THE PHENOMENOLOGY BOOTH — Emmanuel Falque: Finitude, Body, and Philosophy’s Passage into Theology

The Phenomenology Booth is a virtual exhibit devoted to the philosophical field of phenomenology. The exhibit features a set of interviews with philosophers and theologians working in phenomenology, as well as a selection of Wipf and Stock’s books in phenomenology.

In our final phenomenology booth interview, I sit down for an extended conversation with the one and only Emmanuel Falque. Dr. Falque is on the philosophy faculty at the Catholic University of Paris and is the founder of the International Network in Philosophy of Religion. He is also the author of many volumes on phenomenology, including his new book with Cascade, By Way of Obstacles: A Pathway through a Work.

In this episode, Professor Falque and I discuss finitude, flesh, and the relationship of philosophy and theology, all done via an engagement with the work of the likes of Husserl, Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Michel Henry, Jean-Luc Marion, and many more.

*The interview is offered here in both podcast form (above) and written form (below).*

ZM: I feel very honored and privileged to be speaking today with Emmanuel Falque, who’s a philosopher on the faculty at the Catholic University of Paris. He specializes in phenomenology, but also does so in light of medieval and patristic philosophy and theology. He’s the author of many, many books, including his trilogy comprised of The Guide to Gethsemane, The Metamorphosis of Finitude, and then The Wedding Feast of the Lamb. He’s also known quite well for his work on the relationship between philosophy and theology, which he explores especially in his book, Crossing the Rubicon. And finally, he’s also the author of a new book with us at Cascade, which is titled By Way of Obstacles: A Pathway through a Work.

Welcome, Dr. Falque. It’s great to be on this call with you. Let’s start with our first question, which is: how would you describe or define phenomenology to someone who knows absolutely nothing about it or is unfamiliar with it?

EF: Thank you for your kind invitation. As to your first question about phenomenology: we know that phenomenology is difficult, or in fact it’s not so difficult as we are speaking about it. However, I could say that phenomenology is an attempt at describing the phenomenon. That is how, for example, Merleau-Ponty introduces phenomenology in his preface to the Phenomenology of Perception. What does it mean to describe the phenomenon? It means that what is first in phenomenology is the question of lived-experience. Lived-experience means what I experience for myself.

The beginning of phenomenology is the question of the reduction (epoché). And what does that mean, “epoché” or “reduction”? It means that we put between brackets the existence of the thing in order to investigate one’s whole relationship with the thing itself. Of course, phenomenology is a new form of research in philosophy which is not first a philosophy of language, as is analytical philosophy, but a philosophy of experience. In that way, phenomenology is very close to the philosophy of religion, in fact. Why? Not because of the content, but because of the way by which phenomenology tries to work. Phenomenology operates a sort of conversion for oneself. This means that the link with the question of time is only subjective—even Merleau-Ponty said that space is subjective and not objective. In that way, I think that the most important point is that phenomenology is first descriptive: we try to describe the phenomenon and not to make any judgments about it. That’s why, in fact, the ethics of Levinas is not really an ethics: the values do not come first.

The difference between Descartes and Husserl is that for Descartes, nothing exists except me thinking about myself, the “cogito,” and so on, but for Husserl—the father of phenomenology—the things exist, but that existence of things does not come first. For example, in a dream, something exists, or—more precisely—it exists for me. Perhaps I am afraid, maybe more afraid in a dream than in what we call reality. The very interesting thing about phenomenology is the fact that we do not live in only one world which we call reality. In fact, there is a sort of extension of reality because my reality is what is real: I’m living in it. The question of phenomenology is the meaning of my existence, and that’s why we speak about intentionality, meaning, and so on, even if my work now tries to show the limits of meaning in phenomenology, too.

One point that is absolutely new in my generation of phenomenologists is that we no longer consider phenomenology to be self-sufficient. We need something else, too. For me, for example, we require religion and the Gospel, but for others it could be psychoanalysis, literature, and so on. Phenomenology is no longer a philosophical method that is closed in on itself. This is something absolutely new and something which I discuss repeatedly in my book, By Way of Obstacles, a sort of intellectual autobiography.

ZM: You’re getting into the terrain of the “theological turn” in French phenomenology and the explosion of phenomenology into theology, which we’ll get into more later. But first, before we get to that, for those who are new to phenomenology, what are two or three books in particular that you would recommend as a good starting point?

EF: That’s not a very easy question. What I tell my students at the Catholic University of Paris is that the preface to Merleau-Ponty’s book, the Phenomenology of Perception, constitutes a very good introduction—and it’s only fifteen pages, so not long. There Merleau-Ponty explains what phenomenology is. He explains that phenomenology is what Husserl called the “return to the things themselves.” What does he mean by the “things themselves”? That those things are not, for example, the pencil. There is a distinction between the thing which exists in front of me, and the thing—in French “la chose“—which concerns me. The return to the things themselves, le retour aux choses elles-mêmes in French—excuse me for speaking French—is not the return to the things outside of me, which would be a sort of empiricism. It is rather a return to the things that concern me. This means that this pencil exists as a thing outside of me, but it’s my pencil and I need it to write on my paper. In that way, this thing is a thing for me.

Second, if someone wants a very good introduction, or a good course, on phenomenology, I think Jean-Luc Marion’s book Reduction and Givenness is very good. In fact, it began as a course he gave at the Sorbonne on Husserl and Heidegger. Subsequently, he developed his own reduction. I think it’s excellent, but of course things are more complicated in the end.

And then if you want to know about the debate in French phenomenology, I think Phenomenology and the Theological Turn by Dominique Janicaud is a very interesting work. And one of my books, Crossing the Rubicon, which is not polemical but is rather a book about the debate in phenomenology today and what we have to do in phenomenology today.

ZM: Maybe we’ll get into more complicated works here, but what about your own favorite phenomenologist to read? Who would that be, and why? And then also—this is probably a really hard question as well—if you had to pick one or maybe even two or three of your most treasured volumes of phenomenology, which ones would you choose, and why?

EF: That’s a difficult question as well. I will give you a sort of confession. I would say, first, The Idol and Distance, Jean-Luc Marion’s very first book. This first book is a compilation of many papers he wrote in Communio. When I was young like you, about thirty—I had two daughters at the time—I remember one of my friends, a woman I knew in a Christian community, told me that there is a professor in Poitiers—Poitiers is no Paris, right?—who is a specialist on Descartes and wrote a book called The Idol and Distance. At that moment, I had never heard anything about Marion and was studying theology at the Centre Sèvres in Paris. One of the differences between me and Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Michel Henry, and so on, is the fact that I—unlike them—formally studied theology at an institution. I have a degree in theology, which is not the case for the others, except Jean-Yves Lacoste, of course, who is a priest. But I was in Paris at Centre Sévres, and it was all German and Dutch theology. We discussed only Hegel, Bultmann, Moltmann, Jüngel, and so on. Phenomenology did not exist there. And I remember—perhaps you’re familiar with this sort of situation—my daughter was about two. I remember that at the market, I took Marion’s The Idol and Distance with me there at six in the morning, and I read the beginning of the book, on onto-theology. This was the first time that I felt in myself that there was a possible unity of my life and thought, between what I did in philosophy before and what I was doing then with theology. So, that book has been very important for me, the first chapter, the chapter on Nietzsche, and so on. It is due to his book that I met Marion, but I had at the time never been a student of Marion’s. I met him because of his books. I spoke at a spiritual retreat for Christian people where I talked about the idol, distance, icon, and we prayed in front of an icon as well. So, I found Jean-Luc Marion’s address and sent him a message and told him, “Your work is so spiritual.” I saw Marion as something of a Pseudo-Dionysius: completely in retreat, far from the world always, and so on. And then he phoned me and said, “Oh, where are you? I don’t know you. Come meet me right away.” So, that’s how I met Marion.

Of course, now I disagree with Marion on many points, which is very well known. It is not, for me, a matter of necessarily being against Marion, but it is because I have my own way of doing things. But we are very friendly, and I am very friendly with his family, too. This is a surprising fact in France. Many people will come from the US or even from England and ask me, “How is it possible to disagree with someone and be so friendly with them like you do in France?” In France, you have no dialogue without combat, but this combat is friendly. That’s why I wrote a book which is, as you know, called The Loving Struggle. Why “the loving struggle”? Because in that sort of struggle, you find your own way.

So, Marion’s book was the book at the beginning for me. By way of his work, I found in myself a unity of phenomenology and theology. Of course, I changed, and I’m developing my own way. I’m a bit older now. I’m no longer thirty.

I also greatly appreciate Jean-Louis Chrétien, who died two years ago. His work is very important for me because it’s pretty spiritual. A third important influence is Henri Maldiney. He is not very well known in the US, not translated at all, but he worked on phenomenology in relation to psychiatry and aesthetics. His psychiatrical approach is very important for me, especially in my latest book, which has not yet been translated, Hors phénomène (the extra-phenomenal), about tramautic experience. I wrote that book during the pandemic. I explain that there are five traumas: illness, separation, the death of a child, natural catastrophe, and pandemic.

And of course, a final influence, is Merleau-Ponty. Why Merleau-Ponty? Because you have, in fact, three generations of phenomenology in France. The first generation—Emmanuel Levinas, Merleau-Ponty—was the generation of Husserlians. Michel Henry was also Husserlian. After that, you have the genius of the Heideggerians. Why? Heidegger had been introduced in France by Jean Beaufret, who taught Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Louis Chrétien, and Jean-Yves Lacoste. During the upheaval of May ‘68, many said you don’t have to study psychoanalysis, sociology, etc. So, Marion and all of them were completely against May ‘68. They returned to the tradition and the distinction between the ontic and the ontological. They said: “Psychology, sociology, etc., they are ontical sciences, but we develop an ontology of Dasein called phenomenology, the return to the things themselves.” I am in another generation, which is more Merleau-Pontian. One of the characteristic things about Merleau-Pontian phenomenology is the fact that it is in conversation with all the sciences. That’s why, for example, I wrote a short book about philosophy and psychoanalysis. So, that’s why I’m not like Marion, because I’m not of the same generation. The generation of Marion was a revolt against May ‘68. Yet, at that time, I was only five years old. I was not aware of what was going on. My thought developed during the ’80s, and this moment in France was one of the evolution of the suffering of death and so on. It was an altogether different time.

ZM: You’ve touched on the difficulty of phenomenology already when you were introducing some of the books that might be good for beginners. Obviously, phenomenology is somewhat well known for being pretty heavy on the jargon, pretty difficult to get into. As far as key terms, what would you say are some of the most important ones for folks to know? And how would you define those key terms?

EF: First, I want to say that phenomenology is not a jargon, but sometimes it is like that. Why? Because at the beginning, Husserl was first a mathematician. And as a mathematician, he creates some concepts, he needs some words. So, in fact, Husserl as an author is always very complicated. And it is so complicated that many of his disciples even said, “You are too complicated. We want to come back to a sort of realist phenomenology.” If you are reading, for example, at this time, Edith Stein, it is much easier than Husserl. And even Heidegger, who creates many neologisms and tries to find some etymologies—we are sometimes forced to do so, of course—is easier to read. Merleau-Ponty is even positively easy to read. That’s why some people in France said Merleau-Ponty was not a phenomenologist or philosopher but only a sort of poet. I remember that one of my friends wanted to do a PhD on Merleau-Ponty. He was in the same seminary as me, and he found nobody to supervise his PhD, because Merleau-Ponty was supposedly not a philosopher but a poet, because he invented some terms and so on. One of the difficult points, and it is a shame in France, is the fact that now many people are specialists in phenomenology and they develop a sort of jargon, so nobody understands what they’re speaking about. And now nobody speaks of Heidegger anymore because of the “black notebooks.” Instead they all study Husserl, and because Husserl is complicated, phenomenology became complicated. So, first I want to say that phenomenology is not indeed complicated. The most complicated point is to not be complicated. It’s very easy to be complicated, in fact. What does this mean, though, to not be complicated? It means that we have to describe the phenomenon, and that is difficult. For example, in my book on the extra-phenomenal, I try to describe what it means when something haunts me, for example the death of a child. The idea is that when something haunts me, I’m completely blocked-off—there’s no more reason, nothing can appear to me, and I can’t have access to myself anymore. In that way, there is even no more saturation, no subject anymore. You are just here, and astonished to still be here—that is what I call crisis.

Now, what are the most important key terms to be introduced in phenomenology. Of course, first is the reduction. I spoke about that a bit earlier. There is no phenomenology without reduction. This means that bracketing the thing which is in front of me allows me to ask myself about my relation to the thing. The world does not exist independently of me. This doesn’t mean that the world doesn’t exist; it means that the meaning of my existence is the fact that I am in the world. There are many, many controversies in France about that point because surrealism is coming back and so on. I think that if we speak about the things independently of me, we have lost what was the heart of phenomenology, which is the meaning of the existential relation to the things.

Then, of course, you have the concept of intentionality. This means that my consciousness is, as Merleau-Ponty said, not like a box in which you put the thing. My consciousness is an act, the act through which I am relation to the things by, for example, the affect, by love, and so on. It is impossible, for instance, that first I see you, today, by video call, and then I think, “Oh, he’s very nice.” No, when I see you, I am immediately considering whether you are nice or not. You don’t first have representation and then affectivity, but rather there is always affectivity in the representation. That is what is called intentionality. This is important because you have many, many intentionalities. You have many, many ways to stand in relation to the thing. You can see this principle in the mode of perception, you can see it in the mode of imagination (the mode of memory). What Husserl said is that perception and imagination are two modes of operation of the thing. But this doesn’t mean that the imagination of the representation is only a copy of the thing. There is no copy. After this interview, for example, when you think about it, it continues to exist. It continues to exist in the mode of memory. Before the interview began, the interview existed in the mode of anticipation—you sent me an email asking if it was possible to do the interview. So, the interview exists. Right now, we’re doing the interview, so the interview exists in the mode of perception. And then we will have interview in the mode of memory. But what is the meaning of the interview? The interview in the mode of anticipation can be more important than the interview in the mode of perception, because if the interview doesn’t work, you stay in the mode of anticipation. So, by way of intentionality, you have many, many ways—many acts—of being in relation to those things. Phenomenology is a study of the acts of consciousness, of the acts of the body.

This brings me to the next important theme of phenomenology. It is not only the question of reduction—or epoché—and intentionality, but also that of body. What is new with Merleau-Ponty? There is not only an intentionality of consciousness but also an intentionality of the body. This means that I stand in relation to things through my body. The difference here between consciousness and body is that I have absolutely no consciousness of what’s happened with my body. When I come in a room, for example, I open the room with my body just as I open representation with my consciousness. The orientation of my body is constituting the space. There is not first the space in which I then enter into. I am not in my office now, for example, but I open my office to you by my body, by seeing you.

And in this question of body, you have of course the distinction between flesh and body, or chair and corps in French. In fact, the term “flesh” is quite complicated. Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, and Ricoeur distinguish between the flesh and the body. “Body” is the body itself, as a thing, corps. And the flesh is my manner of living my body in experience. Therefore we always develop a phenomenology of the so-called flesh. Why flesh? My body’s relation to the world is not something I can call flesh, because it’s my body. My work returns to the body itself as a thing, because we forget the biological body, the biological corps, as I suggest in my article, “Is There a Flesh without Body?” There is flesh in Christ, but nobody had explained Christ as a true body, with bones like mine. So, I came up with the notion of the spread-out body. This is the body as situated between Descartes’ extended body and Husserl’s lived body. The body spread-out is my body, my biological body, as animality. But you are not simply an animal, because I also see a human being in you. This means that we have a true body, that is, an animal body, or a biological body, that becomes human in virtue of our way of seeing or envisioning it exactly as centre d’intérêt. At the foot of the cross, the centurion and the others say, “Truly this man was the Son of God” (Matt 27:54). He’s like a man, but he was the Son of God. He’s true flesh on the cross, but we see him as the Son of God.

ZM: In your book, Crossing the Rubicon, you’re exploring the relationship between philosophy and theology. And you had mentioned earlier how you were one of the only ones among your colleagues in phenomenology who’s actually formally studied both, who has degrees in both. Tell me a little bit more about some of the recent developments in the theological turn in French phenomenology, and then maybe a little bit on where your own thinking fits within those movements.

For instance, in Crossing the Rubicon, you talk about the “immense fecundity” of phenomenology for theology, but you also talk about the “counter blow” of theology on phenomenology that has yet to be carried out. Elsewhere, your translators use the phrase “return shock” in talking about theology’s informing philosophy. What do you have in mind by such a “counter blow” or “return shock”?

EF: This book, Crossing the Rubicon, is very important to me. I was with one of my friends on the streets of Paris, and my friend said to me, “You have written several books now, but what are you doing exactly?” So, Crossing the Rubicon tries to answer that question. It’s also a good introduction to my work, but not as accessible as By Way of Obstacles, which is a sort of intellectual biography. In the vein of Descartes, Crossing the Rubicon is more like a ‘discourse on method’ for my own work.

When Janicaud’s book on phenomenology’s theological turn was published, I was completing my studies in theology at the Centre Sérves in Paris. At that point, nobody was talking about that book. I went to the library and explained that there was a very interesting book on French phenomenology and asked if the librarian could perhaps order it.

And then there was a conference organized with about 150 places, but there were no more than thirty people present. Michel Henry was there, along with Janicaud and Marion. At the beginning, it was nothing. And then when Janicaud wrote this book, many phenomenologists said: “It’s against phenomenology, because he’s not a true Heideggerian. It is a sort of orthodoxy.” At the beginning, I thought the same. I thought to myself Janicaud cannot be right. I said it’s not right to somehow correct Marion, correct Henry, correct Ricoeur. Because, in fact, when you read the text, it’s not an accurate representation of what they say. But it’s nevertheless a very interesting book because it is the first diagnosis of what was happening in France at the time, but also a sort of suggestion or proposition of what we have to do today. The diagnosis is right, I now feel. A theological turn in phenomenology did take place, starting with the publication of Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity in 1961. It’s true. Levinas was not a professor at a university, but simply the director of the Israelite center in Paris, so it was possible for him to do what he wanted. But then Marion, Chrétien, Henry all did the same as professors at universities. In France, you don’t speak about theology in the university. It’s impossible, forbidden. If you want to study in France, there is no theology in the public universities, only in the private Catholic ones. In French, we say that, because it is forbidden, you do it. The proverb describes the French people. So, if you forbid me to study theology, I will study theology. That’s exactly what Michel Henry, Jean-Luc Marion, and Jean-Louis Chrétien did. And I did the same. Marion told me the first time I met him in his office: “You have to be like me and invent a mask.” I said, “Never.” However, perhaps because I am at the Catholic University of Paris, I do not have to hide behind a mask. In any case, Dominique Janicaud’s diagnostic is correct: in France, the question of God returned to the universities where we don’t generally speak about God.

In 1991, at the conference I’m talking about, Michel Henry said to Janicaud, “I absolutely do not understand why I am in this book. I never wrote anything about theology, except for a short chapter on Meister Eckhart in The Essence of Manifestation.” This was true at the time, but nine years later, Michel Henry published I Am the Truth and then Incarnation, in which he directly engaged Christian doctrine. So, Janicaud saw before Michel Henry what Michel Henry would go on to do. This book of Janicaud’s is very important for me and was a sort of beginning for my new book on the extra-phenomenon. What is important for my work is the moment when Janicaud asks: What about the dramatic phenomenon? Because, in fact, nothing is dramatic in phenomenology. It is the “face” in Levinas, “givenness” in Marion, “liturgy” in Lacoste; but what about the drama? What about illness? What about separation? What about the death of a child? What about the natural disaster? What about the pandemic? That is why many people told me I am no longer a phenomenologist. What matters, however, is not to be or not to be a phenomenologist; but to describe the phenomenon. Of course I returned to Spinoza, Deleuze, Foucault, etc. I did this to try to find a new way, but it doesn’t mean that I’m no longer a phenomenologist, but simply that I am at the limits of phenomenology.

In Crossing the Rubicon, I explain that the more you theologize, the better you philosophize. This means that when you do theology, you know better when you do philosophy by contrast. One of the difficulties of the older generation of French philosophers is the fact that they’re doing some theology when they say they are doing phenomenology. Me, I try to precipitate the backlash of one on the other. It is not enough, to my mind, to phenomenologize the theology. Sometimes it seems to me that the phenomenologist is telling the theologian what to do. For example, at the beginning of Michel Henry’s Incarnation or the beginning of I Am the Truth, it is all about not needing to study the history of theology anymore, like the history of the text, and so forth. You have to go directly to the text. In other words, you have no real discussion with the theologian anymore. It’s a bit the same, to my mind, with Marion, who explains at the beginning of God Without Being how it would be good if the theologian could describe the phenomenon, and so on. But all these philosophers always said, “I’m not practicing theology.” Me, I’m completely against this pretense. When you study theology, you understand better. And Marion knows that now, because his last book on revelation is much more theological than the others. We have a lot to learn from theology. For example, in theology you can’t speak about flesh only as the lived body. Tertullian is absolutely against Docetism, which says that Christ only adopted a sort of spiritual flesh but didn’t assume a true body, with blood, hair, bones, and so on. Tertullian, in his book On the Flesh of Christ, is completely against that. He explains that Christ was not an angel. This is an example of precipitating that backlash of theology on phenomenology. In fact, there was a sort of turn in my work between The Metamorphosis of Finitude and The Wedding Feast of the Lamb. When I finished The Metamorphosis of Finitude, a book on birth and resurrection, a medical doctor—not a religious one—wrote to me and said, “Mr. Falque, perhaps you fall in the camp you criticize. You explain the resurrection is the resurrection of the lived body, but what are you doing about the real body, the biological body?” And he told me, “But Mr. Falque, the cadaver of Christ is no longer in the tomb.” So, if only the lived body were raised, then the biological body would have to remain in the tomb. I am just now finishing a new book that will be published next year entitled La chair du christ, “the flesh of Christ,” about precisely this issue: how do we deal today with the biological body in the Eucharist, in the resurrection, and so on.

ZM: In your interview with Tarek Dika in his Quiet Powers of the Possible, you talk about the influence of the Second Vatican Council, as well as John Paul II’s idea of the new evangelization, on phenomenology. You speak about these as important for the development of phenomenological thought, particularly since the theological turn. How would you describe the importance of these two influences in particular on the thinking of phenomenologists who are Christian like yourself?

EF: The new evangelization has been very important to me, as to many people, but not in the way in which we’re speaking about it, because my thinking has changed somewhat. But the meaning of the new evangelization, for me, and what Pope John Paul II tried to do, is the fact that we have to come back to the question of experience, the experience of God. That’s why he wrote his PhD on phenomenology, on Max Scheler specifically: the important authors for John Paul II are Thomas Aquinas, Max Scheler, and Edith Stein. But the new evangelization is interpreted as a sort of apologetics. But for me, there is no more apologetics. This is an absolutely profound gap between Jean-Luc Marion and me. Perhaps when I was young, I was thinking of apologetics as if everyone had to become a Christian like me. But I changed a lot on that point when I was about thirty-five. I wrote a chapter in The Metamorphosis of Finitude about whether there is a “drama of atheist humanism,” which is a reference to de Lubac’s book of that title. I explain there that, no, there is no drama of atheist humanism. De Lubac’s diagnosis perhaps was not without merit at the time; but, in fact, times change and we are no longer in the same position. We all have friends and family who do not believe in God, but we can’t condemn them. It’s not enough to think, “You have to become like me. You have to believe in Jesus Christ.” In this case, you do not change. In other words, you do not change if you only want to change the other. You are not engaging in a true dialogue. So, on my understanding, the new evangelization is not apologetic, but instead prophetic: it is a question of “be careful what might happen.” The current pope, Francis, is currently developing an evangelization that is closer to what I’m doing, which is to have discussion, to stand in relation to those who are different from me. For example, in my book on Freud, I explained that there is not only a backlash of theology on phenomenology but also of psychoanalysis on phenomenology, and so on.

What is important for me is the quote of Pope John XXIII at the opening of the Second Vatican Council, which attests to the fact that we need to develop doctrine with the concepts and the means of today, of our contemporary culture. If our culture today is defined by finitude, which is exactly what Foucault said—that finitude is the figure of the modern human—then we have to engage modern culture and translate the message in its language, rather than adapting the message. We absolutely do not transform the message but only the culture in theology. We need to do today what Thomas Aquinas did with Aristotle: Thomas did not translate Aristotle in theology; he transformed Aristotle in theology. This means first that we have something in common, what I have learned to call “the human being as such.” We are human before we are believers. This is completely forgotten by the generation of phenomenologists before me—Jean-Luc Marion, Jean-Louis Chrétien, Michel Henry, and so on—because there is a sort of apologetics for them. Their approach is to try to get the other to see what I see, to say, “If you don’t see it, I hope you will see it today.” I refuse to do this. This is why there are many people reading my books who don’t believe in God. They are not Christian. They are reading my books because there is a sort of cultural ground to the books. Resurrection means something even just culturally speaking.

ZM: Talking about some of your differences with Marion, you’ve also shared about how friendly you are with him and his family. What are the areas of his thought that find the most resonance in your work? And then on the other side of things, what are the parts of his work that are most in discord with your own?

EF: I can say Marion is and was mon maître, my teacher. And we need to have a teacher. I try now to be a teacher for students. You need someone who is not only a friend but also an example to follow. Marion has been someone like that for me. Why? First, because he continues to write books. When I am with students and colleagues, I explain that it’s not enough to ask the students to speak and then we will say what we think of it. No, we have to write papers. We have to continue to work, and work a lot. That is the first lesson I learned from Marion.

The second lesson I learned from Marion is to return to the text, to return to the tradition of philosophy. This was very important for my whole generation, in fact for all the people who did their PhDs with Marion in the ’90s. We all did the same thing, which Marion taught us, namely showing that particular authors were not in fact onto-theologians. Marion would read all these histories of philosophy through a Heideggerian interpretation, not in a diachronic way, but rather synchronically. He did this for Pascal, he did it for Descartes, and then he asked his students to do the same with the authors they were reading. But this question for me is now completely overcome, it’s in the past, finished. In fact, onto-theology does not exist. We know that it was only an interpretation of the young Martin Heidegger in his PhD on Duns Scotus. This interpretation is that there is always the ontos (beingness) which is connected to the theos (God) by the logos. Onto-theology means that we always develop the question of immanence to refer to a transcendence in the logos. I say, no, that doesn’t exist. The interesting point here, which Marion never thought, to my mind, is the fact that when Heidegger criticized onto-theology, it was to say that philosophy is not theological. In other words, he wanted to study ontology without any theology. This means that finitude is first, horizontality is first, the human being is first. In response, Marion says philosophy is not onto-theological because the figure of God is not a principle. And this is true. In Marion’s chapter on Nietzsche in The Idol and Distance, he offers an interpretation of Nietzsche’s formula that “God has died.” Really, there are three interpretations of Nietzsche’s formula. The first one is the “death of God.” God has died. Thanks, Nietzsche! This interpretation stems from the fact that Christianity is the only religion where God dies. It becomes what we call the theology of the “death of God,” which we saw in the ’70s. Then you have Jean-Luc Marion, who says to Nietzsche, “Exactly who died in this death of God?” For Marion, it is the principle that has died, the god of Plato, the god of the philosophers. This is why Marion’s style is to go back to Pascal and the god of Abraham rather than the god of the philosophers. But, in fact, Nietzsche is saying, first, that God has died and, second, that God remains dead. You have two sentences. For me, the important piece is that God remains dead. So then the question is the absence of God. The question is not to say that we don’t have to speak about the idol of God, so that now we have the like-God and are only to develop a sort of phenomenology of Christ. Rather, for Nietzsche, God is dead because the power of resurrection died. That’s why, for me, if we do not speak about the resurrection, it will be the death of Christianity, because resurrection is a force of God. That is a point which is completely different in Marion and me.

And that’s why I engage Nietzsche, not to condemn Nietzsche but to learn what the power of force means, the question of power. For me, the Holy Spirit is not to be defined only as what God is giving to the Lord, as in the Orthodox tradition, which is linearly, not only the love between the Father and the Son, which is the Catholic tradition. The Holy Spirit is a force, so we have to come back to a definition of God as force.

In that way, there is something very different about Marion compared to me, even in the question of apologetics. I need to be converted by someone who doesn’t believe in God. Why? Because it’s not sure that someone who doesn’t believe in God lacks God. We say that God gave the means to human being to exist without him, but “without” does not mean “against” him. This is exactly what Merleau-Ponty said to de Lubac at the beginning of his ‘In Praise of Philosophy,’ which I discuss in The Metamorphosis of Finitude, in the chapter about atheism. He said to de Lubac: it’s not because I don’t speak about God that I am against God. The times change. During the ’70s, after May ‘68, it was a battle fought between Christianity and Sartre and so on, and it was a matter of being against God. And so Marion developed a sort of apologetics to save God from those who are against God, who criticize God philosophically. Me, in the ’80s, I found myself in a very different situation. People are generally not against God; they don’t even speak about God anymore. The question today is to know to what extent there is a space for talk of God. Because if we don’t speak of God, if God is not the Word of our Scripture anymore, is it possible for God to encounter us? The answer is no: it’s impossible. This is why we have to develop a theology of culture. I know this term is very controversial in the US, due to Paul Tillich, but we need to develop a theology about the needs of dogma in culture. My perspective on Nietzsche means that we don’t have to save God. I never said that everyone has to believe in God, but God does need our words to speak to us. I don’t have to convert the people, because this is a work of God, but I do have to give God the means to do it.

ZM: You’re also very well known for your work on finitude. Of course, this is a very Heideggerian idea as in Heidegger’s sense of being-towards-death. In your book, The Guide to Gethsemane, for example, you’re exploring this idea in detail and especially the relationship between Christ facing his own finitude and the human person facing his or her own finitude. Tell me about your conception of finitude as something that’s inherent in human experience and also how you relate Christ’s sense of finitude with the human person’s sense of finitude.

EF: I wrote that book whilst I was doing my PhD and teaching philosophy at a secondary school. At the time, I never would have thought that I’d write a book in my life or teach at a university. In 1997, two of my friends died, one by suicide and the other in a car crash, which deeply affected me. And then I gave a lecture in a monastery about the anguish of death, and the priest there suggested I send the paper to a journal. So, I sent it to the Nouvelle Revue Théologique, and they told me it was too long. You’re writing a book, they said. Writing a book, I thought, me? Can I do that? But in the end, I did write that book and sent it to the French publisher Cerf, and they responded saying they thought it was very good. So, I finished the manuscript and I published it. The book was actually published before I finished my PhD.

Another confession. I was teaching Sartre to the pupils at school. I was teaching them Existentialism Is a Humanism. One day, I was on the bridge coming back from my course and thinking about Sartre saying that you are the sum of your acts. So, you can say: I should be a very good mother, but I never had children; I should be a very good philosopher, but I never found time to write books. That’s why I decided to work immediately and not say—as I often see in the American system—that I need to have time to do my PhD, I need to have a scholarship, etc. In France, you have no scholarships, so everybody is working and teaching at the same time. The system is completely different in France because we don’t have money. We have perhaps some ideas but absolutely no money. For example, I did my PhD in four years while having 150 pupils and more than one hundred pieces of homework to correct each month.

Another point is that when those two friends died, I was reading Heidegger, and Heidegger spoke to me more than the Gospel. Heidegger said that, when one is born, one is already old enough to die. This means that death is a consequence of incarnation, not only of death and not only of sin, but of incarnation. And I think it’s perhaps the same with Christ. When he is born, he is old enough to die. If death is not only a consequence of sin, what does death mean? In Genesis, death is not the biological death but a way of being closed. If you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you will die. You will die to die. You will close in on yourself, that is the spiritual meaning of sin. That is exactly what Tertullian said, for example, the first father of the church. It changed a bit with Augustine, but this is what was taught at the beginning of Christianity. In that way, I was very close to Heidegger on the question of finitude. In Being and Time, he says that a Christian can’t experience the anxiety of death because they always see death in light of life. He means that for the Christian death is never death, because it is never present; it is a passage to a new life. But the death of Christ was a true death. In fact, when Christ says, “It is finished,” it is finished. Nothing happened anymore. So, from the cross, Christ does not say, “I will die and I will come back in three days,” but rather, “I die and my life is finished.”

We often confuse, even in theology, finitude and the finite. The finite is part of the infinite. This means you are first infinite and then you fall to the finite, which is exactly what Descartes said: in my self, I have as the idea of the infinite more so than that of the finite. As I explain in The Metamorphosis of Finitude, all the French phenomenologists are in fact Cartesian, because infinity comes first—the face in Levinas, givenness in Marion, prayer in Chrétien, auto-affection in Henry, liturgy in Lacoste. It is always infinite, absolute. So, we come back to the question of Janicaud: what happened to finitude? Finitude is not the contrary of the infinite. Finitude has no contrary because it is the reason for my life. In that way, we have to come back to what Foucault said about the modern human being. He said the figure of the modern human being is the figure of finitude. So, if we want to develop Christian doctrine with the concepts and means of today, we must deal with the question of finitude. That is why finitude and incarnation are two important terms in my philosophy and in my theology, too.

ZM: From The Guide to Gethsemane, you move into The Metamorphosis of Finitude, in which you’re talking about this transformation of finitude in the resurrection. Here you have this really interesting interplay between birth and rebirth, on the one hand, and then resurrection, on the other. So, you’re using birth and rebirth as a kind of way to understand resurrection. What is the relationship, then, in your mind, between birth and rebirth, on the one hand, and resurrection, on the other?

EF: The concept of transformation, or metamorphosis, became more and more important in my work. In fact, the difference between The Metamorphosis of Finitude and The Guide to Gethsemane is the fact that it’s not enough to say that Christianity is a sort of parting up of the other paradigms. You don’t have aesthetics and then ethics, and then Christology, and so on. No, because the resurrection changed everything. The word for resurrection and metamorphosis is the same in the New Testament, particularly in St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 15. There he says we will not all die, but all will be changed—metamorphosed—at the final resurrection. So, we will all be metamorphosed. The difference between me and the other phenomenologists of the prior generation is the fact that I believe we need a transformation of our humanity by divinity. Transformation doesn’t mean that we are better than the others, but we are transformed. We can say that the experience of conversion is translated in philosophy by the word metamorphosis.

The second point is that metamorphosis is not only our small conversion during our life. Many, many people are speaking about resurrection as conversion. So, for instance, “I live the resurrection today because I spoke with my daughter.” This is not a resurrection. Resurrection in Christianity is a resurrection of the body at the end, at the end of time. That’s why I speak about body and try to think about what it means to be a body in the case of resurrection.

In my book on the extra-phenomenal, not yet published in English, the leitmotif is not the Heideggerian “so much appearance, so much being” or Marion’s “so much reduction, so much givenness.” My leitmotif is: so much exception, so much modification. So much exception, meaning, something that happens to me that blocks me. The death of my child, the separation from my wife, etc. None of these are matters of sin. If you are separated from your wife, it’s not your fault. Rather, it haunts you, and you say: how is it possible that I am here now? You are completely transformed. You are not the same anymore. If you lose a child, you are completely changed by this experience. You can’t recognize yourself. You are not recognized by others. You have been transformed completely.

So, the idea of metamorphosis, in my work, was first a theological idea and then became a phenomenological one as well. I started to develop a phenomenology of metamorphosis, not only a phenomenology of exemplification. Something has to change. And this transformation is not a Heideggerian one, because there is no overcoming. There is no overcoming because I am blocked by what happens to me. And when I am blocked, I can only state that I am here. I am here, that is a definition of crisis in my book. We are living through many crises today, the pandemic, the climate crisis, etc. So, we have to develop a philosophy of crisis. This is what I do, but in an ontological and phenomenological way. But what is crisis really? It is astonishing to be always there, to not know why I am always present. It is to be burdened with myself, to feel the weight of myself. At the end of the book, I discuss solitude, and I propose that there is an original solitude. When I am traumatized, I am completely alone. If I lose my child, I am alone. I can’t share what I am experiencing, even with my wife. So, we don’t have to share anything anymore. We have to realize that there are some things we cannot share. And those things we can’t share are exactly who we are. Therefore, I speak of the “core of solitude.” What is this core? It is a hole in myself. I can go only around this hole to describe it. And I know that I have this hole. None of this, however, means that I am always alone. I define at the end of the book what love is, for instance: love is a link between two solitudes. So, if you are married, you are linked to your wife. Your inability to communicate with her is part of your love. What is incommunicable between us is the reason why we love each other. So, my wife knows that I am this, but my wife doesn’t know what it is. I know that I am this, but I don’t know what it is. But we love ourselves in this impossibility to say what it is. This question of solitude, which is not solipsism, seems very important to me.

So, we are always in transformation. That’s why I use birth and rebirth as a way to speak about transformation. Why birth and rebirth? Because I am convinced that in theology it is impossible to think about dogma, all theological concepts, all theologoumena, apart from human experience. If you do that, they become completely empty. If I say to you, “You will be resurrected at the end of time,” you will say, “Yes, and what does it mean to be resurrected?” And I will say, “It is a mystery.” That means nothing! If you say, “It is a mystery,” that is the end of Christianity. You have to think about what resurrection is. You have to think about this mystery in the words of today. In that way, you have to find a sort of existential to explain what you want to say with the Christian dogma. That’s why I discuss the death and suffering of the human being followed by the death and suffering of Christ in my The Guide to Gethsemane. That’s also why I discuss the birth of the human being and the rebirth of Christ. At the beginning of the Gospel of John, Nicodemus asks Jesus how a man can come back in the womb of his mother. Thomas Aquinas said this was a bad question because Nicodemus didn’t understand that Jesus was speaking about spiritual birth rather than carnal birth. What is born from flesh is flesh. What is born from the spirit is spirit. But this an analogy, not an argument. In the same manner that flesh is coming from flesh, the spirit is coming from spirit. So, you have to develop a phenomenology of flesh in order to develop a theology of resurrection. You have the same with “this is my body” in The Wedding Feast of the Lamb. That sentence, “This is my body,” is possible to say in the corporal, the sexual, relationship. You have to develop the meaning of a sexual relationship with my body to understand how this sentence is erotic, too. The term of “passion” does not only denote suffering. Passion is a desire. In French and in English you can speak of a passion for biking, skateboarding—I did skateboard when I was young—passion as a hobby. What did Christ say at the beginning of the passion? He said, “I desire of a big desire to eat this Passover with you.” Desire of a big desire. So, desire of desire. This serves a definition of human desire in Hegel. So, you see a host in the Eucharist. It is the same for Holy Saturday. What is Holy Saturday? It is the moment when Christ comes in our suffering, in our trauma. Holy Saturday is not about sin. The question of sin is for the end of time. Christ is coming in in what I live. It was not my fault, the death of my child, my illness, and so on. In that way, we have to develop a theology of trauma to develop a theology of Holy Saturday. In the extra-phenomenal, God can do what we can’t do. It is possible only for God to be with me in my solitude, because he is the resurrected Emmanuel. If I am always in solitude from the other in what I am suffering, God can be present with me because he’s resurrected. “It is no longer me who lives, but Christ who lives in me,” said St. Paul in the Epistle to the Galatians.

ZM: Moving to our last couple questions, you’ve already danced your way into talk of the flesh, the body. You also use terms like “animality” and “human animality,” especially in your book, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, which you mentioned. So, my question is: what exactly do you mean by these terms? And then how do you relate them to the Eucharist specifically?

EF: This question of animality has been very important for me. It was also spiritual, in fact. When I finished The Metamorphosis of Finitude, it seemed to me that my concept of flesh was too abstract. Around this time, I had a difficult experience. Well, in fact, it was not so difficult, but it was difficult for me. I had bought a house but hadn’t sold the other one. So, I had two houses. I have a family with four children. So, this was absolutely incredible. And I remember that I was in front of the sea with all my family, and my wife said to me, “Stop to see only on the ground!” And I said, “Shit!” And I came back in my car and took my new book and wrote, “Nietzsche was right!” Why? Because we have to come back to the passion and so on. At this time, I had a spiritual companion, a spiritual director, who was a religious sister. She told me, “If you want to write a book about Eucharist, you don’t necessarily have to go to mass each day. You have to live and you will see.” In that moment, she was saying that if God is not present in my passion, in my drive, and so on, then he is not there anymore.

The concept of animality is for me first a methodological concept. When I speak about animality, I don’t mean animals, even if I have nothing against animals. Animality is the opposite of angelism. What is an angel, or angelism? It is a consciousness without body, like the Cartesian “cogito.” I think, therefore I am; but always without body. Animality, on the other hand, is a body without consciousness. Thus, it is the contrary of the angel. The question is what it means to be a body without consciousness and not a consciousness without a body. Like Nietzsche showed, and Spinoza before him, we can do more with our body than with our consciousness. Spinoza’s example is that of somnambulism. You can do many things with your body in the case of somnambulism, but if you wake up, you fall. It is the same with Peter in the tempest before Christ. He is on the sea with his body, but when he sees that he is on the sea, he falls. So, we have to develop a philosophy of the body. I no longer speak about the flesh. What is the philosophy of the body? This is my body, and in the erotic experience, it is biological, too. It is not only what I feel. Now, there is resistance of the body. In that way, animality belongs to humanity. If you are thinking about Darwin, it’s not useful to all Christians. But why do we not speak about animality? It is because we do not know the difference between animality and bestiality. What is bestiality? In philosophy, it is the act of refusing one’s animality. Bestiality is sin. It is the possibility for animality to fall down. It is paradoxically only a possibility for the human being. Only a human can be beastly. Only the human can have, for example, some pornographic comportment; not the animal. The animal is always animal, but a human being can fall in bestiality or be metamorphosed in humanity. What does it mean, then, in the Eucharist when Christ says, “This is my body,” to his church and to his disciples? It doesn’t mean only that you took my body and now it’s a sort of divinization. No. The Eucharist is a sort of humanization of animality: the Eucharist is a way by which your animality is transformed into humanity. Not so that you can become a human being, for the aim of Christianity is absolutely not humanism; but rather so that you can become the son of God as a human being. That’s why I’m now very close to Thomas Aquinas. This is the difference of what I call the “limited phenomenon” in front of the “saturated phenomenon” of Jean-Luc Marion. We have been created in the limits; but the limit is not limitation. This is the difference between Thomas Aquinas and Heidegger. I make this point in Saint Bonaventure and the Entrance of God into Theology. The difference between Heidegger and Thomas is that, for Heidegger, finitude is a constant. It is a fact: the fact of finitude, or facticity. But for Thomas Aquinas, finitude, or the limit, is the desire of God: God created earth and human beings, which means that they are completely different from him. In that way, animality is what we are: we can fall in bestiality or become human in filiation, but we never have to overcome or break our limits, because we have been created in our limits. For Thomas Aquinas, the beatitude at the end of time will happen in our limits. We’ll always stay in our limits, because we are created and we are creatures.

ZM: That’s beautiful. Let’s move to our final question now, which is about your forthcoming book with Cascade, which we’re really excited about. We’ll be publishing it in the next few months, and it’s titled By Way of Obstacles: A Pathway through a Work. For our readers and our listeners, what is your purpose in writing this book? And then, more to the point, how do you go about providing a “pathway through” your work?

EF: This book is very important to me because it is a more personal one. It is a sort of intellectual biography. At the basis of the book, there are the discussions we had about my work at a conference, and I was trying to respond to the objections. Do not forget that I am a Franciscan and an Ignatian. I am a Franciscan because of the love of the world, the presence of God in creation, the joy, and so on. And I am Ignatian because of the question of discernment. Discernment is first. Discernment is not only a spiritual position; it is an intellectual one. I can find my way through the others, to discuss with the others, as in the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola you discuss with God, you say yes, no, okay for that way, this path is not the good one, and so on. That’s why my book, The Loving Struggle, is so important for me. There, I enter into debate with others, with Marion, with Merleau-Ponty, with Derrida, with Henry, with Chrétien, with Lacoste, and so on, to find my own way. I think By Way of Obstacles is a very good title, a very good translation of the title from French. But, in fact, I rewrote the book. This book is not the translation of the French book. I pulled all the discussion with the French people to make this book a sort of intellectual biography. It is perhaps most of all an introduction to my work by myself. It’s very easy to read. Secondly, in this book, you have the whole of my work. I try to link all my work together there. Third, this book is a sort of spiritual path where I develop my own way. There are many passages, for example, on what it means to write, on whether I will die if I do not write, etc. So, it is my life that is written in my book.

ZM: I think this is a great place to wrap up our interview. I just want to say thank you so much. This has been a real pleasure and an honor to speak with you. I know it’s evening for you, so have a wonderful evening. It’s only 9:00 am here on the Pacific Coast, so I’m just finishing my tea and getting my day started. But thank you again for taking the time. We appreciate it.

EF: Thanks so much, Zech. I hope to see you again soon.

Emmanuel Falque is Honorary Dean at the Faculty of Philosophy of Catholic University of Paris. He specializes in patristic and medieval philosophy, phenomenology, and philosophy of religion. Many of his books are translated in his English. The last one, By Way of Obstacles, is a kind of personal intellectual biography, the best introduction to himself by himself. 

Falque’s new book, By Way of Obstacles

In By Way of Obstacles, Emmanuel Falque revisits the major themes of his work—finitude, the body, and the call for philosophers and theologians to “cross the Rubicon” by entering into dialogue—in light of objections that have been offered. In so doing, he offers a pathway through a work that will offer valuable insights both to newcomers to his thought and to those who are already familiar with it. For it is only after one has carved out one’s pathway that one may see more clearly where one has been and where one might be going. Here readers will discover the profound relation between Falque’s emphasis on the human experience of the world and his desire for philosophy and Christian theology to enter into conversation. For only by speaking within the human horizon of finitude can Christianity be credible for human beings, and it is because Christian theology teaches that God entered into our finitude that it can also teach us something of what it is to be human.

Show Notes


The Phenomenology Booth:


Dika, Tarek. Quiet Powers of the Possible: Interviews in Contemporary French Phenomenology.

Falque, Emmanuel. By Way of Obstacles: A Pathway through a Work.

———. Crossing the Rubicon: The Borderlands of Philosophy and Theology.

———. The Guide to Gethsemane: Anxiety, Suffering, Death.

———. Hors phénomène: Essai aux confins de la phénoménalité.

———. The Loving Struggle: Phenomenological and Theological Debates.

———. The Metamorphosis of Finitude: An Essay on Birth and Resurrection.

———. The Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eros, the Body, and the Eucharist.

———. Saint Bonaventure and the Entrance of God Into Theology.

Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time.

———. Duns Scotus’s Doctrine of Categories and Meaning.

———. Ponderings II–VI: Black Notebooks 1931–1938.

———. Ponderings VI–XI: Black Notebooks 1938–1939.

———. Ponderings XII–XV: Black Notebooks 1939–1942.

Henry, Michel. I Am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity.

———. Incarnation: A Philosophy of Flesh.

Ignatius of Loyola. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.

Janicaud, Dominique. Phenomenology and the Theological Turn: The French Debate.

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority.

Marion, Jean-Luc. God Without Being: Hors-Texte.

———. The Idol and Distance: Five Studies.

———. Reduction and Givenness: Investigations of Husserl, Heidegger, and Phenomenology.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Existentialism Is a Humanism.

Tertullian. On the Flesh of Christ.


(02:00) – Describing the phenomenon

(07:37) – Merleau-Ponty, Marion, and Janicaud

(11:19) – Meeting Marion

(18:40) – Genealogy of French phenomenology

(21:00) – Science or poetry?

(25:05) – Reduction, intentionality, and body

(34:25) – The “counterblow” of theology

(51:02) – Phenomenology as apologetics?

(58:40) – The “loving struggle” with Marion

(01:11:40) – Finitude

(01:23:10) – Resurrection and (re)birth

(01:38:02) – Animality and humanity

(1:49:49) – “A pathway through a work”


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