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The Gift of Prayer: Toward a Theological Reading of Jean-Luc Marion

  • Andrew Prevot (a1)


This article proposes a theological interpretation of Jean-Luc Marion that accents the importance of prayer as a remedy to conceptual idolatry. It also addresses theological concerns about Marion's understanding of the relationship between phenomenology and theology, and about his critical attitude toward ontology. In response to the first concern, it uses Marion's readings of Dionysius the Areopagite and Augustine to demonstrate that Marion prioritizes a prayerful approach to theology that transcends phenomenology, even while benefiting from it. In response to the second concern, it draws on Marion's treatments of Dionysius, Augustine, and Aquinas to show how the same prayerful theology accommodates an ontological way of praising God. Prayer is the key to both arguments. Prayer resists the conceptual idolatries operative in the realms of phenomenality and of being, while revealing the potential iconicity of both. Finally, this article clarifies why Marion's recent Augustine book is crucial to an understanding of his project.



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1 I would like to thank Peter Fritz, Brian Robinette, Brian Hamilton, and Elizabeth Antus for their helpful comments on earlier drafts of this article.

2 Although these two areas of possible objection are pivotal, they do not exhaust all of the questions that theologians might wish to ask about Marion's work. Other important theological issues, especially related to his sacramental and scriptural hermeneutics, have been discussed in Mackinlay, Shane, “Eyes Wide Shut: A Response to Jean-Luc Marion's Account of the Journey to Emmaus,” Modern Theology 20, no. 3 (July 2004): 447–56; Robinette, Brian, “A Gift to Theology? Jean-Luc Marion's ‘Saturated Phenomena’ in Christological Perspective,” Heythrop Journal 48 (2007): 86108; and Rivera, Joseph, “Corpus Mysticum and Religious Experience: Henry, Lacoste, and Marion,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 14, no. 3 (July 2012): 327–49.

3 The experience of counter-intentionality before the icon is arguably Marion's most privileged symbol for the relationships of asymmetrical freedom, the visibility of invisibility, and the self-denuding exposure before God that characterize prayer in each of the forms that he treats it.

4 Marion, Jean-Luc, The Idol and Distance: Five Studies, trans. Carlson, Thomas A. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2001), 20 and 194; Marion, , God without Being: Hors-Texte, trans. Carlson, Thomas A. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 139–44; and Marion, , In the Self's Place: The Approach of Saint Augustine, trans. Kosky, Jeffrey L. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012), 19.

5 Janicaud, Dominique's philosophical critique appears in Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate (New York: Fordham University Press, 2000), 5066. Hart, Kevin, ed., Counter-Experiences: Reading Jean-Luc Marion (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007) contains several theological critiques, which we shall consider below.

6 See Heidegger, Martin, Identity and Difference, trans. Stambaugh, Joan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002).

7 Marion, God without Being, 41–43.

8 Marion, Jean-Luc, On Descartes' Metaphysical Prism: The Constitution and the Limits of Onto-Theo-Logy in Cartesian Thought, trans. Kosky, Jeffrey L. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 73.

9 The strongest and most problematic cases of ontology are those that treat being not only as an absolute but also as a univocal concept. However, univocity is not Marion's only worry. As a result, the “analogy of being” does not seem to alleviate all of his concerns. This is one of the major points on which Marion and John Milbank differ. Milbank maintains that ontology becomes idolatrous only with the arrival of univocity (Duns Scotus) and that Marion is problematically inclined to elevate goodness over being only because he does not sufficiently appreciate the convertibility of the transcendentals that is part of the traditional doctrine of analogy. See Milbank, John, The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1997), 4546. Nevertheless, Marion may be right to scrutinize even analogical ontologies and to question whether convertibility is all that must be said about the relation of the transcendentals. At least, something might be gained from pondering the reasons for Marion's more stringent standard of nonidolatrous thinking.

10 See, for example, Marion's early Augustinian articles, such as Distance et béatitude: Sur le mot capacitas chez Saint Augustin,” Résurrection 29 (1968): 5880 and La saisie trinitaire selon l'Esprit de saint Augustin,” Résurrection 28 (1968): 6694, and his 1986 text Prolegomena to Charity, trans. Lewis, Stephen (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002).

11 This is roughly how Robyn Horner narrates the development in Jean-Luc Marion: A Theo-Logical Introduction (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2005). Horner also seems to applaud the shift in emphasis from theology to phenomenology. Notwithstanding its subtitle, this text does more to promote a phenomenological overcoming of Marion's supposedly too dogmatic theology than to clarify the abiding promise of such a theology (x, 105, and 149).

12 Marion, Whether's Certitudes négatives (Paris: Grasset, 2010) belongs more strictly to philosophy or theology is a question that warrants its own sustained treatment, but the possibility of a theological reading is at least indicated by Marion's rehearsals of key arguments from The Idol and Distance and In the Self's Place (35–39 and 87–96).

13 In Reading Jean-Luc Marion: Exceeding Metaphysics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007), Christina Gschwandtner persuasively argues that Marion's Cartesian studies play an important role in shaping the problematic of his phenomenological and theological writings and, moreover, that Marion's attraction to Pascal as an alternative to Descartes may give some indication of the genuinely theological aspirations of Marion's larger project.

14 For a detailed analysis of these phenomenological reasons, see Kevin Hart's introduction to Counter-Experiences, especially 3–28.

15 Thomas Carlson elucidates the close connections between Marion's two projects in his “Translator's Introduction” to Marion, The Idol and Distance, xi–xxxi, and in Carlson, , Indiscretion: Finitude and the Naming of God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), 193214.

16 See Marion, Jean-Luc, In Excess: Studies of Saturated Phenomena, trans. Horner, Robyn and Berraud, Vincent (New York: Fordham University Press, 2002), 158–62.

17 For Marion's evolving view of l'adonné (the “gifted”), see Marion, Jean-Luc, Being Given: Phenomenology of Givenness, trans. Kosky, Jeffrey L. (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013), 247319; and Marion, In the Self's Place, 56–100.

18 A trans-ontological inclusion of a weakened ontology also appears in Marion's phenomenology of givenness. See Marion, Jean-Luc, The Visible and the Revealed, trans. Gschwandtner, Christina et al. (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008), 58.

19 Marion's desire to leave room for philosophy, while prioritizing theology, may also be welcomed by Thomists, notwithstanding the clear differences in emphasis and context that continue to divide Marion and Aquinas.

20 Marion, The Idol and Distance, 5.

21 Ibid., 27, 91, 216, and 226.

22 Ibid., 9–17.

23 Ibid., 19, 142, and 245–53.

24 Ibid., xxxvi, 44, 93, and 216.

25 Ibid., 139–95. Marion draws here on J. L. Austin's speech-act theory, which approaches certain uses of language in terms of what they do and not merely what they say. With some significant modifications, this theory clarifies the nonpredicative operations of prayer.

26 Heidegger, Identity and Difference, 72.

27 Marion takes up these points again in his reading of the Gospel of John in Prolegomena to Charity, 137–45.

28 Marion, The Idol and Distance, 160.

29 It is on this point that Marion's approach differs most decisively from John Caputo's. See Caputo, John, The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion without Religion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997), 5557.

30 Marion, The Idol and Distance, 172.

31 Ibid., 153 and 169.

32 von Balthasar, Hans Urs, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 2, Studies in Theological Style: Clerical Styles, trans. Louth, Andrew, McDonagh, Francis, and McNeil, Brian CRV, and ed. Riches, John (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), 144210.

33 Marion, The Idol and Distance, 11.

34 Ibid., 9.

35 Ibid., 198–215 and 233–53.

36 Balthasar, , The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol. 5, The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age, trans. Davies, Oliver, Louth, Andrew, McNeil, Brian CRV, Saward, John, and Williams, Rowan (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), 613–56.

37 Marion, The Idol and Distance, 141–42.

38 Shanley, Brian OP, “St. Thomas Aquinas, Onto-Theology, and Marion,” The Thomist 60 (1996): 617–25, for example, maintains that Marion repudiates God without Being with an unequivocal “retractio.”

39 Marion, God without Being, 81.

40 Fergus Kerr, OP, already suggests this point in his Aquinas after Marion,” New Blackfriars 76, no. 895 (July/August 1995): 354–64. He concludes that “God ‘without Being’ may have been the One whom St. Thomas had in mind all along” (364).

41 Marion, Jean-Luc, “Thomas Aquinas and Onto-theo-logy,” in Mystics: Presence and Aporia, ed. Kessler, Michael and Sheppard, Christian (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 67 n. 2.

42 Ibid., 66.

43 Janicaud, “The Theological Turn of French Phenomenology,” Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn,” 27 and 34.

44 Marion, Being Given, 1–6; and Marion, In Excess, 1–29.

45 See Marion, In Excess, 128–62, which contains a revised version of Marion's lecture In the Name: How to Avoid Speaking of ‘Negative Theology,’” which first appeared in God, the Gift, and Postmodernism, ed. Caputo, John and Scanlon, Michael (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 2042. This responds to Derrida's How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,” trans. Frieden, Ken, in Languages of the Unsayable: The Play of Negativity in Literature and Literary Theory, ed. Budick, Sanford and Iser, Wolfgang (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989), 370.

46 “On the Gift: A Discussion between Jacques Derrida and Jean-Luc Marion,” in Caputo and Scanlon, God, the Gift, and Postmodernism, 67. See also Derrida, Jacques, Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. Allison, David and Carver, Newton (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973).

47 “On the Gift,” 57.

48 See Milbank, The Word Made Strange, 49, and the following articles in Hart, Counter-Experiences: Cyril O'Regan, “Jean-Luc Marion: Crossing Hegel,” 95–150; Emmanuel Falque, “Lavartus pro Deo: Jean-Luc Marion's Phenomenology and Theology,” 181–200; and Kathryn Tanner, “Theology at the Limits of Phenomenology,” 201–31. Marion himself notes the problem: “If danger there must be here, it would reside more in the formal and, in a sense, still transcendental phenomenalization of the question of God than in some sort of theologization of phenomenality” (Being Given, 243).

49 Marion, In Excess, 142–45 and 150–54.

50 For this approach, see Fritz, Peter, “Karl Rahner Repeated in Jean-Luc Marion?,” Theological Studies 73 (2012): 318–38.

51 See Marion, “Distance et béatitude” and “La saisie trinitaire.”

52 Marion, Jean-Luc, The Erotic Phenomenon, trans. Lewis, Stephen E. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 24; and Marion, In the Self's Place, 99.

53 Marion, In the Self's Place, 145–64; and Heidegger, Martin, The Phenomenology of Religious Life, trans. Fritsch, Matthew and Gosetti-Ferencei, Jennifer Anna (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), 115–84.

54 Marion, In the Self's Place, 100. Cf. Marion, Being Given, 242.

55 Marion, In the Self's Place, 13.

56 Ibid., 205.

57 Ibid., 7–20.

58 Ibid., 40–55 and 252–60. See also Marion, The Idol and Distance, 166–69.

59 Marion, In the Self's Place, 289–306.

60 Joeri Schrijvers perceives but also seems to lament the return to theology in Marion's study of Augustine. At the very least, he believes it needs a greater phenomenological corrective. See Schrijvers, Joeri, “In (the) Place of the Self: A Critical Study of Marion's Au lieu de soi. L'approche de Saint Augustin,” Modern Theology 25, no. 4 (October 2009): 661–86.

61 Here I shall mention just one of the innumerable examples. What would Marion's understanding of prayer look like if it were put into dialogue with Ada María Isasi-Díaz's provocative essay, To Struggle for Justice Is to Pray,” in Así Es: Stories of Hispanic Spirituality, ed. Pérez, Arturo et al. and trans. Pruett, Sarah C. and Mora, Elena Sánchez (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994), 1620.



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