I couldn’t resist. Glitter Theology. Go there.
I am very pleased to present my colleague and friend Jonah Ford’s extended discussion of Michel Henry and Richard Kearney’s theological appropriation of the phenomenological method (presented in conversation with Kant and Husserl).
The Visible Image of A God Who May Be:
Michel Henry and Richard Kearney In Dialogue
Kant has won. That is to say, as the development of modernity has illustrated, the epistemological system advanced by Immanuel Kant has become the formative and, more to the point, normative structure to frame the way in which the West approaches the world and conceives of their position within it. Dismissed by Kant as oriented toward the invisible and the unknowable, operating in terms of pure concepts and constructs of the mind, Kant made decisive the break between theology and philosophy, the latter of which he asserted should be governed by a “critique of pure reason” and fundamentally rooted in the observable and natural order. Indeed, subsequent generations have operated in terms of this cleavage; it is the presumed foundation of modern life and thought. The phenomenological reduction advanced by Edmund Husserl in the early decades of the twentieth century, however, offered a formidable critique to the epistemological system of Immanuel Kant, emphasizing instead an inherent relationship between the visible and the invisible, advancing the claim that what “appears” to intuition is already conditioned in that it appears, or, “gives itself” for us. Thus, working from within this double inheritance of Kant and Husserl, this essay proposes something of a dialogue between the phenomenological works of Michel Henry and Richard Kearney, as they each work to develop a particular Christian self understanding vis-à-vis phenomenological exegesis of Biblical texts and their symbols, as set forth in Michel Henry’s work I Am the Truth1 and Richard Kearney’s The God Who May Be.2
Kant advanced his Critique of Pure Reason, primarily to break the bonds of scholastic theology on the developing sciences. As Kant states in no uncertain terms, by advancing the Critique, he meant to “set up a tribunal that [would] make reason secure in its rightful claims and [would] dismiss all baseless pretensions.”3 Such “baseless pretensions,” according to Kant, are the proofs made by theologians in regard to the existence of God and doctrines of the Soul, which he asserts have overstepped the bounds and limits of reason. These “raving dogmatists” are propelled by a “thirst for knowledge,” which only “magical powers… could satisfy,” and have inverted reason’s primary purpose, which is to “remove the deception arising from misinterpretation, even at the cost of destroying the most highly extolled and cherished delusion.”4
Theology, as Kant knew it, was essentially comprised of two branches: doctrines of God, and doctrines of the Soul. Historically, doctrines of God were advanced by way of analogies of “being.” Attempting to address the perennial question of why there is anything at all, rather than nothingness, theologians and metaphysicians (Kant seems to use these terms synonymously) reflected upon the existence of the experiential world, and from this deduced that it must have come from somewhere—must have begun somehow by something—and posited proofs for the existence of God in terms of a “first cause.” Perhaps the most notorious example of this variety of theology is the proof for the existence of God developed by St. Anselm of Canterbury, and, generally speaking, utilized Aristotelian logic and syllogisms. Doctrines of the Soul, however, operated quite differently and are perhaps best exemplified in the work of St. Augustine of Hippo and his indebtedness to Plotinus’ contemplations on “the One.” Whereas doctrines of God were primarily concerned with the external world of objects, doctrines of the Soul were concerned with matters of internal cognition, and developed analogies in terms of intangible realities ingredient to experience, such as time and memory. Doctrines of the Soul reflected on the relationship between the external realm of things and objects, and the interior realm of the mind. Characterized primarily by neo-Platonic philosophy, doctrines of the Soul developed complex systems of rational psychology (that is, the inner workings of the mind; how the mind relates to itself), and utilized the two-fold process of outer sense to inner sense, and through inner sense, ascent by way of contemplation of God. Ontological arguments, and the onto-theological systems these proofs engendered, however, were Kant’s primary concern when he undertook the development of his Critique. Thus, although he developed a critique of inner sense in his attempt to subvert the absolute reign of theology over the epistemological needs of the developing sciences, this facet of his Critique of Pure Reason was later shown by Husserl and subsequent phenomenologists to be lacking.
Kant opens his Critique of Pure Reason by writing that, “Experience is, without doubt, the first product to which our understanding gives rise, by working on the raw material of our sense impressions,” continuing on to state however, that while sensory experience “does indeed tell us what is” it cannot, on its own tell us “that it must necessarily be so and not otherwise.”5 Once sensory data is intuited it is then recapitulated within the imagination so as to be ordered according to a priori conditions and categories—a step in the order of cognition which Husserl means to problematize—and it is only then that this sensory data (or, “intuition”) can be employed by the processes of the intellect. Thus, to grossly oversimplify the complexities of Kant’s epistemological system, only those objects which conform to this three-fold structure of intuition—imagination—intellection can be offered as the foundations of experience and consequently requires something which can be intuited (remembering that for Kant, what can be intuited is external and never internal) before cognitions can occur, and certainly before they become objects of knowledge to which one is beholden. As a result, within Kant’s epistemological system, one must learn to distinguish between the composite products of intellection (composite in the sense that they are derived from these three fold syntheses) and the “basic material until long practice has made [one] attentive to it and skilled in separating [products of cognition] form the basic material [of intuited sensory data].”6 Such discrimination is necessary for Kant so as to discern what can and cannot be for us real objects of legitimate knowledge and thus no longer be obliged to and governed by false objects of knowledge, such as God. Because Kant wanted to forestall the advancement of theological systems of both forms (ontology and rational psychology), Kant did not want the mind, as such, to be left standing as an object of knowledge either. Consequently, by setting the bounds for what can and cannot be for us objects of knowledge, Kant’s epistemological system leaves one categorically beholden to objects (that is, only tangible, external actualities), and, despite his own diatribes against the audacious claims of theologians to cognize God, is overly-confident of one’s ability to cognize the cognizer itself, a point for which Edmund Husserl later took him to task.
Attempting to elucidate “a general phenomenology of consciousness,” that is to say “the basic constitution of consciousness as such,” Husserl expresses his fundamental opposition to Kantian epistemology by stating outright, “The investigations we want to conduct require a completely different attitude than the natural one within which natural-scientific and psychological knowledge is attained.”7 Because Husserl means to analyze “the basic constitution of consciousness as such,” he begins first with a close analysis of the phenomenality of the ego. “Each of us says ‘I’,” writes Husserl, and “it is as such that he finds himself, and he finds himself at all times at a center of a surrounding.”8 This “I,” as Husserl is using the term, is not a predicate or a “thing,” it is not a “first cause,” in microcosm. Rather, this “I” is an act—the act of taking ourselves as ourselves. If ego be understood as something of an “I-hood” or “I-ness,” then this is not something static, not something fixed or unchanging, but is in fact, first and foremost an activity9—an activity which leads to various conceptions of who one is. Moreover, it is characterized by an essential evanescence. While it is the most concrete aspect of everyday existence, within the Kantian epistemological system one cannot account for it. How does one turn an eye to the I? To what external actuality does one point as the concrete object of intuition? As Husserl states it, “although the I finds itself as the one having… the I does not find itself as of the same kind as the one having.”10 Which is to say, the “I” is not reducible to the physiological “stuff” of corporeality, which is what presents itself to be objects of knowing under the Kantian schema. Yet it is this ego, this “I,” through which one perceives of the world and has experiences within the world.11 It is this ego which intuits sensory data and cognizes this data within the mind by way of the intellect, but is itself not reducible to these activities; it is not merely the formal manifold by which these activities obtain.
Thus, Husserl demonstrated that there is a fundamental element of transcendence ingredient in the objective realities one perceives and intuits as one acts upon the “raw material of [one’s] sense impressions,” to create one’s experiences. However, Husserl advanced this critique of Kant with no theological inclinations at all. Even as Husserl illustrated the limiting and reductionist consequences of Kant’s system, his motivations were purely analytical. Nevertheless, as the phenomenological school he produced began to develop in the subsequent decades, various individuals applied Husserl’s phenomenological approach to the study of religious phenomenon, and even the development of overtly theological constructs. In Michel Henry’s work, I Am the Truth, he takes a phenomenological approach to Christianity, viewing the Christian claim that Jesus is the incarnate Logos, God made flesh, the visible image of the invisible God as apt symbols, it seems, for the interplay between seen and unseen that Husserl’s phenomenological method had expounded. Cast in recognizably Christian idiom, Henry’s first chapter, entitled “The Truth of the World,” is nothing short of a discussion on “the natural attitude” of which Husserl speaks.12 However, for Husserl this discussion was germane to a critique of Kant’s epistemology and discussions of analytic psychology so as to assert theories of the self/ego and inner sense. Instead, Henry employs this to express the inability of the social sciences, history and archeology to reveal or explain the essence of Christianity, and begins his so-called “philosophy of Christianity” by overtly placing in contest with one another, “the truth of the world” and “the truth of Christ.”
Just as Husserl had asserted that Kantian epistemology reduced the ego to the manifold processes of the intellect and physiological substances, only allowing us to account for so much blood and tissue, Henry argues that in merely providing dates and circumstantial details, history and the social sciences can tell us nothing about the unique essence of Christianity, which is not reducible to its historical events and characters, even if they were to be proven beyond a shadow of doubt. What is more, it is not merely Christianity which eludes the grasp of history, for “the truth of history” is incapable of grasping at reality, as such.13 That is to say, the composite picture created by the bare facts that history provides does not give us “the reality of those individuals and of everything connected with them.”14 As Henry states, “The truth of the world is the law of the appearance of things,” which is to say, it is governed absolutely by the epistemological system of Kant which essentially and formally thrusts one perpetually outside oneself.15 Moreover, illustrating undeniable indebtedness to Husserl’s explication of the evanescence of time, which perpetually transcends every “now” as it slips into a never actualized future,16 “this making-seen… destroys [and] consists in the annihilation of everything it exhibits, not letting it subsist except under the aspect of an empty apparition,” precisely because this appearance becomes actualized within time, and cannot do so otherwise.17 Because objects can only give themselves to appearance within the a priori structure of time, since time forever moves forward and forever transcends, objects are perpetually becoming annihilated at the same time they are becoming revealed to intuition.18 Thus, if this making-seen, by way of inherent externality and the “casting-outside-of” characterizes the “truth of the world,” what, according to Henry, is the “truth of Christ” and thus, Christianity?
To begin with, “the truth of Christianity is not that a certain Jesus wandered from village to village, trailing crowds after him… until his arrest by the priests and his crucifixion at Golgotha.”19 For this is nothing other than truth according to the world, i.e., “the natural attitude,” and empties these claims of their essential (connoting an “essence”) reality by reducing them to historical images.20 Rather, the truth of Christianity is precisely that this Jesus who called himself the Messiah was, in fact, God’s Messiah; a truth which evades the glimpse of history. As nonsensically obvious as such a statement appears to be, Henry offers an interesting interpretation of this most basic Christian tenet. “This is one of the most essential affirmations of Christianity,” writes Henry, “that the truth that is its own can testify only to itself. Only Truth can attest to itself… more radically, divine essence consists in Revelation as self-revelation.”21 In so doing, this Truth, says Henry, “reveals itself to someone to whom it is given to hear it,” and this “makes the person who hears it the son of that truth.”22 Thus Henry makes his position clear. The truth of Christianity, because it carries forth “the truth of Christ,” is that it proclaims the self-revealing of the invisible essence most ingredient to life itself, the visible image of the invisible God, and that this visible image which is Christ came to reveal this Self-Revealing to the world and in so doing offers salvation.
As Husserl had already asserted convincingly, because of the “re-cognition” of intuited objects within the imagination, the processes of intellection, as they work to compose our experiences and offer for us objects of knowledge, are always and by necessity at a remove from the essence or reality of the objects intuited, placing the “I” or the “ego” perpetually at a distance from the realm of external sense. Accordingly, one is thus bereft of the confidence of pure empiricism (“the natural attitude”) in that, the items of intellection (the images of intuition as they are recast within the imagination) have already distorted the alterity of intuited external realities precisely insofar as they have become objects for us. Thus, within the Kantian epistemological system/“natural attitude,” there obtains an eerie isolation as objects and individuals are forever cast outside of themselves, and “egos” are perpetually kept at bay from the world they inhabit by the inherent distancing of their own experience-making. For Henry, it is precisely to this fallen state of things that Jesus as the Christ offers Salvation. As Henry writes, “It is the first decisive characteristic of the Truth of Christianity that it in no way differs from what it makes true. Within it there is no separation between the seeing and what is seen, between the light and what it illuminates.”23 Erupting into a world of empty Kantian apparitions, Christ as the incarnate God, “is that pure Revelation that reveals nothing other than itself,” for through Jesus as the Word made flesh, “God reveals Himself,” and this revelation does “not consist in the unveiling of a content foreign to its own essence and somehow transmitted to a few initiates.”24 Instead, this Gospel gives itself (according to Husserl’s use of this phrase) by fiat of its appearance (incarnation) in and to the world, as a gift to all of humanity, proclaimed to any who might have “ears to hear” it.
As Henry rhetorically asks, “Where is a self-revelation of this sort achieved? In Life, as its essence, since Life is nothing other than that which reveals itself.”25 Taking his cue from the Johanine mantra, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14:6), Henry asserts that “God is Life—he is the essence of Life, or, if one prefers, the essence of Life is God.” Within the Gospel of John, Jesus’ own perception of his divine status as the son of God, “descended from Heaven,” is acutely actualized, allowing him to proclaim in no uncertain terms, “If you know me, you know my father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). It is precisely this conviction that within the Christian revelation there is no separation between “the seeing and what is seen,” and yet it obtains within the experiential world of Life by the miracle of the incarnation, that Henry writes, “Everywhere that something like a self-revelation is produced, there is Life… self-revelation is achieved, the answer is unequivocal, in Life and in Life alone.”26
Husserl had asserted that the ego, the “I,” is not reducible to the manifold processes of cognition as Kant had delineated them, and Henry utilized this phenomenological posture to demonstrate that the reality of lived experience eludes the glimpse of history, concerned as it is with dates and circumstances, and thus the truth of Christ stands against the truth of the world in that it demands one acknowledge the true essence of reality, which is the Truth of Life.27 That is to say, according to Henry, what has been lost as consequent of the reigning Kantian epistemology, which has since become nothing other than “the natural attitude” and everywhere dictates “the truth of the world,” is the ability to account for and to comprehend life itself, in all its existential richness and splendor, which Henry terms—Life. In distinguishing so minutely what can and cannot be for us real objects of knowledge, Kant limited the scope of what can be known (that is to say, what can be for us the basis of understanding the world and our existence within it) to observable actualities of the visible world, that which appears for us as objects of intuition. In so doing, however, Kant left us with no way of accounting for that phenomenon which is most basic, Life itself, and all that one calls living in its most subjective sense, that poetic fodder since time immemorial.28 Epistemologically, Kant can only give us flesh and blood, sinews and bones animated by calculable electric currents. In short, Kant can only give us Frankenstein’s Monster—an animated corpse, shackled within the dark bastion of science, kept tragically distant from the beautifully intangible joys and relations of which Life is more truly comprised. Thus, for Henry, the Truth of Christianity lay in its proclamation of the visible image of that invisible essence most ingredient to Life, and in so doing offers “life, and that more abundantly” (John 10:10), offering salvation by exacting our return from the Kantian self-exile which so characterizes the age of modernity. However, this self-revealing Revelation is not the proclamation of something new and unique, but is rather the shocking call to remembrance of a forgotten, primordial Truth, the re-cognition of the most fundamental reality of creation itself (cf. John 1:1).
If Henry offers a phenomenological interpretation of the Johanine claim of Jesus, “I Am the Truth,” as a way of understanding the self-revealing Revelation of the Incarnation, then it might be said that Richard Kearney offers a compelling phenomenological recapitulation of the Great Commission. That is to say, if Henry understands the fundamental Christian revelation of the incarnation, the eternal Word made manifest, as offering salvation to humanity by reminding us that we are Sons and Daughters of God29 and thus calling us to return to the Life which engendered us, undoing the curse of self-exile, then Kearney reminds us that this incarnate Messiah was crucified, resurrected and slipped away from the grasp of his disciples, instructing them instead to comport themselves in anticipation of the Parousia. Henry offers a compelling phenomenological articulation of the significance of the Christian claim that Jesus is the self-giving of Life and the Son of God. However, this self-revealing Revelation consistently declared, “I am going away, and you will search for me… Where I am going, you cannot come” (John 8:21). Like the evanescence of time itself, this manifestation which obtained in time was only for but a season; indeed, “this making-seen… destroys [and] consists in the annihilation of everything it exhibits.” “Do not hold on to me,” is what this Jesus declares upon his resurrection (John 20:17).
Richard Kearney also writes of this God who offers deliverance from exile. However, Kearney reminds us that this God that gave of God’s-self in the self-revelation of the incarnation is first and foremost the God whom none have seen. In first century Judea-Palestine, this God revealed God’s-self in and through Jesus of Nazareth, however, this God’s first self-revelation was to Moses, and came by way of a mysterious burning bush, so as to initiate the delivery from bondage of God’s chosen people. Of this self-revealing, Exodic God, Kearney writes, “God neither is nor is not but may be.”30 Historically, this self-revelation of God, given to Moses in the desert and recorded in Exodus 3:14, has been translated as: “I am that I am.” As Kearney writes, “From the outset, the Greeks translated Exodus 3:14 in terms of the verb ‘to be,’ or einai,” and in so doing effectively ossified the inherent dynamism of the original Hebrew.31 Kearney makes clear that his opposition is in fact the same ontological and onto-theological metaphysicians and their systems, which Kant meant to debase by carrying out the “tribunal” of his Critique of Pure Reason. Once the Septuagint rendered this passage, which is in fact the very naming of God by God’s-self, according to the verb “to be,” God would forever be conceived of in terms of “Being” and inseparably bound to Hellenistic philosophy. “Already in the Confessions (13:31, 46),” writes Kearney, “Augustine turns the verbal ‘is’ of God into a substantive formula. And this move becomes more explicit when Augustine comments directly on Exodus 3:14… ‘Because he Is, that is to say God is Being itself’.”32
As history illustrates, this move became normative and orthodox, reaching new heights of expression during the burgeoning scholasticism of the Medieval period and forward, finally necessitating Kant’s decisive critique at the end of the eighteenth century that to assert the ontological status of a God whom none have seen bespeaks an audacious “thirst for knowledge,” which only “magical powers… could satisfy.” Moreover, such orthodox conceptions of God made it difficult to negotiate between the immutability required by the Hellenistic philosophy used to create them and the Hebraic scriptural inheritance which depicts a God who creates then regrets (Genesis 1-2, 6), is incited to wrath and anger only to later show mercy and forgive, and declares such an intimate relationship with the people of Israel that God can declare God’s-self to be “a jealous God” (Exodus 20:5). Indeed, it is this latter God, and not the God of Hellenistic metaphysics, that reveal’s to Moses, from within the burning bush, the name of the God who chooses to become self-revealing so as to occasion deliverance from bondage and offer the future of a Promised Land.33
This God, Kearney asserts, is an eschatological God, a God of promises and deliverance; and this God assumes the title of “The God Who May Be.” In a post-Kantian age where “the natural attitude” must declare the death of God, Kearney employs a phenomenological posture to reclaim the all but forgotten Exodic God, the God who resists being prescribed Being, evading the grasp of ontology, by proclaiming to be known only as the God of possibility. This God is not created (that is, this God stands outside Hellenistic ontological categories) and does not create, but instead, possibilizes.34 As Husserl asserted that there is an inherent exchange between the visible and invisible, the possible and the actualized even in the creation of one’s everyday experiential world, so too Henry spoke, not of “being,” but of manifestation, and the self engendering of life from Life.35 However, whereas for Henry, God is that invisible essence ingredient to the nativity of life from Life, Kearney alters this and instead speaks of God as that which stands outside of time and calls life futurely, allowing humanity to possibilize itself as God calls from the eschaton and draws humanity toward their more perfect futurity.36 This “more perfect” future, however, is not “perfect” in the Hellenistic sense, but is rather perfection in an ethical sense—a future always becoming, wherein lions lay with lambs. Moreover, just as Henry asserts that the God who reveals God’s-self can only be made known in and through life itself, Kearney asserts that this eschatological, possibilizing God calls to us from the persona, found within the face of the other, any other, which bids us come hither.
Kearney writes, “Each person embodies a persona. Persona is that eschatological aura of “possibility” which eludes but informs a person’s actual presence here and now.”37 For Kearney, the persona is precisely that which is not perceptible according to Kantian epistemology, or, “the natural attitude,” as Husserl would describe it. Indeed, the persona is not unlike the “I” of which Husserl writes, which intuits, re-cognizes, and has memories, and yet is not reducible to any of these. “At a purely phenomenological level,” Kearney states, “persona is all that in others exceeds my searching gaze, safeguarding their inimitable and unique singularity. It is what escapes me toward another past that I cannot recover and another future I cannot predict.”38 Within Christian scriptures, the persona is that which is revealed about Jesus to his disciples in his transfiguration upon Mount Thabor (Mark 9:1-8/Matthew 17:1-8), wherein Jesus is shown to be both recognizable and yet strangely other. Kearney interprets this to mean that “infinite persona of Christ is not exhausted in the finite figure of Jesus of Nazareth. The Messiah is distinct, if by no means separable, form the Nazarene.”39 What is revealed about Jesus the Christ at his Transfiguration however, is itself a dramatic representation of that which is true for all persons.
Thus, Kearney illustrates a perplexing inheritance of both Kant and the phenomenological tradition engendered by Husserl. Kearney presumes Kant’s denunciation of the right of the theologians and metaphysicians to ascribe ontological status to a God whom none have seen, which is only accomplished by way of the epistemological system Kant thus advances within his Critique of Pure Reason. However, as already discussed, the epistemological system advanced by Kant makes one categorically beholden to external physicalities, and thus only prizes actualities. Thus, Kearney strangely accepts Kant’s rejection of the ontological status of God while at the same time advancing a phenomenological interpretation of Christian events in terms of possibilities. Within the Kantian epistemological system, there is no place for expressing the valuation of possibility which is merely seen as a lack—a lack of presence, lack of intuition, and thus, ultimately, a lack of any ontological status. That is to say, Kant means to articulate that God cannot be known precisely because there is no external, physical actuality to which one can point.
To espouse a God Who May Be, however, means also to fundamentally privilege possibility, and to instead subordinate actuality, proscribed as it is within a teleology which predetermines certain things to be, by definition, impossible. Thus, the God of the eschaton, who became self-revealed by way of the incarnation, and through the persona of Jesus instructs humanity to live in anticipation of the coming Parousia does not declare a telos, but rather a possibilizing of that which is deemed impossible, according to “the natural attitude.” As Jesus instructs his disciples, “For humans it is impossible, but not for God; because for God, everything is possible” (Mark 10:27). Following a variety of phenomenology perhaps more indebted to Marion than Husserl in this regard, Kearney asserts his opposition to Kantian epistemology which can only account for possibility in terms of lack. Instead, proclaiming a God Who May Be, a God of Exodus’s and Eschatons, challenges “the classic metaphysical tendency to subordinate the possible to the actual as the insufficient to the sufficient.”40 “Instead of seeing possibility as some want or lack to be eradicated from the divine so that it be recognized as the perfectly fulfilled act that it supposedly is,” Kearney writes, the phenomenological-cum-eschatological God that he champions declares that it is in fact “divinity’s very potentiality-to-be that is the most divine thing about it.”41 As opposed to the God of Being, which lives by the ontological developments of history’s many theologians, suffers under Kantian epistemology and is thus declared dead along with the death of metaphysics itself, “the God-who-may-be offers us the possibility of realizing a promised kingdom by opening ourselves to the transfiguring power of transcendence… In this sense, one might even say that it is, paradoxically, by first recognizing our own powerlessness—vulnerability, fragility, brokenness—that we find ourselves empowered to respond to God’s own primordial powerlessness and to make the potential Word flesh.”42
Transgressing the Kantian distinction between philosophy and theology, Michel Henry and Richard Kearney both offer compelling examples of how to recapitulate Christian theological identity for a (post) modern world which exhibits a certain ambivalence in regard to this Kantian inheritance. That is to say, whereas the Kantian epistemological system has become so commonplace that one could simply refer to it as “the natural attitude,” as does Husserl, or describe as “the truth of the world,” as does Henry, the Enlightenment Project which Kant’s system epitomizes has not vanquished the so-called “baseless pretensions” of religious life as absolutely as it had hoped to. Thus, according to Michel Henry, what has been lost in allowing Kant’s epistemological system to govern the foundations of knowledge so absolutely is an inability to understand life itself, in all its truly subjective beauty. This elusive aspect of existence, which remains imperceptible within a Kantian epistemology, is what he terms Life, and according to him this is given the most unique expression in the Christian contention that Jesus is the “visible image of the invisible God.” By attempting to discern, not “whether Christianity is ‘true’ or ‘false’,” but simply “what Christianity considers as truth,”43 Henry understands the Christian claim that Jesus is God made flesh, the incarnate Logos, to be in essence a religiously framed articulation of the kind of interplay between visible and invisible proposed by Husserl to be ingredient to physical reality and thus subverts strict Kantian epistemology. Kearney navigates this double inheritance differently, however, as he presumes Kant’s denunciation of rational, onto-theology (a denunciation advanced only by way of asserting his epistemological system) while at the same time declaring a God whom none have seen and stands outside time and space to call creation forward into an unknown eschaton. For Kearney, what has been lost to Christian self understanding is not the result of the Enlightenment project, but predates it, beginning first with the translation of Exodus 3:14 into Greek, which effectively arrested the inherent dynamism of the Hebrew, imbuing it already with the fixedness of Greek philosophy.
Thus, conflating these formal categories of theology and philosophy, the works of I Am the Truth and The God Who May Be might perhaps be understood as essentially phenomenological interpretations of the Gospel of John and Exodus 3:14, respectively. Understood as such, interesting nuances can be perceived when one realizes that Kearney operates in terms of the picture of God derived from the Hebrew Scriptures, which is fundamentally the God whom none have seen and, conversely, Henry’s foundational symbol is precisely the visible image of this invisible God—Jesus as the Christ. Accordingly, when understood as primarily a difference in posture, the differences which obtain in these two works of phenomenological Biblical exegesis are already somewhat determined by consequent of their individual proclivities toward the Christian canon. That is to say, Kearney’s “God Who May Be,” the God who is “always becoming,” is derivative of a scriptural gaze which prioritizes the Hebraic legacy subsumed by Christianity, which speaks of Exoduses and Eschatons, and whose God only self-reveals so as to place one face to face with the needs of another. The horizon within which Henry’s conception of God as the “Truth of Life,” is however, a Johanine portrait of a Christ who is acutely aware of his divine origins, and brazenly asserts himself to be nothing less than God’s true Son, sent from the Father to reveal this Heavenly truth to humanity and thus offer salvation. Thus, Henry develops a phenomenological interpretation of a God whose self-revealing reminds humanity of the transcendent realities so fundamental and ingredient to life itself, which imbue it with the mystery and wonder that is overlooked, devalued even, according to the truth which governs the world, entranced instead, by the external, the tangible, and the physical.
Thus, the Christian phenomenological articulation evidenced in these two works conceives of two very distinct interpretations of core Christian symbols, both presuming a Kantian and Husserlian inheritance, and both claiming root within Christianities sacred texts. However, such distinctive points of departure seem quite appropriate for the continuation of a legacy which, according to its fundamental symbol and anchor of faith, has for centuries negotiated an identity in terms of an irreconcilable paradox, proclaiming the visible incarnation of an invisible God. According to Henry, this Christian paradox is the only apt way of expressing the Truth of Life, which lay inaccessible according to the truth of the world precisely insofar as it is not made manifest—it does not “come into the light” so as to become an object of scientific inquiry within the Kantian epistemological system. For Kearney, in offering us a Messiah who is also the incarnation of a God who possibilizes impossibilities by way of self-revelations which adjure us to position ourselves face to face with those who cry out in their suffering, Christianity proclaims a God that calls from outside life, and directs creation toward a more perfect future, not beholden to the perfection of Greek philosophy, but rather an inherently relational and ethical “perfection,” wherein lions lay with lambs.
1 Michel Henry, I Am the Truth: Toward A Philosophy of Christianity, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003).
2 Richard Kearney, The God Who May Be: A Hermeneutics of Religion (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2001).
3 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Werner S. Pluhar (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing, 1996), 8. Emphasis mine.
4 Ibid, 9.
6 Ibid, 45.
7 Edmund Husserl, The Basic Problems of Phenomenology, trans. Ingo Farin and James G. Hart (The Netherlands: Springer, 2006), 1. 8 Ibid, 2.
9 Cf. Edmund Husserl, The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness, Martin Heidegger, ed. (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1966), 54-64. As he writes, “perception is an act which brings something other than itself before us, an act which primordially constitutes the Object.” (Husserl, 63).
10Husserl (2006), 2. Emphasis in the original
11 Cf. Husserl (1966), 57-60, wherein Husserl problematizes the fact that the object in its essence is lost within the process of intuition and recollection, which puts the object as known to the self within the imagination at a remove from that which is intuited. Thus, there obtains an inherent disconnect/distortion between that which appears (or, “gives itself,” in Husserl’s terms) for intuition and that which is recollected within the imagination and acted upon within the mind by way of the intellect and the processes of cognition.
12 Cf. Husserl (2006), “The Natural Attitude and the ‘Natural Concept of the World.’”: 1-28.
13 As Henry has said elsewhere, in his “Critique of Knowledge. The Essence of Religion.” (Michel Henry, The Essence of Manifestation, trans. by Girard Etzkorn (The Netherlands: Martinus Nijhoff, The Hague, 1973): 399-410: “That such experience is in no way an experience of the absolute, according to Kant, that in contemporary ontology the effectiveness of the pure manifestation in no way exhausts all of reality but rather leaves out the original essence of reality, does this not show that finitude does not simply nor primordially designate the positive mode according to which all knowledge takes place… but that finitude rather designates the limit of knowledge, the inevitable referral of this knowledge to that which unavoidably escapes it?” (Henry (1973), 400. Emphasis Mine); Henry continues elsewhere to say, “The critique of knowledge is not referred to the determination of its internal structure, of its nature and of its possibility, neither is it the bringing to evidence of the necessarily progressive and indefinite characteristic of its task of clarification, but rather shows that this task is in principle incapable of dealing, not only with reality but with the essence which constitutes it.” (Ibid, emphasis in the original).
14 Henry (2003), 4. Emphasis mine.
15 Ibid, 19.
16 Cf. Husserl (1966), 35-47.
17 Henry (2003), 18.
19 Ibid, 6.
20 Ibid, 20.
21 Ibid, 10.
23 Ibid, 24.
24 Ibid, 25.
25 Ibid, 27.
27 Cf. Henry (2003), 33-52.
28 Ibid, 41 and 50.
29 Ibid; On this point, consider “Man as ‘Son of God’”: 94-111, “Man as ‘Son Within the Son’”:112-132, and “Forgetting the Condition of Son: ‘Me, I’/’Me, Ego’”: 133-151.
30 Kearney, 1.
31 Ibid, 22.
32 Ibid, 23.
33 Ibid, 20-38.
34 Ibid, 81-83.
35 Cf. Henry (1973), 211-218; and, Henry (2003), 53-68.
36 Kearney, 12-14, 25-31, 80-100.
37 Ibid, 10.
39 Ibid, 43.
40 Ibid, 2.
43 Henry (2003), 1. Emphasis in the original.
The Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center
Presents the 31st Annual Symposium
Over 50 years after his death, we may be still only beginning to know Merleau-Ponty’s thought and its significance for thecontemporary world. While historical research into Merleau-Ponty’s thought is crucial, the Simon Silverman Phenomenology Center’s 31st Annual Symposium on “Merleau-Ponty Into the Future” will take a different approach.
We will ask not what Merleau-Ponty’s thought was or even is but what it might become. Merleau-Ponty will be brought into conversation with registers such as aesthetics, psychology, ecology, geopolitics and feminism. We will explore how Merleau-Ponty’s thought might flower anew in such fields, and how such registers might themselves take new directions through engagements with the possibilities opened by Merleau-Ponty’s thought.
We invite you to join us for this exciting exploration.
Galen Johnson, University of Rhode Island
Geil Weiss, The George Washington University
Laura Doyle, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
David Abram, The Alliance for Wild Ethics
Overall Rating: 7/10
This year has been a wonderful time for (English speaking) Michel Henry Fans. Already we received Words of Christ and have now been blessed with Barbarism, a recent translation of Henry’s 1987 La Barbarie. Situated in the middle of his career, Barbarism predates his later explicitly religious/theological publications. This work reads similarly to other contributions of the period, notably Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky, avoiding the extensive technical vocabulary of his earlier work (The Essence of Manifestation, etc.). That is not to say that this work is fully lacking in Henry’s typical idiosyncratic concepts, “self-affectivity” and the like. In this way, while familiarity with Henry’s corpus may be helpful for uncovering the nuances of his argument, the overarching moves are within the grasp of anyone who possesses basic philosophical training and rough knowledge of major 19th and 20th century figures (e.g. Heidegger).
Barbarism is primarily intended as a critique of scientism. Concerning this, it must be emphasized, a critique of scientism is not a critique of science. Simply put, Henry’s concern is the expansion of “scientific” thinking beyond the natural sciences and into realms of thought once occupied by psychology, religion, ethics, and art. Nonetheless, as critics have often noted, this work does have a tendency to venture into the polemical, often posing terms in unnecessarily divisive categories. One must therefore tread lightly, recognizing Henry’s most lucid presentations of his thesis, and sidelining his overly excited science-bashing. For, even Henry often mistakes the critique of scientism for a critique of science.
Throughout Barbarism, Henry seeks to unify many diverse critiques of 20th century culture; critiques of technology, of capitalism, and of the modern university (to name a few). What sets Henry’s analysis apart from similar accounts (e.g. Heidegger’s critique of technology), and forms the most noteworthy contribution of this work, is Henry’s conception of a “Galilean reduction.” By this term, Henry intends the reduction of the subjective features of reality, those features which affect the human individual. Let us take color as an example. For the subjective individual, colors are always presented with an affective tonality: a deep blue might resonate with sorrow, a yellow with ecstatic energy or motion. Yet, for the Newtonian physicist, such tonalities are secondary epiphenomena, if they are are considered at all. Within physics (the natural science par excellence) light is simply the vibration of photons. In this way, color is stripped of its affective tonality, its meaning, and its value, and instead rendered as a quantifiable object. Such an analysis is not intrinsically problematic, quite on the contrary, it is a necessary component of the natural science’s work. The question put forward by Henry is, what are the consequences of this devaluation of reality once it is moved beyond the lab or the classroom, when science posits itself as the only valid form of knowledge? As he writes:
“This is not in science in itself, which is entirely positive in the knowledge of nature that it defines through its procedures. But, as we have sufficiently insisted, it is the belief that the Galilean science of nature is the only possible knowledge and the only real truth, such that there is no other reality, as true reality, besides the objects of this science. As a result, the human being would only be real under these terms and all knowledge of the human being would only be a mode or a form of this single science. Here an ideology–scientism and positivism–replaces science, but it is through this ideology that the world comes to be grasped as a scientific world.”
Such an analysis remains invaluable in the 21st century, as positivism continues to gain influence in public consciousness, technology develops at an astounding rate, capitalism continues to establish itself as the principal human reality, and the university increasingly devalues the human sciences. While certainly these may not be intrinsically negative events, it is imperative that they are critically engaged and that their consequences are seriously considered. In this way, Barbarism is a text as comfortably situated in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.
“The flight from oneself is the heading under which one can classify almost everything that is happening right before our eyes. This is not in science in itself, which is entirely positive in the knowledge of nature that it defines through its procedures. But, as we have sufficiently insisted, it is the belief that the Galilean science of nature is the only possible knowledge and the only real truth, such that there is no other reality, as true reality, besides the objects of this science. As a result, the human being would only be real under these terms and all knowledge of the human being would only be a mode or a form of this single science. Here an ideology–scientism and positivism–replaces science, but it is through this ideology that the world comes to be grasped as a scientific world.”
-Michel Henry, Barbarism
Overall Rating: 8/10
I recently picked up a this short compilation at a small used bookstore and eagerly made my way though it. Religious Experience and the End of Metaphysics is comprised of a collection of articles–originally written for a seminar “Religious Experience in the Wake of Modernity” at the Catholic University of Louvain, 1999-2000–edited and prefaced by (noted Levinas Scholar) Jeffrey Bloechl of Boston College.
While a comprehensive examination of every chapter is beyond my current attention span, the book as a whole stands together in surprising uniformity, and it should be possible to speak in broad strokes about its presentation. As the title indicates, the subject of this volume is twofold, on the one hand is religious experience, particularly (though not exclusively) of the mystical variety. On the other, is the continental philosophic tradition seen specifically through the lens of Heideggerian thought. Drawing upon the work of Heidegger, Marion, Derrida, Levinas, as well as a wide variety of religious traditions both Eastern and Western these thinkers question the nature of God, the relationship between cultural/historical development and religious ultimacy, and the universality of religious insight.
Overall, the contributions to this volume are of considerable quality, although a few noticeably stand out. In “The Work and the Complement of Appearing”, Jean-Yves Lacoste reexamines Heidegger’s famous analysis “The Origin of the Work of Art.” Here, seeming to reveal the influence of Michel Henry, Lacoste elaborates a theory of direct aesthetic affectivity. Yet, challenging both Heidegger and Henry, Lacoste proposes that this affectivity does not carry the absolute quality that it is generally attributed and instead positions affectivity itself within the larger project of factical interpretation.
In “Derrida and Marion” John D. Caputo reveals the Husserlian genesis of these two influential thinkers, marking out the ways in which they both sought to move beyond Husserl’s strict understanding of intentionality and fulfillment. Contrasting Derrida’s freeing of intentionality (through the abandonment of intuition) from Marion’s supression of intentionality (though a surplus of intuition), Caputo critiques the latter by way of the former. Citing the inability of Marion to bridge the gap between non-conceptual intuitive givenness and concrete knowledge; Caputo argues that it is only through faith that one can move from pure saturated givenness to “God.” “Marion comes around to confessing that givenness requires an intention that intends something not given that we can and must belive, that we also trust and love.” (p. 132)
Overall, this volume is a satisfying read and a helpful supplement to those who are already familiar with the debates surrounding the “theological turn” of post-existentialist French phenomenological thought. Recommended for anyone interested in phenomenology, philosophic theology, mysticism, or 21st century continental philosophy.
“And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge. On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you, but this gentle, loving affection will not deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.”
-Anon. from Cloud of Unknowing, 14th Century
For those who are familiar with his work, am I the only one who can’t help but read Michel Henry’s “Radical Phenomenology” back into this quote? Further proof of the undeniable influence of Medieval mysticism upon French phenomenology.