Givenness and Revelation

“There is revelation not because paths have been made straight, the valleys filled, the hills made low, and everything straightened that was winding (Lk. 3:4, quoting Is. 40:3-5), as just so many preliminary conditions to be filled before God can manifest himself. No: there is Revelation precisely while these paths remain twisted—or even so as to show they are.”

Jean-Luc Marion, Givenness and Revelation, p. 59


Slowly, I am wading through a dense little book called Givenness and Revelation by Jean-Luc Marion (Oxford University Press, 2016). Marion is delightfully and unashamedly verbose. He expects of the reader a solid working knowledge of phenomenology and Aquinas, so I’ve put Google to work defining terms. I feel like I’m always several steps behind. So I read, and read again.

Despite my shortcomings, I have found myself scribbling notes, underlining phrases, and putting exclamation points next to striking sentences. The quote above received two exclamation points. 

This excerpt comes in Marion’s “phenomenal re-appropriation of revelation” (ch. 2). The re-appropriation is a response to a problem Marion points out with the more traditional formulation of revelation, which Marion dubs the “epistemological interpretation of revelation.” The epistemological interpretation assumes revelation is basically a kind of knowledge (think Aquinas’s sacra doctrinae, which is knowledge made known by revelation, whereas natural knowledge is known by reason). The problem is that to validate sacra doctrinae, we must have access to the “science of the blessed.” We do not have access to that and, so, revelation primarily as knowledge, Marion argues, is problematic. “Thus we should consider,” Marion presses, “whether Thomas Aquinas, rather than settling the question (of whether revelation is a science), instead brings it fully to light” (p. 20).

Studying the history of the doctrine of revelation from Aquinas to Vatican II, Marion observes a shift in how revelation is defined. He sees his own re-appropriation in keeping with this shift. By the time of Vatican II, the theory of revelation was no longer spoken of primarily in terms of knowledge. “The goal of Revelation,” Marion says, summarizing Vatican II’s position, “is not to grant us the knowledge of something else, or even a growth in our knowing, or a mere extension of our scientia, because God has a design that is otherwise radical: He ‘Himself’ wanted to communicate himself to us'” (p. 27; the quote is Dei Verbum, chap. 3, no. 4217, p. 923). Such a shift leads Marion to conclude with two probing questions: “Does God reveal himself in order to make himself known and take a place within our rationality? Or does he instead reveal himself in order to allow himself to be loved, and to love us” (p. 29)?

Jean-Luc Marion, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the Université Paris-Sorbonne.

Revelation is God’s love pouring into our world—in paradoxical form, the invisible made visible—so that we may, in the words of William St. Thierry, “ponder” God rather than “ponder about” God (p. 43). That is the distinction between the epistemological approach and the phenomenological re-appropriation. The epistemological interpretation emphasizes knowledge; the phenomenological interpretation emphasizes God’s givenness. The phenomenological interpretation, of course, doesn’t negate that through God’s self-revelation we acquire knowledge. It subordinates the importance of knowledge within the concept of revelation. Knowledge of God is subordinated to the love of God.

And so it is toward the end of this argument that the quote from above comes into play. Divine revelation, in Marion’s language, shows itself “from itself.” And the divine in-breaking as itself comes from beyond the reasonable realm we inhabit. So, the Logos revealed “as it is” appears as a contradiction, a paradox. And when revelation is received by the witness, their own logos is faced with a choice. Do we lord our logic over this revelation, trying frantically to fit the revelation of God into our systems of knowledge? Or do we, instead, allow our logic to “be reshaped by the logic of the Logos?”

Revelation is not simply the additional knowledge that, when rightly understood, untwists our perplexities. God’s revelation is divine self-giving that blesses us with the presence of God despite our perplexities–our inability to fully understand–and heaps further perplexities upon us! Amidst those perplexities is a call to re-cognize our cognitive methods in light the Logos. God’s revelation is not a kind of knowledge to be mastered but a self-giving love that is at its core a humbling paradox: the set-apart God with us.

*****

This book is a collection of essays based on Marion’s Gifford Lectures. You can watch the lectures here. The book is available for purchase from Oxford University Press here. Thank you to OUP for sending this book for review!

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