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The gift we must will to receive

30 September 2016

Some knowledge of God we cannot learn empirically; it is given us, says John Saxbee

Givenness and Revelation
Jean-Luc Marion
OUP £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50



PHENOMENOLOGY is a modern philosophical movement, founded by Edmund Husserl, that has been very influential in its various formulations. Put simply, in one version, the fundamental premise of phenomenology is as follows: “Everything is as it is in itself, but only exists for us in so far as it gives of itself to our consciousness.”

Jean-Luc Marion endorses a phenomenological approach to theology, and gave the prestigious Gifford Lectures at the University of Glasgow in 2014. He is a Professor of Catholic Studies and Philosophy of Religion at universities in France and the United States. This translation of the lectures is arranged in four chapters, with a brief introduction.

Marion begins by showing how revelation, as a concept, emerged very belatedly in dogmatic theology. Before the Enlightenment, it was presupposed but not substantiated. When attempts were made to explain it, the assumption was that it would have to be in terms consistent with prevailing scientific methodologies.

Marion, however, argues that this is to miss the point, because revelation gives access to knowledge that cannot be accessed empirically by human intuition, but comes from elsewhere. It makes visible what is invisible, possible what is impossible, and is characterised as paradox.

And this insight derives from the very nature of God, “whose intention is not so much to make himself known as to make himself recognised, to communicate himself, to enable men to enter into a communication that puts them in communion with him”. He reveals himself to allow himself to be loved, and to love us — and love is predicated on the giving of oneself to another.

It is now clear why phenomenology is Marion’s preferred philosophical movement. If everything is as it is in itself, but exists for us only in so far as it gives of itself to our consciousness, then knowledge of God must be the ultimate gift thatwe will to receive.

Furthermore, the will to know God is given by God in Christ, who comes to us not as “common-law” phenomenon, but as “saturated phenomenon”.

Marion appeals to the baptism, transfiguration, and resurrection narratives to confirm that our conventional empirical reference points are totally inadequate to grasp this revelation. We must will to believe it, and then God will give of himself to us, so that we can say, with the centurion at the foot of the cross: “Truly, this man was the Son of God.”

Marion employs some selective, but none the less stimulating, New Testament exegesis to develop this theme of Christ as saturated phenomenon — the Icon of the Invisible. A final chapter takes the argument into the realms of Trinitarian theology. The Holy Spirit is identified as the purveyor of the gift that enables us to know Jesus as the Icon of the invisible Father.

Marion uses the relatively recent resources of phenomenology to challenge the no less recent hegemony of reason and empiricism, to fashion an account of revelation which is both theologically creative and biblically based.

For a Roman Catholic philosopher of religion, his secondary sources are refreshingly ecumenical; and the emphasis on giftedness and grace has a pleasingly Protestant appeal.

This is not an easy read, and the editor’s rather opaque foreword does not help very much. But as a leading figure in contemporary Catholic scholarship, Marion clearly earns his place among the distinguished ranks of Gifford lecturers.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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