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franciscan - January 1998

© Copyright, The Society of Saint Francis, 1997


by Margie Tolstoy

The study guide for the second European Ecumenical Assembly, which took place in Graz in June 1997, has been lying on my desk for some time. I uncover it now and again when the papers accumulated on top of it are filed or binned. The red cover is striking – and so is the theme of the conference: Reconciliation: A Gift of God and Source of New Life. While I was thinking about this article, it struck me that the divine in human relationships may be precisely that which makes reconciliation possible.

I want to be cautious and not overstep boundaries by claiming to know where the divine is to be found. It is more a matter of fine-tuning my theological sensitivity. Reconciliation between the churches, dialogue between the religions, reconciling peace and democratic order, justice and solidarity, ecological renewal and the economy – it all comes down to relationships; people talking to each other, negotiating with respect and care, and even love, for the other.
To reconcile, you have to step outside the self, outside self-centredness, and into the place of the other, becoming aware of a different perspective.

Let me illustrate that with a personal story. It takes place in an academic setting, the context in which some parts of my life are lived. I invited the author of a very fine book on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas to give a lecture in the course on Jewish and Christian Responses to the Holocaust in the Divinity Faculty of the University of Cambridge. It is a very thought-provoking and sobering course and the need for dialogue and reconciliation between Jews and Christians is given serious attention. Levinas is one of our most important post-Holocaust philosophers.

The lecturer set out carefully and meticulously Levinas’ anthropology, his understanding of what makes us human, which is informed by his Jewish faith. He explained how, for Levinas, the notion of the self is not generated by the self. It is given to each and every one of us by ‘the other’, by someone else. In other words, you do not determine your identity – your identity comes out of your relationship with another person. And that relationship is characterised by the sense of responsibility each one has for the other. Levinas wanted to remind people of the need to de-centre the self if we want to be true to ourself, something we are very familiar with in Christianity. He believed that before we are aware of our own needs, we feel responsibility for the other. The other person is not seen as an extension of the self or a projection of the self. The other is radically other and it is in that relationship of ‘care for the other’ that the self becomes a self. Moral consciousness exists before self-consciousness.

It is not a new idea: the question about the self has been in circulation for a long time. Levinas quoted the Babylonian Talmud, written about two and a half thousand years ago, which says, ‘If I do not answer for myself, who will answer for me? But if I answer only for myself, am I still myself?’

For Levinas, the identity a person is asked to take on is that of the suffering servant in Isaiah, Chapter fifty-four. The suffering servant cannot escape vulnerability and responsibility, and there are powerful resonances here with the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Levinas is very reluctant to bring God into this conversation, but his theological insight is profound. He believes that, in our relationship with the other (that is, in the way we live out our responsibility for the other), there is an important and unmistakable element of transcendence. We become more than the sum of our parts and we encounter in and through the other what he calls the Infinite or the Other (capital O this time). Levinas wrote that we see in the face of the other the trace of the Infinite ... of God. No more and no less. In order not to privilege the face in any way, he added that the whole body, a hand or the curve of a shoulder, can express the face. And so, for Levinas, there could be no ‘knowledge of God’ separate from the relationship with others.

Levinas, furthermore, believed that, after Auschwitz, we have had to live without a particular promise. The responsibility for the other is all; that is the true covenant. This represents ancient wisdom. When Levinas met opposition to this austere understanding, he pointed out that Moses and the prophets were not worried about the immortality of the soul, but about the poor, the widow, the orphan and the stranger. He wrote that in adult religion, contact with the divine is not a kind of spiritual friendship, but a task in the economy of justice.

The lecturer then put the philosophy of Levinas in context – and in what he believed to be real life. He found the specific understanding (the anthropology) upon which Levinas built his ethical theory, namely that people are really constituted in such a way that they have a natural (i.e. innate) sense of responsibility for the other, contrary to all the evidence. For him, people are self-evidently self-centred. That, the lecturer believed, is our predicament. Why Levinas set such store on his anthropology, on his understanding of human nature, may – according to the lecturer – have had something to do with the fact that Levinas was Jewish and with recent Jewish history. Levinas, Lithuanian by birth but a French citizen, spent the war years in a prisoner-of-war camp. He was a French soldier, and being such saved him from the concentration camp. By way of a conclusion, the lecturer wrapped Levinas’s philosophy up in a psychological packet.

He said that it was a well-documented fact that Jewish survivors are tormented by a great sense of guilt. Levinas had come up with a solution – a kind of reconciliation, if you like, of making the guilt bearable. Levinas devoted himself to the creation of an alternative reality – a Utopian fantasy – in which everyone had a sense of responsibility for the other and in which everyone would be safe. And, of course, in which there would be no danger of another Holocaust.

I found that conclusion extraordinary. Levinas devoted his life to promote a vision, an ethic that was life-enhancing, not an opportunity to escape. It was not just an intellectual exercise but a serious engagement with the most pressing problem in the world: that of human beings finding ways and means of relating to each other with care and consideration. To come to the conclusion that this was a Utopian fantasy to escape from reality was, I found, deeply disturbing.

Later on, over a cup of coffee, I told the lecturer that I found his conclusion disappointing, even shocking. Did he find no ethical imperative in Levinas’s presentation of the self in relation to the other? No he did not; it was a kind of fantasy – imaginative, intricate, interesting, but no more than that. The significance of the Infinite, of finding God in the responsibility for the other, was merely part of the plot. I was, in other words, confronted with a totally secular reading of Levinas. For me, Levinas illuminates what it means to be human and, thereby, what it means to be a Christian. The lecturer was baffled by my interpretation, as I was by his seemingly total incomprehension of a religious world view.

The distance between us caused discomfort. We had become strangers to one another. Reconciliation? I did not even know where to begin. I bought him another cup of coffee . . . not very impressive. But maybe that is a beginning. I experienced the situation as oppressive and remembered a prayer for reconciliation of Thérèse Vanier, of the L’Arche community. She asked God ‘that oppressed people and those who oppress them may help each other.’

And that reminded me that the conversation had been about Levinas. I really needed to recognise the other (and Other) and not an extension of myself. And at that moment, I regained my composure and experienced this ethical imperative as a gift from God. §


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