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This is the sixth post of a twelve-part series for Spectrum’s 2013 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Postmodern Apologetics? by Christina M. Gschwandtner. The reading schedule, along with links to previous posts, can be found here.
As a nonphilosopher/theologian, I found this chapter hard going. And I’ll go ahead and admit it: what “phenomenology” is is still not entirely clear to me. We’ve learned that phenomenologists try to carefully analyze experience. From what I understand, Henry’s version of phenomenology focuses on experience at its most basic level—so basic, so immediate, we don’t even realize we’re having it. Henry simply calls this “Life.”
Henry is critical of modern science’s concern with observation as something separate from the lived experience of the scientist/observer. In its traditional/modern form, science privileges detachment and discreteness as characteristics of knowing. This sort of so-called objectivity is increasingly acknowledged by scientists to be problematic, but Henry is very clear that there can be no real separation between the observer and the observed. Further, he argues that science reduces Life to particles instead of experience, and Henry posits that humans all know, deep in their bones, that Life is something we “undergo”—we suffer it, in fact. He thinks this sort of knowing is superior to the so-called “rational” and objective attempts at getting at Life.
Henry is not interested in trying to provide traditional proofs for God’s existence. It is a personal experience with God that is most convincing, not the attempt to rationally argue for God. I have found this to be true in my own life—and I continue to seek for more of those openings for such experiences. However, I also want my experience of God to be more than just the experience I have of my own life, my own self. I’m not sure what Henry would say about that, about whether or not God is something “out there” and Other than me. Maybe he would say that I’m again trying to separate the observed from the observer and that instead I should look for the activity, the how of this Truth and Life, rather than something “out there.” But I’m still modern enough that I would like some discrete particularity and Otherness to God, and some experience of that. It is what I long for and my lack of mystical tendencies means that it is very rare in my life. I’m much more likely to enjoy the discussion of ideas than personal experience. But I have noticed that my friends with the most vibrant faith seem to have some sort of experience like this and I think it is much more compelling than good arguments.
Henry’s insistence on the “absolute uniqueness” of Christian texts seems to have the potential to make him attractive to traditional Christians. He looks at the greatest issue—who are we and how we experience ourselves and life—and says Christianity alone provides the answers to that. So he privileges Christianity in a way that surprised me. But he does it in a quirky way—essentially saying that what he believes to be true is also what Christianity considers to be true—that is, an experience of enfleshment. Truth is manifestation and experience itself. And this experience and Truth is Life. Christianity says this and secular science doesn't, and so Christianity manifests its superiority. Henry maintains that his faith and mine is the only truth that isn’t transitory and that it alone provides access to what reality is (or does, maybe, if one is a phenomenologist).
Ultimately, reading about this new-for-me area of phenomenology was provoking for my spiritual life. Henry reminded me that I need to look for the immanence of God, and not just the God’s transcendence. Is the Life at work in me? In my church, through our collective worship and ministry? Given that I am most often being called to witness in a world enamored of what Henry called secular science, perhaps this sort of experiential apologetics may in the end also be more effective, as well as more truthful. I’m excited and inspired by his emphasis on looking for the Action of God, of Truth and Life. We “validate” our faith (maybe even prove it?) by what we do, by participating in the community of believers, in the Body of Christ, and meeting the real needs of those who suffer Life’s travails.
One issue for me, in assessing Henry’s claims, is its applicability to other religious traditions. Henry juxtaposes Western science with Christianity, touting the phenomenological superiority of the latter, but seems silent about the claims of other religious traditions. I wouldn’t want to use these arguments in a discussion with other faith traditions, however, if I were wanting to argue that Christianity is the only way Truth is accessed. This seems like a pretty substantial shortcoming.
I am also unclear about the centrality of Jesus and His role in Henry’s theology. I think I can see how the Incarnation is crucial to him, but I have to rely on Gschwandtner’s assurance that Henry’s later work validated the unique place of Jesus in Christianity, as opposed to the Spirit-filled enfleshment of all humans. Clearly, for me, the notion of Truth and Life is incarnated in Jesus and this Christian vocabulary makes it easy for me to see how Henry could be categorized as orthodox in his Christology. But I’ll leave others more familiar with his work to judge whether the historical person of Jesus is truly the "only-begotten" for Henry.
Lisa Clark Diller, Ph.D., lives in Chattanooga, Tenn., where she teaches Early Modern History at Southern Adventist University.