On the Gratitude of Thinking: A Note on Jean-Louis Chrétien

The voice of the late Jean-Louis Chrétien is utterly singular amongst the leading contemporary figures of continental philosophy of religion and the “theological turn” in French phenomenology. Yet contrary to the cheap and hackneyed way that we commonly think “singularity”—or even worse, “creativity”—Chrétien shows that one can only become singular and creative in and through response.

To be at all is ever and always to be belated. Hence his voice is ever and always a responsive orchestration and voicing of the very musical and poetic qualities of “otherness.” However, otherness, for Chrétien, is certainly no tired shibboleth that is invoked without adequate thought or response, as can be the temptation in certain strands of contemporary continental philosophy.

Rather, his work might be said to be a radical intervention, even a performative interruption, of the phenomenological tradition, due to his interdisciplinarity expressed via his poetically contemplative play of voices. In this sense we can say that for Chrétien (borrowing from von Balthasar) the truth of otherness is symphonic, or better, polyphonic. Chrétien’s gathering orchestration of various voices proffers—for those that have ears to listen—an epiphanic sonority (his thinking must be likened to synaesthesia) that offers something like a performative grammar of the many fields of otherness (philosophy, poetry, literature, theology, etc.) in their radical gift-character, as will be seen.

Creation and/or world is the gift of otherness, for Chrétien, and gift is said in many senses, said within many fields of gratitude. Chrétien’s responsorial way of thinking thus thinks within and through the polyphonous fluidity—think: Claudel, to whom I will return—of the variegated rays of the superfluity of giving. Yet there is never a formulaic reduction to a quaternity of excess. Rather, giving’s excess is a superfluity that can only be multi-voiced and, therefore, beyond formulaic categorization. Indeed, I would hazard to say that Chrétien’s greatest contribution to French phenomenology might reside in his simple, almost childlike (in the New Testament sense), solution to the aporia of its debate concerning gift:

The whole puzzle that surrounds the notion of “gift” within certain sectors of French phenomenology might be rescued from its labyrinth if we take the identity of offering/reception into better account. Indeed if a call is heard only in the answer to it, then a gift is not recognized to be such except in its being received and in the gratitude that its reception provokes. Granted that no one is ever in a position to know whether he has truly given something or to boast that he has given anyone a perfectly pure gift, he is in a position, nonetheless, to describe that for which he himself says “thank you.” Should anyone deny knowing what gratitude is, he evacuates the whole debate by passing judgement on himself. If a genuine well-intentioned and generous person gives me something, to ask myself whether the gift is really a gift or a poison is to stand outside the field of gratitude. The only phenomenological access that we have to the gift is in the “thank you” of gratitude. Everything else, as Verlaine would put it, is mere literature.[1]

I am greatly tempted to see this passage as the hermeneutic secret that opens unto the whole expanse of Chrétien’s oeuvre, an oeuvre that for many seems to be (almost) hermetically sealed. If my intuition is correct, then we are back once again to the question of Chrétien’s singularity vis-à-vis other continental philosophers of religion and especially French phenomenologists of theological ilk. This is to say, we are back to the question of response in all its polyphonic and polychromatic dimensions and Chrétien’s grammarizing or fielding of gratitude, a fielding that is far afield from the monotonous terrain of “mere literature.” Chrétien’s “multi-voicedness” and “multi-centeredness” (think: Mikhail Bakhtin) eschews any authorial or philosophical bird’s-eye view which abstracts itself from the flow of the economy of gifts and giving which can only be described from the point-of-view of the flowing dynamism of “offering/reception.”

Only within the dynamic site of reception can gift be seen for what it is. If this reception is true, it is because it is a being true which must spill forth in a spiration of humble responsive praise—a “thank youof gratitude.” Otherwise, all is again “mere literature.” Is this not the reason for Chrétien’s confident unassertiveness in key debates within French phenomenology, whether of the gift, the question of the possibility of Christian philosophy, the defense of the feasibility of the “theological turn,” phenomenology as first philosophy, and so forth. The entirety of his oeuvre is a performative answer, a performative response ever inserted into the polyphonic flow of an economy of gift(s) and its various manners of fielding. The gift is only the gift when it keeps on giving, a truth which Chrétien’s very corpus testimonially enacts.

But there are even deeper ramifications of Chrétien’s interruption and intervention into contemporary philosophy of religion and French phenomenology which speak to the singularity of his responsorial voice. What Chrétien is suggesting in the above quote, and in his work as a whole, is that philosophy has forgotten its heart of hearts, the desire from which it springs. Philosophy is philo-(Sophia), which implicates that, at its very core, philosophy is ineluctably a spiritual practice.[2] And this very practice, in a Platonic, Neo-Platonic, Augustinian, and Bergsonian sense is the act and practice of desire’s dilatatio, epectasis, and extensio (the latter understood on an Augustinian, not Cartesian model). Chrétien’s grammarizing and fielding of gratitude is a spiritual practice existing within the flow of polyphonic response ever riding the wide waves of desire.

For Chrétien, desire’s spiritual voyage must ever lead towards a conversio of the entire synaesthetic incarnate self. Converted to what? Answer: into responsive grateful answer. This conversion is a birthful awakening to Claudelian poetic and cosmic truth (or art and practice) that “we do not come into the world alone. To be born for everything, means to be born in affinity with everything, together with. All birth is knowledge (naissance-connaissance).”[3] In keeping with the Claudelian imagery, to be is co-esse or inter-esse and both of decidedly cosmic proportions. Like Claudel, Chrétien’s thinking takes us into cosmic dimensions read from the non-ground of the ever-ringing reverberations of the Christian dogma of creation ex nihilo, now ever-crossed and marked by the incarnate creative Word’s death upon the Cross.

Where do we stand concerning Chrétien’s ceaseless blending of voices in his polyphonous economy of gift and its fielding? Is his voice philosophical, phenomenological, poetic, literary, theological, perhaps even cosmically metaphysical? To force a classification of Chrétien’s work in the name of academic credentials and borders of respectability would be like asking if Chrétien’s oeuvre is “a gift or a poison.” This approach would be a stepping outside the “field of gratitude” seeking to a priori judge from already fixed criteria.

Differing from this approach, Finitude’s Wounded Praise: Responses to Jean-Louis Chrétien is a text of gratitude, or better, a textualizing and fielding of gratitude. Yet not—it is our hope—in any rigid manner, but one which takes place ever within the “field of gratitude,” seen via the dynamic flow of polyphonic response. This text thus brings together a variety of voices, from different “fields,” all of whom have been inspired and dilated by the work of Chrétien. “To love otherwise is to think otherwise”[4]—it would be foolish presumption to say that Chrétien was the only thinker to have thought this truth, to have responded to this truth.

Yet, for those voices gathered together in this volume it is true to say that Chrétien’s voice has been an inspiration to seeing, hearing, and feeling otherwise. “The only phenomenological access that we have to the gift is in the 'thank you' of gratitude.” This volume is a “‘thank you’ of gratitude”; it is a humble and celebratory response—and thus testimony—to the gift of Chrétien’s responsorial thought which never sought to be original. For his thinking never left the practice of the polyphonic economy of gift, never stepped out of the “field of gratitude.” By abiding in gratitude, Chrétien’s voice became singular, creative, dilated. He found his place in making way, thereby testifying and showing, in the economy of gift, that greatest of truths, “whoever loses his life for my sake shall find it” (Matt 16:25).


From whence did this volume emerge and what drew me to Chrétien? My love of Chrétien springs from my days of graduate studies in Louvain, Belgium. It was there that I first encountered the literature of the so-called “theological turn” in French phenomenology. And, of course, one of the leading voices of this turn is Chrétien’s.[5] When I took him up and read, I was immediately struck by the uniqueness of his voice, and its poetically resonating quality. But this voice, although idiosyncratic, was so much more because of his commanding knowledge of the entirety of the Western and Christian tradition (philosophical, theological, poetic, and literary).

Yet, this command was never one of force or coercion as in Encyclopedists or Hegelian sages, but one of service. It was a service of orchestration wherein he would compose a polyphonic play of voices. And I found this sonorous play utterly haunting in the most complimentary sense of the word. Moreover, his style of thought exhibited what Pascal terms L'esprit de finesse or what Péguy nominates, in reference to Bergson, a “suppleness” of thought. This finessed suppleness, I did not find in the more univocal voices of Marion, Henry, and Lacoste.

Yet, despite this draw I was always concerned that Chrétien’s haunting poetic style would prohibit him from reaching the audience it so deserved. This prompted me to query, in a footnote to Reimagining the Analogia Entis: The Future of Erich Przywara’s Christian Vision, if Chrétien’s intellectual fate would resemble that of the too-little-known, yet extraordinary Swiss thinker and convert to Catholicism, Max Picard (1888-1965).

So, this love for Chrétien’s way or manner of thinking along with my worry that his thought would not get the hearing it deserves is the back story of this volume. The more immediate story began with the many conversations with my doctoral student, Joseph Micah McMeans, on Heidegger and phenomenology and the post-Heideggerian response of the “theological turn” in French phenomenology. Every time Chrétien’s name was brought up, I sensed something of that same fire I felt, and still do feel, for Chrétien’s thinking.

In a word, Finitude’s Wounded Praise springs from our shared love of Chrétien and our conviction that his thinking needs to be more widely known. Second, Chrétien’s untimely death on June 28, 2019, at the age of 66, forced our hands and demanded that we act on this loving conviction. Hence our writing is a gathering of responses of gratitude for Chrétien’s imposing and inspiring oeuvre.

To again invoke the great Charles Péguy—in his critique of Kantianism—Chrétien’s thinking is not “well-constituted” because, if it were, it would lack nothing. Rather, his thinking makes way for a space, for an opening, that allows for inspiration that is the very breathing in of gratuity, of gift, of grace.

And, in so being, his thinking gives in the words of Péguy, “that perfect knowledge that we are nothing, that surrender and that abdication . . . is at the core of every truly great human being.”[6] Does not Chrétien show that this must also be true for thinking, if it is to be true to its vocation, to its call? And when this is achieved is this not the quintessence of the frail-truth of finitude’s wounded praise?

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is adapted from the introduction to Finitude’s Wounded Praise and used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

[1] Chrétien, “Paul Claudel’s Cosmic Respiration,” in Spacious Joy, 182-83.

[2] This is not to say that Chrétien is without precedent in twentieth-century and recent French philosophy. There is, of course, Bergson, Hadot, the late Foucault, Gaston Bachelard, and in the “theological turn,” it could also be argued that Henry is returning philosophy to a kind of spiritual practice. And before the aforesaid there is the too often forgotten and profound tradition of French “Spiritual Realism,” a tradition that is finally beginning to receive something of a hearing in the Anglophone sphere.

[3] Claudel, Poetic Art, 40.

[4] Chrétien, “Saint Augustine and the Wide Offshore of Desire,” in Spacious Joy, 34.

[5] Chrétien is part of this turn, but his thinking can by no means be reduced to this turn given his deep command of tradition, and the Platonic and Neo-Platonic tradition, in particular. There is no doubt that he is a Christian Platonist of sorts and his thinker borders the metaphysical much more than his phenomenological confrères.

[6] Charles Péguy, Notes on Bergson and Descartes: Philosophy, Christianity, and Modernity in Contestation trans. Bruce K. Ward (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019), 64.

Featured Image: Jozef Mehoffer, Presentation of Mary, 1906; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-70.


Philip Gonzales

Philip Gonzales is a Lecturer in Philosophy at the Pontifical University of St. Patrick's College Maynooth. He is the author of Reimagining the Analogia Entis: The Future of Erich Przywara's Christian Vision.

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