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Postmodern Apologetics?—2: Lévinas and the Infinite


This is the second post in a twelve-part series for Spectrum’s 2013 Summer Reading Group. Each post will be drawn from chapters of Postmodern Apologetics? by Christina M. Gschwandtner. You can find the reading schedule here. Read the first post here.

Just over two years ago I got a tattoo on my left forearm. It is a single word in Hebrew: hineni. In English, hineni means, “Here I am.” It is what Abraham says to God when God calls his name, asking him to sacrifice his son, Isaac. It is what Samuel says after discovering that it is God, not Eli, calling his name. It is what Isaiah says when he is overcome by the glory of God in Isaiah 6—“Here I am.” In Lévinas’ native French, it is easy to see that the expression is in the accusative. The speaker is not the actor but is rather the acted upon, the called upon, the “accused.”

For Lévinas, this is the appropriate response when we are encountered by the other. He departs from Heidegger in a fundamental way in his approach to phenomenology. For Heidegger, the emphasis was on the knowing subject, concerned with Being and apprehension of the things themselves. Lévinas argues that this desire to apprehend and understand objectifies the other—particularly the human other—and reduces them to “the same.” This approach to philosophy collapses what Lévinas sees as the irreducible alterity of the other. This difference must be maintained, otherwise we do violence to the other.

In a telling statement, Gschwandtner writes:

What is other or different or strange or incomprehensible is scary, unsettling, and fearful. The stranger has always been a threat on some level. So what do we do when something or someone is “strange” or “different”? Either we destroy: try to eliminate the scary stranger, to wipe out anything that induces fear. Or we assimilate, comprehend (encompass), make like us—so the stranger really becomes merely another version of the self. Lévinas calls this “reducing the other to the same” (42).

For Lévinas, this desire to comprehend and know—this grasping after clarity and visibility—is not just wrongheaded, but unethical. It is a way of putting others in our service and conforming them to our image. Whether it is the economic other, the religious other, the sexual other, we can see the impulse to either eliminate or assimilate is overpowering for those in the dominate culture. Even those who find themselves in the minority resort to this violent reductionism. Instead, Lévinas says we must be open to otherness, allow the other to remain other in a way that interrupts us and makes demands on us—us, but me in particular. This radical (in the sense of, going ‘all the way down’) alterity shocks, interrupts, and surprises.

Here again, our response should be, “Here I am.” Gschwandtner writes,

Instead of “grasping” and “comprehending” the other, I am put in question by this encounter and called upon to respond. In his later work, Lévinas depicts this response as a complete self-emptying on behalf of the other, sharing “the last piece of bread out of one’s own mouth” (45).

One cannot help but detect the kenosis of Christian theology, depicted most clearly in the complete self-emptying of Jesus on the cross. The ancient Christian hymn declares,

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross! (Philippians 2:6-8 NIV)

This central idea of Lévinas has profound implications for Christians and the church in two primary ways: in our relationship to each other (the way in which Lévinas intended it) and our relationship to God (which is secondary to Lévinas’ original intent, though in his later work it seems implicit).

The Church knows virtually no other mode of relating to people outside itself besides assimilation. Even our desire to understand and apprehend is motivated by a desire to grasp and control. From our preaching (people must be persuaded) to our evangelism (people must be converted) to our education (people must be indoctrinated) we strive to make the world in our image. Without equivocation I agree with Lévinas that this mode of being in the world is unethical from the start. It is driven by a fear of otherness and represents a deep insecurity about our own identity.

This week I also read a statement from a very different kind of writer on this same subject.

Often we think that to witness means to speak up in defense of God. This ideacan make us very self-conscious. We wonder where and how we can make God the topic of our conversations and how to convince our families, friends, neighbors, and colleagues of God’s presence in their lives. But this explicit missionary endeavour often comes from an insecure heart and, therefore, easily creates divisions.[1]

I am intrigued by Henri Nouwen’s notion that these colonizing impulses arising from an insecure heart. It is a heart ruled by fear that is driven to “reduce the other to the same” rather than be arrested by, surprised by, and called into service to the other. The church is steeping in anxiety at this present moment, unsure of our cultural place, lacking faith in the gospel itself. This anxiety drives us to use people to our own ends rather than loving and serving them.

The church’s approach to theology is likewise implicated by Lévinas’ philosophy of the other. While this is more true for evangelical and fundamentalist theology, Catholic and Mainline Protestant theology suffers the same affliction. Our desire to speak of God “onto-theologically”—to nail down the attributes of God and speak directly about God’s wishes and desires—leads us down the wrong path. It is at the root of the unethical nature of our relationship to the non-divine other. If we cannot accept the irreducible otherness of God, how, in God’s name, will we ever accept the alterity of the human other? If we are not willing to stand before God and say “Here I am,” how will we ever arrive at a place of humility before the world, following the kenotic example of Jesus?

When I was a pastor, my congregation strived to have two basic postures toward God and the world. One was that God is present. God already precedes us. This means that we do not control or manage God. We do not “bring” God to people or people to God. Rather, we must be present with the world, before the God who already was and is here.

The other posture was that our basic experience of God is likely to be surprise. One of my close friends and co-leaders in the church used to call God, “Jehovah-sneaky.” This was his playful way of saying what I take Lévinas to be saying: the other encounters us and the best we can do is to understand the phenomena of the encounter itself, but never the other. This encounter is almost always characterized by a rupture of some kind—by surprise, or my favorite term, interruption. The other interrupts me and awakens my responsibility. I become a self, Lévinas says, only as I respond to this address and call of the other. In a Christian sense, this perhaps means that Christians can only be saved (become a self) by an encounter with the other, by an interruption of their carefully scripted self, theology and expectations of God. This is analogous to how we experience God. God beckons us, but we never find God. Where we expect to encounter God, there no divine encounter with transcendence; there is only the face—the radical otherness of the other again interrupting me and obligating me. God has moved on. We are too late.

Ryan J. Bell, D.Min., is an adjunct professor in the Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Global Studies Department at Azusa Pacific University. He is a regular contributor at The Huffington Postand is the Co-Founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Hillhurst Review.

[1] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997).

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