In the Self’s Place: The Approach of Saint Augustine?
by jean-luc marion?
translated by jeffrey l. kosky
stanford, 448 pages, $90

Pascal spoke of the divide between the “god of the philosophers” and the “living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” and took the side of the latter. Jean-Luc Marion stands with Pascal. Weary of the ?god of theological rationalism, he wants to find in St. Augustine a different, non-rationalistic, or, as he prefers to say, “nonmetaphysical,” approach to God. Marion eschews an approach to God by way of deductive proofs of the existence and of the names of God, and searches in St. Augustine for a way that passes through our most intimate religious existence.

In this work, Marion, who divides his academic year between the University of Chicago and the Sorbonne, focuses primarily on the Confessions, though he reads it in the light of the entire Augustinian corpus. In particular, he explores the language of confessio that St. Augustine speaks.

The Confessions do not in the first place talk about God; Marion makes a great point of saying that the second grammatical person prevails here over the third person. ?St. Augustine praises God, exalts him, adores him, and he also acknowledges to God the sinfulness and pollution that he has before him. The barrenness of the metaphysicians can in part be explained in terms of overrating the third person: “If speaking of God consists in predicating something or inscribing him in a class and under a concept, then such a ‘god’ falls to the rank of one object among others.”

Marion also says that the Christian metaphysicians relate to God too much on their own terms and on their own initiative; with this we come to one of the deepest ideas of the book. Whereas God is always available to being taken by us as the object of our metaphysical reflection”we can think about him whenever we choose to”the praise of God that fills the Confessions is first elicited in us by God and is possible only as a response to his prior call to us.

It is an ur-Augustinian theme that Marion develops: We cannot just decide to praise God in the same way that we can decide to think about him; only by existing in him and through him, and only as empowered by him, can we praise him. We praise God not with our initiative but in response to his initiative: Vocata invocat Dominum ,“the one who calls upon the Lord has first been called by him.” Marion expresses the theocentric understanding of man that he finds in St. Augustine: “Speaking to God, as the confessing praise does, implies first of all turning one’s face to God so that he can come over me, claim me, and call me starting from himself, well beyond what I could say, predict, or predicate of him starting from myself alone.”

Marion is sensitized to this Augustinian theme by the original contributions he has previously made to the phenomenological tradition of Husserl and Heidegger in which he stands. He developed the idea of the abundance of reality that exceeds the reach of our concepts. He is reading St. Augustine in the light of his own phenomenology when he speaks of God entering into the human heart unbidden and awakening its deepest aspirations long before we have had any thought about God.

There is much to admire in this extraordinary book. Most readers, even teachers familiar with the text, will come away from Marion’s study thinking that they have underes­timated the Confessions , that it is a much deeper and an even more original work than they had thought.

For example, his unpacking of ?St. Augustine’s “becoming a great question to myself” is quite memorable. We are often incomprehensibly divided within ourselves, willing the good that we see, yet also not willing it”an inner dividedness that ?St. Augustine experienced acutely in himself. Marion also brings out ?St. Augustine’s puzzlement over the way we are powerfully drawn to a happiness that we have never experienced and cannot remember.

Marion reads St. Augustine very closely (he has made his own translations of the many passages from the Confessions that he cites) and lets St. Augustine’s voice be heard in all its originality. At the same time, he develops through this reading a deep Christian sense of the theocentric selfhood of human beings. The ­reader readily understands why Marion is widely acknowledged to be one of the most important Catholic voices in the intellectual world of the present.

But I see two directions in which the book’s project needs to be developed and clarified. The first concerns grace and free will. It seems to me that Marion oversimplifies things when he declares that “in Augustinian terms there is no conflict between grace and will because without grace there simply is no will.” He means that if free will first existed on its own and subsequently encountered God’s grace, then free will might collide with grace, but in fact our being free at all is itself a gift of God’s grace, and so there is no possible antagonism between the two.

The problem is that St. Augustine, especially in his later anti-Pelagian writings, tends to hold the irresistibility of divine grace; he does not clearly allow for a human response which can accept or decline the divine offer. Worse still, St. Augustine also holds that God does not call all human beings, but only some; those not called are inevitably lost. Thus both the number of the saved and the number of the lost seem to depend entirely on God’s initiative and in no way on human response.

Though Marion himself ­allows for man refusing God’s call, he does not seem to appreciate how St. ­Augustine’s way of asserting the sovereignty of God’s grace makes it very difficult to understand the possibility of such a refusal.

This is not just an issue of reading St. Augustine correctly; there is a difficulty here for the radically theocentric understanding of human personhood that Marion has gained in his earlier work and wants to reinforce by his study of ­?St. Augustine. It is not enough to stress that we exist from another, through another, by the grace of another; it must also be said that we who exist in this way also exist as persons, that is, as beings who are their own and not another’s.

One would like to see him apply his exceptional abilities towards clarifying what St. Augustine did not succeed in clarifying: the paradox of a creaturely person , that is, a being who though existing through God is nevertheless established in himself to the point of being able to dispose over himself”a being who is not only a creature of God but also a partner of God, existing in a dialogical relation with him.

The other need for further development concerns the relation of second-person praise spoken to God and third-person philosophical r­eflection about God and man. Surely these two approaches to God do not exclude each other; surely they both have a necessary place within Christian understanding. And yet Marion goes so far as to write, “To speak of God: all things considered, this is a contradiction in terms.” But this overshoots the mark, and puts Marion in the position of playing off against each other things that ?belong together.

Consider a human analogy: St. Augustine often spoke to his mother Monica in the second person, that is, in the I“Thou manner so highly esteemed by Marion. But in the Confessions he gives us an unforgettable picture of her, and he does this by speaking about her in the third person. What he says about her does not strike us a departure from his love for her, or as a reduction of her to one being among others.

And so there is surely a worthy way, also practiced by ?St. ­Augustine, of thinking and speaking about God in the third person, as when in his work On Free Choice of the Will he develops the contrast between the changeable human mind and the unchangeable truth that the mind discerns “above” itself, and then proceeds to identify this realm of truth with God. Or consider the wealth of theological reflection contained in the fifteen magisterial books of his treatise On the Trinity. This is a theological discourse which, though spoken in the third person, entirely coheres with the confessing praise of God.

We find in St. Augustine the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of course; but the God of the philosophers is not absent from his thought. Marion must be aware of this dual approach to God in St. Augustine, and the reader puts down the book thinking that Marion owes us greater clarity on this duality.

John F. Crosby is professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville and co-founder of the Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project .

Articles by John F. Crosby

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