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Sunday, June 3, 2012

Jean-Luc Marion on theology

Evagrius Ponticus is famous for his dictum "To pray is to do theology, and the theologian is the one who prays."  Throughout the ages Orthodox polemics have attacked Roman Catholic theology for its "rationalism" and its separation of theology from prayer and reduction of theology into a science, an academic discipline rather than a spiritual one.  This attitude may at times seem to be justified by the excessively dry style of certain theologians who maintained a great inner sanctity (such as St. Thomas Aquinas) and also by the genuine worth of the academic accomplishments in theology performed by secularists with little to no faith (Father David Tracy and, if one may hazard risking charity in too presumptuous a judgment, the notorious Archbishop Rowan Williams both come to mind).  Recently Roman Catholic theologians have worked to overcome this perception, but without discarding the structure of reason in theology.  A prime and beautiful example of this is Catherine Pickstock's After Writing:  On the Liturgical Consummation of Philosophy, an extended meditation on the Tridentine Mass.  (The author herself is Anglican by communion, but her work - done under Dominican tutelage - falls within the province of Roman Catholic theology.)  In this post, I would like to share a bit from the preface to a work by a theologian prominent in phenomenological circles.  Jean-Luc Marion's God Without Being is an orthodox work of Catholic theology, firmly grounded in Thomism.  This, however, is what the author has to say about theology as a discipline:

One must admit that theology, of all writing, certainly causes the greatest pleasure.  Precisely not the pleasure of the text, but the pleasure - unless it have to do with a joy - of transgressing it: from words to the Word, from the Word to words, incessantly and in theology alone, since there alone the Word finds in the words nothing less than a body.  The body of the text does not belong to the text, but to the One who is embodied in it.  Thus, theological writing always transgresses itself, just as theological speech feeds on the silence in which, at last, it speaks correctly.  In other words, to try one's hand at theology requires no other justification than the extreme pleasure of writing.  The only limit to this pleasure, in fact, is in the condition of its exercise; for the play from words to the Word implies that theological writing is played in distance, which unites as well as separates the man writing and the Word at hand - the Christ.  Theology always writes starting form an other than itself.  It diverts the author from himself (thus one can indeed speak of a diversion from philosophy with all good theology); it causes him to write outside of himself, even against himself, since he must write not of what he is, on what he knows, in view of what he wants, but in, for, and by that which he receives and in no case masters.  Theology renders its author hypocritical in two ways.  Hypocritical, in the common sense:  in pretending to speak of holy things - "holy things to the holy" - he cannot but find himself, to the point of vertigo, unworthy, impure - in a sense, vile.  This experience, however, is so necessary that its beneficiary knows better than anyone both his own unworthiness and the meaning of that weakness (the light that unveils it); he deceives himself less than anyone; in fact, here there is no hypocrisy at all: the author knows more than any accuser.  He remains hypocritical in another, more paradoxical sense:  if authenticity (remembered with horror) consists in speaking of oneself, and in saying only that for which one can answer, no one, in a theological discourse, can, or should, pretend to it.  For theology consists precisely in saying that for which only another can answer - the Other above all, the Christ who himself does not speak in his own name, but in the name of his Father.  Indeed, theological discourse offers its strange jubilation only to the strict extent that it permits and, dangerously, demands of its workman that he speak beyond his means, precisely because he does not speak of himself.  Hence the danger of a speech that, in a sense, speaks against the one who lends himself to it.  One must obtain forgiveness for every essay in theology.  In all senses.
Writing theology is fundamentally a work of repentance.

Source:  Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1991), pp. 2-3


  1. Jean-Luc Marion from what I've seen of him is a very insightful Catholic. I saw him at Easter mass here on U of C campus, and is a Catholic who I would say is serious about his faith. May God bless him. I wondered about reading his book God Without Being, it sounded obscure and strange to speak of God without being, but then this is what some mystics speak about experiencing God as a profound emptiness of the soul and yet the total experience of God. Perhaps this is something similar to Christ who experienced all poverty for us and yet is the richest in His Humanity's union with His Divinity.

  2. Yes.

    The title is actually a little bit misleading, writing as he does in the context of more secularistic "death of God" (a)theologians like Thomas J. J. Altizer. He distances himself from those theologians and also from Heidegger by claiming to firmly grounded in the Thomistic concept of God as ipsum esse as a starting point for his work. "On the one hand, we have the metaphysical tradition of the ens commune, then of the objective concept of being, of its abstract univocity, such as it collapses under the critiques of Hegel and Nietzsche; but then, according to so incontestable a Thomist as E. Gilson, this "Being" no longer has anything to do with the esse that Saint Thomas assigns to the Christian God. So my thesis does not oppose but, rather, confirms the antagonism between the Thomistic esse and the "Being" of nihilism by disqualifying the claim of the latter to think God... Historically, in the tradition of Denys's treatise On Divine Names and its commentaries, Saint Thomas certainly marks a rupture: contrary to most of his predecessors (including Saint Bonaventure), as well as to several of his successors (including Duns Scotus), he substitutes esse for the good (bonum, summum bonum) as the first divine name. This initiative is not self-evident. In order to confirm it, we must first locate and meditate on it, which is what I attempted by sketching the path that Saint Thomas did not take and by stressing that that path also offers a solution. One last argument follows from this: even when he thinks of God as esse, Saint Thomas nevertheless does not chain God either to Being or to metaphysics."

    I recommend the book. He does take it a little too far in his "Hors-Texte" appended to it when his critique (or what I perceived to be a critique) of popular Catholic devotion is probably unorthodox. I hadn't got that far when I posted this. Then again, I may have misread him; it's a difficult text. You're so lucky to have actually met him. He's THE most well-respected philosopher in the world alive today. You're the second friend of mine to have met or seen him in person. I'm jealous.

  3. Wow. Well done! Do you think that one can do legitimate theology when attempting to study God without coming to know Him?

  4. I would give a very qualified "yes" to that question. Yes insofar as (a) one can study the preambles to theology, those things surrounding God (one thinks of Fr. David Tracy, Rev. Nathan Scott Jr. and other secularist theologians in this regard) and (b) one can certainly study the absence of God which sheds a lot of light on Him who is absent. One thinks of Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, T.J.J. Altizer, and Graham Greene, all of whom orthodox Catholic theologians have drawn from as theological sources (including Peter Kreeft and Fr. Thomas King S.J.)