Review – The Contemplative Self after Michel Henry (Michael Saunders)

Rivera, Joseph. The Contemplative Self After Michel Henry: A Phenomenological Theology. Notre Dame: Notre Dame Press, 2015. ISBN-10: 0268040605. 408 pages. Paperback.

“Here below, too, life extends its reign. Its concrete modalities are the atemporal substance of our days. Any visible appearance is paired with an invisible reality. With each mouthful of the visible, as Kafka says, an invisible mouthful is given to us: on earth as in heaven.” – Michel Henry, I Am the Truth[1]

Joseph Rivera’s The Contemplative Self after Michel Henry is a work of great theological and phenomenological dignity. It offers both a rigorous and original contribution to Henry studies—it is one of the first monographs on Henry to have emerged from his Anglophone reception—and a beautifully wrought meditation on the question of self and world. Indeed, its very structure embodies the “eschatological curvature” (273) of contemplation: a temporal weave of memoria—the recovery or retention of a philosophical and theological tradition that stretches from Augustine to Husserl—and epektasis, a striving or protention (Christological in shape), a “becoming-toward” (328). In this way, The Contemplative Self is itself a contemplation, a seeking, a pilgrimage—an eschatological narrative. This dense interweaving of historical, phenomenological, and theological data constitutes the fabric of the text.

Rivera, then, sets himself a double task: firstly, he works to critically reconstruct and elucidate Henry’s radical phenomenology of life, with special emphasis placed on Henry’s last writings, on his final theological triptych: I Am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity, Incarnation: A Philosophy of the Flesh, and the posthumously published Words of Christ. Secondly, drawing principally on Augustine’s philosophical theology, on an Augustinian grammar of the self, Rivera seeks to fashion his own constructive theo-phenomenology of the contemplative self, of a “doxological creature” (26), a pilgrim. In so doing, Rivera takes up and develops the theological impulse at the heart of Henry’s project (the “after” of the title signaling both indebtedness and succession). That is, although he significantly departs from and critiques both Henry’s transcendental Christology and his theological anthropology, Rivera’s articulation of a contemplative self nevertheless shares a profound affinity with the ultimate concern of Henry’s thought—the radical attempt, Rivera tells us, “to rehabilitate the soul” (179).

Life, for Henry, is not that which is revealed in the horizon of the world; instead, life is invisible, nocturnal, en-static. “The world is the reign of the visible,” he writes, “life that of the invisible.”[2] As the locus of exteriorization, mediation, representation—of “outsideness” and distance—the world becomes, for Henry, “a void, a deceptive vortex, a nullity that objectifies or freezes all that appears within its horizon as an instrumental thing” (156). The “truth of the world”—of exteriority, of the ek-static—is nihilism, an absolute “phenomenological tyranny” (71). In short, “[e]verything the world illuminates, it also exhausts” (70). This understanding of the world has a number of implications for both Henry’s philosophy of life and his Johannine Christology. If the world is the horizon of visibility, then life, in its auto-affection, in its radical passivity or pathos, is the invisible—and “[t]he invisible is without world” (75). In this pathos, our very flesh “is indwelt by a nocturnal substance of affectivity” (182). If, moreover, exteriority (or nihilism) names the truth of this world, then interiority (or life) names the truth of Christianity (152). There is, then, an “impassable abyss between the fullness of interiority and the desolation of exteriority” (111). It is this truth that prompts Henry’s unsparing “theological critique of the world” (328).

The abyssal separation of life and world, of flesh and body, this “‘Johannine’ piety or temperament, motivated wholly by mystical pathos of ‘glory’” (129)—a piety that, as Rivera persuasively argues, Henry shares (perhaps surprisingly) with Hans Urs von Balthasar—is one of the most striking features of Henry’s radical phenomenology, especially as put forward in his transcendental Christology. Indeed, “[s]uch an economy of the self is communicated by Henry with the intensity and authority of a prophet or an apocalyptic mystic” (102). However, it is precisely this absolute divorce between self and world that Rivera seeks to redress though his Augustinian theo-phenomenology of the contemplative self. That is, for Rivera, Henry risks a kind of “tyranny of pure self-presence” (117) in his condemnation of the world and in his immediate identification of creature and Creator, self and God—“with no gap or distance between myself and the transcendental life of Christ” (129). Ecclesial life, pilgrimage, the doctrine of imago Dei, eschatological expectation: all fall away in the Henry’s account of auto-affection and generation, in his radical Christology. Rivera writes:

For Henry, participation in the ecclesial life is an unnecessary burden, for I am already in an a-cosmic, non-temporal unity with the Trinitarian glory of God—I enjoy in Christ the eternal sonship of heaven. Henry’s God is a God who is already fully present, shinning in the majestic luster of the parousia. Divine self-revelation, Henry insists, abides as always already there, inside me, in that invisible site where my life is given to me by the selfsame movement in which the Father gives himself to the Son, both of whom are taken into the internal bond of the Spirit. (64)

For this reason, Rivera suggests that Henry’s account of the “presence of God to me in the full glory of eternal parousia” results in an “over-realized eschatology, or a kind of Gnostic protology” (63). Against Henry’s latent Gnosticism, then, Rivera argues for a porous, eschatological self—a self a that is not separated from the world, but rather makes its temporal pilgrimage “through the world undertaken in faith” (6). “[T]his, too,” he continues, “is a theological self but one thematised explicitly from an eschatological point of view” (6). The doctrines of creation and the imago Dei are, accordingly, positioned against, and rescued from, Henryian auto-affectivity and generation. To be a creature, says Rivera, is to be in time, and “[t]ime and eternity are not opposed to one another, as if they are absolutely heterogeneous to one other in an interminable war of absolute grammars (and therefore giving way to a duplicitous self). Because I am created, and all in heaven and earth is called good by God, the fabric of time itself is an opening to God whose timeless self-donation is ‘more intimate to me than I am to myself’” (240-241). In this pilgrimage, “[l]iturgy and Eucharist, ritual and practice, all form the ontological basis of the saint’s capacity to contemplate eternity” (272).

By way of conclusion, we would like to offer not so much a critique, as an alternative trajectory. In the work of François Laruelle, we find not an eschatological rectification of Henry’s Gnosticism, but rather an ethical and messianic intensification of this very impulse: a non-theology of justice, of radical immanence and weakness, of resurrection and insurrection.[3] “If we still expect a possibility,” writes Laruelle, “it is not the richest and the most promising, the parousia of the final judgement, but the last possibility and the poorest.”[4] Here, perhaps, we can think of Walter Benjamin’s meditation on the Lord’s Prayer—a “prayer,” writes Benjamin, “for justice, for the just state of the world.”[5] If the theo-phenomenology of the contemplative self is not to succumb to “the ontological pattern of a theodicy,”[6] then it must also be a thought of justice. Contemplation and the theological (or messianological) critique of the world must be thought together. We would like to suggest, then, that this prayer for justice, this last and poorest possibility, requires not only contemplation, not only pilgrimage, but also the messianic disempowering of the world. In this final prayer, “[v]ictims are the ultimata or the eschata from which we are able less to judge the world than to transform it.”[7]



Michael Saunders is a PhD candidate at Kingston University London. His dissertation is entitled “Our Ordinary Messiahs: Laruelle and Justice.”

[1] Michel Henry, I Am the Truth, trans. Susan Emanuel (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 250.

[2] Michel Henry, Words of Christ, trans. Christina M. Gschwandtner (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 15.

[3] See François Laruelle, Christo-Fiction: The Ruins of Athens and Jerusalem, trans. Robin Mackay (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015); François Laruelle, Future Christ: A Lesson in Heresy, trans. Anthony Paul Smith (London: Continuum, 2010); and François Laruelle, Mystique non-philosophique à l’usage des contemporains (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2007).

[4] Laruelle, Future Christ, 120.

[5] Walter Benjamin, “Notes toward a Work on the Category of Justice,” trans. Peter Fenves, in The Messianic Reduction: Walter Benjamin and the Shape of Time (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011), 257. See also, Giorgio Agamben, The Use of Bodies, trans. Adam Kotsko (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 81.

[6] Jacob Taubes, From Cult to Culture: Fragments Toward a Critique of Historical Reason (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010), 194.

[7] François Laruelle, General Theory of Victims, trans. Alex Dubilet and Jessie Hock (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2015), 113.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.