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Jean-Luc Marion on Christianity and Violence

December 17, 2017

Jean-Luc Marion, an acclaimed philosopher who teaches at l’université Paris-IV and the University of Chicago, is known for his multiple books dedicated to phenomenology, which analyse the notion of givenness, or, in his terms, donation. His work on the metaphysics of Descartes remains unmatched. He also teaches theology, and his interest for this domain, quite apparent in his philosophical works, is resolute. His recently translated book, Believing in order to See, captures adroitly his philosophical approach to theology.

His latest book, Brève apologie pour un moment catholique, treats the role and future of catholicism in France and Europe.

Uisio translated his recent interview with Le Monde.

Until now, you have avoided writing books on political philosophy. With this book, did you want to respond to those who, like philosopher Marcel Gauchet, saw Christianity as ‘a religion of exit from religion’?

I don’t think that Christianity is a religion. Besides, the concept of ‘religion’ is an artefact invented in the nineteenth century, and I neither want to base my discussion on this concept nor let others impose the terms of the debate. Christianity is a revelation, which means, at least, that it comes from elsewhere. As much as we need to deconstruct the notion of ‘religion’, we need also to do the same with the concepts of political philosophy. For example, everybody talks of ‘democracy’ or of ‘power’ as if they knew what those signified. What does it mean ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’, this expression that we owe to a Christian theologian, Fénelon?

Other misunderstood example, by the fundamentalists this time, is the freedom of religion. Judging by how they criticised the pontifical declaration on the subject [Dignitatis humanae, 1985], we notice how little they know their theology. Because the idea that we can change religion without being a traitor to the city was the argument of Christians, of Lactance [240-320] or of Justin Martyr [died around 165], exposed to the persecutions of Romans. They told: we are of the good citizens, but we have the right to be ‘atheists’ of your gods (because they don’t exist) and to change the religion. The notion of religious freedom is therefore fundamental for the Christian thought. That it was retaken by the Enlightenment, even better. But, it was not invented by the Enlightenment.

In your presentation of a Catholicism that actually does better than we are told, don’t you sin with optimism, without taking into account the sociological works that put in evidence the decrease of religious practice or the crisis of vocation?

Yes, I pursue a bit of an intentional provocation by supporting that all goes well for Catholicism, that Churches are not empty, etc., because I’ve had enough of hearing the contrary. But overall, following the path of cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger [1926-2007], I wonder who can judge the spiritual state of a population. Only God decides if one who goes to the mass is a believer or non. The question of the state of health of Christianity or of other religions remains as a secret well kept. Stay modest. It is also necessary to be a little bit historian. The state of Catholicism after the wars of religion was much worse: there was nothing left!

Can we consider, as medievalist Philippe Buc, that there exists a specifically Christian form of violence?

From the first centuries of its history, Christianity condemned voluntary martyrdom and those who wanted to defy the emperor by risking their life. Certainly, Christianity did not renounce all hope of conquest, but, for it, the place of conquest was not political power. It is a disarmed religion, equally disarming because it proceeds by paradoxes. The most important amongst them: power is an illusion, or it is not the place of the true power, as all authority comes form God. It is a great tribute to Christians actually to think that, when violence occurs, it is because of the conception of individuals. I think, for my part, that the ideas that make Christians violent are the non-Christian ideas. When Christians make the eulogy of violence, they simply stop being Christian. As Pope Francis declared it, there is no holy war, only peace is holy.

Isn’t universalism a source in Catholicism that could lead to violence?

Abstract universalism, without determination, quickly becomes an arm of reducing differences. But the Universal in the Catholic sense is that of the communion. Communion is only possible if differences are respected. It is necessary to know if the Universal should extend itself in the sense of globalisation (everybody having the same computers, nothing being transmitted without digitalisation or adaptation to the dimensions of a container), or well if it has the sense of the Catholic Universal. The model of the trinitarian communion shows that difference resides even in God himself, and that in God there is a community. By the Trinity, Catholicism escapes from the monotheistic violence.

For coming back to the actuality, don’t you have the sentiment that the ‘Catholic moment’ of the French elections was missed with the failure of François Fillon’s candidature?

My book situates itself rather as a call to Catholics for accepting an examen of conscience over the failure that two political alliances, one to right and other to left, have caused. It is the time that they renounce the one as the other. In a sense, my undertaking goes against what certain Catholics have believed to read in the candidacy of François Fillon. We should avoid all confusion between political and confessional identity, not only because it is doomed to failure, but also because it is contradictory with the Christian theology of history. Believing that it is necessary to make France politically Catholic— thereby resorting to force— rendered some Catholics the adversaries of separation (term that I prefer to ‘laïcité’ that is not mentioned in 1905 law), and consequently… it rendered them bad Catholics.

Some disciples of Christ saw in him a king of Israel who would hunt the impious. He, on the contrary, respected separation to the point of never having a political project and even of dying. I cannot stand those Catholics who pretend to be more Christian than him. While the Epistle to the Hebrews [4, 12-13] tells us of the word of God as a sword, it signifies that war does not take place where we believe. It happens between the word of God and the ‘stiff neck’ of men. Not in the political sphere.


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