Jean-Luc Marion is professor emeritus of philosophy at the Sorbonne and retired professor of Catholic studies, the philosophy of religions, and theology at the University of Chicago. Over the past twenty-eight years, he split time between Chicago and Paris, where he also taught at the Institut Catholique. He is known for his contributions to modern philosophy, especially phenomenology, and to theology, including the study of the early Church Fathers. In 2021 Marion was awarded the Joseph Ratzinger Prize for his contributions to theology. He is a member of the Académie Française (elected 2008, received as an immortel in 2010), the Pontifical Council for Culture, and the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome. Among his numerous awards are the Grand Prix de Philosophie de l’Académie Française, the Karl-Jaspers Prize of the city and University of Heidelberg, and the Humboldt-Stiftung Prize. Among his books in English are: Givenness and Revelation (the 2014 Gifford Lectures), God Without Being, The Erotic Phenomenon, Negative Certainties, Believing in Order to See, and The Rigor of Things. The following interview took place before a live audience at the Lumen Christi Institute at the University of Chicago. It has been edited for clarity and length.
KENNETH L. WOODWARD: Professor Marion, there has been, as you know, considerable comment over the years about your “turn to theology” from philosophy. But it seems to me that you’ve always had a deep interest in theology, going back to your student days in Paris. You had regular access then to an informal community of scholars that included great French theologians like Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, and Louis Bouyer, whose works were so fundamental to Vatican II. You were also something of a student journalist. What was it like working at such a young age with those towering figures?
JEAN-LUC MARION: Well, here is the background. In 1967 I was admitted to the École Normale Supérieure against very tough competition—just before the student protests and all the other political and social turmoil of 1968. Intellectually, the future of the society was being completely reframed, a future without Christianity. I decided to focus on philosophy and the choice was whether, like other Christian students, I should save my soul, so to speak, through the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan, the deconstructionism of Jacques Derrida, and the structuralist Marxism of Louis Althusser. All of them were teaching at the time and so it was easy to follow them. I took a different path.
KW: Which was?
JLM: There was a group of us students at the Sorbonne who loved discussion. We determined to be as good as everyone else in mastering our courses, but at the same time we also determined to acquire a deeper knowledge of the Christian tradition. So from the beginning, we took a double load of courses.
KW: Double courses at the Sorbonne?
JLM: No, we got instruction privately and not for grades as an informal student group at the Basilica of Montmartre, first with Jean Daniélou before he became a cardinal, then with Fr. Louis Bouyer, the great liturgist and Lutheran convert, and after that with the Jesuit Henri de Lubac. Under their guidance, we also produced a scholarly publication called Resurrection. Five years later we were asked to be part of the French edition of Communio, which meant that we got to study with Hans Urs von Balthasar, who gave seminars at his place in Switzerland before producing each issue.
KW: Many philosophers have said that a certain attitude is required in order to philosophize. For example, the neo-Thomist Josef Pieper said a philosopher had to have a sense of wonder. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said “radical amazement” is required. You have said the capacity to be astonished is essential. What do you mean by astonishment?
JLM: Good question. If I may be a bit polemical, I would say that the greatest possible failure for a professional philosopher is never to be astonished. And many philosophers are in that situation. They philosophize using a set of concepts or tools that protect them against encountering anything new. They have enough ways to make any question lead to a (pre-determined) answer, or even to disappear. But my experience of philosophy—and it’s why people like Descartes or Heidegger were so important—is that philosophy begins when you have this gift of a question that resists an answer. By “answer,” I mean one that is based on what was known before that question was asked. A new question opens up a new landscape that you cannot walk through unless you get a new pair of shoes.
KW: So, in order to philosophize, you have to adapt to the question?
JLM: Yes, a great philosopher is someone who has decided to modify a set of concepts in order to face the question and not extinguish it immediately. Many philosophers are firemen: there is a fire, they rush into it in order to extinguish it. In philosophy, I tell my students, if you read a book that you understand well, drop it. You could have written that book. If you read a book you don’t understand but you guess that something is there, keep it open. Read only books you don’t understand. And after some time, you will at least understand what it is you don’t understand and why you don’t understand it. And then you will start to philosophize.