Pope Francis presents the Ratzinger Prize to Jean-Luc Marion, November 13, 2021 (CNS photo/Vatican Media).

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.

I would say that the greatest possible failure for a professional philosopher is never to be astonished. And many philosophers are in that situation.

KW: I’ve been doing just that the past few weeks, reading your own books for the first time. You mentioned that when you were a student you had an extraordinary experience while walking in the Luxembourg gardens.

JLM: That’s true.

KW: How would you describe that experience and its impact? Was it an astonishment, a sudden illumination, or an intuition?

JLM: Well, it was not a spiritual experience. It was a very straightforward intellectual experience. In the Jardin du Luxembourg, there are beautiful trees, there are charming people, there are pools of water. It came to me that the fact that things like trees and people and pools of water are, in the common understanding, is not the most important characteristic of things. What’s important is what things mean. Once you come to the conclusion that a thing exists, now what? And so it is with God. It is not a big deal to say that God exists. The question is how, why, and what does it mean for me? And what does it mean for God? These questions are much more important, much more difficult to understand, and much more astonishing.

KW: How would you describe your relationship with the extraordinary French philosophers of your generation—I’m thinking of Gilles Deleuze and the previously mentioned Althusser, Lacan, and Derrida? As a Catholic, did you ever feel like an outlier to this group?

JLM: That was a strange thing. I never felt like an outsider. In intellectual circles—at least at that moment—provided you knew the stuff and you could argue, you were accepted, as were many of my Catholic friends. There was no question: if you knew Martin Heidegger on some point better than Derrida did, they would discuss it with you. Many of them were raised Catholic, like Althusser and Deleuze, who was absolutely brilliant. I remember talking with Deleuze when he was dying because he smoked too much. We discussed my book, God Without Being, and he wanted to know how I was able to stay with Catholicism when he could not. Later he committed suicide.

KW: God Without Being was the first of your books to be translated into English. Could you say something about your theological objections to the metaphysics of being?

JLM: Let’s be clear, this book was written against Heidegger, not Thomas Aquinas. Against Heidegger because he insisted that the question of being is the most important question in philosophy, not the question of God. And as long as we are unable to find a new approach to being, the possibilities of new interrogations about God are closed. My point is that God is not limited to being. The question of God is original in itself. So I had to investigate the traditional view that God’s existence is demonstrated by metaphysics—that is, by rational theology or ontology broadly understood. That meant I had to face Aquinas. But I want to emphasize that I’m not opposed to metaphysical questions, if by “metaphysical question” you mean a question about the greatest properties of things. Indeed it is exactly to reopen those questions that I do philosophy and phenomenology. I started modestly, not as a philosopher but as a historian of philosophy. And what I discovered is that the world of metaphysics did not impose itself on philosophical language before Aquinas. And even he had many reservations about that. After Aquinas, metaphysics dominated philosophy all the way down to Hegel.

KW: Would you say that the domination of metaphysics was in some ways responsible for modern atheism?

JLM: I’m convinced of that, because metaphysics was so powerful, successful, and enduring. It is a system of a priori concepts like being, substance, formal logic and so on that allows you to have the potential answer to any question in advance. This way, God is understood as a special case of being…an exceptional being.

KW: The supreme being.

JLM: Yes, God was to be understood using a concept that could be applied with reservations to all other beings. So from Aquinas down to the end of the seventeenth century at the latest, it was easy for Christian theology to be accepted in universities and to prove the existence of God because the metaphysics of being was all part of a general picture and structure of philosophy.

KW: And after that?

JLM: Critics of Christianity found it easy to say, negatively, that this God reached by rational theology is not at all the same as the God that Christians believe in. And making the same argument positively, there were other thinkers, from Pascal to moderns like Kierkegaard, who insisted that the God of Christianity was much more than the God of philosophy.

My point is that God is not limited to being. The question of God is original in itself.

KW: So, by uncoupling the question of God from being, you in effect freed the Christian understanding of God to be God.

JLM: No, to be what the human mind, without revelation, takes for granted God is. Most of us have a sort of spontaneous idea of the divine, which is based on some natural experience. That’s good, as far as it goes. But Christianity is nothing other than the event of Christ, an event that comes from elsewhere. It cannot fit exactly what was expected. So, the Christian God, to be Christian, should be different from any other “pre-owned” representation of God. When you have a prior understanding of what God should be, the temptation is to measure Christ against this prior representation.   

KW: Which takes us to another of your books, Believing in Order to See. You have a great appreciation of paradox, or at least reversals, and that title is a good example. You write that, “one can lose one’s faith, but not because one gains in reason.” In fact, you argue the reverse is in fact true: namely that in losing one’s faith, we are actually losing reason. How do you explain those seeming paradoxes?

JLM: A paradox is just the correct formulation of an issue you don’t understand, and the answer to it is one you could not expect. I think that in any science, paradoxes are crucial. When there is no paradox, there is no possible improvement in knowledge. So the question is how you get into the paradox and how you get out of it. But if there is no paradox, there is nothing to say.

KW: What must you believe before you can see?

JLM: The formulation itself, believe in order to see, comes from the oldest translation of the Greek Bible. It means if you don’t believe, you will not understand. Why? Even with a methodological problem, you have to believe that the problem is correctly expressed at the moment when you are asked to give a solution to the problem. You have to believe or trust that the problem is not nonsense. So you cannot face a question without some trust that the question is meaningful.

KW: How does that relate to the question of God?

JLM: In the case of dealing with God, you cannot hope to understand—even partly—what is going on in a text or in an event if you don’t admit that God is really involved in that text or event. Otherwise, you have no reason to understand what is going on in an event or text.

KW: What does it mean to “have reason”?

JLM: I’m going to be very Aristotelian here. Aristotle says that the level of rationality one can expect from an issue is established by the issue itself. When you are trying to understand something you meet with your senses, your rationality is about sensible data. On more abstract issues, the rationality will be more abstract. The rationality has to be appropriate to the level of abstraction.

KW: Give me a concrete example.

JLM: For instance, in personal relationships—friendships, love and like matters of the heart—you are committed to a very precise rationality. There are different steps that you cannot avoid, or if you do, everything is over. So, in the case of personal relationships, you must be involved in the relation if you want knowledge. If you don’t trust, if you don’t admit that you are committed to that person, if you want to remain neutral, there will be simply no understanding of the encounter. So, your faith, your trust, your commitment—whatever you want to call it—is a part of the rational interpretation of any phenomenon. Faith is not to take for granted something that is not real. It is to admit that, without some trust, I will not be able to get into the plot.

KW: You also point to the paradoxical nature of the Beatitudes and many other sayings of Jesus, the paradox being that we cannot turn them into a moral code, much less a sociology. What, then, are we to do with them?

JLM: Part of the power of those paradoxes is that we cannot do much with them. It is as if Jesus is showing us how much his way of thinking of God differs from ours. And that that is how the Father thinks. But it is beyond our grasp. The point of the paradox is to make it clear that we all have a long way to go. We are not yet Christians.

KW: You say something similar about miracles. You write of miracles as we find them in the gospels that “they offer us the purest examples of phenomenological givenness.” Many people have trouble believing in miracles. And yet, you don’t.

JLM: Well, with a question like that, you have to go to the history of philosophy first, and deconstruct it a bit. The conception of miracles is a very modern concept. Miracles were discovered, so to speak, in the seventeenth century, not only among English philosophers like Locke and Hume, but also many in France. During that period, to have a miracle you had to have two conditions. First, that there are rules or laws of nature that are universal and unbreakable—no exceptions. Second, that a miracle is an exception to the rules of nature.

KW: So miracles were, by definition, irrational.

JLM: Yes, during the Enlightenment in France, there were even Catholic thinkers like Nicolas Malebranche who explained miracles by saying that in the past, God produced miracles because people were so stupid that God had to impress them with tricks. But now that we are rational, there is no need for miracles.

KW: What’s different now?

JLM: Today, we no longer have such laws of nature. We have only competing theories in fundamental physics and so on, but no unified rules.

KW: But we also have statistics that imply certain regularities in nature, don’t we?

JLM: Statistics give us approximate interpretations of laws of nature, not laws that are absolutely certain. Even in philosophy, I don’t know any serious philosopher today who endorses the position that there are a priori concepts like laws of nature. Not in phenomenology certainly, and not in analytical philosophy since the end of logical positivism, which was once so dominant here at the University of Chicago.

KW: So where does that leave the question of miracles?

JLM: In our postmodern society, I would say a miracle is something that apparently contradicts what we assume to be probably the rule. In fact, the category of miracles can be used, quite apart from religion, for anything that is exceptional, unexpected, or unexplained, but nevertheless makes sense and is trusted by people. It is simply a certain kind of what I call “events,” a certain kind of phenomenon.

Christianity is nothing other than the event of Christ, an event that comes from elsewhere.

KW: I want to turn to another major point in your theological reflections. Among the many names of God, you have given priority to love, or agape, over other names like the infinite, the true, or the good. Moreover, you contend that “neither the Torah nor the wisdom literature nor the synoptic Gospels chance it.” And you go on to argue that “the revelation of love as the final name of God represented precisely what Christ’s contemporaries could and did not want to hear.” That’s a powerful statement. Why was that?

JLM: Because I think that the Jewish contemporaries of Christ who were the most observant—I mean those who attended the temple, the Pharisees, and even the lower classes of Jewish people—were obsessed by the fact that that they were the sons of Abraham, that they had the Torah, and the promise of land. For many of them, this was the revelation of their God. And it’s why they were also obsessed by the re-establishment of the kingdom of God in Israel. Of course, we now know from Biblical scholars that the love of God is already a part of the First Testament in many ways, but not the crucial point.

KW: And in the New or Second Testament?

JLM: Yes, of course God’s love is very much a part of the New Testament, but it is not until Letter of John (1 John 4) that God is named agape, or love.

KW: There are many other names of God. Why choose love?

JLM: Well first, very early on I studied the so-called negative theology of Dionysus and others and learned that the first thing to say is that there is no name for God. All names are only analogical. And later when I began my study of the names of God, I found that in Dionysus, in Justin, in Origen, in Gregory of Nyssa, that God is named eros, and that the opposition between eros and agape, for instance, is just a fabrication. I was also impressed to find that Aquinas was the first to have said that the first name of God is being, as in Exodus 3:14. But in the same years that Aquinas made that important move, Bonaventure escaped the traditional order of God’s names and said that the first is agape. I paid attention to that. Once I lectured on God Without Being in Rome at a time when my position was not well received among the pontifical universities, to say the least. At a dinner afterward, a friendly cardinal from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith told me, “If I understand you well, you are a Bonaventurian.” It was a very polite way of saying, “You are not a Thomist.”

KW: If a student comes to you and says “Professor Marion, why should I study theology?” What do you tell him?

JLM: Because it is fun! It is the most exciting field for research because it encompasses everything. Among the secular disciplines, philosophy is the most powerful, the most exciting, the most difficult. But in theology, you are talking about everything: art, for instance, and literature—everything. In theology, you can even look down, so to speak, on philosophy, which can get a bit narrow-minded from time to time. 

KW: So is there a gift that theology, at least Christian theology, can give to philosophy?

JLM: Oh, yes. Even Heidegger had an insight about that when he said, “Only a God can save us,” meaning us philosophers. I don’t take that for granted. Philosophy can disappear. It has happened to other disciplines in the past; it can happen again. Perhaps it will be saved by literature, perhaps by theology.

KW: Let’s turn to the Church and saving the Church. You have said of French Catholicism that it has been tempted by two “heresies”: integralism and progressivism.

JLM: Yes, we French have provided some of the best heresies in the twentieth century.

KW: In the United States, we have our own integralists and progressives among the bishops, the clergy, and laypeople, in Catholic media and movements. What advice do you have for Catholics of each faction?

JLM: The same advice that I have tried to give to French Catholics: don’t pay too much attention to the Church as an organization. I mean, the Church is not the City of God; it is not even our bootcamp on earth. It is the place where we are called to try to behave as Christians.

KW: What should we attend to?

JLM: The most serious issue is the organization of each of us. If you want to do something to reform the Church, start by reforming yourself and perhaps there will be some consequences for the Church. We all know what is going wrong in the Catholic Church. For us it is not new. I could not imagine that the Church is without sinners. What is surprising is not that there is sin in the Church—even at a systemic level as an effect, as people say, of clericalism and abuse of power. What is surprising is that the Church remains the best washing machine to make white linen out of dirty linen. That is, to produce some saints, some holiness.

If you want to do something to reform the Church, start by reforming yourself and perhaps there will be some consequences for the Church.

KW: Another Frenchman, Léon Bloy, famously declared that there is but one sadness, and that is for us not to be saints.

JLM: Yes, and at the purely institutional level, when you compare the churches with the academic world, the business world, the military, and political administrations, the churches are not the worst places. In the business world, for instance, people say, “Of course there is corruption.” We know business is dirty, and we are used to that. There is no scandal there. In the case of the Church—fortunately—the contradiction between what the churches are and what they are supposed to be is a scandal.

But to be fair, we should admit that each of us is in the same situation as the Church, because we contradict what we say in our behavior. So, yes, the Church is not perfect, and it will never be. That’s why I’m allowed to be a member of the Church. And that’s also why self-proclaimed saints who take on the role of the reformer are always a bit suspect to me.

KW: You have had some pretty pungent things to say about Church reformers. You have urged French Catholics to “leave ecclesiastical reform to workers who specialize in domestic repairs,” which may be a little bit difficult now that the laity are being called upon to lend their expertise to ministries of the Church.

JLM: And they are doing a good job, especially women at the parish level.

KW: Agreed, but let’s get back to Church reformers. You’re wary of Christians who claim to speak prophetically to the Church or to society. Your wariness seems appropriate because in American public life and in our churches, we tend to drape the mantle of prophet around anyone who speaks out about social ills—but only those with whom we already agree. On the other hand, we have witnessed a Martin Luther King, a Dorothy Day, and a handful of other genuinely prophetic figures. How do you distinguish between the authentic prophet and the sham?

JLM: First, I’m not qualified to distinguish among the prophets—in that case, I would claim to be a prophet myself! Second, it takes time to judge whether someone is truly a prophet. What is his or her legacy? History is instructive. The great originators or reformers in the Church are always people who at first were not well received, like many of the founders of religious orders. It’s also true of originators in philosophy. It takes years to judge the impact. You judge by the results, and I think there are no other rules.

KW: You write that Christians should live by a different ethic; specifically, the ethic embedded in the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, not my will, but yours be done.” That seems impossible to achieve or even attempt in a culture built economically, psychologically, and prescriptively on self-willed individuals. In such a culture, how does one learn to do the will of the Father?

JLM: Why is our society at many levels ruled by the obsession of each individual to achieve his own will, his own self-creation or project? In fact, this is an effect of what Nietzsche very well described as der Wille zur Macht. That is usually translated as “the will to power,” but the more precise meaning is “willing for the sake of willing itself.” And that is what we see today.

KW: Is this really new?

JLM: I think so. In the past, people wanted to make money so they could spend it on things they needed or wanted. Now, we want to make more and more money for the sake of what? We don’t know. It’s like in business: corporations have to get bigger and bigger. Why? Just because that’s the way it is. And this can go on indefinitely because there is no goal. We find ourselves in the terrible situation of being locked in the jail of self-affirmation.

KW: Some might say the jail of self-creation.

JLM: Creation is not something that comes from the creator. Creation is something that comes over the creator. The creator, the artist, is the first to be surprised by what has happened. So, Mozart or Tintoretto have no ambition to self-affirmation. They were surprised by the things they could do.

KW: So willing just for the sake of willing is…

JLM: It’s nihilism. And Jesus is the one who says I never do my will. When I speak it is not my words. Which is very strange for us because to be sincere, we assume, is to speak your own thoughts, your words. Jesus, however, says you can trust me because I never say what I think, but only what the Father thinks. But what is really extraordinary is that Jesus is able to do the will of someone other than himself. That is the most difficult thing we can ever do.

KW: And so the message for contemporary Christians is what?

JLM: I would say the ability to give up one’s own will is a very great strength for Christians. As long as they will only to achieve their own goals, they are really no different from anyone else. And that is especially important for political leaders. When most great leaders fail, it is because they are unable not to follow their own will. The tragedy of dictators is that the real world disappears when they insist on doing their own will.

KW: In 2020 you received the Ratzinger Prize in theology and while in Rome, you had a visit with Pope Francis. You have said you admire his metaphor of the Church as a field hospital. What was your impression of the man himself?

JLM: It was a brief experience, very formal. But I knew Bergoglio before he was elected pope because I was invited to address an international conference at the Jesuit university in Buenos Aires, where he was trained as a student. There I read a text published by him when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires, and in it I discovered the world of his theology.

KW: Meaning what, exactly?

JLM: Well, he is the first pope to be born in a megapolis, a place where poverty is more clearly seen than in this city or Paris, a place where there is no social lift. You can have a very good education; still, you will never reach the upper classes. It’s a very hierarchical society where the question of those who are left behind is crucial—the poor, the elderly. So for him, poverty and the questions of the unborn and of pollution and so on all come together.

KW: Very different from the previous pope.

JLM: People who contrast the ideological positions of Bergoglio and Ratzinger are not aware that in the matter of liberation theology, Bergoglio played a great role as the deputy of Ratzinger. Because of his experience with the very poor, he was able to make a discernment between the different kinds of liberation theologies and so keep the best kind in Argentina.

KW: So you see more continuity between the two popes.

JLM: And between Pope Francis and Pope Paul VI, who initiated the reform of the Curia. It took a long time, but under Francis it has been done, and so far it appears that it is a good reform.

Kenneth L. Woodward, former Religion Editor of Newsweek, is the author, among other books, of Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why. Woodward will be appearing with Fr. Ian Ker and Melissa Villalobos for a public conversation on Newman, sponsored by the Lumen Christi Institute, at Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral on October 30.

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