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Revisioning Christian Theology in Light of Emmanuel Levinas's Ethics of Responsibility [*]

By Baird, Marie L. | Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Summer-Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Revisioning Christian Theology in Light of Emmanuel Levinas's Ethics of Responsibility [*]


Baird, Marie L., Journal of Ecumenical Studies


PRECIS

A revisioning of Christian theology seeks to recover the primacy of the uniqueness and irreplaceability of the Individual from the expansive vision of totalizing doctrinal formulations and systems that function, In effect, without reference to the subject. In contributing to such a revisioning, this essay utilizes the thought of Emmanuel Levinas to argue three points: (1) The conceptual unmanageability of the Holocaust renders It unavailable to analysis within a totalizing, ontologically based conceptual framework, especially since such frameworks cannot acknowledge the preeminence of individual Inviolability. (2) The post-Holocaust recovery of being and meaning requires an approach that posits the primacy of the ethical relation over the ontological totalization of being that functions without reference to the subject. (3) The site of a post-Holocaust Christian theology is thus the site of the ethical relation itself. A revisioned Christian theology is primordially embodied in the ethically based praxis of merciful and compassionate action in response to the preeminent inviolability of the other.

Introduction

Roman Catholic theologian Johann Baptist Metz has exhorted Christian theologians to discard the use of "system concepts" in favor of "subject concepts" in their current and future theologizing:

This demand for a subject-based rather than a system-based kind of Christian theological concern is not the expression of a privatistic or individualistic form of theological consciousness. It is the natural consequence of "historical consciousness" in the field of theology-demanded of us, expected of us and granted to use [sic] in the face of Auschwitz. Even this first demand may show that here, with the view toward Auschwitz, it is not a matter of a revision of Christian theology with regard to Judaism, but a matter of the revision of Christian theology itself. [1]

Such a revisioning of Christian theology seeks to recover the primacy of the radical uniqueness and irreplaceability of the individual from systematic doctrinal formulations and systems that have the effect, unintendedly or otherwise, of relativizing the primacy of the subject's unique irreplaceability in the totalizing excess of their own vision. In short, a revisionist Christian theology in light of the Holocaust recovers the preeminence of the inviolability of individual human life by replacing the ontological basis of Christian systematic theologies with an ethical enactment.

In contributing to such a revisioning, this essay will utilize the thought of Emmanuel Levinas to assert the primacy of ethics as "first philosophy" replacing ontology and, by implication, the onto-theo-logical foundations of Christian systematic theologies, with the ethical relation as the site of the very possibility -- and in this case, recovery -- of being and meaning as such. This discussion will argue the following points: First of all, the sheer conceptual unmanageability of the Holocaust as the negation of being and meaning renders it unavailable to analysis within a totalizing, ontologically based conceptual framework, especially since such frameworks cannot acknowledge the preeminence of individual inviolability that is prior to ontology itself. This being the case, the post-Holocaust recovery of being and meaning requires an approach that posits the primacy of the ethical relation. Such an approach establishes and safeguards the very possibility of individual being as such, prior to the ontologica l totalization of being in "systems-based" theologies that has the effect of relativizing the primacy, prior to ontology, of the subject's unique irreplaceability. Finally, the site of a revisioned post-Holocaust Christian theology is thus rooted in the ethical relation itself. Such a theology is primordially embodied in an ethical responsibility for the other that precedes ontologically based systems of conceptualization and that expresses itself in an a posteriori manner in the praxis of merciful and compassionate action in response to the preeminent inviolability of the other.

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