Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Approaching the Divine: Levinas on God, Religion, Idolatry, and Atheism

Academic journal article Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture

Approaching the Divine: Levinas on God, Religion, Idolatry, and Atheism

Article excerpt

THE LATE BLESSED JOHN PAUL II alluded a few times in his Crossing the Threshold of Hope to Emmanuel Levinas's philosophical insights. He identifies Levinas, together with Paul Ricoeur, as one of the thinkers in contemporary hermeneutics who "presents the truth about man and the world from new angles." (1) He believes that Levinas's thought "represents a particular school of contemporary personalism and of the philosophy of dialogue" in the patterns established by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig. (2) It is difficult to talk about certain religious notions today without seriously studying Levinas's ethical philosophy. To pass over his religious conceptions would be to miss his significant contributions to changing the philosophical landscape in general and the texture of ethical and religious studies in particular.

Levinas claims that God is glimpsed in the ethical experience. (3) For him ethics provides an opening and a clearing where the trace of God can be discerned. As he remarks, "The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face." (4) He believes that God is revealed as a trace through the face of the Other to whom the self is called to serve and love. He says that "through my relation to the Other, I am in touch with God." (5) "Religion" is Levinas's term for this ethical relationship.

However, Levinas maintains that there is no "direct or immediate" relation with the Divine. (6) The Divine can only be accessed through the human other to whom the self is infinitely responsible. But this openness to the revelation of God is preconditioned by the self's initial atheism. That the self is first atheistic before God can be glimpsed in the face of the other.

Levinas is critical of the notion of religion as the "sacred" because this casts believers into a spell of some irresistible and magical power. This notion of religion diverts the adherent's attention away from his responsibility for the other and undermines God's holiness and transcendence. Levinas also considers religion that promotes the sacred to be a form of idolatry because in it God is replaced with a sacred object. Moreover, he rejects rational theology because it thematizes God and reduces him to a mere concept. For Levinas rational theology is a manifestation of the philosophy of the Same which, he claims, dissolves transcendence into immanence. In this type of theology, God becomes a mere idea and this leads to a kind of conceptual idolatry. Levinas also disapproves of mystical theology because this will lead to a union between God and man that obscures their independence. Rational and mystical theology weaken, if not destroy, God's transcendence and these two approaches presuppose that God can be accessed other than through one's ethical responsibility for the Other.

This article will highlight the importance of Levinas's thought within the current postmodern discussion on God and religion. It will begin with a brief discussion of what Heidegger calls "ontotheology" in order to understand what it is Levinas takes issue with. Nietzsche's proclamation of the demise of God will also be taken into consideration as a way of situating and deepening Heidegger's ontotheology. In addition, relevant insights in Kant and Hegel's thoughts will be surveyed in order to shed more light on the meaning of ontotheology and the death of God. The remaining sections of the paper will explore the meaning of transcendence, God, atheism, and idolatry within the matrix of Levinas's philosophy.

Ontotheology and The Death of God

Levinas concurs with Heidegger in criticizing traditional Western metaphysics. But unlike Heidegger, his motivation is not to renew the question of Being. Instead, he wants to reorient Western philosophy's preoccupation with immanence in order to reveal and acknowledge transcendence.

Heidegger characterizes Western metaphysics as ontotheology. (7) He calls for a rethinking of this metaphysics because it has obscured the real meaning of Being by identifying it with a particular being. …

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