24 Sep 2007

Michel Henry and the Origin of Evil

Liberating spiritual life from the constraints of religious identity-politics, from neuroscientific reductionism and politically correct pluralism, Michel Henry is definitely one of the most fascinating phenomenologists of the last decennia. As a severe critic of the whole linguistic turn, Henry might even count today as the last genuine transcendental philosopher. But the more I read and think about his project, the more I'm puzzled about one specific question: How does Henry explain the origin of evil?
Throughout his critique of traditional phenomenology’s failure to address the question of what phenomenological appearing actually means, Henry is led to discover auto-affection as the origin of the phenomenological process; an origin he identifies with Life, and which he sets in opposition with the world. Life as self-revelation thus remains independent of all forms of worldly intentionality, and cannot be approached from the perspective of the world. At the same time Henry discovers (through his reading of the gospel of John) that precisely the Christian God is the One who is necessarily self-revealing. God’s form of manifestation has nothing to do with what becomes manifest in the world; it precedes worldly intentionality as the basis condition for all phenomenality. Henry therefore equates the Absolute with Life and with God, understood as the Christian God (Absolute=Life=God=the Christian God); a God who can never be found through a modification of our worldly knowing, but only through our own self-affective life as opposed to our worldly ‘nature’. The latter explains Henry’s enraging critique on all kinds of hermeneutics. Because the truth of Life is independent of worldly particularities, hermeneutics is a life-denying enterprise in which our divine nature becomes reduced to a set of arbitrary worldly features. The same goes for biblical exegesis or historical approaches of the truth of Christianity, for as he stresses: “it is truth and truth alone that can offer us access to itself”. Language is an instrument of worldly intentionality and therefore the negation of reality. But because we are revealed to be son of God, we are not destined to dwell in the untruth of language: through the self-affectivity of our life we share in the Life of God.
Henry's phenomenological/theological critique on the diverse forms of worldly reductionism is at the same time a strong cultural critique. An intriguing example is the last and apocalyptic chapter of 'I am the Truth'. Henry's observation of the modern world as haunted by a technology foreign to life, makes him proclaim that we have entered the era of the Anti-Christ. Or as he says: “Upon the Anti-Christ Allegation (even when this Allegation is completely ignored these days) is founded the organization of the whole modern world. […] A new era begins, a dangerous time, not just of episodic lying but of systematic, permanent, efficient and ontological lying that can no longer be perceived as such.” But how is this possible? Where does this fall come from? If we are son of God, if we share in the divine Life of God, and if God is the One and thus the Absolute outside of which nothing exists, how is it possible that we live in exile and that the laws of the world have the power to make us forget about our divine nature?
Phenomenologically Henry explains the logic of the world as a transcendental illusion; because Life is One, our being caught in the worldly is a form of transcendental forgetfulness. But this doesn’t explain how this illusion comes to reign over life in the modern world. Unfortunately, Henry remains rather silent about this, and takes recourse to metaphors as ‘the Anti-Christ’ and the ‘Statue of the Beast’ without adequatly explaining their phenomenological origin. This raises the suspicion that Henry opts for a rather traditional Augustinian solution, in such a way even that he gives up on his purely immanent phenomenological theology in which there is no room for a contingency like the fall which would cause original sin. At the same time however, Henry sees himself unable to adopt a more Plotinian solution like that of Schelling, by displacing the origin of evil into divine life itself. This would imply the end of Life as undifferentiated and immediate self-affection, and as a Christian Henry indeed refuses to ontologize evil.
My intuition so far is that Henry's Christianising of phenomenology contaminates the rigor of his phenomenological project. I fail to see how he explains the power of forgetfullness and why the Plotinian solution would be phenomenologically intolerable. Furthermore, I do not see why he does not succumb to the same contamination of universality as he detects all over by equating the 'Absolute' with the 'Christian Absolute'. Of course, Henry defends the view that there is no risk here of particularising phenomenology. The truth of Christ is the universal truth, and therefore completely independent of worldly assertions of a particular religion. But this is quite unconvincing: in order to claim that life as absolute self-affection leads us to the recognition of Christ and the Father he shows himself dependent on a particular reading of the Johannine texts. Moreover, from his perspective of purely immanent phenomenology the whole idea of particular associations are unnecessary. If God is Life, indifferent to all possible forms of worldly mediation, there is no need to associate Life with a very particular tradition.

[1]Michel Henry, I am the Truth. Toward a Philosophy of Christianity, 270-272.

1 comment:

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Or no reason not "to associate Life with a very particular tradition"?

My familiarity with Henry extends only to one recently read chapter of his book on Marx, but since it is a chapter that asserts something like the transcendence of doing, it seems relevant to the evil problem, insofar as explaining evil, or what appears/occurs to humans through the category of evil, demands an understanding of its function, its place with the totality of being, within the ongoing event of the cosmos we find ourselves in and witnesses to. To understand evil as a kind of "side effect" of this event is rather to find a place for it such that it does not have to be understood, where the unconsciousness within the category of evil, its being a “thing that should not be,” can remain intact. The other way is to recognize that evil’s appearance in this mode, as the negativity of something within our intuition of what should be, traces it already to the essence of the event of the world, to the fact that there is a cosmos, or even more radically, that anything is happening at all, as the first evil that needs explanation, as the only evil that could explain all other evil.

Glossing Marx’s “truth . . . is a practical question,” Henry writes of “The fact that the original essence of being – and that of truth along with it – lies in praxis, that every true, objective thought – that is to say, thought capable of referring itself to being and of recognizing the place of truth – must recognize at the same time its fundamental incapacity to constitute by itself this place and this original essence of being and of truth, the necessity in which it finds itself to appeal to something other than itself.” Vis-à-vis the problem of evil this suggests something like both the impossibility of theodicy as a purely theoretical project and the inevitability of knowing the truth of evil, its reason for being, within experience.

Two comments come to mind, Ramakrishna’s “Evil thickens the plot” and Julian of Norwich’s “Synne is behovabil [necessary], but al shal be wel, and al shal be wel, and al manner of thyng shal be wele.”