Jean-Luc Marion: Givenness and Revelation

Givenness and Revelation Book Cover Givenness and Revelation
Jean-Luc Marion
Oxford University Press
Hardcover $40.00

Reviewed by: Adrian Razvan Sandru (Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen)

Jean-Luc Marion’s new book Givenness and Revelation is a collection of the four Gifford Lectures Marion delivered in 2014. The book reiterates the concept of a saturated phenomenon as a pure given, which has been a recurrent theme of Marion’s works since God without Being.  In Givenness and Revelation, however, the saturated phenomenon is analysed in its tight connection to revelation thought as Trinity and thus provides us with a powerful insight into Marion’s religious thought.

Givenness and Revelation, translated by Stephen E. Lewis, is divided into four main parts, preceded by an Introduction, which describes the guiding thread of the four sections according to the following outline: 1) The Aporia of the Concept of Revelation, which looks into the pre-modern epistemological limitation of the concept of revelation; 2) An Attempt at a Phenomenal Re-Appropriation of Revelation, in which Marion continues the analysis of the epistemological limitations of revelation in its modern understanding and sets the stage for its reinterpretation; 3) Christ as Saturated Phenomenon: The Icon of the Invisible, a section that serves to uncover a new phenomenal logic inspired by the iconic figure of Christ and His Trinitarian manifestation; and 4) A Logic of Manifestation: The Trinity. This final section further develops the Trinitarian aspect of revelation by emphasizing the role of the Holy Spirit in the manifestation of God.

These four parts structure the book in accordance with Marion’s usual method.  He begins with a critique, or better yet, a deconstruction of the historical understanding of the concept to be analysed, in this case revelation. Through this deconstruction, the line of thought against which Marion shall argue is identified. At the same time, the historical analysis will pinpoint the possibilities of going beyond metaphysics in order to pave the way for a re-interpretation of the said concept in terms of pure givenness. This propaedeutic part is then followed by a revision of said concept, which grounds itself in a counter-experience. This counter-experience overturns metaphysics in order to assert the priority of a counter-intentionality, i.e. an intentionality which originates in the given and suspends the constitutive power of the subject. In Givenness and Revelation this amounts to the following thesis: God reveals itself through the Son, who gives himself as an Icon. As an icon and through the agency of the Holy Spirit, he completely refers to the Father.  God reveals Godself in a Trinitarian way as Trinity.  Thus, that which gives itself (Trinity) completely accords with the way of its giving.

This review will adhere to this structure and will analyse first, Marion’s critique of philosophy, and second, his reinterpretation of revelation. Prior to this, however, we shall give an account of the phenomenological considerations that lead to the question concerning revelation.

Setting the Stage

The concept of a counter-experience already makes an appearance in the Introduction, where Marion distinguishes between revealed and natural theology. The former, in opposition to the latter, will accept the logos of the revelation from elsewhere, i.e. from God, and does not impose its own logic on the revelatory phenomenon. This view plays a major role in Givenness and Revelation.  In order to avoid an illusionary experience of revelations, Marion introduces the concept of conflict or resistance as a condition for the reception of revelation, albeit not a sufficient condition. Through this conflictual character of revelation, Marion bridges the link between the theological concept of revelation and the phenomenological one of givenness.

Givenness is received as a counter-experience, this being the thesis of both Being Given as well as Negative Certainties. In Givenness and Revelation, however, the very authenticity of revelation depends on a resistance from the one who witnesses it. If revelation turns out to be inauthentic, the resistance and the conflict are resolved within immanence; if, however, the revelation is authentic, resistance will increase to the point at which a resistance from elsewhere is recognized that cannot be subsumed under concepts. Through this resistance coming from elsewhere the counter-experience is received as authentic. This conflictual character is thus inherent to the witnessing of revelation.

This helps Marion to avoid both an idolatrous as well as a fanatical understanding of revelation.  Marion argues that revelation retains its revelatory character only as a paradox: “[it is] the visibility of the invisible as such, and which remains so in its very visibility” (5).  This highlights the two main lines of thought discussed in Givenness and Revelation: 1) as a paradox, revelation cannot be resolved by our logic and is thus not part of the wisdom of the world; 2) even though not resolved by our logic it still gives itself to reason as pure (non-objectifiable) givenness and imposes its own counter-logic, i.e. the wisdom of God.

Wisdom of the World

Marion begins by analysing the epistemological limitation of revelation through Thomas Aquinas’ understanding of theology. According to Marion, Thomas tries to ground theology as a science of God.  In doing so he distinguishes between two kinds of theologies: philosophical theology, which deals with divine things only inasmuch as it infers them as the principles of their mundane and immanent effects, and sacra doctrina, which has revelation or divinity as its immediate object. This would imply, according to Marion, an epistemological hierarchy, in which philosophical theology and sacra doctrina differentiate themselves based solely on the degree in which they know God. Consequently, the sacra doctrina is reduced to the principles of natural reason and loses its revelatory character.  Marion states that alternately, in Summa contra Gentiles Thomas introduces a new kind of knowledge to this hierarchy by subordinating sacra doctrina to “the science of the blessed,” i.e. an eschatological knowledge of God, which should provide the required principles to make the sacra doctrina a scientia dei. These principles, however, remain inaccessible due to the eschatological character of the blessed science. Thus the scientific character of sacra doctrina remains unfounded.

Marion draws from this consequence not that Thomas was wrong in his evaluation of revealed theology, but that he brings to light the aporia of theology understood as science. Philosophy has tried to resolve this aporia by emphasizing the epistemological understanding of revelation, while Vatican I and II provide an alternate interpretation of revelation based on biblical texts.  Through Suarez, revelation was reduced to a sufficiens propositio and thus Thomas’ hierarchy was inverted, the epistemological account gaining primacy.  This line of thought was to be continued and emphasized during the Enlightenment. According to Marion, the epistemological understanding subjects apokalypsis (revelation) to aletheia (truth), which is to be understood in its modern meaning as clear and distinct knowledge.  In order to bring revelation to presence as clear and distinct it must be subjected to the principles of contradiction and sufficient reason, which for Marion are the basic principles of metaphysics. This critique is present throughout Marion’s works, stating that through the principles of contradiction and sufficient reason philosophy becomes dependent on ipseity. The entirety of phenomenality is reduced to the constitutive power of the subject.

Against this metaphysical view, Marion invokes Pascal in order to suggest that the will is not preceded by reason, as Descartes argues, but conditions knowing. This reversal of the relation between will and understanding concerns revelation when understood in connection to Augustine.  Augustine states that only charity, which has been poured into our souls by the Holy Spirit, can lead us to truth (De trinitate). This is the turning point in Marion’s re-interpreting of revelation, which relies on two main arguments. First, the will to be willing is conditioned and sparked by revelation as the attraction to see the Father in the Son. And second, the will to be willing consists in faith, which conditions and precedes seeing. Only by accepting Jesus as the Son of the Father can we see the Father in the Son. What is at stake here is the conversion of intentionality and knowing the Father starting from the Father, which is only possible if we will the Father by being attracted to the Father through the Son. This is consistent with what Marion calls the logic of love: the hermeneutics of love is received from love itself, thus from elsewhere, and consequently not subjected to a sufficiens proposition (Marion, 1991).

From these considerations Marion draws three conclusions: 1) we can only see revelation through faith, i.e. if we believe; 2) in order to believe we need to will it. The will, however, is “put in operation” by the fact of being drawn by God’s love. Therefore, 3) we can will something only inasmuch as we love said something. Here the will is equated with love, and revelation becomes possible only inasmuch as it is freed from the logic of natural reason and able to impose its own logic, which must start with the will and end up in love again. Marion thus uncovers a new kind of logic in theology, which is not subdued by the logic of natural reason. In order for philosophical logic to come to terms with the logic of love it must turn to phenomenology, as Marion argues. Through phenomenology, phenomena are perceived inasmuch as they give themselves (Marion, 2002). This would allow us to see them based on their own logic of manifestation. This way of giving itself is made apparent in saturated phenomena and all the more so in the figure of Christ, who gives himself in an exceptional way. Christ, as a saturated phenomenon, gives himself from himself and does not abide by the epistemological conditions of experience. He thus contradicts these conditions and is received or seen as non-objectifiable. He therefore gives himself as a paradox, a paradox that neither excludes logic nor is outside logic, but instead extends to the possibility of describing the impossible as a counter-experience.

Wisdom of God

This reversed hermeneutics of the counter-experience is further explained in the case of mysterion, which can be uncovered only by the Father through His giving of Jesus as Son. The reception of such a phenomenon cannot be known or seen directly. In order to see a mysterion the reversal of intentionality is necessary, which implies that the mysterion is seen through the gaze of the Father and not transcendentally constituted as an object. The reversal of intentionality, however, is possible only through the Holy Spirit, who accomplishes the anamorphosis, i.e. a phenomenon becomes visible once we accept its own perspective. Through this acceptance of the perspective from elsewhere the mysterion shall not be known or unveiled but rather will show itself from itself in its uncovering (apokalypsis).

In order to emphasize charity’s coming from elsewhere, Marion relies on a Paulinian description of the power of God as hyperbolic (Eph. 3:18-19).  Here the power of God is described as having four dimensions (height, depth, length, breadth), which for Marion signifies that charity cannot manifest itself within our space, as it exceeds it.  Instead, it constitutes a “milieu” where we are absorbed in order to be saturated by the power of God: “I must allow myself to be situated in the midst of it, to be encompassed by it to the point of losing myself in it” (71). This losing of myself indicates nothing else than the loss of ipseity or I-intentionality, because our gaze, which constitutes objects in a three-dimensional space, cannot conceive a four-dimensional phenomenon. Therefore, charity or revelation is to be seen through a gaze which is not finite. The only gaze that is not finite, but still part of the world, is that of Christ.  The mysterion uncovers itself in the gaze of Christ, who acts as the icon of the Father.  He exhausts the invisibility of the Father and brings it to light in the flesh.

This relation between Christ, apokalypsis, and mysterion announces a phenomenological principle – “so much mysterion, so much revelation” – which for Marion fulfils the goal of phenomenology, namely that something gives itself from itself as itself without a doubled representation. Reinterpreting Husserl’s principle of principles, Marion explains this relation as follows: “the phenomenon shows itself in itself and through himself only in as much as it gives itself in and through Himself” (76).  In short, the mode of appearance coincides with the mode of givenness.  The only phenomenon which lives up to this principle and actualizes it is Christ, as he shows himself absolutely. This, however, is also dependent on the subject becoming a witness, i.e. on accepting the infinite gaze of the Son, which in its turn relies on being drawn by revelation. This appears to be a hermeneutic circle, which Marion recognizes and embraces as it leads to a Trinitarian manifestation of God. This is the turning point for understanding the Trinitarian manifestation of God, which alone can account for the revelation of the Father in the Son, the latter of which acts as the absolute icon based on two hermeneutical steps. The Father is the ground and condition for the giving of Jesus as Christ, i.e. as the Son of the Father. And this implies that Jesus can be seen as the Son of the Father only from the perspective of the Father.

These two steps make way for a conclusion: if we know Jesus as the Son of the Father, we also know the Father, as only from His perspective can Jesus be seen as the Christ. Consequently, and holding true to his status as icon, Jesus never refers to himself but to an Other, which is also the ground for the revelation.  This is a first step in constituting a Trinitarian phenomenality. The second step connects tightly to the characteristic of the icon of letting the gaze of the other target the one who witnesses it. The fact that Jesus is given as the Son of the Father to mankind implies that mankind feels itself intended by the intentionality of the Father via the agency of the gift: “In this way the putting of Christ into an icon is accomplished, which properly defines the work of the Spirit” (86).  The Spirit is consequently part of the unity of God. According to Marion the very phenomenal function of the Spirit is the accomplishing of the anamorphosis. This is to say, the finite intentionality is replaced by an infinite intentionality, which can in its turn only occur through the grace of the Father. Thus understood, the Spirit is the very act of giving, of the putting into operation of revelation, staying invisible but within visibility.

Having established revelation as a saturated phenomenon which gives itself in a Trinitarian way, Marion can now tackle the problem of Trinity by resorting to phenomenology, in order to show how the inner logic of Trinity is the logic of its manifestation.

Marion seeks to distance himself from the traditional understanding of Trinity, where substance is of priority and relation is secondary, accepting instead the relational shift proposed by Karl Barth and Karl Rahner. Based on their considerations that Trinity and its revelation constitute the basis of the unity and essence of God, Marion seeks to show how the phenomenological manifestation of God, or revelation, entails the primacy of love and communion concerning the essence of God. The phenomenological description of revelation as a saturated phenomenon would support this shift, as it implies that God is to be seen only as He gives Himself.  Here, the thesis of the book is clearly formulated: “the Trinity offers not only the content of the uncovering, but also its mode of manifestation” (99). Because God gives Himself in a hyperbolic way, which saturates and surpasses our conceptual experience, and because such a given can only be seen through its own logic, God should be known only as He gives Himself. Considering that He gives Himself as a Trinity or communion, Trinity has primacy in the knowing of God.  This is further sustained by Marion’s argument that Trinity reveals itself through Christ as an icon, which means that Christ never refers to himself but to another, and completely to another.  This implies that the more he refers to another, i.e. to the Father, the more he appears as an icon and as the Son of God.  This further entails that the stronger the communion between Father and Son is, the stronger the unity of God is.

Concluding Remarks

Marion’s Givenness and Revelation provides a Trinitarian account of revelation, which, though based mainly on biblical texts, ends up both redefining theology as revealed theology and realizing the principles of his phenomenology of givenness. This account is consistent with Marion’s earlier description of Christ as the icon of the Father in which the logic of love is accomplished in a Trinitarian way (Marion, 1991: 139-56). Furthermore, the coherence of Givenness and Revelation is also sustained by Marion’s phenomenological developments of the figure Christ as the highest degree of givenness (Marion, 2002). This being said, we turn our attention to three possible inconsistencies of Givenness and Revelation.

Even though Marion’s critique of metaphysics retains the same aspects of going against egology, beingness, and objectivity (Gschwandtner, 2007: 194), one can notice several revisions made to his understanding of Husserl. Whereas in Being Given Husserl’s principle of principles is seen as the limitation of givenness, conditioning it based on a foreseeable indeterminacy, Givenness and Revelation describes revelation as the fulfilment of the same principle. It must then follow either that Marion’s understanding of said principle is inconsistent or that revelation itself is limited. Two additional points may be raised against Marion’s investigation of revelation. First, the question concerning the violation of Husserl’s principle of neutrality – already highlighted by Jones (Jones, 2011) – can also be posed here.  Against this, one can argue based on Marion (Marion, 2000) that theology acts purely as an inspiration for phenomenology in constructing a christological philosophy. Second, the reception of revelation and its imposed logic without requiring a hermeneutics coming from the subject may be questioned, as already observed by Shane Mackinlay (Mackinlay, 2010).  Against this point one can interpret the constitution of the subject as a witness together with Thomas Alferi (Alferi, 2007: 297), who states that this constitution is a pre-phenomenal one, the phenomenal subject being thus already inscribed within the Trinitarian hermeneutic circle. This latter description of the subject seems to be more consistent with Givenness and Revelation. Furthermore, Marion’s introduction of the concept of resistance in experiencing revelation might provide a further solution to the issue of the subject being too passive.


Alferi, T. (2007).  “Worüber hinaus Grösseres nicht ‘gegeben’ werden kann…”  Phänomenologie und Offenbarung nach Jean-Luc Marion.  Freiburg: Alber.

Gschwandtner, C. M. (2007).  Reading Jean-Luc Marion: Exceeding Metaphysics.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Jones, T. (2011).  A Genealogy of Marion’s Philosophy of Religion: Apparent Darkness.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mackinlay, S. (2010).  Interpreting Excess: Jean-Luc Marion, Saturated Phenomena, and Hermeneutics.  New York: Fordham University Press.

Marion, J. (1991).  God Without Being: Hors-texte.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marion, J. (2000).  “Eine andere ‘Erste Philosophie’ und die Frage der Gegebenheit.”  In Ruf und Gabe: Zum Verhältnis von Phänomenologie und Theologie.  Her. J. Marion, J. Wohlmuth.  Bonn: Alfter: Borengässer.

Marion, J. (2002).  Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness.  Stanford, Ca: Stanford University Press.

Marion, J. (2015).  Negative Certainties. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Marion, J. (2016).  Givenness and Revelation.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.