An Augustinian response to Jean-Louis Chrétien’s phenomenology of prayer

04 May 2018

This article interrogates Jean-Louis Chrétien’s phenomenological judgement of prayer as a call to the transcendent other, by juxtaposing Chrétien’s appreciation with the style and content of Augustine’s Confessions. In the Confessions, prayer is less the contradiction (‘shattering’) of presence than it is the paradox of simultaneous presence-and-absence, God being both the most intimate and the most remote at the same time. It is concluded that Chrétien’s phenomenology fails to understand prayer as the reciprocity it claims to articulate because, despite affirming both the presence and the absence of God to the one praying, phenomenology cannot hold both these propositions in tension but must continually resolve them into a contradiction in which the subject ‘discovers’ God only by falling back on the self. The question is one of style and genre: Augustine’s speech addresses someone whereas Chrétien’s does not. In as much as he follows the phenomenological style established by Husserl, Chrétien cannot value any speech except that which is ‘descriptively’ self-referential.