new foundation. The philosophical objection to his monolithic call-structure should begin by querying the equally monolithic accounts of givenness, being, nothingness etc. And there the trail leads back to Heidegger.
Heidegger would say that the phenomenology of being is falsified when we see it as given by some other (then it is objectified as ens or esse creatum). We can only say `there is being' - `Es gibt Sein' - and `it is itself' (Es ist Es selbst). Marion and Von Balthasar try to make the Ereignis in which being is given some sort of reflection of God giving creatures their being, but this an unconvincing metabasis eis allo genos, a slip from phenomenological to metaphysical discourse. Marion strains to bring the Ereignis and la distance into phenomenological accord, but usually the result is to void the Ereignis of its phenomenological substantiality, so that the givenness of beings becomes a futile vanity unless brought back to their situation of being accorded by la distance. A tenser pluralism between the Greek experience of being and the deliveries of biblical faith is erased in Marion's discourse; it is a charter for long and subtle dialogue (continuing in a new key the Greco-Hebraic dialogue running through the last two millennia), as Graham Ward has suggested. Marion's imposition of donation as the supreme transcendental reality in philosophy (at the expense of Heideggerian attentiveness to the modalities of the presencing of being in beings) is matched in his theology by the imposition of a few biblical models, given a neoplatonic twist (here donation, call and saturated phenomenon recur, only now not as transcendental structures but as concretely instantiated in the donation of Christ, the call of God's biblical word and the saturated phenomenon of biblical theophany). A more dialectical and pluralistic interplay of philosophical and theological discourses, apprehended in their full historical reach, would spoil the neatness and beauty of Marion’s construction, but it would allow Being to be Being and revelation to be revelation in all their respective pluralism of perspectives. Marion never allows the biblical vision of reality to be challenged or even supplemented by the philosophical tradition of meditation on being. At best he treats the insights of Heidegger as “the spoils of the Egyptians”. They find their proper place only within the biblical vision. If he brought the same stance to bear on other traditions, such as Buddhism, it would certainly make for a new vitality in interreligious thought. But a more open-ended and questing approache, in which the biblical perspective seeks correction and enrichment from its encounter with the other, might provide a more solid and comprehensive basis for a lasting dialogue.
Originally published in The Japan Mission Journal 53, 1999, and slightly revised. See also “The Gift: A Trojan Horse in the Citadel of Phenomenology?” in Ian Leask and Eoin Cassidy, ed. Givenness and God: Questions of Jean-Luc Marion, Fordham UP, 2005.