Adam Y. Wells: The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenōsis

Nikolaas Deketelaere

The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenosis Book Cover The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenosis
SUNY series in Theology and Continental Thought
Adam Y. Wells. Foreword by Kevin Hart
SUNY Press
Hardback $80.00

Reviewed by: Nikolaas Deketelaere (Balliol College,  University of Oxford)

Radicalisation as Entmenschlichung

Notes on the credibility of a phenomenology of Scripture

Since the exegete exists historically and must hear the word of Scripture as spoken in his special historical situation, he will always understand the old word anew. Always anew it will tell him who he, man, is and who God is, and he will always have to express this word in a new conceptuality. Thus it is true also of Scripture that it only is what it is with its history and its future.

Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, 296.[1]

Adam Wells’ new book, The Manifest and the Revealed: A Phenomenology of Kenōsis, is a provocative one. With Husserl, it takes up once more the dream of phenomenology as an absolute science, that is to say, a presuppositionless science that as such is able to ground all positive sciences. In doing so, Wells sees an analogy between the phenomenological gesture of reduction and Paul’s so-called kenosis hymn (Philippians 2:5-11). Exploring this analogy by operating a kenotic reduction, he sets up a phenomenology of Scripture in which the phenomenological method and Scripture mutually clarify one another (97-117). It is in this phenomenology of Scripture that contemporary Biblical criticism ought to be grounded, according to Wells, because it alone does not let itself be restricted by dogmatic presuppositions that arbitrarily impose limits on how and to what extent the experience of Scripture enters the field of inquiry. Only this phenomenology would be presuppositionless, thus forming an absolute science of Scripture, that is able to ground the scientificity of positive Biblical criticism. The thrust of the book is then made up of an intriguing critique of contemporary Biblical criticism, the problem with which, Wells suggest, “is not that it is overly scientific, but that it is not scientific enough” (150).[2]

To those of us shaped by his most significant critics, Heidegger and Derrida, Husserl’s dream of an absolute science sounds more like the stuff of nightmares. Wells is all too aware of this and admits from the outset that there are very good reasons to be suspicious of the very idea of absolute science “as a modernist, metaphysical ideal” (1), pointing to the calamities of the twentieth century as an example. Yet, he says, entirely abandoning the dream of absolute science would amount to giving up “any ability to ground the sciences, to determine the boundaries of scientific inquiry, and to provide answers to meta-theoretical questions about the ethical status of the sciences. (…) For that, one needs absolute science; one needs a way to ground the sciences in the broader context of the life-world” (2). Returning us to the foundational need that was felt so urgently in the first decades of the last century—embodied philosophically by Husserl and theologically by Barth—, the “‘dream’ of absolute science is not a metaphysical ideal,” for Wells, “but a practical necessity” (2). Of course, this simply ignores the fact that said dream could very well be both a metaphysical ideal and a practical necessity at the same time: as it was for Kant, for whom the moral God is needed to make the scientific endeavour meaningful whilst remaining himself outside the scope of that endeavour, which secures the very nature of ethical reasoning as distinct from science and thus able to ask such questions about science.[3] Kant’s insight is precisely that even though something may be practically necessary, that does not make it theoretically possible; it is a question of making this impossibility into an asset rather than an obstacle (as Derrida knew all too well). Nevertheless, Wells intends “to dream Husserl’s dream again, to reopen the question of absolute science, navigating between the practical necessity of such a science and the temptation to universalize it” (2).

Aware of how this sounds, however, he is quick to note that both absolute and science will “lose their mundane imperial connotations when transformed phenomenologically” (7). The first half of the book executes that phenomenological transformation by spelling out what Wells means by absolute science. Throughout its three chapters, Wells tracks the radicalisation of phenomenology and its reduction from Husserl’s early static phenomenology, through his later genetic phenomenology, and up to the constructive phenomenology developed by Eugen Fink and Anthony Steinbock. This exposition perhaps contains little that would be new to anyone familiar with the basics of phenomenological philosophy and its transcendental method, but it is remarkably clear and—unlike much Husserl scholarship and to Wells’ great credit—avoids any self-indulgent revelling in the immense technical complexity of Husserl’s philosophy: like all good phenomenology, this is a constructive work.

The phenomenologically transformed conception of absolute science Wells ends up with is then the following. Starting with science, he says that whilst “mundane sciences are concerned with that which is given in the world; phenomenology is concerned with how the given becomes given” (60). In other words, unlike the positive sciences, phenomenology is not a science of innerwordly objects; as an absolute science, it considers the constitutive source of these objects as unities of meaning and is operative within the new ontological field that Husserl calls transcendental subjectivity, which is opened up by the reduction: “Absolute science must, therefore, be a science of transcendental subjectivity” (20), for “as the source of all objectivity,” it is “the proper subject matter of absolute science” (21). So far, so Husserlian. For his understanding of the absolute, then, Wells turns to Fink, who defines the absolute as the synthetic unity of the whole of transcendental life, not merely the constitution of objects, but also the transcendental act of phenomenologising itself. That is to say, phenomenology is absolute because it maintains itself in a circular self-referentiality: the transcendental reflection on the constitution of objects itself leads to a transcendental reflection on the phenomenological method, which then in turn renews the transcendental reflection on constitution. “In the phenomenological reduction,” as Wells puts it, “transcendental subjectivity investigates its own constituting activity. Consequently, if phenomenology is going to be complete, if it is going to investigate all aspects of transcendental subjectivity, then it must investigate its own investigation, in the form of a transcendental theory of method. (…) The ultimate ‘object’ of phenomenology is the transcendental subject” (57-58).

As such, Wells believes to have seen off the modernist imperialist connotations of the notion of absolute science: “Consequently, phenomenology is not a universal science even if it is an absolute science. As a scientific practice on the part of transcendental subjectivity, phenomenology is within the process of genesis even as it evaluates the generation of givenness. (…) Phenomenology has no right to the phrase ‘once and for all’” (46). Indeed, precisely because, as caught up in its own circular self-referentiality, phenomenology exists in an infinite hermeneutic circle that it cannot escape to define the absolute ‘once and for all’: since it is itself absolute, “phenomenology cannot transcend the Absolute in order to offer a final objective account of the absolute” (71). This is an impressive and sound argument. However, at the same time, if “phenomenology guarantees its absoluteness only to the extent that it is self-referential” (51), the conception of the absolute offered is merely a formal one that lacks any material content. Wells, as it were, gives us no entry into the hermeneutic circle.

Yet, this is entirely the point, for it is here that absolute science becomes an absolute science of Scripture, that phenomenology becomes a phenomenology of Scripture, which follows from the radicalisation of phenomenology as such. For, Wells remarks, “while Fink’s ‘theory of method’ goes a long way toward radicalizing Husserl’s concept of absolute science, it remains incomplete inasmuch as Fink never connects the theory of method to any particular phenomenal element. Fink never performs absolute science” (150). In virtue of phenomenology or absolute science’s circular structure, the absolute cannot be defined in advance, but only takes shape within the practice (the performance) of phenomenology, within the phenomenological analysis of phenomena: “absolute science only becomes absolute in concrete application. That is to say, the method of absolute science cannot be specified in advance; it must be derived from concrete engagement with phenomena” (2). The material element chosen by Wells to make the formal notion of absolute science substantive is Scripture: “the phenomenological idea of absolute science,” he says, “gains real content inasmuch as theoretical phenomenological reflection exists in a ‘synthetic unity’ with scripture itself” (156). That is to say, following Fink, Scripture is a positive phenomenal element, transcendental reflection on which leads inevitably to transcendental reflection on the phenomenological method itself and thus fleshes out that method (makes it leibhaftig). As such, it is indeed the case that “Scripture and phenomenology elucidate one another within the circular hermeneutic of absolute science” (3).  However, insofar as Wells seems to imply more generally that “if scripture requires phenomenological clarification,” it would be the case that “phenomenology requires scriptural clarification” (2), he seems to be taking this a bit too far: Scripture is but one possible material element amongst many capable of clarifying the formal method, even if phenomenological reduction and the kenosis hymn are analogous in structure.

Having made the bridge between phenomenology and Scripture—namely that, to be a properly absolute science, phenomenology must be performed or applied to particular phenomenal elements, in this case Scripture—, we can now consider how Wells performs phenomenology, how he develops his phenomenology of Scripture as an absolute science of Scripture in the second half of the book. He proceeds by reading the kenosis hymn phenomenologically in order to argue that it “operates as a type of phenomenological reduction—a kenotic reduction that is, in the end, far more radical than Husserl’s reduction” (97), which means, given the circular structure of phenomenology, that phenomenology is itself in the end kenotic. This kenotic reduction is a bold but perhaps flawed idea. Its original sin is perhaps that it is based on an extremely uncritical reprisal of Fink’s understanding of the reduction that links it to divine cognition, the formulation of which Wells repeatedly cites throughout the book: “already in German idealism,” Fink says, “there was the recognition that the traditional antithesis between ‘intellectus archetypus’ and ‘intellectus ectypus’, which constituted metaphysical difference between human and divine knowledge, in truth signified the antithesis between human and un-humanized (entmenscht) philosophical cognition,”[4] which would mean that “phenomenologizing is not a human possibility at all, but signifies precisely the un-humanizing of man, the passing of human existence (…) into the transcendental subject. (…) Before phenomenologizing is actually realized in carrying out the reduction there is no human possibility of cognizing phenomenologically (…). Just as man is the transcendental subject closed off to its own living depths, so too all human possibilities are closed off to the inner transcendentality of the subject. Man cannot as man phenomenologize, that is, the human mode of being cannot perdure through the actualization of phenomenological cognition. Performing the reduction means for man to rise beyond (to transcend) himself, it means to rise beyond himself in all his human possibilities.”[5] It is here, Wells says, that “the analogy between reduction and the kenosis hymn becomes clear. By bracketing the world, and all being in the world, the human ‘I’ of the natural attitude calls into question that which it fundamentally is. The human ‘I’ relinquishes its ties to the world, emptying itself of its own humanity” (104). Kenosis, for Wells, is thus not the divine emptying itself of its divinity and in doing so becoming human; but, somewhat bizarrely, the human being emptying itself of its own humanity (being-in-the-world) and in doing so achieving transcendental (un-worldly) consciousness, which is then identified with the divine: “what is ‘emptied’ is not Christ’s divinity, nor his status vis-à-vis God, but the status of the cosmos as the primary source of truth and value. The kenotic reduction opens up the possibility that worldly authority and value are not primary but derivative,” namely of transcendental, un-humanised, un-worldly, even divine (!) processes of constitution; indeed, “in the kenotic epochē, the cosmos is bracketed as the ground of truth and value, and the world is revealed as a new creation, which is renewed and sustained by God’s infinite love and power. Kenōsis, in this reduced sense, is not an ‘emptying out’ but an ‘overflowing’ of God’s love unto creation” (3).  The kenotic reduction, then, is a “reduction from cosmos to ‘new creation’” (107). The rest of the book is then spent outlining the structure of this ‘new creation’ through a critique of Husserl’s phenomenology of time-consciousness, which, by the standards of the kenotic reduction, Wells considers not yet fully reduced (131). By way of an eloquent discussion of Lacoste and Fink, he shows how “the kenotic reduction brackets the cosmos, and discloses a new creation, in which space-time is a horizon whose essential horizontality is [divine] represencing” (147).

However, Wells’ conceptualisation of both kenosis and reduction strikes me as problematic, precisely because of the uncritical way in which it assumes Fink’s conception of the reduction and the related primacy of transcendental subjectivity understood as a transcending of finite being-in-the-world. First of all, Husserl’s notion of transcendental subjectivity has received its fair share of criticism, even Wells himself calls it “problematic” (9). It is therefore odd that this further radicalisation of transcendental subjectivity as explicitly un-humanised is taken over by Wells without reflecting on it critically at all (even though, as I said, the quotation returns multiple times, giving him ample opportunity). What does it mean to say that in doing phenomenology we would somehow transcend our humanity as such? What could possibly be left of me, or of any consciousness, once I have transcended my humanity?[6] What comes to mind here is Kierkegaard’s constant mocking of the thinker who—in his attempt to be sub specie aeterni, in forgetting to think everything he thinks along with the fact that he exists—simply ends up thinking something unreal, illusionary and irrelevant. Not even reduction can lift us out of our humanity, for even the reduction must first surely be initiated by finite human beings existing in the world: even the phenomenologist as phenomenologist is finite; Husserl is dead. “When one has abstracted from everything, is it not the case then that, etc.,” Kierkegaard sighs, “Yes, when one has abstracted from everything. Let us be human beings.”[7] Perhaps Fink and Wells have a counter-argument that refutes this exasperation at such overzealous use of the reduction; however, if they do, it is never offered and the critique—which nevertheless seems somewhat obvious—is not pre-empted. In the absence of a persuasive reason for why I should un-humanise myself in order to do phenomenology, it seems more worthwhile to remember Kierkegaard’s warning that “one who exists is prohibited from wanting to forget that he exists.”[8]

This Entmenschlichung can also be questioned theologically, this time not in terms of the reduction, but in terms of what functions here as its analogue, namely kenosis and its incarnational character. As we know, for Wells, “what is ultimately emptied in the kenotic epochē is not Christ’s divinity (…), but the status of the cosmos as the ultimate ground of truth and value; Christ’s kenotic act—whether one emphasizes the incarnation or the cross—turns worldly hierarchies upside down. The very idea that one who is equal to God (…) would choose to become human and become crucified is completely at odds with worldly notions of divine power and authority. From the worldly standpoint, it makes little sense to forgo divine power in favour of human existence and slavish death. One would never choose to die like a slave when given the option to be Caesar; to do so would be inhuman” (105, see also 114). This, in my view, gets it precisely the wrong way around: that it is a human being doing something inhuman is precisely the point. If it were simply God who chose to die as a slave, would we really be all that bothered? After all, for God, all things are possible­. It is a human being, in which God has emptied himself of his divinity and taken on the full existential reality of the human being,[9] who chooses to do something in-human—precisely that is what makes up the scandal of the Christian story and its power: worldly hierarchies are turned upside down from within the world itself by an event that transforms the structure of the world, opening it up from within unto the kingdom that is coming. That God’s power is completely at odds with ‘worldly notions of divine power and authority’ is likewise precisely the point of his power, namely that it is, as John Caputo puts it, “madness from the point of view of the ‘world’.”[10] Indeed, Caputo’s weak theology, which thinks God’s power precisely as his weakness, forms a much needed nuance to the disconcertingly strong theology of power that seems to be underlying Wells’ phenomenology: the divine is not reached by way of the impossible, by transcending the human (what on earth would this even mean?); rather, it is a question of being able to entertain the im-possible humanity of the un-human, the im-possible possibility of the impossible (Derrida).[11]

If uncritically relying on an un-humanised transcendental subjectivity is problematic, it surely is even more so when this transcendental subjectivity is identified with God. Yet, this seems to be the final move in Wells’ formulation of the kenotic reduction: “In reduction, the transcendental subject achieves that which is impossible for human subjectivity, namely, un-humanized or ‘divine’ philosophical cognition of the world (…). In reduction, man rises above the world as the pre-given ground of truth and value, and therefore exceeds worldly possibilities. The world, the cosmos, is revealed as the end product of the constituting acts of transcendental subjectivity; or to put it theologically, the cosmos is created” (107). This extraordinary claim, which amounts to a theologisation of the reduction in which transcendental cognition is identified with divine cognition and the transcendental field itself with divine creative activity, strikes me as unprepared by the argument and therefore unwarranted phenomenologically (in spite of the language Fink uses). In other words, a theological leap is performed here that must be resisted by phenomenology precisely as phenomenology until its legitimacy can be established phenomenologically. Without this, I see again no reason to follow Wells in his expansion of Husserlian notions of transcendence and subjectivity “by integrating the transcendental subject into the divine life” (117).

The problem becomes particularly acute, I feel, when this kenotic phenomenology is applied to Scripture in Wells’ absolute science of Scripture: for reading Scripture “in a kenotically reduced way,” would mean heeding the kenotic reduction’s instruction “to bracket the cosmos as the source of truth, validity, and meaning. No language or mode of reason derived from the cosmos should predetermine our reading of scripture” (108). We have now thus achieved Wells’ absolute science (or phenomenology) of Scripture, in the sense of an inquiry that “places no dogmatic restrictions on the experiences and contexts of scripture; every mode of scriptural givenness is, in principle, open for phenomenological investigation” (25). Though Wells stresses that this absolute science does not negate but instead underlies empirical Biblical criticism (23), it is worth noting that this does nevertheless appear to lay waste to immense parts of the tradition of said criticism: “So, for instance, Heidegger’s Dasein, restricted as it is to a worldly conception of finitude, cannot determine our phenomenological hermeneutic in the way that it determined Rudolf Bultmann’s strategy of ‘demythologisation.’ More importantly, in bracketing worldly modes of reason and language, huge swaths of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy (…) are ruled out” (108). When reflected back, in virtue of its circular or absolute character, on the phenomenological method itself, we find that there too a conceptual purification (reduction) should be performed: Husserl’s idea of monadicity, for example, is simply declared “not relevant here,” for “divine life is the source of infinitely overflowing power and love, while ‘monadicity’ is a concept derived from worldly finitude” (117).

Yet, after so much reduction, after such a thorough cleaning out of our conceptual apparatus, what remains when the dust has settled? Not much of interest to anyone actually living their life, Kierkegaard might answer, which should worry us. Indeed, according to Wells, we would be left with the unadulterated “experience of scripture” (24). Yet, at no point does he provide a description of what this experience might be. Though again, as I discussed, this is of course entirely the point: he does not provide us with an a priori entry into the hermeneutic circle in which this experience takes shape, precisely because it only takes shape within or as that circle. However, one wonders if Wells has not closed that circle in on itself to the point of the experience having no worldly subject, and thus being inaccessible to us as human beings (hence, perhaps, Nancy and Derrida’s emphasis on the ellipsis, rather than the circle, that all writing and thinking completes).[12] For in reducing, if we reduce too far, it is very possible to reduce away the very structures that make appearance possible (say, human finitude), thus causing appearance to disappear in its own impossibility. Here again, Wells’ account fails to address or at least to pre-empt a powerful objection that is easily raised by someone like Caputo: “the truth is gained not by approaching things without presuppositions—can you even imagine such a thing?—but by getting rid of inappropriate presuppositions (frame) and finding the appropriate ones, the very ones that give us access to the things in question. (…) ‘Absolute’ knowledge absolves itself of the very conditions under which knowledge is possible in the first place. Presupposing nothing results in knowing nothing.”[13] Note that this critique is directed against absolute, rather than universal knowledge: it is not a question of the scope of the epistemic domain, but of the conditions under which the judgement is valid. As Kant might have said, absolute anything is simply nothing. Wells is often quick, like Husserl, to dismiss “dogmatic restrictions” placed on the field of inquiry by presuppositions; however, like Fink, he never considers whether it is perhaps these presuppositions that might be what opens up that field of inquiry (as opposed to reduction), what provides an entry into the circle absolute science completes (and which reduction closes off), for us as human beings in the first place: precisely because we are finite human beings living in the world, we are limited; “but that limit also gives us an angle of entry, an approach, a perspective, an interpretation. God doesn’t need an angle, but we do. Having an angle is the way truths open up for us mortals.”[14] To pretend that we are anything but mortals, that we could somehow transcend our finitude and humanity, is to disregard the problems that confront us as such. If we continue radicalising phenomenology (be it with Husserl, Heidegger, Fink, Marion, or Henry), instead of practicing phenomenology, we risk losing sight of what show itself as such.[15]

This is not merely, it should be said—and this is particularly evident in the work of Lacoste—, an atheist humanism speaking the language of phenomenology; but equally entails a theological imperative: indeed, “it is necessary to read Lacoste,” Emmanuel Falque argues, “probably above anyone else, in order to see and to understand the degree to which theology itself actually insists upon and does not contradict finitude as such (understood as the limiting horizon of our existence).”[16] The seriousness of this problem should not be underestimated, for it essentially concerns the question of who the Bible is for, who it speaks to, who can access the experience of Scripture. A distinction, borrowed from Nancy, that Falque makes in relation to the Eucharist, might be helpful here as well: the Bible “is not only ‘believable’ (by giving faith), it is also ‘credible’ (with a universalisable rationality)—in which the present work maintains the pretention of addressing itself to all,” for the Christian message “is not simply one of conviction, but also one of ‘culture’, or of pure and simple humanity.”[17] Instead of being absolute but not universal, perhaps the phenomenology of Scripture should be universal but not absolute: addressing itself to all (opening itself up as universally credible)—and thus doing so in the language of the human and worldly finitude we all share (whether the message is believed or not)—, without the violent insistence of being true for everyone (absolutely). Indeed, if no language derived from the world can be used to read or make meaningful the Christian message as it is found in Scripture (108), that message shrivels up in itself and dies, for there is no other language available. Essentially, the distinction between the transcendental or absolute (phenomenological) and the empirical or positive (historical) science of Scripture is simply not tenable: “the science of history goes to work on all historical documents,” as Rudolf Bultmann argues, “there cannot be any exceptions in the case of biblical texts if the latter are at all to be understood historically. Nor can one object that the biblical writings do not intend to be historical documents, but rather affirmations of faith and proclamation. For however certain this may be, if they are ever to be understood as such, they must first of all be interpreted historically, inasmuch as they speak in a strange language in concepts of a faraway time, of a world-picture that is alien to us. Put quite simply, they must be translated, and translation is the task of historical science.”[18] Readings of Scripture are always predetermined by some presuppositions shared by a particular community, otherwise there simply could not be any reading (or experiencing). Falque summarises this nicely by saying that it is above all a question of culture: “It is incumbent on each of us to decide on this, and it is also a matter for all of humanity, at least in the doctrine and tradition of Western culture that we inherit. (…) My basic argument (…) is not put forward so as to convert or transform others. It comes down to an acceptance or recognition that Christianity has the cultural means, as well as the conceptual means, to touch the depths of our humanity.”[19] In other words, it is a matter of securing for Christianity its credibility, the means by which it can continue to be meaningful to us and today, universally yet not absolutely, to all but not therefore believable in just whatever situation: “the issue at stake in philosophy, but also in the theology of today, is to envisage the meaning, including the cultural one,” of Christianity, for it forms “the condition for God himself to continue to address himself to man.”[20]

Wells’ absolute though not universal science of Scripture, because it is a closed circular system (the absolute), cannot account for how God could still address himself (credibly) to man as man, how Scripture could speak across traditions, engage humanity as such in its community of being (universally): “This brand of radical phenomenology may well apply outside of the Christian context,” he says, “but only to the extent that there are concepts analogous to kenōsis operating in other traditions (as there surely are)” (157). What these analogous concepts would be, we are left to guess. Ironically, if this were indeed to be true—and hopefully it is—, it would detract from Wells’ argument: if different religious traditions all have analogous concepts, that means that those concepts themselves are not theological, but precisely concepts belonging to the world and originating in human finitude. Having rejected monadicity, different traditions (or phenomenological ‘homeworlds’) seem to function very much like Leibniz’s ‘monads without windows’ for Wells. Simultaneously, whilst Christianity, or at least its Scriptures, would lack the means to speak meaningfully to non-Christians (because the science of Scripture is not universally credible); it risks—and I say risks, because Wells is unclear about whether intra-Christian differentiation counts as different phenomenological homeworlds—suppressing all interpretative difference within the Christian tradition itself (because the science of Scripture is absolutely to-be-believed). However, precisely because, as Bultmann puts it, “historical knowledge is never a closed (…) knowledge,” to the degree that it maintains a reference to the knower’s ‘life-relation’—unlike Wells’ transcendental or absolute science which is circular and thus only self-referential—, it is better at avoiding the modernist pitfall: “For if the phenomena of history are not facts that can be neutrally observed, but rather open themselves in their meaning only to one who approaches them alive with questions, then they are always only understandable now in that they actually speak in the present situation. (…) It can definitively disclose itself only when history has come to an end.”[21] I am therefore not sure whether Wells is justified in concluding that “kenotically radicalised phenomenology brooks none of the modernist hope for universal science” (157), for his absolute but not universal science still has the distinct flavour of a localised modernity: believable, within a particular tradition, and perhaps even to-be-believed (absolutely valid or grounded within a particular homeworld); even if it is not universally credible, outside of that tradition, in the human community of being where it has lost all meaning because it has transcended what that community has in common—human finitude.

There is no virtue in radicalisation when it amounts to Entmenschlichung—perhaps only within the dry vocabulary of transcendental philosophy could these words somehow appear innocent. Simply observing that securing an absolute ground for the sciences is a practical necessity does not make it theoretically possible, which is a lesson we should finally learn after having witnessed one attempt after the other fail over the course of what is now more than a century since Husserl first articulated this ambition (though, of course, it predates him). Instead, we need a discourse that “learns to appreciate the groundlessness of what is happening”[22] (Caputo), making the best of it in a “practical conversion of the theoretically ‘impossible’” that has “the objective reality of the task (Aufgabe)”[23] (Nancy), to be performed in the world itself as world. We must avoid that this ever-continuing radicalisation of phenomenology turns Husserl’s dream into a nightmare, whilst the coextensive desire for a scientific (be it a phenomenological or theological) grounding of Biblical criticism obfuscates the outrageous and life-transforming message of Scripture, or at least its worldly direction and medium: the result of a phenomenology of Scripture cannot be that the message found therein loses its credibility.[24] 

[1] Rudolf Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’ in Existence and Faith: Shorter Writings of Rudolf Bultmann, trans. by Schubert M. Ogden (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1960), 289-296 (296).

[2] Wells also formulates this critique theologically, though less prominently, by saying that “modern biblical criticism (…) lacks a theological grounding” (81). In that sense, Wells’ phenomenological account of an absolute science of Scripture is similar to Darren Sarisky’s recent theological account of a theological reading of the Bible (published just two months after Wells’ volume) in that they both reject naturalistic readings of Scripture in an attempt to ground Biblical criticism. For Sarisky’s account, see his Reading the Bible Theologically (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019).

[3] This is also the experience taking shape in those critics of Husserl that are dismissed by some as ‘nihilists’ because they would somehow have done away with very notion of an absolute. However, in reality, the exact opposite is true. Derrida, for example, expresses this well when he says that “there is a want for truth (il faut la vérité)” (see Jacques Derrida, Positions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 58n32 (trans. modified)): there is a need or a want for truth, precisely because truth is lacking; deconstruction is indeed motivated by the absolute, namely by its presence as absence in its constant displacement, which forms the very movement of différance.

[4] Eugen Fink, Sixth Cartesian Meditation: The Idea of a Transcendental Theory of Method, trans. by Ronald Bruzina (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), 77.

[5] Fink, Sixth Cartesian Meditation, 120.

[6] It should be pointed out that the human being for Fink (and Husserl) is probably not the same as what Heidegger calls Dasein, but rather refers to worldly or empirical consciousness whilst transcendental consciousness is constitutive of the world. On this, see: James McGuirk, ‘Phenomenological Reduction in Heidegger and Fink: On the Problem of the Way Back from the Transcendental to the Mundane Sphere’ in Philosophy Today, 53.3 (September 2009), 248-264.

[7] Søren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, trans. by Alastair Hannay (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 97.

[8] Kierkegaard, Postscript, 256.

[9] In kenosis understood along incarnational lines, God does not simply empty himself of his divinity in order to come into the flesh (Verleiblichung); but, by coming into the flesh, he also takes on the whole existential reality of man, namely his finitude and facticity (Menschwerdung). On this, see: Emmanuel Falque, ‘A Phenomenology of the Underground’ in The Loving Struggle: Phenomenological and Theological Debates, trans. by Bradley D. Onishi and Lucas McCracken (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), 45-75; Emmanuel Falque, The Guide to Gethsemane: Anxiety, Suffering, Death (New York: Fordham University Press, 2018).

[10] John D. Caputo, The Weakness of God: A Theology of the Event (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2006), 103.

[11] More generally, what one would not know from reading the book is that the theme of kenosis has gained remarkable currency within contemporary philosophy: not just in Caputo and Derrida, but also in Catherine Malabou, Gianni Vattimo, Jean-Luc Nancy and Emmanuel Falque. Though Wells has a chapter situating the kenosis hymn within contemporary Biblical criticism and theology, a philosophical consideration of the issue of kenosis is entirely absent. It seems wrong to me to identify the phenomenon of kenosis with Paul’s kenosis hymn. This is a missed opportunity and might lead one to wonder whether what this book provides is actually kenotic phenomenology of Scripture, rather than a phenomenology of kenosis.

[12] For more on this, see: Jacques Derrida, ‘Ellipsis’ in Writing and Difference, trans. by Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 294-300; Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Elliptical Sense’, trans. by Jonathan Derbyshire in A Finite Thinking (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 92-111.

[13] John D. Caputo, Truth: The Search for Wisdom in the Postmodern Age (London: Penguin, 2013), 182.

[14] Caputo, Truth, 13.

[15] On this, see also Frédéric Seyler’s ‘Is Radical Phenomenology Too Radical? Paradoxes of Michel Henry’s Phenomenology of Life’ in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, 27.3 (2013), 277-286.

[16] Emmanuel Falque, ‘The Visitation of Facticity’ in The Loving Struggle: Phenomenological and Theological Debates, trans. by Bradley D. Onishi and Lucas McCracken (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018), 195-219 (196). See also Jean-Yves Lacoste, Experience and the Absolute: Disputed Questions on the Humanity of Man, trans. by Mark Raftery-Skehan (New York: Fordham University Press, 2004), 194: “Man takes hold of what is most proper to him when he chooses to encounter God. This argument can now be made more specific: we can now assert that man says who he is most precisely when he accepts an existence in the image of a God who has taken humiliation upon himself—when he accepts a kenotic existence.”

[17] Emmanuel Falque, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eros, the Body, and the Eucharist, trans. by George Hughes (New York: Fordham University Press, 2016), 43 (trans. modified).

[18] Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, 292.

[19] Falque, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb, 10.

[20] Emmanuel Falque, ‘Spread Body and Exposed Body: Dialogue with Jean-Luc Nancy’, trans. by Nikolaas Deketelaere and Marie Chabbert in Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities, 26.4 (August 2021) (forthcoming).

[21] Bultmann, ‘Is Exegesis Without Presuppositions Possible?’, 294-295.

[22] John D. Caputo, The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 66.

[23] Jean-Luc Nancy, ‘Dies irae’ in La faculté de juger (Paris: Minuit, 1985), 9-54 (34).

[24] It is precisely this idea that forms the essential and lasting legacy of Bultmann’s work. David Congdon expresses it well in his ‘Is Bultmann a Heideggerian Theologian?’ in Scottish Journal of Theology, 70.1 (2017), 19-38 (38): “Translation is not the imperialistic removal of ideas from their native context; it is rather an act of intercultural communication. Translation is a dialogue between past and present that respects the cultural distinctiveness of both text and reader. It is actually the rejection of translation that is imperialistic, because that inevitably means denying the significance and value of some cultural context, whether ancient or modern.” Thus, even in asking valid and important questions like Wells does, “one must be careful not to criticise the act of translation as such, and thereby inadvertently undermine the capacity to facilitate genuine understanding across cultural barriers—thus undermining the possibility of theology itself.”

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