He leapt to the podium with youthful energy and gripped the lectern with both hands. Pausing for a moment to collect his thoughts, he pushed the hair out of his face and smiled broadly at the audience that had assembled for the opening lecture of a conference at Notre Dame. “It is a privilege to be with all of you at this university,” I recall him saying. “And if I may say so, it is my privilege to be Catholic, here with you.”

The philosopher and theologian Emmanuel Falque is one of the leading Christian thinkers in the world today, but he is not as well known to American readers as he should be. Jean-Luc Marion, his famous teacher and occasional sparring partner, has attained international renown after being inducted into the Académie Française and awarded the Ratzinger Prize in theology by Pope Francis. Marion’s books on love and politics are often reviewed in these pages. But Falque’s star is rising. Over the past decade, his works have been translated into English and he has held visiting posts at American universities. Falque is dean of the faculty of philosophy at the Institut Catholique de Paris, the country’s Catholic university. In 2015, he founded the International Network in Philosophy of Religion (INPR). Following Marion’s retirement from the Sorbonne and the University of Chicago, Falque’s network has become the hub for young intellectuals inspired by the so-called “theological turn” in French philosophy, from Michel Henry and Jean-Yves Lacoste to Jean-Louis Chrétien and Marion himself. Falque was formed by this tradition, and over the past two decades his writings have refreshed and reframed it. Now he is working to shape its future.


Falque deserves to be better known for several reasons: the verve of his writing, the quality of his insights, and the range of his erudition. In God, Flesh, and the Other (2008) he demonstrates command of the full library of patristic and medieval theologians. Yet he has also written extensively on the twists and turns of the French phenomenological tradition over the past century in The Loving Struggle (2014). More valuable still is the timeliness and freshness of his approach, a winning humility and openness that speaks beyond the usual choir of philosophers (and Christians). If Marion was the Catholic philosopher of the Benedict XVI papacy, it would be fair to see Falque as the one most akin to Pope Francis, and not only because of the book he cowrote with Laure Solignac, François Philosophe (2017).

The boundary between philosophy and theology in Jean-Luc Marion’s works is strictly policed and remains controversial. Falque relishes crossing back and forth from one domain to the other, a shuttle diplomacy that enriches both sides of the boundary by calling each of them into question. “The more we theologize, the better we philosophize,” he writes in Crossing the Rubicon (2016). Marion established that the methods of modern phenomenology can accommodate the extraordinary events of Christian revelation. By contrast, Falque seeks to begin not from above but from below—from the ordinary skeins of embodied life not yet saturated by divine glory. Not from impossibly far away, but from impossibly near. Falque’s 1998 Sorbonne thesis opted for the Seraphic Doctor over Aquinas, a book later published as Saint Bonaventure and the Entrance of God into Theology, and his oeuvre has retained that Franciscan signature ever since.

At the same time, Falque resists a merely confessional theology, since the culture within which we operate today is not already Christian. In Crossing the Rubicon, Falque warns that “confessing belief” first requires an “ordinary belief” in the world and in others, or what Maurice Merleau-Ponty calls “animal faith.” “No one believes in God if he does not first believe in the world,” Falque observes. He is “before all else a philosopher,” even if he remains open to theological experience, for the philosopher is the one “who respects and begins with the human per se.”

In By Way of Obstacles (2016), Falque explains the genesis of his project twenty years earlier. In 1996, he and others convened an interdisciplinary working group for young Catholic intellectuals. Although theological questions had come to the fore in phenomenological circles, Catholic theology itself was impaired by too many divisions and too little dialogue. Falque was convinced that Catholic traditions had something fresh to say if the relationship between philosophy and theology—between culture and faith—could be reconceived.

Falque’s subsequent works have carried out this program. His books reach out sympathetically to the religiously indifferent “nones” whom all of us count among friends. In the 1940s, Henri de Lubac analyzed the “drama of atheistic humanism” in Marx, Comte, and Nietzsche. Falque is more interested in the non-dramatic atheism that reigns in our time—less defiant non-belief than the weary agnostic shrug that Nietzsche called nihilism. Some are “for” or “against” God, but most simply live “without” God, which is something different. Falque likes to quote Michel Foucault: “Modern man is possible only as a figuration of finitude.”

Falque asks what Christians might now say that could actually matter to their post-Christian contemporaries in the academy or the arts who find this strange religion useless or passé. But his strategy is precisely the opposite of the histrionic lament one hears from many educated Catholics today; there is not a wisp of nostalgia in his approach. As Falque puts it, the true theological challenge is not to destroy Nietzschean atheism, but to learn from it. We must seek a “grammar in common”—a phrase he borrows from John Paul II. “The Christian, more receptive to difference, will be precisely transformed in his true capacity to differ.”

Falque begins from the standpoint of our common bodily experience, the weak flesh that we share with our unbelieving sisters and brothers, all our illnesses, noisy leaks, and despair, nudus cum nudo Christo. As much as Falque has learned from Protestants like Karl Barth and Paul Ricœur, he insists that a “Catholic hermeneutic” cannot remain at the level of texts and ideas. A Catholic method must be embodied, almost materialist—not a hermeneutic of text but a “hermeneutic of body and voice.” Christ, he reminds us, saves us first with his body, not his words.

A Catholic method must be embodied, almost materialist—not a hermeneutic of text but a “hermeneutic of body and voice.”

In the sweltering summer of 2022, I attended the annual meeting of Falque’s network in Paris. Marion and Falque squared off for an hour, but most of the panels were packed with twenty-somethings. When it came time for Falque to read his paper, he put down his notes to emphasize a point, raising a professorial finger in the air. “The non-Christian is other than me as Christian, but I am not better than him,” he said. “Other, not better.” Like Pope Francis, Falque seems most comfortable on the margins, and in academic circles this means accepting the growing marginalization of Christianity itself. But Falque meets the unbelieving on their own territory. He is after “the exposition of a credible Christianity” that is not simply a “Christianity for believers.” In philosophical terms, this means listening patiently to Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, or Gilles Deleuze, who all condemn Christianity for forgetting the body and domesticating death. As Augustine worked with Platonism and Aquinas with Aristotelianism, “today, it is the horizon of finitude for Heidegger, which still waits to be investigated and transformed.”

Falque urges Christians to renew their solidarity with unbelieving contemporaries through our shared bodily plight. He mines the depths of human anxiety in the face of death, starting with the groans at Gethsemane. He asks what it means to be born into the world, a first time or a second time; one’s birth, he notes, is even less knowable than one’s death. Falque’s best-known books are his trilogy on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Holy Thursday, his Triduum philosophique. There he writes, “Only by posing questions about the impossible overcoming of our nature can we open up and force ourselves to live anew our irreducible finitude.” The fraternity that we find in finitude passes from birth to death, and then from death to birth again.


Falque wrote the trilogy’s first volume, The Guide to Gethsemane (1999), after two close friends died in one terrible year. He starts from a single verse, Mark 14:33. In Gethsemane, Jesus was absolutely gripped by fear of death in the garden. More than mere regret at leaving his students behind, Jesus was overwhelmed with a very personal “alarm” or “terror” (thambos in Greek). This is the shock of panic one feels in the face of raw vulnerability when retreat is impossible and violence is imminent. In the words of Charles Péguy: “The Christ once feared to die.” Jesus recoils at his end and despairs when help never comes. He has no choice but to navigate the ordeal, Falque says, “without resignation or certitude or heroism.”

At Gethsemane, Jesus enters the full meaninglessness, the Nothing, that intense pain brings. He arrives at the non-sense of human life oriented to death. Language ends, and the body cries out on its own, for only flesh can express anxiety in its full radicality, trembling and sweating mutely. Here, Falque quotes the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas: “Sobbing…announces death. To die is to return to this state of irresponsibility, to be the infantile shaking of sobbing.” Like a woman giving birth, Jesus does not rise above his death but abandons himself to its inevitable unfolding. He comes to “envisage his death successively as a way of living his life and no longer as the end of life.” He accepts his death absolutely, and he gives his consent to the Father to let him die. He never seeks to overcome his death through tranquility or virility, but allows the Father to overcome it for him. In a perfect “nonmastery of the self,” Jesus gives up managing his death in favor of a “childlike and positive irresponsibility.” In this weakness, we see that he is a Son of the Father.

The Resurrection should liberate us from anxiety about our sin, but it does not spare us from anxiety about death. Jesus himself passed through that alarm and in doing so transformed it into abandonment in God. According to Falque, Jesus dies for me and with me, but not in my place. I must still work through my own particular death. But Jesus’ passage through death transforms my death into a way of proceeding through the life I have left. My death becomes a “place of reception of an elsewhere or other of my life”—the other of the Father, the otherness of God’s love. Our love is measured through the welcome we give to suffering, not because this purifies us from sin, but because it allows the “imprint of the other” upon us. I should not flee my suffering or strive to overcome it heroically. When I undergo my pain, even as I recoil from it, resist it, and enter into its absurdity, I can allow my flesh to end and be given away in perfect passivity. I can receive myself anew as one being given away, and this, says Falque, is a kind of birth.

Everything rests on this distinction: sin is not finitude itself—our aging bodies, maladies, ignorance—but rather the refusal to accept that condition of finitude and the limits it gives us. Panic before death and depression at the meaninglessness of suffering are not in themselves sinful, for Jesus felt them viscerally and without reprieve. “Not only nonbelievers fall into despair,” Falque observes. Rather, sin is about treating finitude as a prison that needs to be escaped. The desire to deny our finitude, even by pious means, is the sin of sins, the resentful lust for perfection that the serpent exploited in Eden: You will be like God. In the Incarnation, Jesus teaches us to remain in finitude without illusions. Falque writes:

The agony of Christ…confirms a weakness chosen by God that will be forever and forever manifest, and that we bear—we also—even in our own flesh.… The full extremity of his power consists precisely in complying with an originary powerlessness…that remains always woven into human finitude…to which God himself, right to the end and without ever disposing of it, consents.

In anxiety and tears, Jesus embodies the humanity that we all experience. His suffering takes places on a plane of immanence shared as much by philosophers as by theologians. Hence Falque’s maxim: “Nothing speaks or is spoken without passing through humankind, in that God was made man.” When Jesus falls to the ground in the garden, he completes his commitment to dwell on earth. Falque wonders if Christians today can live up to this achievement, or whether Christianity has become an instrument to separate our anxious lives from those of our neighbors, who share the same flesh. The hard lesson of Gethsemane is that I must relinquish myself to this world, accept my finitude, without seeking a subtle escape belonging only to Christians. Rather, I find transcendence only in the face of the other who shares finitude with me. Paradoxically, by abandoning oneself to the loss of selfhood in death, one can “break open the circle of one’s own isolation.”

Emmanuel Falque (Courtesy of Wipf & Stock publishers)

Falque’s strategy to start again from Gethsemane is a brilliant one. For the experience of divine abandonment in the garden matches the contemporary philosophical experience of facing life without God. In the face of the Father’s silence, Jesus kneels here with the unbelieving. By the same token, Falque stresses that sharing in Christ’s anxiety never turns into a Christian “privilege” that releases one from the anguish of finitude. Rather than trying to hustle philosophers back into the fold, Falque asks Christians to remain in the garden for a while longer, accompanying Jesus and their unbelieving neighbors. For Jesus teaches us “what it is to be one of humankind, when the human being, in human flesh, suffers from no longer understanding God.”

If the terrors of finitude that Jesus experienced in Gethsemane were not sinful, then Christianity does not need to rush to convert birth into rebirth, eros into agape, earth into heaven, time into eternity. Our mortal bodies already bear a relation to God, even before we search beyond the world. The basic facts of natural humanity—our ever-past birth, ever-present sexuality, and ever-future death—are the coordinates we share with our unbelieving contemporaries. Yet they are also the beating heart of the Resurrection, Eucharist, and Cross. This is the productive struggle between Nietzscheanism and Christianity. Philosophy teaches theology to remain in finitude in an “impassable immanence.” But as it does so, philosophy discovers within that immanence new dimensions that it could never find on its own.


Nietzsche announced the death of God and prophesied the advent of a posthuman animal, the Übermensch who embraces the eternal return of the same. Falque recognizes this for what it is: a parody of the Resurrection, indeed a self-resurrection. Is Nietzsche right that Christians view the body only as something to be overcome, something never to be affirmed? Or does the Christian idea of resurrection dignify our embodied existence?

The second volume in Falque’s trilogy is The Metamorphosis of Finitude: An Essay on Birth and Resurrection (2004). What can Jesus’ resurrection mean for us today? Like Nicodemus, we find it hard to imagine what rebirth would look like. Modern Christians are reluctant to say too much, but Falque finds our reticence unwarranted. We need to ask not what really happened, but how it happens. For if the Resurrection is real, it would “change everything.” In truth, it has already changed everything. The Resurrection “modifies us from the start” by placing within us a longing for the infinite.

The Resurrection signals the “cracking and opening up of immanence and temporality,” the “transfiguration” of our being in time. The Resurrection is not “another world nor an event in the world” but a “transformation of the world.” In this way, the finitude that Falque maps in Guide to Gethsemane remains the field in which we encounter the Resurrection. “We have no other experience of God but human experience,” so we must find the “courage to loiter” with our contemporaries within the “blocked horizon” of immanence. In fact, it is the Resurrection that allows us to understand this common experience, since the finite creation we know has already been transformed. We have only to pass from the static finitude of death to the dynamic finitude of rebirth, but these are a “single finitude.” By the same token, Falque adds, “there is no finitude of unbelievers and atheists on the one hand and of believers and the elect on the other.”

The opening up of finitude comes from God, not humankind. It happens first within the Trinity. In the death of the Son, Falque argues, the Father is transformed. Through the flesh of the Son, the Father undergoes the rough grain of human finitude, as he sees and touches through Jesus’ eyes and hands. Falque quotes Hans Jonas on Auschwitz: “God receives an experience from the world.” But as the Father endures the Son’s death, the Spirit transforms death into a possibility of life. That metamorphosis works its way into every cavity of the body and every instant of time. Everything in our world, from the joy of birth to the pain of suffering, is now “implanted” in God. “Nothing happens to mankind that did not first happen to God, except sin,” for sin is precisely the misguided effort to escape from the world. True Christianity promises the “common construction of a bodily world for human beings with God.”

Falque offers two ways to think about the resurrection of the body. The first begins with Husserl’s distinction between the “organic body” (Körper) and the “body of lived experience” or “flesh” (Leib). My flesh is my body in time, or the way I appropriate my physical body. According to Falque, the Resurrection names both the vanishing of Jesus’ body and the manifestation of Jesus’ flesh, his way of being. In the Incarnation, God becomes a material body; in the Resurrection he becomes the “expressivity of his flesh.” The strangeness of his appearances to his disciples makes this clear. In the tomb, there is only clothing, no body. In the garden, Mary cannot touch him, and when Thomas does, Jesus still has wounds. Yet Jesus still feeds his disciples, still gives himself to their gaze, still calls them by name, still teaches and consoles them, as he always had. “When the body withdraws and the flesh becomes manifest, it is then that he shows himself,” Falque writes.

The joy of God is neither ecstasy nor entertainment, both of which promise a way beyond finitude. No, the joy of God is absolute reception of each moment.

The second way to think about the resurrection of the body has to do with time. The Resurrection of Jesus is not just another episode in which one man is given life again. It “makes time,” as Falque puts it, by opening a new mode of temporality. The “joy of the eternal” can be discovered in every moment of time. Falque’s extended account of Christian joy seems to echo Francis’s Evangelii gaudium. The joy of God is neither ecstasy nor entertainment, both of which promise a way beyond finitude. No, the joy of God is absolute reception of each moment as something delivered from God to me, in pure receptivity within time. This childlike dependence is the experience of being given into the stream of time—in other words, the experience of being born, or born again. The birth of joy is the joy of birth.


I have only scratched the surface of Falque’s thought. I have not even touched on the third volume of the philosophical Triduum, The Wedding Feast of the Lamb (2011), which unfolds a new theory of the Eucharist: “The Eucharist assumes our animality and saves us from bestiality.” In fact, Falque has orchestrated three different cycles of works, and promises a fourth. In the first trilogy, already discussed, phenomenology improves theology and theology improves phenomenology. A second trilogy on method theorizes this connection: Crossing the Rubicon; The Loving Struggle; and By Way of Obstacles. A third trilogy comprises Falque’s explorations of patristic and medieval sources: Saint Bonaventure and the Entrance of God into Theology; God, the Flesh, and the Other; and most recently The Book of Experience (2017) on twelfth-century monastic theology, from Bernard of Clairvaux to Richard of St. Victor. The fourth cycle will mirror the first in a passage through three days: on Holy Saturday; on the First Day of creation; and on the Last Day of the end of time. Falque has also written a short book on Freud, Nothing to It (2018), and another with his spouse, Sabine Fos-Falque, an accomplished psychoanalyst and author in her own right.

It is exciting to consider where Falque’s thinking might go next. He has already confronted two of the thinkers Paul Ricoeur called “masters of suspicion,” Nietzsche and Freud. Will Falque also take up Marx? Will he explore the female medieval mystics alongside the male monastic authors? Julian, Angela, Hildegard, and Mechthild all wrote on embodiment with at least as much sophistication as Tertullian and Bernard. The French phenomenological tradition has strangely neglected these visionaries, to its detriment. Will Falque’s interests in eros and birth lead him further into Mariology or a theology of the womb? One might have expected that organ to be more conspicuous in a phenomenology of birth. Will Falque return to Thomas Aquinas to define the method of finitude? Will his remarkable essays on Nicholas of Cusa grow into a volume on philosophy in the Renaissance?

It is a curious fact that the history of philosophy is ordered by duets of thinkers. Time and time again, their proximate contradictions bear witness to an epochal line that has been crossed: Aquinas/Bonaventure, Luther/Calvin, Descartes/Spinoza, Cusanus/Bruno, Kant/Hegel, Husserl/Heidegger, even Balthasar/Rahner. Falque’s nearness to Marion, even as he positions himself as an alternative, is another example of the same dynamic. Just in the moment that he contradicts, expands, or exceeds it, Falque underscores Marion’s achievement.

Together they offer an auspicious prospect, one that isn’t legible within Marion’s works alone: a rethinking of the Christian legacy, beginning from ressourcement in the first half of the last century and passing through the postmodern turn of the second half. This project continues the theological renegotiation of modernity undertaken by Balthasar, Ratzinger, and Wojtyła, but now in a parlance that engages secular contemporaries who are more at home with Foucault and Derrida. “One can’t emphasize sufficiently how much our understanding of the Christian mystery can turn out to be better or differently deployed by those who do not share it—surprising though it may seem,” writes Falque in The Metamorphosis of Finitude. “Probably this is one aspect of its vocation of catholicity.”

Like Marion, Falque likes to think with paintings. When my wife and I visited Paris, he insisted we see Jacob Wrestling with an Angel in the Church of Saint-Sulpice down the street from his university. The image had inspired his favorite metaphor for the productive tension between belief and unbelief: le combat amoureux. Like Jacob and the angel, belief and unbelief should not let go until they bless each other. The virtue required for such intimate fraternity is not strength, but patience.

David Albertson is associate professor of religion at the University of Southern California and the executive director of the Nova Forum for Catholic Thought. His most recent book is Cusanus Today: Thinking with Nicholas of Cusa Between Philosophy and Theology (The Catholic University of America Press, 2024).

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Published in the January 2024 issue: View Contents
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