Christ Doesn't Save Us by Words First of All, but by His Body

Artur Rosman, managing editor of Church Life Journal, conducted this interview with Emmanuel Falque in December 2017. He sends his thanks to Professor Falque for making time in his busy schedule, to Professor Peter Casarella for arranging the initial encounter, and to Jonathan Ciraulo for translating the text from the French.

Artur Rosman: In Quiet Powers of the Possible you speak of belonging to the third wave of the French theological turn in philosophy. What makes phenomenology so attractive to succeeding generations of Catholic thinkers, and not only in France?

Emmanuel Falque: One can indeed speak about several generations of French phenomenologists according to the place, or rather the author, in which they are rooted. The “Husserlians” (Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricoeur, Michel Henry), the Heideggerians (Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Yves Lacoste, Jean-Louis Chrétien) but also the “Merleau-Pontyians” (certainly myself, but one should probably also include Claude Romano and Renaud Barbaras, even though they do not deal directly with theological questions). These roots in different authors in the phenomenological tradition would have little importance if they did not also determine different ways of thinking.

For my generation the question of consciousness is no longer first, nor that of revelation or of the gift, but rather the question of the world and of the incarnation. Finitude, experience, and the body are the first questions, for it is from our horizontality that verticality is spoken: “the Word is made flesh so that the flesh could become Word,” the desert father Mark the Ascetic beautifully emphasizes. Transcendence and immanence are united in the figure of the God-Man, and that is what we must think about today.

The attractiveness of phenomenology, in France but also in the United States, comes from its capacity for crossing different fields and its capacity for returning to our lived experience. Phenomenology attempts to be “near to things,” “near to others,” “near to the world,” and even “near to God,” because it endeavors to describe “the things themselves,” in order to return to Husserl’s first imperative, rather than to separate reality into abstract concepts. It is because phenomenology is living and speaks of the “world of life” that it remains relevant. This is also what gives phenomenology an affinity with patristic and medieval philosophy, because there too it is life that is always first.

Rosman: What can the priest/theologian learn from the philosopher/phenomenologist and vice versa? Why are contemporary theologians and philosophers so weary about, as you call it, “crossing the Rubicon”?  Yet, despite that, why is there a “theological turn” in the philosophy published in militantly secular France?

Falque: In order to respond to your question, I would say that, first of all, it is not sufficient only to expect the theologians to learn something from the philosophers, but one must also expect that philosophers would learn something from theologians. The danger of phenomenologists is that they might turn themselves into “schoolmasters” for the theologians, as if they were not doing what they should be doing, or as if they would need to be shown what they need to do.

In reality, however, this is not the case. My experience as a philosopher, but one who has also officially studied theology in an ecclesiastical environment, has shown me that theology itself has the means to question and to transform philosophy, and therefore also phenomenology. Tertullian’s anti-gnostic considerations, in his De carne Christi, on the “body of Christ” as a true body like ours—that is to say, having limbs like us, hair like us, and even a stomach like us—calls on contemporary phenomenology, for example, to return to the phenomenological distinction, frequently opposition, between the “body” (Körper) and the “flesh” (Leib). If, in The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, I developed the concept of the “spread body,” an intermediary between the “extended body” of Descartes and the “lived body” of Husserl, it is precisely to show that the “counterblow” of philosophy and theology cannot leave philosophy itself unscathed. Because God became body, perhaps phenomenology itself has to revisit or to question its own conception of the body, or rather of the flesh. One therefore passes the Rubicon in two senses—from philosophy towards theology, and from theology towards philosophy. This is an essential point.

Moreover, as you stress in your question, it is true that it is surprising to note that in France, the country of secularism par excellence, a veritable “theological turn of French phenomenology” has occurred. But as the proverb says, “a leopard cannot change its spots.” It is sufficient to note that since theology is officially not taught in French public universities it reemerges from all sides in the works of philosophers. But the important thing, or at least that which matters today, is not to think of this “theological turn” itself, whether one welcomes it or regrets it. The challenge now is to think “after the turn.” Paradoxically, it may even be that the theological turn could bring us back to philosophy itself. For if Christianity considers the core of its mystery to be the Trinity, the incarnation, and the resurrection, then we are called to return to the question of finitude and the body, because the Word has taken flesh in finitude and the body in order to transform them.

Rosman: You speak about a “Catholic imagination” that involves a Catholic hermeneutics of the “body and voice” in Crossing the Rubicon. How are these concepts (as opposed to a Jewish hermeneutics and Protestant hermeneutics) incorporated in our own singular bodies (members of the Mystical Body) as opposed to just within the phenomenological flesh?

Falque: The distinction between three types of hermeneutics—Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic—in Crossing the Rubicon is actually the result of a real surprise. Why must we call on Jewish (Levinas) or Protestant (Ricoeur) philosophers again and again in order to renew Catholic theology?

Of course, it is a not a question of either opposing these confessions or of refusing the support of the great philosophical figures who are today renewing thought. But one never thinks independently of a tradition, or rather it is by being inserted into a tradition, a religion, and a confession that thought as such is able to bloom. No one is called to think of “the” Catholicism, “the” Judaism, or “the” Protestantism, but it is in living and remaining at the heart of one’s own “ecclesial body” that one receives one’s very own self from it. Certainly, no philosopher can be reduced to his confession, but no one contemplates outside of his own “lifeworld,” and it is in taking note of this fact that one strives to cross the Rubicon.

The Catholic hermeneutic of the “body and voice,” which I distinguish from the Protestant hermeneutic of the “meaning of the text” (Ricoeur) and from the Jewish hermeneutic of the “body of the text” (Levinas), attempts to show that, for Catholicism, there is no voice without a body. One can hear the voice of another hidden behind a door or on the telephone, but his body is always necessary, even when it is hidden. In short, the “voice” depends on the “body” just as the “liturgy of the word” depends on the “liturgy of the Eucharist.”

There is no independence or autonomy of the text in the Catholic system of thought because the “this is my body,” more than sola scriptura, founds the approach to the faith. Of course, there is no question here of being opposed to anyone, nor of entering into a debate that would turn into a fight. Rather, it is in recognizing our specificities that we are able to move forward together.

Rosman: The theme of theology transforming philosophy appears throughout God, the Flesh, and the Other. Does this transformation remain only conceptual, or, is it tied to what Pierre Hadot calls “philosophy as a way of life,” that is, the total (mind, body, soul) transformation/divinization of the philosopher? In what ways does prayer, both liturgical and personal, fit into this schema of spiritual exercises?

Falque: The question of transformation—instead of a rupture or overcoming certain concepts and metaphysics—is far more important that it seems. Among the generations of phenomenologists that I discussed above, mine (the generation that follows Merleau-Ponty) is not, or is no longer, concerned with the so-called “overcoming of metaphysics.” On the contrary, it seems to me that today we must “overcome the overcoming of metaphysics.” This imperative does not necessarily mean that we should return to metaphysics against phenomenology, as in an ever-insecure pendulum swing. But it is mostly about questioning our relationship with the tradition, for it is not so clear that the tradition can be so easily overcome or that concepts such as “substance” or “presence” can be so readily declared to be overcome. Rather, it is from these concepts that we must renew thought.

Therefore, instead of pursuing another discourse, or a “pure discourse” on the other side of metaphysics, it seems to me that what Christianity (and Catholicism in particular) does is to “transform” categories rather than to negate them or desire to overcome them. There is a risk of “demythologization” (Rudolph Bultmann) and of “dehellenization” (Hans Küng) in contemporary phenomenology. This is a point that Ricoeur has also seen perfectly. One never thinks independently of myths, of the structures of language, etc.

God, the Flesh and the Other, which you cited above, shows that Saint Augustine never overcomes metaphysics, but rather that he transforms it from the inside. The paradigmatic case is perhaps that of the Trinity. Far from throwing out Aristotle’s ten categories—substance, quantity, quality, relation, modality, place, time, etc.—Saint Augustine recognizes the necessity of going through them, albeit in order to transform them. Certainly, one cannot think about the Trinity beginning with the first category, substance. In this case one would fall into some form of tritheism or Arianism. But one can no longer think of the Trinity beginning with the other contingent or accidental categories (quantity, quality, relation, place, time . . . ). One would then fall into a form of modalism in which there is a purely contingent God. But instead of abandoning the categories, and therefore searching for, or, rather fleeing into another discourse, Saint Augustine takes the fourth category—relation—and puts it in the first place, previously occupied by substance. Relation, and therefore the person, thus becomes the first category that mattes for Christianity, and this is why Thomas Aquinas will later speak of “subsistent relation.”

This is something of a model for us. Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, does not invent another discourse, but attempts to enter into the culture to which it is addressed, to “inculturate,” meaning to transform from the inside. A too-direct dependence on Martin Heidegger and on the idea of overcoming metaphysics has produced a “phantom of pure language,” to use Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s expression. To return today to the Councils or to the Fathers of the Church is to understand that for the believer everything is attached to his capacity for assuming and transforming a culture from the inside. This was true for the Council of Nicaea (325), which translated the Bible into Greek, or into the Greek world—“that is to say” of the same substance (homoousios) of the Father. It is also true, admittedly in an entirely different way, of our attempt to think about Christianity within the frame of our contemporary culture, as the Fathers and the Medievals also did in their own eras. To speak of the “metamorphosis of finitude,” for example, is to recognize the capacity of the resurrection itself to inhabit the contemporary structure of the world (finitude or the anguish of death) and to transform it from the inside.

This is indeed, as you say, a “spiritual exercise” (Ignatius of Loyola), or an understanding of philosophy as a “way of life” (Pierre Hadot). First of all it is in accepting the transformation of one’s self, and by seeking a unity within oneself, that one will become a transformer and unifier of culture for others. Such a result is not of lesser importance. For if Christianity is to be “believable” (in the effort for the conversion of others), it must first of all appear as “credible” (in the possibility of being spoken in the words and in the culture in which it is inserted). If we do not find the “words” or the “language” by which God can still be spoken to men today, it will become difficult for God himself to speak to us (even if only by tradition or inheritance), and thus for men to recognize he whom they have never known. How would Saul have recognized Christ on the road to Damascus if he was not, as the text says, “he whom you are persecuting” (Acts 22:7), and how would Saint Augustine have understood that he who was addressing him in the garden in Milan was the incarnate Word, if he had not recognized therein the voice of the God that his mother Monica did not “cease to beat into his ears” (Confessions VII)? Here there is an issue for philosophy and theology, certainly, but it is also a pastoral concern, for this mission of “transformation,” rather than the “overcoming” of metaphysics, is what ensures that Christianity does not remain a private language-game.

Rosman: The Advent season always reminds us of the theological theme of giving birth, a major preoccupation of The Metamorphosis of Finitude. How does the topos of “giving birth to Christ” so popular among Patristic writers—even though most contemporary readers frequently first encounter it in Eckhart—bring the Christian back into  the “chaos of the body”?

Falque: The Metamorphosis of Finitude is indeed an essay that endeavors to think of the resurrection from the model, or the “existential,” of birth. Everything begins with the question that Nicodemus asks Jesus: “how can a man enter anew into the womb of his mother and be born?” (John 3:4). This is an excellent question, if not the best question, that could be asked. For Nicodemus is not someone who fails to understand the “birth from above,” but rather he is someone who perfectly understands that one cannot understand the “birth from above” without relating it to the “birth from below.” It is in coming back and describing the significance of “being born from the womb of his mother” (by means of paths “from below”) that one is able to decipher what it means “to be reborn by water and spirit” (by means of paths “from above”). It is not a question of thinking that Christ’s response is an opposition—“that which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of the spirit is spirit” (John 3:6)—but rather as an analogy: just as that which is born of flesh is flesh, so that which is born of spirit is spirit. It is in developing a “phenomenology of birth” that one will understand a “theology of resurrection.”

If there is then “joy” in birth, as you are suggesting in your question, it is not simply because Christ is born “in” the world (in Bethlehem), but also, and above all, because he “gives birth” to a world (that of the Word whose flesh contains everything). “The miracle that saves the world,” Hannah Arendt (a Jewish, not Christian, thinker) stresses towards the end of The Human Condition, is the “fact of birth.” A child generates a new world by entering into the world. This is what it means when the Gospel announces this Good News: “a child is born to us.”

When stressing that the Word made flesh gives birth to a world on Christmas through the Virgin Mary—in which God encompasses and contains everything—we must simultaneously remember that he too is born in us (or better, he is born in this world in which we are given to ourselves and to others) in order to allow us to in turn give birth to him in us. “What good would it be if the Word made flesh is born once among men in Bethlehem,” so asks Meister Eckhart, “if not in order to be born once, or thousands of times, in each one of us?”

In the end, one will not be content with this birth of God in man if one does not think at the same time of the birth of man in God. For we cannot contain God and only God holds us in himself or contains us: “in him were created all things which are in the heavens and on the earth . . . Everything was created in him and for him” (Col 1:16). This model of the incorporation of man in God—whether being incorporated in the Word (the table of scripture) or in the transubstantiated bread (table of the Eucharist)—reverses this false idea that we often have, believing ourselves capable of shutting up or protecting God in ourselves. The Fathers of the Church, in the schema of incorporation, and phenomenology, in the schema of intentionality, meet on this point: “intentionality marks the end in the history of philosophy,” Sartre said about Husserl, “of the Spirit-Spider that assimilates everything, digests everything, reduces everything” (“The Idea of Intentionality”, in Situations I).

The “chaos of the body,” our own first of all, which you are alluding to in your question and which I treat in The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, is precisely what the Word made flesh is already joined to in Bethlehem. For if the Word became flesh, it is first of all in order to speak to my flesh, and if he became body, it is in order to inhabit and transform my body. In this sense, one will not go too hastily to speak of the “joy of birth” in Bethlehem, if one does not understand that this joy is, by anticipation, that which announces the mystery of the resurrection—as seen in the link so often established by the Fathers of the Church between the swaddling cloths of the newborn and the shroud of the Risen One.

Christ does not save me by words first of all, but by his body, just as in philosophy it is “the body that philosophizes” as Nietzsche said (der Leib philosophirt). There is in me, whether I see it or not, a veritable “chaos of passions and impulses,” and it is this part of myself that God wants to join, in order to forget nothing of what I am and of who I am.

Joy is not a state, first of all, it is a passage: “the passage from a lesser perfection to a higher perfection,” as Spinoza said in his Ethics. To pass with the Ferryman (passer avec le Passeur)—in the double sense in the French of “to suffer” (pâtir) and “to pass” (passer)—is what birth is saying as a paradigmatic and originary act of every passage. To be born or to be generated is “to pass,” whether that be by means of actual birth or the “births” of spirituality or of thought. One will therefore agree to make the crossing insofar as one complies with this difficult exercise of being drawn out of one’s self by another. The “joy of birth” is the “birth of joy” only because all pain (souffrance) or all suffering (pâtir) is transformed, as is the case for the newborn—in which the trauma of the “giving birth” (delivery) is metamorphosed by the welcoming of the “being in the world” (bond to the mother). Only a “metaphysics of the bond (du lien)” can assume and convert that which is in us of “un-bonding [déliaison].”

Rosman: Charles Peguy's poetry crosses several Rubicons. For example, The Portal of the Mystery of Hope takes on the structure of a) prayer (litany) and b) takes up themes in theology (hope as the chief theological virtue). What is Peguy's unique contribution? I do not say unique contribution to theology, poetry, prayer, and potentially philosophy, because focusing on one discipline would disfigure the unity of his writing.

Falque: In my estimation, the return to Charles Péguy is one of the great necessities for today. For what he saw, and I do not cease to comment on this, is that Christianity is a “history arrived on earth,” a “history arrived in the flesh” (Dialogue de l’histoire et de l’âme charnelle). This does not mean, of course, that there is no “heaven,” or that it is not necessary “to pass heaven doing good on earth” (Thérèse of Lisieux). Rather, this indicates that a veritable “enfleshment (encharnement)” of man to God is produced by the Incarnation, and that the “elevation (émontement)” of the carnal into the spiritual also enforces the “elevation (émontement)” of the spiritual into the carnal. “Encharnement” and “émontement,” which are French neologisms created by Charles Péguy, and probably untranslatable in another language, nicely show the urgency of the author of The Portal of the Mystery of Hope to find an adequate expression for these great moments of our carnal existence, such as “birth,” “suffering,” “death,” “eros,” and the “resurrection of the body.”

Everything is a matter of “corporeality” in Christianity—and such is probably the most profound message of Charles Péguy. We are “body through and through,” in that our carnal mass, one could even say our “carcass,” is also the place where God speaks to us and meets us. It is sufficient to be sick in order to know it: “the Self [Soi] of the body says to the self [moi] of consciousness: suffer now. And the self wonders how not to suffer,” recalls Nietzsche in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “and the Self of the body says to the self of consciousness ‘enjoy now,’ and the self wonders how to continue enjoying” (from the section entitled “the despisers of the body”).

The “realism of the flesh,” or rather its “consistency,” therefore imposes upon us the recognition that we are “in flesh and bone”—not only that we exist “in person” (leibhaftig), but rather that we live “with” flesh and “with” bones. By speaking of the “flesh” as lived by the body (Leib), or of the simple “body” as an object (Körper), perhaps we have forgotten the “flesh” in the standard sense of the term as that which constitutes our body (Fleisch). Or rather, perhaps we should define a new type of corporeality, which I have named the “spread body” in The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, as an intermediary place or a border area between the “extended body” of Descartes and the “lived body” of Husserl.

Therefore there are still multiple Rubicons to pass in Christianity, such as you indicate in your question, and authors such as Charles Péguy or Paul Claudel can only invite us to undertake such “passages.” With them we can learn and know that the language of philosophy, indeed also of theology, is never ultimate, but that poetry as well, and perhaps most of all, is the ultimate language by which “the Word is made flesh.” Like the Song of Songs in the Bible, or in Saint Bernard of Clairvaux’s Commentary, the “word of the body”—which is certainly our body, but also that of the incarnate Word—must find its “body of the word.” The body must somehow “take the word,” not to replace it, but on the contrary in order to express itself therein.

The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar had seen this perfectly, not only because he dedicated two remarkable articles to Charles Péguy and Paul Claudel (The Glory of the Lord, Volume 3), but above all because he makes the “subjective conversion of the senses” into the preeminent place whereby one can see and encounter the “objective figure of God” (The Glory of the Lord, Volume 1).

There is still something there that we can draw from, even to renew thought. For what has been seen and spoken in theology, as well as poetry, still must also be translated into philosophy. Not only that philosophy would have to be content to “serve” theology or even poetry, but rather that the master and his servant share, first of all, one and the same abode. It may be that sometimes, due to our forgetfulness of this common abode, we have allowed them to dispute: “philosophy is the servant of theology, this is understood (Mary is also the servant of the Lord),” Péguy rightly recognizes, “But let the servant quarrel not with the mistress, and the mistress not abuse the servant. A stranger would come who would quickly put them into agreement” (Note conjointe sur M. Descartes [July 1914]).

Featured Image: Titian, Polyptych of the Resurrection, 1544; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.


Emmanuel Falque

Emmanuel Falque is Honorary Dean of the Faculty of Philosophy at the Catholic University of Paris. He is well known for writings that combine an expertise in medieval philosophy, modern French phenomenology, and theology. His recent publications include Passer le Rubicon [Crossing the Rubicon] (2013), Saint Bonaventure et l'entrée de Dieu en théologie (2000); Dieu, la chair et l'autre [God, the Flesh and the Other] (2008) and the trilogy: Le passseur de Gethsémani (1999), Métamorphose de la finitude [Metamorphosis of Finitude] (2004), and Les Noces de l'Agneau [The Wedding Feast of the Lamb] (2011).

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