Micro-Reviews #3: Michel Henry’s “Words of Christ”
Overall Rating: 5/10
Michel Henry’s final work Words of Christ, posthumously released in 2002 and recently published in English translation by Christina M. Gshwandtner, provides the final piece of Henry’s Christianity trilogy, begun in I am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity and Incarnation: a Philosophy of Flesh. Significantly more problematic than his previous work, this short text finds itself precariously located. On the one hand, this work is markedly more accessible than his earlier publications (notably, The Essence of Manifestation and Material Phenomenology); it seldom expects prior philosophical or theological knowledge and is written colloquially, making heavy use of examples and scriptural citation. Overall, it might be said that this work is written as “pop” theology, designed for general theological consumption. On the other hand, this work heavily relies upon Henry’s prior work (particularly, I am the Truth) in order to justify its many counter-intuitive claims. The result of this conflict is twofold. First, among those who are unfamiliar with Henry’s prior oeuvre, this work’s arguments will likely appear flimsy and ungrounded. Yet, for those who are substantially familiar with his argumentation, this work provides little substance, seemingly reiterating many of the claims found in the early chapters of I am the Truth. It is for these reasons that Words of Christ may be experienced as a letdown among both readers and newcomers to Henry’s thought.
That being said, this work is by no means entirely faulty. Drawing upon his standard distinction between the exteriority of the “world” and the interiority of subjective “life,” Henry attempts to decode the words of Christ and reveal within them the Word [parole] of God. As correlate with the world, Henry develops his conception of the “word of the world.” By this, Henry is simply identifying the historical object of linguistics—the representative words of traditional language. These words, Henry argues, are defined by their exteriority to the reality which they signify: the word “tree” is not a tree, the word “book” is not a book. Against this system, Henry identifies a more originary (i.e. primordial) word, the “word of life.” For the words of life, there exists no distance between the saying and the existing. Henry’s clearest example of this “speech” is his analysis of suffering. He writes,
“Suffering proves itself. That is the reason why, so we say, only suffering permits us to know suffering. It is only in this way that suffering speaks to us; it speaks to us in its suffering. And what it says to us, by speaking to us in this way, is that it suffers, that it is suffering.” (p.74)
For Henry, therefore, the word of life is simply the affectivity, the pathos, of everyday life: joy, sorrow, suffering, pleasure, hunger, need, and desire are all modalities of life by which humans experience themselves as living, they are the words of life-itself. Henry identifies the “human word” (language/communication as commonly experienced) as the point of convergence between these two “words.” Although the human word, he argues, participates in both the word of life and that of the world, it often forgets this location, forgetting that it is only through its grounding within the prior that the latter holds any power: it is only because we first affectively experience reality that we can later speak “of” this reality.
The theological turn of this work relies upon the simple identity: Life=God. For Henry, drawing heavily upon the German mystic Meister Eckhart, God cannot be conceived as a radically transcendent reality. On the contrary, God is the most immanent human reality, that which grants life (i.e. itself) to living-beings [vivants]. Through this identity, Henry argues for an identity between the “word of life” and the “word of God.”
Substantially complicating this issue, Henry, drawing upon traditional religious terminology, further identifies Christ with the “word of God.” He describes Christ as the point of relation between humanity and God, as the first-born of God, and as a duality: both God and man. These affirmations, left significantly under-clarified, leave a distinct tension in Henry’s work between the Christ, as philosophical/theological principle of relation and Jesus, the first-century historical figure. Certainly, Henry attempts to belittle this tension through his ambivalence (if not open hostility) towards biblical historical-criticism, but the questions of this relation persist nonetheless. Like Eckhart, his model, Henry’s system appears to thoroughly emphasize Christs divinity over his humanity, to the point that the latter appears substantively lost.
Lastly, it must be noted that, even within philosophical terrain well tread by Henry, there appears to be a certain “sloppiness” of concept. He writes, “At the interior of the invisible itself where we reside, the words of Christ trace a new line of separation which identifies its most profound dimension within the same life.” (p.30) This passage is hugely problematic for the simple reason that Henry’s entire analysis rests upon the refusal of distance, distinction, or separation of any kind within immanent life. The very possibility of such a separation, such a “new line,” would upset the principle concepts by which Henry sought to overturn Heidegger, Husserl, and the Western philosophical tradition in general. Within the immanence of subjective life there can be no distance, no transcendence.
Although this critique may appear wholly negative, it must be reiterated that this work is not without its bright points. For the theologically minded it may function as a helpful (though by no means rigorous) introduction to Henry’s thought. Also, its small size makes it a great quick read for those who are interested in phenomenology of religion, or the relationship between recent continental thought and religion.