[Find part I of this series here.]
Few would quarrel with Jean-Luc Marion’s claim that the parable of the prodigal son speaks to themes of ownership and possession. It may be more contentious to claim, as Marion does, that this parable promotes the virtue of ongoing dependence and use and strikes against an ethic of self-funding and ownership. And it may sound simply foreign to contend that the prodigal son teaches us how to relate to and encounter truth and the good: as a reception of excessive grace in an ongoing posture of praise and dependence. And yet, I find Marion’s exposition of this parable one of the most compelling presentation of God Without Being’s recurring themes of receptivity, dependence, and enjoyment/use vs possession.
Marion’s interpretation departs from the difference between the father’s and the sons’ understandings of the father’s goods and property. In this interpretation excessive dispossession and forgiveness opposes an impoverished and possessive dissipation.
For the father, goods cannot be separated from the gift from which they issue. For the father material goods are of secondary importance “because with his gaze he transpierces all that is not inscribed in the rigor of a gift, giving, received, given: goods, common by definition and circulation, are presented as the indifferent stakes of those who, through them, give themselves to each other, in a circulation that is more essential than what it exchanges.” As he says to his elder son at the conclusion of the parable: “You, son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours also.” Marion argues that this should not be read as a promise of future inheritance but as a reminder of the kind of economy and ontology the father and his sons already participate in. The sons can have full use and enjoyment of the good(s), but they receive this use of goods. Their enjoyment of the good(s) passes through a mutual dependence, indebtedness, and exchange with others, through the authority of the father. The good(s), in this economy, are inextricably tied to an ongoing gift that precedes and supersedes them, even as it is gives the good(s) their worth. The point is to play the game – to use and enjoy the goods, to give and receive. The material itself has only a secondary importance. Thus, the father can offer immediate forgiveness to a son that is not returning any material belongings, but is returning in a desire to once again play the game.
In contrast to this, the sons want to own. The younger asks for his inheritance while the father is still living and the elder complains to never have had “anything of my own to have a party with my friends.” They do not want to owe anyone anything, have to receive anything from anyone, or be dependent on anyone besides themselves. They seek to separate the good(s) from gift. The younger son “asks to possess it, dispose of it, enjoy it without passing through the gift and the reception of the gift.” He does not really ask for the good(s) which he already has access to and already enjoys. What he asks is to have ownership of the good(s), for “enjoyment did not strictly coincide with possession, nor this usage with disposability.”
As we see in this last quote, Marion observes that the shift “into the logic of possession” marks the entrance of disposability. In use, enjoyment, and stewardship of goods one cannot dispose of them for that precludes the possibility of them being used and enjoyed. In this sense, gift marks a limit of use – or, perhaps better, restriction to use – that private ownership undoes. “Landed property, now [literally] without ground, becomes liquid money, which…seeps and trickles between the fingers.” The unhappy, aimless wandering and vain pursuit in pleasure issues from this shift to possession and disposability, which makes the good of the gift (in erasing the gift) disappear. In clutching after what is good we get a fist full of air, for the good might be received but never appropriated. The son’s debauchery does not stem from poor use of his goods, but stems from his seizure of goods, which exist for good use under the conditions of use. In wanting to possess he becomes possessed; once a son, he becomes a hireling. The irony is that here one has made the material of primary importance, seeking to own it, but in doing so has made it disposable, with a momentum towards disposability – i.e., the material takes on much less importance. Just as the older son cannot enjoy the party with all of its material goods in full use, in making an idol of the good(s) the sons lose what they hope to secure.
The context into which Marion brings this parable helps us to further see the poverty of such ownership, as well as the beauty of receptivity, dependence, and use. It comes near the middle of God Without Being and in the latter half of what I would consider his most ambitious chapter “The Crossing of Being.” This chapter aims to show that gift has precedence over Being and the possibility of passing from an essential Being to the threshold of gift. In the preface to the chapter Marion articulates this as going beyond a “guarded silence” that plays it safe and into a silence that speaks without explaining, passing from speech to worship. Much of the first half of the chapter links an ontological priority of Being to the explicit anthropocentrism of idolatry. In brief, the priority of Being hinges on the centrality of Dasein, just as it is our condition as Dasein that refers us to the ontological priority of Being. It is because of “the claim that Being exerts over Dasein” that Being presents itself as the first of the divine names. However, Marion points out that this way of naming God begins with Dasein, the human and human experience, rather than with the excessiveness of God’s goodness. To make Being first makes human apprehension first. If our task is to name Jesus then we must start elsewhere.
Marion’s alternative is the call God issues to us, and, more significantly, the call that God issues to those the world declares as non-beings, as less than nothing. Three Bible texts guide the discussion: Romans 4:17, 1 Corinthians 1:28, and Luke 15:12-13 (the prodigal son).
Romans 4:17 continues Paul’s interpretation of the faith of Abraham: “As it is written: ‘I have made you a father of many nations.’ He is our father in the sight of God, in whom he believed –the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were.” What is most essential to us, this passage suggests, is not that we are, but that we are called. God’s call to us, God’s naming of us as beloved, precedes all else. We are drawn into ourselves and live most basically and most fully through and because of this, not through Being.
1 Corinthians 1:28 heightens this distinction between the world’s valuations and the gift of God: “God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are.” To determine what it is that the world identifies as a nonbeing, Marion suggests that we “step back” and ask “in the name of what Paul can recognize as “brethren” that which the world looks upon as less than nothing; the response is found at the beginning of the text: ‘consider your call, brethren’ (1 Cor. 1:26); Paul does not say: ‘consider yourselves,’ for in considering themselves only under their own gaze… they would see themselves as the world sees them – as less than nothing. Paul asks them on the contrary to look at what they are not or, better, at what does not depend on them or on their brute beingness or on the world, namely their call, their call; not the call that is theirs, but the call addressed to them” by God. This, especially in the broader context of the foolishness of taking up the cross, suggests that the world sees the Corinthian church as less than nothing because they rely on their call instead of themselves. What determines being for the world has little to do with a philosophical being, but instead draws a line that divides being from nonbeing according to effective self-funding, according to “the acquisition of funds against God” – its own works and glory. Marion’s point is that this contest between what really matters – receiving the call evidenced in gratitude and generosity or effective self-ownership evidenced by successful acquisition of goods – makes the claims of Being unimportant, as what is essential to our being issues from something other than being. This is the game – the choice between the realms of possession/self-funding and gift/loving-abandon – that we play.
Enter the story of the prodigal son. As we’ve already seen, this story offers vivid evaluatory commentary on these two games. In the game of self-funding and possession, we enter a world of disposability of self and other that leads to our own possession and does not allow for the possibility of love. In the game of gift we become free. Free to take responsibility for what is good even as care of the good is not something we possess as a solitary burden or a cold duty abstracted from our personhood. Free to enjoy the gift of other people, of reciprocal love and friendship, of beauty, of receiving material goods from others and sharing what we have in turn. Free to look with generous honesty at the world and ourselves. Free to imagine, create, and be still as goodness and love unleashes our capacities to explore and wonder.
The story also brings us back to the theme of naming. In the realm of possession we name ourselves out of and from nothing. We forge our own path and are masters of our own destinies. Our identity is our own to create in a foreign land where money (how much we possess) is our only limitation. In contrast, when the son returns home he regains his status by being named “son.” In refusing the gift by demanding it the son broke his filiation and is thus “not worthy to be named your son”; the father restores this filiation, which the son does not even have to ask for but need only receive.
If we proceed from here, what might we discern about truthful naming? What can we learn about the ways the church can and should claim, name, and confess its central loyalty to Jesus?
Marion concludes the third chapter with the argument that when we find ourselves caught up in a gift that names and calls us to what we most truly are we find that “predication must yield to praise – which, itself also, maintains a discourse.” Thus, Marion calls us to live a life of awe; to be “silent through and for agape…: to say God requires receiving the gift and – since the gift occurs only in distance – returning it. To return the gift, to play redundantly the unthinkable donation, this is not said, but done. Love is not spoken, in the end, it is made. Only then can discourse be reborn, but as an enjoyment, a jubilation, a praise.” To end this post I will attempt to name how this model of a worshipping love in response to the gift of love as truthful speech might inform practices of confession of faith. I note here that my next post will be quite critical of Marion and I think Marion’s philosophy requires some revision before it can be fully useful to us. These points, while interpreted with some effort to align Marion’s interests with my own where possible, are examples of Marion’s receptivity, dependence, and enjoyment and not my own recommendations for the church.
First, our starting point matters integrally. Because we are not self-sufficient, the fact that we are as a “subject” is not the first condition for us to be able to confess Jesus as Lord. Since we are dependent, it is a matter of being dependent well, of receiving the name that allows our discourse to be reborn as praise. This means that who, where, and how we are matters when we confess Jesus’s name. For example, particularly given God’s revealed activism for the world’s disenfranchised, this means that the possibility of naming Jesus and not an idol is directly bound up with how we find ourselves in relation to the myriad power relations of our world (which is why liberation theologians have pointed out that the oppressed tend to have a better sense than others of what God is about).
Second, from Marion’s perspective it seems that the most significant starting point is a context of worship. We all can think of examples of worship, but it still may not be clear what exactly this means for us. Minimally, we should not seek objectivity or disinterest. Instead we confess our faith in Jesus as those who have fallen in love with Jesus and look joyfully for the many ways in which he manifests in ours and others’ lives. Of course, just as in any other well-functioning love relationship, this does not mean that we divide brain from heart and eject intelligent thinking, or even the usefulness of various perspectives, including those that strive after objectivity and disinterest. Nevertheless, the source and sustenance of all our inquiries, words, and expressions of loyalty is God’s love for us which drives our love for God.
Third, this interested worship makes us in our entirety. That is, worship and naming (receiving a name) is something that is lived. We receive the gift well when we exercise it and this means submitting to the cross, the path of discipleship and servanthood, that comes to us as Jesus’s gift. It is in following after Jesus that we learn to have the heart and mind of Christ and come to see the joyful goodness of such a life. This life, in turn, confesses and points others towards the way of Jesus.
Fourth, we learn the cross and how to submit to it with deference to authority. This authority is based on God’s authority, and seeks to transmit God’s gift in a pure and unaffected way. Now God’s authority also undoes all earthly authorities, so the follow-through on this point may often be tricky. At the same time, the guiding principle that we should generally submit to the authority of Scripture, the church (which for Marion means the Catholic Church and its hierarchies and traditions, but could probably be articulated with a different understanding of how the church receives and exercises authority), and, to a lesser extent, the saints of our traditions and lives is a good place to start.
Fifth, because this will rarely be sufficient for the revealing of Christ’s cross, we must look for God’s revelation of love in unexpected places. A cultivated sense of our own insufficiency makes us depend on the authorities named above, but this sense of insufficiency must extend also to our own traditions and authorities such that we look to the margins as places of profound truth and insight. In Body Politics, Yoder argues that nonviolence is rooted partially in the conviction that “the enemy is a part of my truth finding process.” I don’t know whether one could ever get Marion to say something like this, but I do think that this understanding of the gifts of strangers and enemies works together with significant aspects of Marion’s philosophy.
Sixth, we can bring many of these practices and ideas together by calling for the church to practice its confessions of faith with significant components of self-emptying gestures and practices. It is this self-emptying that allows for the Spirit to name us. This involves a relinquishing of control of our economic, political, personal, spiritual lives. Doing so also looses the grip the world’s powers have on us, as someone like St. Francis profoundly saw. There’s also a circularity to this: self-emptying opens us up to receive God’s naming and this reception leads us further down the path of yieldedness to the Spirit.
Finally, we can see here why a certain, awed silence is important for Marion. This silence lets go of our need to take ownership over what rules us, animates us, gives us life, and gives us the cross. At the same time it is not nothing or purely passive; rather it is nothing that has been called into an active love and peculiar glory.