My stewing and brewing about this spate of COVID diagnoses and our decrying of the News--and now the various attempts to downplay the diagnoses--have led me down some unexpected paths I’ve not considered afresh for probably ten years: the work of a Catholic theologian and philosopher who was really my mentor-in-thought in about 2008-09. No one is more surprised than I that Jean-Luc Marion appears to have something to offer me, us, once again.
[That said, I don’t recommend picking up either of the books that really opened these avenues for me--God Without Being or The Erotic Phenomenon. They are densely written to a specifically professional-disciplinary audience and they aren’t nearly as racey or provocative as they sound. Marion (pronounced MAHR-ion) is a staunchly theological man of the Catholic faith, and his philosophy has less titillation, more terminology, than social-media readers might desire. But, knock yourself out if you’re curious… You can get God Without Being in the original French, for a doorstop, if you like. We did.]
Marion opens a window into a world not defined by identity politics or increasing uncertainty and vanity. He points toward a deeper rationality of love/caritas, in its own horizon, whose insufficient reason and pure assurance rise like incense in a time like this. What do those terms mean, you ask? Things you already know at some intuitive and inarticulate level, underneath the current shaping of your habits of mind. This knowing is the birthright of every human being, regardless of mind, body, or will. He has a lot more words for them than that, of course.
Marion opens this window by first confronting the technological rationality at the heart of Westernized society(ies) we live in today. The phrase points to a reason or logic primarily in the service of function and purpose, cause and effect, and most crassly, marketing and product. This is the kind of ‘reason’ that gets things done, that identifies rationales for scientists and politicians alike (at least if either want funding for their work), that persuades us to buy certain products or legislate the powers of government or choose certain schools or businesses. Certainty is at the heart of this logic, and it IS powerful. We are well conditioned to seek certainty for what we think it can offer us: knowledge, identity, even power.
Marion asks different questions for a quest for assurance than are operative in certainty’s “What do I want to know?” and “Who am I?” He points us to something elsewhere we already know deep within: Love often makes no sense to us, even as it draws us close in yearnings. Love has its own logic or truth that confounds our sense of commerce and tit-for-tat. Its reason subverts and transforms technological reason focused on the what or the who. Love’s Heart nourishes something more in us…something we can’t quite get our hands or minds around entirely. Jean-Luc Marion’s quest for assurance is rooted in the questions Does anyone love me? Can I love first? These serve as the doorway to an increasing and seemingly counter-intuitive freedom from vanity and uncertainty’s pall in our lives.
In all this to follow, I’m not saying uncertainty goes away or our usual “reason” is unnecessary. Both are necessary for our survival, to a point. I’m also not saying I’m no longer anxious and have no fear. Of course I do. But Marion’s work has given me years of a different way of breathing in my life, with regular moments of deep calm and trust, a dependable assurance in my willingness to live in this place, this time, right now, rooted from elsewhere yet loving right where I am. When I am in this space, I see all others--even ‘them’--with a hue of curiosity, wonder, even compassion. I am aware of a yearning to know the stories that got them to where they are. After all, it is really hard to hate someone whose stories you know, told by them, from the inside.
To invite us there, I want to start with Marion’s questions, and some of his own words (buckle your seatbelts). When Can I love first? is answered with a “yes”, the lover has “the unmatched privilege of losing nothing, even if s/he happens to find him/herself unloved, because a love scorned remains a love perfectly accomplished, just as a gift refused remains a perfectly given gift … There is only one single proof of love -- to give without return or chance of recovery, and thus to be able to lose, and eventually to be lost in love.” (all citations from The Erotic Phenomenon). What he describes is a love without being, loving without being loved, which is the purest expression of Love, caritas. Our usual ‘religious approach’ to this is to know we are supposed to love like this, then fail at it regularly, then shame ourselves for being failures. Hear the ‘know’, the ‘uncertainty’ and the anxiety and disconnection in 'shame'?
In contrast, Marion encourages us to enter into a different quest for assurance, to see and feel for ourselves in this quest--which is never fully completed--and practice--which is a regularly intentional behavior with a horizon of ultimate meaning, desire--also never fully, permanently complete. “The quest for assurance finds that assurance comes regularly to the willing lover. Assurance still comes to me,” he writes, “but no longer from an...elsewhere that would conserve [who I think I am]; rather it comes from an elsewhere that is more inward to me than I am to myself.” Here he is getting at the deeper rationality within which Love flows, is born, is borne. Not ‘love’ in reciprocity--you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Not ‘love’ that can be rationalized within our common-sense today, ‘sufficiently reasonable.’ No, this willingness to love first plants the seeds of assurance deeply within, which begin to grow in ways we cannot understand. Love comes from a H/heart within, no matter how often we aim to grasp it from those around us, or outside of ourselves.
Think back to the days when we didn’t have to wear masks and you could smile at strangers, knowing they were seeing you smile. The surprise in the eyes or an unexpected smile in return…? It is an implicit, beautifully human visceral response to smile when smiled at. Of course, some strangers might be in such inner focus and not notice that you smiled. But my best days were those I would just set my intention: smile at strangers in the grocery store, various spaces throughout my day. It rarely failed to bring a smile in return. The gift of it began with my intention to smile, no matter what. Not to get the smile. Not to create some obligation or encounter that would feed anything in me. The intention to smile, no matter what, because my belly and bodysoul wanted to be a smiling presence inside, regardless of reciprocity. This is not an essential idealism, assuming good at the root of human beings; nor is it an essential pessimism, assuming what theologians would call a fallen nature or a propensity to do harm unless hemmed in by the religious morals of the day. This is something visceral and available to each one of us, now, today--an open intention to enter into loving-first.
Which is no different than the intention to smile at strangers, just deeper. Harder to sustain as a consistent intention to love-first amidst the onslaught of toxic currents in our society today, with our focus on certainties outside of us and beyond our ken. It’s also easy at this point, in our current habits of mind around certainty, to think assurance and certainty must be the same thing. They most assuredly 😉are not.
Assurance grounds the lover from within, requiring less and less reciprocity to refine and strengthen the assurance. The practice Marion describes--knowing us humans the way he does--is always one of reducing reciprocity. When we suspend reciprocity more and more--our need for someone to do or be something for us, in order for us to ‘love’ them--we no longer economize the relational currents or desires. We no longer promise to spend ‘this much’ of our affection, if our partner or fellow citizen promises to spend ‘that much’. Feel the transaction?
The quest for assurance avoids all of that…“The lover appears when one of the actors in the exchange no longer poses prior conditions, and loves without requiring to be loved, and thus, in the figure of the gift, abolishes economy.
In so doing, the lover also contradicts technological reason’s characteristics of what requires ‘sufficient reason.’ Marion would say we are immersed today in a failure of reason itself to give reasons for the initiative to love… “Love does not reject reason, but reason refuses to go where the lover goes. … When loving is at issue, reason is not sufficient: reason appears from this point forward as a principle of insufficient reason.” In the end, “from the lover’s point of view (and his/hers alone), love becomes its own sufficient reason. … which is also the basis of pure assurance.”
Let’s return to the quest for certainty now, to see what it feels like alongside the quest for assurance. The quest for assurance begins with questions rooted in love, in love’s horizon, at its most pure when it is embodied without reciprocity or certainty’s ‘reason.’ Does anyone love me? and Can I love first? The quest for certainty asks its questions, rooted in Descartes’ ego cogito and the necessary engagement of doubt into confirmed, consensual knowledge. Feel what you feel in these questions toward certainty: What do I want to know? Who am I? These questions lead us as a thinker down paths of knowledge and understanding so to know who I am, who we are. ‘Love’ here is to certify the thinker, to confirm him/her in what s/he knows, what and who s/he is. It’s then we feel the familiar (un)truism: if I simply know more about the ‘other’--a Muslim, let’s say, or a Trump supporter, or a Bernie supporter, or…--then I will be able to ‘love them better.’
Except that if/then structure is not Love’s rationality nor its horizon. Love embodies Itself especially when one cannot understand. If you’re focused on a quest for assurance, it matters less and less what you know, even who the other professes to be. You focus on loving first, with less and less need for reciprocity or certainty, and your body begins to smile with the seeds of assurance, pure assurance, in a love without being.
Which then leads us to the second question, Does anyone love me? [We’re feeling our way into this question second because it’s too hard to distinguish unless you have the felt sense of Love’s horizon, insufficient rationality, pure assurance.] This question goads us in our most tender moments to ‘use love’ to certify ourselves, to provide us a certainty of being in this life not alone, not left behind, not unseen or unheard. Immersed in certainty’s habits of mind, dressed in consumerist desires and utilitarian needs, we try to use our quest for certainty in our love lives all the time. Will this person complete me, confirming that I am lovable from the outside? Will I be seen and heard just as I am, or do I need to become what that person will be attracted do, desire? Those are questions rooted in identity and knowledge from the outside.
When one sets the intention to love first, to answer Can I love first? in the affirmative, the ironic or paradoxical sensation that eventually arrives is an affirmative to the second question. Yes, I am lovable. Yes, I am able to love...and be loved. Then others are drawn to you, in Love.
Which again: this quest is not an act of sheer will or a pretense of the human spirit to feign love so to gain some other end, by utilitarian or functional means. The pure assurance that Marion describes comes from an elsewhere paradoxically rooted deeper within than any one of us can imagine. This assurance blessedly mirrors YES, we can love first; YES I am lovable. In Marion’s words again: “Assurance comes to me...from an elsewhere that is more inward to me than myself: the elsewhere that comes upon me in the very gesture in which I give up what I have (my gift) and what I am, in order to assure myself only of what I truly make in this instant--love.” This is the Love that is at the heart of everything: Love in its own horizon, a love without being that reduces reciprocity (offering freedom or ‘get to’), that introduces a chosen surrender at the heart of all revelatory knowledge (where certainty can offer its gift without binding anyone in uncertainty or vanity).”
What if we had a way to live in a pure assurance that would cause our addiction to certainty to pale in comparison? What if everything you need to find your way to the deepest sense of Love from elsewhere you’ve ever known is always within reach, such that you know how to breathe in utter uncertainty while grounded in pure assurance? Because this assurance from elsewhere can rise in each of us, as gift and gifted, loving-first and no longer reliant upon reciprocity, reason, or strength as our world defines it.
This is the quest for a deeper pathway into healing, relinquishing judgment of self or other while knowing viscerally, at some deep level, that each of us can bring love into the world from deep within...mysteriously...dependably… It is not an act of will. It cannot be pretended. But it can rise with yearning, with a willingness to experiment with intention to love first those we least understand, even those whom we fear. There is no predictable certainty in this assurance, of course, but its fruit is undeniable: calm, courage, curiosity, wonder, welcome, and more. Stay at it long enough, and a deep belly holy laughter can come too, even in the face of unspeakable harm or evil. This assurance from elsewhere, rooted deeply within and yet out of reach of anyone, means no one can take it away.
Some of us have called this blessed assurance for a very long time. It is waiting for each of us, right here, right now. Don't give it away to certainty's illusions... Simply begin with an intention. Practice it as much as you can. Honor its counter-cultural, counter-intuitive simplicity, which looks harder than anything but which is actually an inner sense of letting go. Try it, set the intention, add a ritual gesture to make it concrete, then let go...
...Perhaps some of us will meet you there.