Religious Vocation in Emmanuel Levinas
As many of you are already aware, I am writing a thesis about Christian religious vows, a subject one could investigate from many different angles. A sociologist might be interested in the way in which vows function within church institutions, the manner in which they help to establish and maintain particular identities, roles and powers.  A psychologist might investigate the religious ‘personality’, if there is one, or examine the specific ways in which Christian people experience and survive crises.  A cultural or political historian might ask how it is that Christian people have negotiated changes in the wider cultural and ethical systems of which they are part.  While each of these approaches are certainly interesting and worthy in themselves, I’ve chosen a different tack.  Or it has chosen me.  (I’m not sure which).  I’m going to look at vows from the vantage point of theology, which is to say that I will be asking what the making of vows might tell us about God.

Now, right there, I am interrupted by the old doppelganger:  but isn’t God dead?   Didn’t Friedrich Nietzsche establish that more than a century ago?   He and Ludwig Feuerbach argued that our ideas about God were really just wishful thinking on our part, projections into the heavens of our highest ideals, ideals we invented;  and since we invented God, we can un-invent him as well.  In fact, said Nietzsche, it would be better if we did.  We are human beings who have come of age.  It is time we took responsibility for our own destiny in a god-less universe.  So while God might still be a popular idea out there in the electorate, popularity has never really cut it with philosophers.  Philosophers in the tradition of Nietzsche thrive on being subversives, in finding a way to pull the rug out from under our most cherished ideas and values.  And there is no doubt that God has been a very, very cherished idea for a very long time; just as there’s no doubt that the philosophers have given God a real beating between the time of Nietzsche and now.

So here is my question:  why do people persist in vowing themselves to a God who is at least bruised and broken, if not completely dead?  In particular, why do intelligent people, people who have looked long and hard at the philosophical evidence for God’s death, persist in avowing themselves to God as though he or she were still alive?  Well, that’s the question my thesis is trying to answer.  It’s the question that I will endeavour to answer, and I begin to do so in the following manner.  The God proclaimed dead by Nietzsche appears to have not been God at all.  Certainly not the Judeo-Christian God, perhaps a god metaphysics.  The Judeo-Christian God, on the other hand, appears these days to be talking with that strange, but terribly influential, school of intellectual endeavour sometime referred to with the moniker ‘French phenomenology’—a school composed of such luminaries as Derrida, Kristeva, Breton, Ricoeur, Marion, and . . .  Emmanuel Lévinas—all of them philosophers of the ‘postmodern’, and all of them thinking the ‘post’ in ‘postmodernity’ as somehow ‘post’ the death of God.  In this paper I want to concentrate on just one of those thinkers,  Emmanuel Lévinas, because I really think he is the towering figure in the movement, the teacher and mentor, the one who began to think both God and religious vocation in a new way for new times.

Every philosopher has a beginning, and for Emmanuel Lévinas—in true phenomenological style—the beginning is an investigation of that experience he calls ‘insomnia’.  Insomnia, is a wakefulness in which there is not yet anything that could be called conscious agency or intention, a moment between simple being and personal willing or knowing:  ‘One is detached from any object, any content, and yet there is presence’.   At this moment, the sheer fact of presence is oppressive because one is ‘held by being, held to be’.   Wakefulness, insomnia, is utterly anonymous because there is not yet subjective agency: ‘I am, one might say, the object rather than the subject of anonymous thought’.   Lévinas argues that the only real way beyond insomnia’s being, it’s ‘there is,’ is a disturbance whose origin comes from somewhere, or someone, ‘other’ than itself.  Insomnia, he says, is disturbed at its heart by the Other, ‘who cores out [denoyaute] all that which in insomnia forms a core as the substance or the Same, as identity, as repose, as presence, as sleep’.   And so we arrive, already, at Lévinas’ protest against the mainstream project of Western metaphysics, where, he believes, meaningful thought is only ever construed as thought about Being and the manifestation of Being in beings as presence.  Presence, he says, is only possible as an incessant re-presentation of itself.  So that even where insomnia is apparently interrupted by consciousness (usually in terms of some kind of enlightenment or waking up), presence returns as itself, to inhabit consciousness as a ‘core of sameness’.    He therefore characterises Western philosophy as a theme without difference or differentiation, an eternal return of the same, nothing more, nothing less:  ‘Philosophy is representation, the reactualization of presentation; that is, the emphasis of presence, the remaining-the-same of being in its simultaneity of presence, in its forever and its immanence’.

For Lévinas, the question of God and religious vocation is very much related to how the really ‘new’ enters human thought and history.  It is a question Lévinas posed for himself in an essay called ‘The Old and the New’, written in 1980.  There he declares that ‘The desire for the new in us is the desire for the other’ – other, that is, than the old, which is ‘the habitual, the well-known, the boring, the familiar’.   Western thought has from the beginning, he says, been interested in the reinterpretation of past ideas and events by reorienting that past from the point of view of some apparently ‘new’ idea or insight. The difficulty here is that the apparently ‘new’ lasts for only a second before it passes, once more, into the same ‘old’ thing.   So that even where a universal history of ever-increasing knowledge is adopted one must ask whether the apparently ‘new’ is not simply a reconfiguration of the same,   in which case, the ever-new imaginations of human consciousness would signify nothing more than re-presentations of a constantly present presence.  In order to escape this ever-vigilant synchrony of consciousness, Lévinas says we need a thought which is absolutely alterior to philosophy’s vision of human history, and, somewhat paradoxically, he locates just such a thing in the Enlightenment philosopher, Rene Descartes.  Specifically, Lévinas takes the French master’s idea of the ‘infinite-in-us’ to refer to a thinking which thinks beyond that which the finite consciousness can contain, a thinking which is not reached by the movement of human intentionality, but rather is deposited in the mind by ‘God’.  This deposit, for Lévinas, causes the breakup of that thinking which merely encloses in a presence, re-presents, brings back to presence, or lets be.  It is a thinking which is in-finite in two senses:  a non-finite thought which is found within the finite.  Such an extraordinary state of affairs signifies, for Lévinas, a ‘passivity more passive than passivity’ which comes not from the present, but from the pre-history of consciousness, a passivity which he describes as a radical openness to absolute alterity, an absolute interruption of presence, an interruption so anterior to consciousness, that it survives there only as a ‘trace’ of itself.   The thought of the infinite would thus be ‘older’ than consciousness, an an-archic, pre-originary origin which in fact makes consciousness possible.  Infinity, then, is the Wholly other [tout Autre]  which constitutes and yet overflows being ‘at the same time’.

The challenge for any philosophy which comes after Heidegger’s destruktion is to go beyond Heidegger, who, despite his great critique of presence, continued to think about meaningfulness in terms of the immanence of being-in-the-world.  According to Lévinas, Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit was finally unable to escape the rule of being because it took everything in the world to be a tool for the use of subjects.  The subject-object correspondence at the heart of metaphysics was thereby kept intact.  Here, according to Lévinas, consciousness is construed as a closed circle which ‘effaces every ulterior finality’.   Even the encounter with ‘otherness’ is understood within the orbit of being.  The Miteinandersein imagines two ‘side by side’ solitaries who never actually effect or change each other.  Lévinas’ own project is therefore mapped out as an attempt to think ‘beyond’ the categories of being and its manifestation.  Lévinas wishes to rehabilitate the notion of transcendence – not, as with Sein und Zeit, as some kind of immanent movement within being itself – but rather as that which is ‘otherwise than being, or beyond essence’.  ‘Transcendence’, he says, ‘is passing over to being’s other, otherwise than being.’   But how is one to do this, if it is possible at all?  How does Lévinas propose to succeed where so many others have failed?  The answer lies in Lévinas’ unique attention to that ‘Other’ who, he says, has the capacity to interrupt the eternal re-presentation of the esse because the Other, in her incomparable proximity, is the carrier of Infinity.  We will need to unpack these ideas at some length.

While the trace of infinity is always already ‘there’ in/against consciousness, Lévinas believes that the more concrete way in which human beings encounter alterity is in relating to another person, in the sociality which he calls ‘responsibility for the neighbour’.  In this encounter, Lévinas discerns a strange ‘commandment’ which comes from one knows not where: ‘it is as if the face of the other person, which straightaway “demands of me” and ordains me, were the mode of the very intrigue of God’s surpassing of the idea of God, and of every idea where He would be aimed at . . . and where the Infinite would be denied through thematization, in presence or representation’.   In the face of the other person Lévinas hears a voice which will tolerate no idols, it seems, especially no metaphysical idols.  In the tradition of Jeremiah, Lévinas does not hesitate to upbraid ‘rational theology’ for its ‘vassalage’ to a philosophy of essence.  In words reminiscent of Heidegger in The Piety of Thinking, he calls instead for a ‘Biblical’ theology that is able to think the ‘beyond of being, or transcendence’.   For Lévinas, it is clearly the encounter with another person which provides the occasion for such thinking, because in the midst of the encounter ‘an event happens to a subject who does not assume it.’   Here the other is experienced as the face of absolute alterity, that which is irreducible to either one’s own project, or to the unfolding of being in history.  But, more than that, the other is also experienced as the face of the unconditional, that which (by virtue of its exigency) has a prior claim over me, whose freedom exceeds my own to such an extent that I am constituted not just host, but hostage:

The hostage for another, the I obeys a commandment before having heard it; it is faithful to an engagement it never made, and to a past that was never present.’

Here Lévinas talks of a ‘substitution’ whereby the I actually finds itself to be responsible for the other in her freedom.  I wear the wounds that the other inflicts to the point where the weaving of my own personhood comes undone:

Vulnerability, exposure to outrage, to wounding, passivity more passive than all patience, passivity of the accusative form, trauma of accusation suffered by a hostage to the point of persecution, implicating the identity of the hostage who substitutes himself for the others:  all this is the self, a defecting or defeat of the ego’s identity . . . It is a substitution for another, one in the place of another, expiation’.

Note, however, the paradox implied by this passage.  It is precisely through the an-archic asymmetry towards the other’s sufferings that the self finds its true freedom and identity.  Here Lévinas evokes a language of desire that is ‘otherwise’ than that of metaphysics. Affected by the substitution, desire learns to love that which it desires most – God, the Infinite, the Desirable – by loving it’s very opposite, that which is non-desirable par excellence.   Here, in a ‘love without eros’, the absolute alterity of the Infinite is preserved; yet, the self is reconfigured in its identity as love for the unconditional.  Unconditional love.  In what is intriguingly named a ‘latent rebirth of religion’ the self as a solitary for-itself is lost and then found otherwise as a subjectivity which is never finally constituted save as a ‘saying’ of the other which is never finally ‘said’.

It was in his last great opus, Otherwise Than Being, or Beyond Essence, that Lévinas gave particular attention to this strange connection between language and ethics.  Here the substitution is called a ‘signification’ which occurs ‘prior’ to the constitution of being in beings, a ‘saying’ before a ‘said’.  In this new register, the dominance of being in the history of philosophy is described as the triumph of the said over the saying.  The ‘said’ is defined as a synchronous word game.  The ‘saying’, on the other hand, is a ‘foreword’ which precedes all languages: ‘it is the proximity of one to the other, the commitment of an approach, the one for the other, the very signifyingness of signification’.   The progress of being in the said is characterized as the play of détente where everything possible is permitted; it is therefore an interested game, interested in that its participants are concerned for some kind of return on what is given out.  The saying, by contrast, is not a game.  It has a gravity about it that is the trace of the ‘pre-original’ language of responsibility.  It is therefore dis-interested, it is not concerned for compensation.   As the pre-original saying moves into language, it is inevitably subordinated to the said.  ‘The correlation of the saying and the said, that is, the subordination of the saying to the said, to the linguistic system and to ontology, is the price that manifestation demands.’   Yet, ‘Language permits us to utter, be it by betrayal, this outside of being, this ex-ception to being, as though being’s other were an event of being’.  That is not to say that being’s thematizations represent some kind of ‘fall’ of the saying into the ‘said’.  Rather, the said is actually ‘motivated by the pre-original vocation of the saying, by responsibility itself’.   Nevertheless, an ongoing questioning (or deconstruction?) of the said remains necessary so that the small voice of the saying is not lost:  ‘The otherwise than being is stated in a saying that must also be unsaid in order to thus extract the otherwise than being from the said in which it already comes to signify but a being otherwise.’

This late change of language should not be taken as a retreat from the ethical priority that has characterized Lévinas’ philosophy from the beginning.  By speaking about ‘saying’ or ‘signifying’ rather than ‘substitution’ Lévinas is certainly not indulging in a ‘value-free’ relativisation of reality after the manner of, say, Wittgenstein and his ‘language games’.  He is simply trying to heighten the sense in which the Infinite escapes the language of being. Not that he is writing a negative theology, as, I think, Heidegger might have done with his enigmatic Contributions to Philosophy: on Enowning.  In the notion of respons/ibility for another (which perseveres strongly in Otherwise Than Being), Lévinas believes that all the usual negativities of a negative theology are transmuted into positive statements, which, nonetheless, preserve the rumour, or ‘trace’ of infinity:
[The] response answers, before any understanding, for a debt contracted before any freedom and before any consciousness and any present, but it does answer, as though the invisible that bypasses the present left a trace by the very fact of bypassing the present.  That trace lights up as the face of the neighbor, ambiguously him before whom (or to whom, without any paternalism) and him for whom I answer.

There is a distinct sense of call and vocation here, and this couched in specifically religious terms because responsibility—that which precedes and exceeds essence—is named by Lévinas as the conveyor of the infinite.  A subjectivity obliged with regard to the neighbour is said to carry that ‘trace’ of the infinite, a trace ‘sketched out and effaced in a face in the equivocation of the saying’.   Religious vocation, then, is an equi/vocation of saying, a recognition that we have not chosen the Good, but the Good has chosen us.   Here is a strange kind of devotion, a devotion that is accomplished before me and in spite of me.  It is a dispossession in which all that I might have become through acts of intentionality or will are stripped away in order to make room for the rule of the other:

It is like a devotion that, in its dis-interested-ness, misses precisely no goal but is diverted – by a God “who loves the stranger” rather than showing himself – toward the other man for whom I have to respond . . .  For-the-other-man and thereby unto God [A-Dieu].

Lévinas even reads Husserl’s famous phenomenological ‘reduction’ in this light, as a ‘vocation’ which begins with the other (even if, according to Lévinas, Husserl mistakenly continues to name what comes after in terms of solitary knowledge).  Here the reduction is understood as the tearing of an ‘I’ from the bedrock of itself,  a reorienting accomplished as a response to the gaze of the Other, which opens in the ego a sober sense of election and devotion.   That little word ‘election’ is crucial.  For Lévinas is marks the difference between a tragic fatedness and the joy of destiny.  Though, as we have noted, responsibility means that I now suffer the trauma of another’s freedom, the summons to that way is not one in which my own life is made entirely meaningless.  Rather, I am ‘elected’: I am chosen and bound as ‘irreplaceable and unique’.   The I who responds to what Lévinas variously names a ‘call’ or a ‘summons’, is not one who decides or designates, but one which says with many a biblical figure, ‘Here I am’.  Here the I experiences an awakening, not to an individuated or singularised self, but to a self which is entirely ‘for the other’, and therefore unable to accomplish any kind of ‘truth’ apart from that reference: ‘The subject as hostage has been given neither the experience nor the proof of the Infinite, but the witnessing of the Infinite, a modality of its glory, a witness that no disclosure has preceded.’

For Lévinas, then, there is call and a response that properly belongs to every human being:  the call to be a witness for the Infinite in the saying of responsibility.  ‘Saying’, says Lévinas,

makes a sign to the other, but in this sign, it signifies the very donation of the sign.  Saying opens me to the other, before saying something said, before the said that is spoken in this sincerity forms a screen between me and the other.  It is a saying without words, but not with empty hands.

Here there is no possibility of getting ‘into the know’ about life, the universe, and everything.  Neither may I simply create, from nothing as it were, the meaning of life.  Instead, every sign I make is already given into another’s power.  I cannot secure its meaning, I cannot say what I have said.  The witnessing is therefore a witnessing in silence to what I cannot do, but it is also, in the same movement, a witnessing to what the other accomplishes in me.  ‘This is a Saying bearing witness to the other of the Infinite, which tears me open as it awakens me in the Saying’.   This is a ‘pure witnessing’ that does not understand what is being said, and yet ‘The Infinite concerns me and encircles me, speaking to me through my own mouth’.   This is Lévinas’ version of the performative, a companion to Derrida’s notion of prayer.  ‘I am the witnessing, or the trace, or the glory of the Infinite’.  And I do so in the sign of a giving away of signs, the ‘for-the-other’ which is, as Lévinas says, a ‘religious discourse prior to all religious discourse.’

Now what does all this mean for the making of religious vows?  Three things, I think.  First, religious vows can never succeed in capturing the God they reference.  God is wholly other than human being, discourse and thinking.  Yet, and this is my second point, God passes through human discourse and leaves behind a trace in withdrawl—the unavoidable substitution by which I regard my own interests as being those of another.  The trace is found in the nature of language itself, in the substitution of metaphoricity, where one thing is said to signify another thing; and it is found in the asymmetrical substitution of another human being, for whom I am responsible even before I can name my own self. Religious vows, I contend, are prophecy in Lévinas’ sense.  They attend to these traces and try to mimic their saying in the realm of ordinary being.  They seek to perform the trace of God by recognising God’s priority over human life, and by declaring allegiance to an undeconstructible justice, to which all human beings are called.  Thirdly (and this is my most prescriptive point, I suppose), the language of religious vows, precisely as prophetic utterances, ought not be taken as pseudo-legal maxims which nail human beings to particular practices over others.  They are more properly regarded, I think, as unstable acts by which the meaning of the lives they implicate are surrendered into the hands of the unpresentable: vows as a resoluteness in being open to the claims of radical justice.

Garry Deverell, November 2001

back to essay  index