An Introduction to Levinas (Part Three)

A Destruction of Transcendence


Roman Catholic Cathedral of Saint John and Saint Finbar, Charleston SC, USA, destroyed by a fire in 1861. Picture taken in 1865 after bombardment of the city by the US Navy.

3. Philosophical discourse must therefore be able to embrace God of whom the Bible speaks – if, that is, this God has a meaning. But once thought, this God is immediately situated within the “gesture of being.” He is situated therein as a being [etant] par excellence. If the intellection of the biblical God-theology-does not reach the level of philosophic thought, it is not because theology thinks God as a being without making clear to begin with the ‘being [être] of this being,” but because in thematizing God, theology has brought him into the course of being, while the God of the Bible signifies in an unlikely manner the beyond of being, or transcendence. That is, the God of the Bible signifies without analogy to an idea subject to criteria, without analogy to an idea exposed to the summons to show itself true or false. And it is not by accident that the history of Western philosophy has been a destruction of transcendence. Rational theology, fundamentally ontological, endeavors to accommodate transcendence within the domain of being by expressing it with adverbs of height applied to the verb “to be.” God is said to exist eminently or par excellence. But does the height, or the height above all height, which is thus expressed, still depend on ontology? And does not the modality that this adverb asserts, borrowed from the dimension of the sky stretched above our heads, govern the verbal sense of the verb “to be,” to the point of excluding it – as ungraspable – from the esse that shows itself, that is to say, that shows itself as meaningful in a theme?

Note:  In this Introduction to Levinas I intend to go paragraph by paragraph through his essay “God and Philosophy” and to make comments on it. This will be a long series! I will assume that you’ve scanned over the previous sections.

a) Levinas continues his brief description of Western philosophy by introducing the God of the Bible. Being Jewish he naturally means the God of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, as interpreted and argued about by the Talmud. However, he uses the ambiguous phrase “God of the Bible” to also include the Christian Bible of the Old Testament and the New. The God being discussed here is not the incarnate Word or the Holy Spirit. God is presented in the Bible as a transcendent being – uncreated, powerful, creator, source of laws and instruction. However, the minute philosophy gets its hands on the divine it begins to destroy this transcendence, to domesticate it in terms of being.

b) Does “God” have a meaning in philosophy? Logical positivism would, of course, say that it is meaningless, as it is unverifiable by empirical evidence. However, that’s not the point that Levinas is making here. Rather, following on the previous paragraph the term or idea would only have meaning if it can be thought, if it is inherently intelligible, if it can be situated within the gesture of being.

c) Historically there were two approaches to this. Duns Scotus argued that anything that might be said of God might also be said of things in creation. Thus, if God is good and a person is good, the word “good” has the same meaning, although there may be a difference in degree. On the other hand Thomas Aquinas would have said that what can be said of both created things and God are analogous; if a person is good it is because that persons’s goodness participates in the goodness of God, but they are not the same thing. Thus, when it comes to “being”, the being of a creature is like the “being” of God, but it is not the same thing.  For Duns Scotus, who holds to the univocity of being, they are the same thing.

d) Now, Aquinas works hard to demonstrate that we cannot really know God. As creatures we are limited, and God’s being is unknowable to cognition, but it can be known by a beatific vision that is beyond words. Aquinas, then, does allow for transcendence. For more on this see Analogy in Theology.

e) Levinas describes the general trend of Western Philosophy as a destruction of transcendence. Philosophy takes God as a theme and absorbs it into its discourse, and in so doing cuts it off from its Biblical roots, where transcendence is repeatedly affirmed. In the Reformation analogical theology ceased to be practiced, and the existence of God is affirmed by using adverbs such as “par excellence” and “eminently” – but even those words suggest a height that is transcendent. Thus there is always a hint in the philosophy discourse of God that there is something that escapes the grasp of being, that is otherwise than being, or beyond essence.

f) The problem with theology, as Levinas sees it, is that it is fundamentally ontological. Now, Levinas was not an historian of medieval theology, and probably did not understand the nuances of Thomist theology. However, the idea of the Summa Theologica – that one begins by proving the existence of God in a variety of ways and then moving on – was an ontological starting point that Levinas could not accept. For him a proper metaphysics does not start with being and existence, but with ethics.

g) The problem with philosophical discourse of the type that Levinas describes is that it is totalizing. Levinas took his critique of totalizing thought from Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) and developed it in Totality and Infinity. In a lecture in 1959 he summarised Rosenzweig this way:

Thales assertion that `everything is water’ is, according to Rosenzweig, the prototype of philosophical truth. It denies the truth of experience, reducing dissimilarities, saying what all reality encountered is fundamentally, and incorporating all phenomenal truth into this Whole.

Everything, in fact, for ancient cosmology, is reduced to the world; for medieval theology, to God; for modern idealism, to man. This totalization culminates in Hegel: beings acquire meaning only from the Whole of history, which measures their reality and encapsulates men, states, civilizations, thought itself and thinkers. The person of the philosopher is reduced to the system of truth of which the person is but a moment.[1]

h) For Levinas, this is not an abstract issue. He believed that Heidegger’s ontology in Being and Time led to him adopting the goals and aims of Nazi Germany. For Levinas ontology supports war, violence, and the degradation of the individual:

The visage of being that shows itself in war is fixed in the concept of totality, which dominates Western philosophy. Individuals are reduced to being bearers of forces that command them unknown to themselves. The meaning of individuals (invisible outside of this totality) is derived from the totality. The unicity of each present is incessantly sacrificed to a future appealed to to bring forth its objective meaning. For the ultimate meaning alone counts; the last act alone changes beings into themselves. They are what they will appear to be in the already plastic forms of the epic.[2]

i) Levinas sometimes said that in his philosophic work he was trying to translate Hebrew into Greek. What he meant by that was that while knowledgeable and aware of the discourse of western philosophy (which started with the Greeks) he intended to disrupt its totalizing trend with transcendence (which he finds in “the God of the Bible”). However, his philosophy is not a Jewish philosophy or a Judeo-Christian philosophy, much less a theological sheep in a philosophical wolf’s clothing. Rather, he is critiquing the ontological discourse of the past 2500 from within that tradition. This gets developed later in the essay.

[1] Emmanuel Levinas, “`Between Two Worlds’ (The Way of Franz Rosenzweig)” from a lecture originally given September 1959, in Difficult Freedom, Essays on Judaism translated by Seán Hand (Baltimore MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), pp. 181-201, p. 188.

[2] Levinas, Totality and Inifinity, p. 21-24.


About Bruce Bryant-Scott

Baptised 1962. Anglican priest. Fly-paper brain. Husband & Father. Refugees welcome! I remember when Facebook was on paper.
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