Jean-Luc Marion (b. 1946) and Chantal Delsol (b. 1947) are both prominent French philosophers who are very public about their Roman Catholicism. This alone would put them, in the minds of many of their fellow citizens, into “conservative” political and cultural camps, though the truth is considerably more complicated. This past year saw the appearance in English translation of Marion’s 2017 book, A Brief Apology for a Catholic Moment, and the publication of Delsol’s La Fin de la Chrétienté. Both of these short works grapple with the role of the Church in a dechristianized culture; both show the complex negotiations required to steer between what Marion calls the “twin and rival disasters” of integralism, which seeks to establish a Christian social order, and progressivism, which risks letting any distinctively Christian identity evaporate.
Religion has, of course, played a very different role in modern, highly secular France than it has in the United States (which Delsol calls a pays biblico-revolutionnaire—a biblical-revolutionary land), but the differences may not be as great as is sometimes claimed. As shown by the “Quiet Revolution” in Quebec in the 1960s, and by more recent cultural changes in Ireland, the secularization of seemingly robust religious cultures can happen very quickly, and there is reason to think that our own country is undergoing just such a shift. So Marion and Delsol’s books can help us contemplate our own likely more secular future.
Jean-Luc Marion first came to the attention of English-speaking readers three decades ago with the publication in translation of God Without Being. This work of philosophical theology embraced the postmodern critique of “onto-theology” while drawing some surprising conclusions from that critique, including a robust defense of that seemingly most ontological of theological doctrines: transubstantiation. Because of its sometimes counterintuitive intellectual moves and its postmodern Heideggerian idiolect, this book helped secure Marion’s reputation as a challenging and highly speculative thinker. But Marion is also a practicing Catholic who cares passionately about the place of the Church in the postmodern world. In A Brief Apology he offers what he characterizes as an exercise in practical reasoning in an interrogative mode, pursuing the question of the role Catholics can and should play in French society. (Like Delsol, he makes only passing reference to non-Catholic Christians.)
Marion argues that the situation in France, and the West in general, is so dire that in order to avoid complete societal dissolution, “we must make an appeal to all the resources and all the strengths. Even the Catholic ones.” He chooses to characterize this situation as “decadence,” rather than “crisis.” This decadence is in fact “a crisis of crisis,” by which he means something like what Nietzsche meant by modern nihilism in his Twilight of the Idols: “‘I do not know where I am or what I am to do; I am everything that knows not where it is or what to do,’—sighs the modern man.” This also echoes the critique of modernity made over half a century ago by Hans Urs von Balthasar, one of Marion’s intellectual mentors, in The Moment of Christian Witness. It is precisely by the infinite deferral of the moment of crisis that the modern world defeats the Gospel, since the Gospel is a call to crisis that demands a decision. The modern allergy to crisis undermines not only Catholicism but also Western society itself. “We are not falling into the abyss, we are suffering from a stagnant decadence.”