Several of my favorite books are by Michel Henry. Some of my least favorite books are also by Michel Henry. His is not simply a philosopher of paradox; he is a paradoxical philosopher. His complex authorship is marked not only by a Husserlian legacy, but also a radical revision of Husserlian orthodoxy. He is solidly situated as one of the main voices in “new phenomenology,” and yet he is decidedly out of step with new phenomenology’s frequent focus on externality and transcendence. He writes compellingly about the economics of Marx, the art of Kandinsky, and the dangers of scientific objectivism, but perhaps his most impactful books are devoted to thinking through the idea of being a “son” of God. A philosopher who clings hard to the phenomenological method, he is also deeply theologically oriented and allows personal commitment to impact his speculative thought. For my own part, I have learned much from Henry and written a fair amount on his philosophical program, but I continue to struggle to find my footing between his convincing account of the radical immanence of life, and the equally convincing account offered by Emmanuel Levinas regarding the radical alterity of the face of the Other; between Henry’s notion of God, which at least in some ways bears similarities with the account of Jean-Luc Marion or Jean-Louis Chrétien (whereby God is, to some extent, phenomenally revealed as personal and worthy of worship and devotion), and the notion of God provided by Jacques Derrida or John Caputo whereby God is, variously, the name given to the upsurge of secrecy itself expressed as a non-personal event of justice.
Though Henry’s work has received significant and sustained attention in France for decades, his reception in English scholarship remains rather sparse when compared to the literature on Levinas, Derrida, Marion, and Paul Ricoeur, say. With that said, Joseph Rivera’s expansive book, The Contemplative Self after Michel Henry: A Phenomenological Theology (University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), deserves wide attention from phenomenologically oriented philosophers and theologians alike. Right out of the gate, it is worth stressing that this book is not really intended to be an introduction to the work of Henry—indeed, for such an introductory text, I would recommend Michael O’Sullivan’s book, Michel Henry: Incarnation, Barbarism, and Belief (Peter Lang, 2006)—but instead stands as a constructive text in phenomenological theology in its own right. Rivera does provide a sustained engagement with Henry, but as a context for his own compelling account of theological, and specifically “eschatological,” selfhood that finds its way between what he considers to be the two problematic extreme options on offer in new phenomenology: “those contemporary projects that render God a phenomenon (Henry, Marion, etc.) and those that treat God as wholly other (Derrida, religion without religion, etc.)” (8).
Although constantly in critical conversation with Henry, Rivera highlights two key aspects where he finds Henry’s account of the self to come up short: “the inability to account positively and theologically for the ineluctably temporal and bodily states of the self” (8). Having made similar sorts of critiques of Henry’s work myself—albeit in different respects as concern science and technology in relation to the flourishing of lived bodies—I am quite sympathetic to Rivera’s worries on these fronts. However, as our symposium participants also rightly note, it is sometimes unclear exactly how Rivera’s solution to these problems offers concrete alternatives for embodied cognition and lived practice. Yet, these are good problems to have because they announce the importance of the trajectory on which Rivera’s thinking is itself moving, and in relation to which critical replies are invited.
If Rivera starts with Henry, he ultimately finishes with Augustine, though his conclusion is not final, but merely suggestive of where future thought in Christian phenomenological theology might need to go if it is to account for a lived body that is contemplatively situated as oriented toward the full presence of God (and self) in the eschaton (324). As a result of this book, Rivera is solidly situated as one of the emerging voices in continental philosophical theology to which we all must pay attention. Whether or not individual readers are convinced by his arguments—indeed, there are good reasons, it seems to me, to push back on the slippage between philosophy and theology that occurs often in the book, as well as on the particular model of God that emerges within it—Rivera’s account must be weighed and considered not only as a thorough interpretation of Henry, but (perhaps more importantly) also as an original proposal of what it could mean to stand before God while always standing patiently in the world.
In the essays that follow, we have contributions first from Tamsin Jones who is generally sympathetic to Rivera’s theological account, but pushes him for a more determinate consideration of contemplative practice as part and parcel of religious existence. Then, Michael Kelly provides a general overview of Rivera’s central theses and the arguments provided for them. Kelly asks critical questions not only in line with Jones’s, but also regarding the specifics of the phenomenological account of temporality that Rivera offers as a corrective to Henry. Pushing further, and more technically, on the pressure points concerning the role of temporality and specifically time-consciousness, Neal DeRoo then offers a sustained consideration of the Husserlian underpinnings of Henry’s authorship. Finally, Jean-Yves Lacoste, one of the central influences on Rivera’s own thinking, offers a set of reflections occasioned by reading Rivera’s text. Lacoste’s essay is itself a personal story of wrestling with Henry’s influence and legacy that testifies to the importance of reading philosophers in relation to the historical context in which their writing occurs.
To all of these essays Rivera then offers individual responses that not only helpfully clarify his own positions, but also set into relief places where continental philosophy of religion and phenomenological theology need to devote more time and energy in the coming years. This symposium is exciting not only because it brings the original thought of Joseph Rivera to a very well deserved larger audience, but because it gets at some of the most basic and most pressing questions in the contemporary debates. If it is true that books should be deemed important as a result of the conversation that they help to foster, then Rivera’s The Contemplative Self after Michel Henry is poised to be a very important book indeed. Rather than merely talking about selfhood in light of Henry’s work, this text invites its readers to inhabit such selfhood as we all take ourselves up as not only living in the world, but hopeful about what is to come.