Words that reveal: Jean-Yves Lacoste and the experience of God


Much of the contemporary discussion of religion seems to do away with the very possibility of revelation. In this article, I use Lacoste’s phenomenology of la parole to rethink a theology of revelation in terms of God’s personal self-giving in experience. After examining Lacoste’s views of the relationship between philosophy and theology, his liturgical reduction and what this means for an understanding of experience and knowledge, and his thought of la parole more broadly, I give critical consideration to how he thinks the possibility of God’s address to humanity. Lacoste maintains that God’s presence in experience may be known through affection, and, indeed, that the word may so move us that we are able to recognise that presence. He uses the notion of self-evidence rather than the usual phenomenological category of evidence to evince the reasonableness of this response. I argue that while Lacoste accords due deference to a traditional understanding of revelation as the repetition or unfolding of a word addressed to us in the past, his thought also allows us to think revelation as a contemporary event, the hermeneutics of which allow us to know God in ways that are new.

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  1. 1.

    de Vries (2002, p. xii).

  2. 2.

    Marion (2002a, b, 2015, 2016) I will make reference to English translations wherever they are available.

  3. 3.

    To my knowledge, he only addresses revelation explicitly in “L’apparaître du révélé” Lacoste (2006), and in his encyclopaedic and dictionary entries on the topic Lacoste (2004b, 2007a, b), but the question of revelation is tacit throughout his work.

  4. 4.

    Horner (2016).

  5. 5.

    Sincere thanks to Oliver O’Donovan for kindly making available to me his draft translation of La phénoménalité de Dieu, and to Joeri Schrijvers and Jean-Yves Lacoste for their detailed and insightful comments on an earlier draft of this text.

  6. 6.

    Lacoste (2014, p. 6).

  7. 7.

    Lacoste (2014, p. 20).

  8. 8.

    Lacoste (2014, pp. 43–44, 61).

  9. 9.

    Lacoste (2014, p. 70–71).

  10. 10.

    Lacoste (2014, p. 81) See also the comments in Lacoste (2015b) and Schrijvers (2015, especially at 674).

  11. 11.

    Lacoste (2014, p. 84).

  12. 12.

    Lacoste (2014, p. 90) See the discussion of this work in Hackett (2015).

  13. 13.

    For a recent example, see the discussion by Trakakis (2015) and the response by Colledge (2015).

  14. 14.

    Steinbock (2007, p. 6).

  15. 15.

    John Haldane comments: “There is … a more widespread prejudice strongly held among the educated, which is that anything to do with faith, value, commitment and practice, is a matter of belief where this is viewed not as an ingredient of possible knowledge but as something to be contrasted with and even opposed to it” Haldane (2016).

  16. 16.

    Marion (2008, p. 2).

  17. 17.

    Janicaud (2005, p. 17) Janicaud is not unaware that a commitment to atheism could simply invert a commitment to theism and thus risk the neutrality of the phenomenological approach. However, by accepting an understanding of methodological atheism that narrows the field of phenomenology to what appears in sensible experience, he undercuts the whole genius of phenomenology.

  18. 18.

    Overgaard (2015, p. 180).

  19. 19.

    Lacoste (2008, pp. 31, 9).

  20. 20.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 71).

  21. 21.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 72).

  22. 22.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 51).

  23. 23.

    I note Steinbock’s distinction between epiphany, revelation, and manifestation, and while it is valuable, choose to make use of the overarching term revelation to mean what Steinbock elsewhere defines as mystical experience: “the self-givenness of the Holy qua Personal presence as this presence is lived.” Steinbock (2007, pp. 15, 25) I use it in the sense that such revelatory presence is relational rather than propositional, and with the caveat that persons seeking relationship with God in prayer might experience that presence at any point along a continuum, with kataphatic mystical experience being relatively rare.

  24. 24.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 81) Literally, “an experience that we could not describe without being forced to deny the existence of what falls under the blow of this experience, such would be—would be—the coming of God to consciousness”.

  25. 25.

    Lacoste (2011, pp. 117-18) Joeri Schrijvers notes the ways in which Lacoste’s indebtedness to both Heidegger and Husserl plays out in his texts: “Whereas Heidegger's thought of the world and of the earth displays totalizing tendencies in that it refuses any signification to those phenomena in the margins of the world, Husserl's thought, for Lacoste, serves as a counter-balance: it is through Husserl that an attentiveness to the differences in each appearing, to the differences in the ‘how' of the appearances, is to be gained.” Schrijvers (2012, p. 14).

  26. 26.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 174; 2000, pp. 16–17, 2015a, p. 202).

  27. 27.

    Lacoste (2004a, pp. 43–44).

  28. 28.

    Lacoste (2007a, p. 658).

  29. 29.

    Lacoste (2004a, pp. 44).

  30. 30.

    Lacoste (2004a, pp. 33, 83, 59).

  31. 31.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 200 n. 9) On the ontological character of the supernatural existential and the obediential potency, see, for example, Rahner (1961, pp. 311ff.) See the discussion in Schrijvers (2012, pp.78ff.) where he argues that for Lacoste, the ontic act of prayer specifies the character of what would otherwise be an ontologically generic restlessness. Yet Schrijvers also observes the distinction between world and creation made especially in Note sur le temps, where restlessness itself attests to our created character, and prayer to our confession of that createdness. However, see also the comments about the existential nature of liturgical experience in Lacoste (2015b, 679).

  32. 32.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 42).

  33. 33.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 41, trans. mod.).

  34. 34.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 31).

  35. 35.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 62).

  36. 36.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 63).

  37. 37.

    “Whether in perception, suffering or feeling, wherever consciousness is present, intentionality is present, and intentionality cannot be contentless.” Lacoste (2008, p. 43).

  38. 38.

    “A phenomenology that does not interpret what it allows to appear and makes appear is a sick phenomenology…. A hermeneutics that forgets is phenomenological origins and its rootedness in phenomenology is an enterprize become common, but it must be asked if it is doomed to fail.” Lacoste (2015a, p. 3).

  39. 39.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 91).

  40. 40.

    Lacoste (2004a, pp. 63–64).

  41. 41.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 49).

  42. 42.

    Lacoste (2004a, pp. 62–63, 64).

  43. 43.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 49, trans. mod.).

  44. 44.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 141).

  45. 45.

    Lacoste (2004a, pp. 91, 142, 143).

  46. 46.

    Lacoste (2004a, pp. 141, 91, 142).

  47. 47.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 141) Translator Mark Raftery-Skehan observes in the context of Experience and the Absolute that “connaître/la connaissance refers to existential, experiential knowing in the sense of ‘being familiar with,’ of ‘knowing or being acquainted with someone or something,’ of ‘knowing of or about something through everyday experience,’ whereas savoir/le savoir is more theoretical in that one knows or deduces that such and such is the case, and le savoir is conceptual knowledge.” Lacoste (2004a, p. 198 n. 20). However, the examples I have noted in the text above illustrate the remaining ambiguity.

  48. 48.

    Lacoste (2006, p. 335).

  49. 49.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 207).

  50. 50.

    Lacoste (2012, p. 215 n. 1).

  51. 51.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 18) “Let us understand here by ‘life’ the sphere of antepredicative evidence, such as Husserl thematizes it in Experience [Erfahrung] and Judgment” (Lacoste 2004a, p. 102).

  52. 52.

    Lacoste (2012, pp. 215–216 n. 1).

  53. 53.

    Lacoste (2004a, pp. 141, 142; 2015a, p. 92; 2004a, §§19–20). On counter-experiences, see the introduction to Hart (2007).

  54. 54.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 141).

  55. 55.

    Lacoste (2006, p. 337).

  56. 56.

    Lacoste (2004a, pp. 55, 142) “Non-experience in cause, in effect, is not the pure and simple annulment of all experience (the experience of knowledge [le savoir] survives affective unknowing [l'inconnaissance]), but a precise mode of experience: an experience that does not possess what we would like to possess, from which all enjoyment is refused, which is presented in this way as a poor experience, but about which we must remember that it has no right to the presence of God and must be content with what it receives—in the instance, from the disposition to believe. To love, in fact, can suffice” Lacoste (2012, p. 226).

  57. 57.

    Hart (2003, p. 201) Claude Romano’s approach to Erfahrung could shed some light here, where he writes: “if ex-per-ience teaches nothing, in the sense of making knowledge available, this is because it is not itself ‘knowledge’ but is rather a way of understanding oneself. More precisely, it is a way of understanding events in their singularity….” Further on, he continues: “all the same, if ex-per-ience is a way of understanding, then, inversely, understanding, in its properly evential dimension, is always ex-per-ience, to the extent that it is inseparable from a transformation of the one who understands through events, which he understands, and from which he understands himself” Romano (2009, p. 148).

  58. 58.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 148) Kevin Hart traces this expression to Maurice Blanchot but also to Hans Urs von Balthasar—Hart (2003, pp. 191, 196). Lacoste only very occasionally refers explicitly to Erfahrung in order to distinguish it from Erlebnis, for example: “We cannot imagine a complete experience (in the double sense of Erlebnis and Erfahrung), after which there would be nothing major to know” Lacoste (2011, p. 228). See also Romano (2009, p. 148): “To undergo an ex-per-ience is to understand oneself otherwise, in light of what happens to us, to accomplish a ‘traversal,’ at one’s ‘peril.’”

  59. 59.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 96).

  60. 60.

    Lacoste (2008, pp. 48–49).

  61. 61.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 57, 2008, p. 51).

  62. 62.

    Lacoste (2008, pp. 92ff.).

  63. 63.

    Schrijvers (2012, pp. 150–151).

  64. 64.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 58 n. 21) “We speak of affection, in the most common sense of the term, to say that we are affected, touched, by what is outside us” Lacoste (2012, p. 226).

  65. 65.

    Lacoste (2011, p. 34).

  66. 66.

    Lacoste (2012, p. 227; see also pp. 228, 231). See Wardley (2014, p.71).

  67. 67.

    Where possible, I will leave la parole untranslated throughout the remainder of the article so that it retains the full range of semantic resonances (speaking, word, appeal).

  68. 68.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 1).

  69. 69.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 15).

  70. 70.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 58).

  71. 71.

    Lacoste (2015a, pp. 58–59).

  72. 72.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 41).

  73. 73.

    Vatican Council II (1965, chapter 1). Lacoste does not refer to the Council when he observes that “in large sectors of recent theology,” revelation speaks “of the pure and simple autocommunication of God to human beings” Lacoste (2006, p. 324; see also 2008, p. 174). Elsewhere he notes that “against the … aporia [of propositional theology], which consists of repressing the ‘Revealer’ in favor of the revealed, and treating the revealed according to the categories of a reifying reason, we must also admit that dialogical reason and the categories of the interpersonal encounter are necessary for the opening of any truly passable road: the merit of R. Guardini (1940) is to have said as much in the most convincing manner” Lacoste (2007b, p. 1222).

  74. 74.

    Lacoste (2015a, pp. 1–2, 15; Levinas 1981, p. 189 n. 23).

  75. 75.

    Lacoste (2015a, pp. 16, 29).

  76. 76.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 61).

  77. 77.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 108).

  78. 78.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 40).

  79. 79.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 212).

  80. 80.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 59).

  81. 81.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 40).

  82. 82.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 34).

  83. 83.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 35).

  84. 84.

    Lacoste (2004a, p. 46).

  85. 85.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 135).

  86. 86.

    Romano (2009, p. 50): “Events are not possible before being actual; neither are they foreseeable according to a causal regime, nor can they be anticipated in the mode of a projection. They occur, strictly speaking, before being possible, and thus are set free of their own conditions.” See also Marion’s analysis of the event of revelation in (2016, p. 62).

  87. 87.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 135), and in this way Lacoste’s understanding of the event differs from that of Romano, for example, for whom an event is strictly never repeatable.

  88. 88.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 34).

  89. 89.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 103).

  90. 90.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 26–29).

  91. 91.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 107): “The living word requires the voice as the textual word requires writing/scripture: but in both cases it is one reality that we encounter in two modes of giving. …… Now, when we perceive that neither the voice nor the text is all-powerful, because they are both at the service of a word-intention partially knowable but also partially unknowable, then our relationship with what we look for without possessing precise concepts of it—the ‘meaning/and the ‘facts’—to which our access is necessarily approximative, must be reexamined…”.

  92. 92.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 73–76).

  93. 93.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 75).

  94. 94.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 198).

  95. 95.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 196).

  96. 96.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 198).

  97. 97.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 99).

  98. 98.

    Derrida (1981): “Dissemination is precisely the impossibility of reducing a text as such to its effects of meaning, content, thesis, or theme. Not the impossibility, perhaps, since it is commonly done, but the resistance--we shall call it the restance [trans: ‘the fact or act of remaining or of being left over’]—of a sort of writing that can neither adapt, nor adopt such a reduction” (pp. 7–8); “Dissemination endlessly opens up a snag in writing that can no longer mended, a spot where neither meaning, however plural, nor any form of presence can pin/pen down [agrapher] the trace. Dissemination treats—doctors—that point where the movement of signification would regularly come to tie down the play of the trace, thus producing (a) history” (p. 26); “This process of substitution, which thus functions as a pure play of traces or supplements or … operates within the order of the pure signifier which no reality, no absolutely external reference, no transcendental signified, can come to limit, bound, or control; this substitution, which could be judged ‘mad’ since it can go on infinitely in the element of the linguistic permutation of substitutes, of substitutes for substitutes; this unleashed chain is nevertheless not lacking in violence” (p. 26); “the trace can only trace itself out in the erasure of its own ‘presence’ ”(p. 89).

  99. 99.

    Lacoste (2015a, pp. 79, 89, 107, 192).

  100. 100.

    “The beyond is not a simple background from which a face solicits us, is not ‘another world’ behind the world. The beyond is precisely beyond the ‘world,’ that is, beyond every disclosure” (Levinas (1986, 354).

  101. 101.

    Levinas (1986, p. 355).

  102. 102.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 95).

  103. 103.

    “What we read is often the trace of an acte de parole. The texts treated as ‘holy’ by the monk and those which resemble them, in contrast, can be the trace of événements de parole; they can also be the trace of the past intention/meaning of their writers, but they promise above all an événement de parole which transcends what ‘reading’ and ‘speaking’ mean in the world” Lacoste (2015a, p. 209).

  104. 104.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 95).

  105. 105.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 108).

  106. 106.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 108).

  107. 107.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 109).

  108. 108.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 207).

  109. 109.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 191–192).

  110. 110.

    Levinas (1986, p. 357).

  111. 111.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 108).

  112. 112.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 193, 199).

  113. 113.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 199).

  114. 114.

    We note that this is “une préexpérience et préconnaissance du texte,” that is, that while it might suggest theoretical knowledge, it is more along the lines of knowledge by recognition. Lacoste (2015a, p. 200).

  115. 115.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 200).

  116. 116.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 202, 207).

  117. 117.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 203).

  118. 118.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 204).

  119. 119.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 207).

  120. 120.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 208).

  121. 121.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 209).

  122. 122.

    Lacoste (2012, p. 219).

  123. 123.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 188).

  124. 124.

    Steinbock speaks of the way in which what he terms “epiphanic givenness” may be evidenced only on its own terms (2007, p. 115). “A religious experience can only be confirmed or treated as deceptive within the context of religious experience itself … in its own ‘language,’ as it were. …… On the one hand, this means that we cannot appeal to standards outside of the lived religious sphere to measure the authenticity of a religious experience. On the other hand, as lived, as experienced, it thereby opens itself for us to phenomenological description and investigation according to its philosophical significance” (115). While his approach is different to that of Lacoste, Steinbock’s close analysis of evidence in the experience of St Teresa of Avila (116-126) provides us with a rigorous template for a consideration of what I will call “revelatory” experience.

  125. 125.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 53–54).

  126. 126.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 53).

  127. 127.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 111).

  128. 128.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 54, 111, 115).

  129. 129.

    Lacoste (2011, p. 30; 2015a, pp. 40, 114).

  130. 130.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 56) See also Lacoste (2000, pp. 94–95): “There is certainly in the affect a (prethematic) relationship to truth, understood in its Heideggerian sense of unveiling or unconcealment. I find myself in finding myself governed by this or that affection (this is what the term Befindlichkeit speculatively says, in linking the fact of ‘finding oneself in this way or that,’ sich befinden, to the fact of ‘finding oneself,’ sich finden). Nevertheless, there is only partial truth, because every ‘world’ constituted in the affect is essentially subject to the menace of a deconstitution that we must not interpret as a collapse of meaning but as the promise of a new unveiling.” See also Lacoste (2011, p. 168): “if existence can be defined as welcome of the phainoménon in consciousness, it must also be understood as [an] experience of truth, and on this point, the Husserlian theory of evidence and the Heideggerian meditation on alèthéia do not contradict one another”.

  131. 131.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 115–116) On semantic theories of truth, see Lacoste (2008, pp. 223–224; 2015a, p. 54).

  132. 132.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 116).

  133. 133.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 121).

  134. 134.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 106).

  135. 135.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 224; 2015a, p. 55).

  136. 136.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 98).

  137. 137.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 97–98).

  138. 138.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 48) “This striving or search may seem a different thing from the love by which the thing known is loved, inasmuch as the knowledge sought is yet to be realized. Nonetheless, it is something of the same kind. It can really be described as ‘will’: for everyone who seeks is willing to find; and if what is sought is matter of knowledge then every one who seeks is willing to know. If the will is eager and earnest, we call it diligence…. Accordingly, we may say that the mind’s ‘bringing forth’ is preceded by a kind of striving, by which, in the seeking and finding of what we desire to know, knowledge is born as offspring. It follows that this striving, whereby knowledge is conceived and brought forth, cannot properly be called ‘brought forth’ or ‘offspring.’ This same striving, or eager pursuit of the thing yet to be known, becomes love of the thing known, when it holds in its embrace the offspring, the knowledge, in which it delights, and joins it to the begetter” Augustine (trans. 1955, IX.12.18). Cf. also Marion (2012, pp.107ff.; 2016, p.41)

  139. 139.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 97).

  140. 140.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 98).

  141. 141.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 250).

  142. 142.

    See the discussion in Marion (2007).

  143. 143.

    Lacoste (2008, p. 216).

  144. 144.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 126).

  145. 145.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 156).

  146. 146.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 186).

  147. 147.

    Lacoste (2015a, p. 243).

  148. 148.

    Lacoste (2015a, pp. 192, 276).

  149. 149.

    Lacoste (2014, p. 88, 2015a, p. 243).

  150. 150.

    Vatican Council II (1965, p. 2).

  151. 151.

    See Boeve (2011, p. 422).

  152. 152.

    Lacoste (2015a, bp. 243).


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Correspondence to Robyn Horner.

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Horner, R. Words that reveal: Jean-Yves Lacoste and the experience of God. Cont Philos Rev 51, 169–192 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11007-017-9420-x

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  • Phenomenology
  • Theology
  • Jean-Yves Lacoste
  • Jean-Luc Marion
  • Revelation
  • Experience