The Contemplative Self after Michel Henry

A Phenomenological Theology

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Joseph Rivera
Thresholds in Philosophy and Theology
  • Notre Dame, IN: 
    University of Notre Dame Press
    , September
     408 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Joseph Rivera describes the argument in his book, The Contemplative Self after Michel Henry: A Phenomenological Theology, as a form of Christian “witness.” He contrasts this form of argument with those that claim absolute certainty about the conclusions that they reach. While dogmatic claims of certainty have been the hallmark of modern philosophers since René Descartes, Rivera’s witness, unlike such arguments, describes what sort of vision of the self emerges from the Christian story (26–27), and more specifically, from an engagement with the phenomenologist and theologian Michel Henry (1922–2002). Through his critical examination of Henry’s philosophy, along with several constructive chapters that correct unresolved issues in Henry’s work, Rivera articulates a vision of what he calls the “contemplative self.” For Henry, the self is primarily receptive—affective in phenomenological terms—and in its affectivity it experiences God and turns away from the world of human conceptual knowledge and temporal constraint. The “contemplative self,” on the other hand, finds itself in a world in which God is longed for but never fully attained. In Rivera’s account, heavily influenced by Augustine, the self submits to participation in God’s created order through Christian practice, even if it never experiences God’s presence in its fullness. Readers will find that Rivera offers a compelling immanent criticism of Henry’s philosophy, although some will take his Augustinian solution to be one that nevertheless risks a kind of communal closure that turns away from the complexity of the world.

Part 1 of Rivera’s book lays out the problems inherent to the modern notion of the autonomous self, in what might be styled a post-phenomenological version of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (University of Notre Dame Press, 1981). It is Henry’s—and Rivera’s—claim that Descartes initiated this understanding of the self by grounding it in its ability to “represent” the world to itself. Henry claims that such an approach is guilty of “ontological monism,” because “it reduces the ego to a single form of manifestation” (18). Here, the ego exercises power over its world by claiming that it is the nexus around which that world becomes meaningful. According to Rivera, this understanding of subjectivity as constituted by “self-assertion” is represented in its most succinct form in the work of Friedrich Nietzsche, for whom subjectivity consists of individual “will to power” (28–38). Later phenomenologists such as Edmund Husserl and Martin Heidegger amended the Cartesian understanding of the person by grounding its subjectivity in our relationship to the world but, in Henry’s estimation, did so by wrongly turning toward the world, and away from the only place where we could feel God’s presence, the interior self (chapter 2). Both the autonomous self and the worldly self falsify the Christian story, either by usurping God’s role as creator, or reducing human subjectivity solely to worldly concerns.

 In part 2, Rivera turns to Henry for an articulation of the self that can bear witness to the Christian story and offer an alternative to the autonomous self. For Henry, the grounds of my subjectivity consist not in my representation of the world to myself, but in my experience as a creature of feeling, who, at its base, feels itself as a feeling being. Such a self does not take its being from the world, but from the experience of feeling. Henry terms this reflexive account of the self as “auto-affection.” But the grounding of the self does not end here, for Henry, because auto-affection recalls in me the presence of God—that is, the pure affection in which all humans share. I participate in in God’s being as an auto-affective creature, even if I as an individual never fully collapse into God. Because the self does not own itself but participates in God’s self, it can never have the kind of self-possession assumed by Nietzsche and others who fall into the monist trap of the autonomous self. Nonetheless, Rivera worries that Henry has not truly overcome monism, and therefore is unable to bear witness to the Christian story properly. Henry’s self collapses into monism by reducing all reality to the single principle of affectivity that is world-denying (162). This has two negative effects that Rivera seeks to overcome in the third part of the book. First, if it is the case that God is already present within me as pure affect, then it is impossible to account for God’s transcendence to me, as well as the temporal separation between the present and the time when I will be resurrected by God (chapter 5, especially 229). Second, if it is the case that affect draws me away from the world, it is unclear what role the exterior world actually plays in my understanding of myself, including my physical body (initially discussed in part 2, chapter 4), and thus, as Rivera will later note, in explaining the role of the Christian community in the life of the self (chapter 6, especially 313–23).

Rivera’s constructive theology attempts to evade the problem of monism and offers an account of a self that does justice to the temporal and bodily conditions of Christian existence. His Augustinian notion of the self is one that is “porous” and open to receiving the transcendence of God (252–53). Where the auto-affective self finds God already within it, the contemplative self that Rivera constructs through his engagement with Augustine finds itself longing for a God that is not yet fully present to it. This self is constrained by both time and physical existence, but nevertheless is drawn to transcendence; this self engages with the world as an ensouled body that lives in community with others waiting for the final resurrection.

It is Rivera’s desire to bear witness to the Christian story that leaves me curious about what role non-Christian phenomenology might play in helping scholars understand the role of the exterior world and persons in the life of the self. Indeed, Emmanuel Levinas, as many will know, was grappling with the same problem of how the self could stand on its own while at the same time be in relationship to others. Rather than claim that communal relations are the means through which individuals learn to properly wait for Christ’s return, however, for Levinas, such relations are that out of which selves are formed. Because Rivera is attempting to bear witness to a Christian vision of the self, he does not turn to someone like Levinas to resolve the problems he rightfully locates in Henry. Rivera’s desire to bear witness to the truth of Christianity thereby comes at a cost. To use the Christian story as the means by which to critique the closure of the self that Rivera rightfully fears runs the risk of a communal closure to the world, a closure that is just as troubling as that of the self to God. An account of how the contemplative self can be open to such forms of transcendence is needed to make sense of how the self can cope with difference in the world rather than retreat from it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joshua S. Lupo is a doctoral candidate in religion, ethics, and philosophy at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
March 15, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joseph Rivera is lecturer in systematic theology at Mater Dei Institute, Dublin City University.


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