Kevin Hart, Michael Alan Signer, eds. The Exorbitant: Emmanuel Levinas between Jews and Christians. New York: Fordham University Press, 2010. xi + 308 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8232-3015-0; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8232-3016-7.
Reviewed by Marc Lalonde (Concordia University)
Published on H-Judaic (February, 2011)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
This volume of fifteen essays grew out of a conference of the same name held at the University of Notre Dame in April of 2005. The text includes contributions from such Levinasian luminaries such as Robert Gibbs, Richard A. Cohen, Edith Wyschogrod, and Jean-Luc Marion (to name but a few), and represents a compelling addition to the extant mountain of secondary literature now examining the work of the late French-Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas. The idea of “the exorbitant” evokes at least two meanings. On the one hand, the term denotes the excessive qualities of Levinas’s philosophy as a whole, with special emphasis upon his comprehension of responsibility. Here one’s obligation to the other human being in need precedes the exercise of individual freedom. Or as Jeffrey Kosky neatly phrases the issue (in “‘Love Strong as Death’: Levinas and Heidegger”), “before I am I, the other summons me to appear as myself in responsibility” (p. 111). On the other hand, the exorbitant also arouses the sense of an impending breach or interruption, one that constrains us to “stray from our circle of action” (Kevin Hart, “Levinas the Exhorbitant,” p. 1), taking up the strange and the unfamiliar as our own. The exorbitant, then, alludes to the challenge of Levinas: the challenge of “thinking otherwise,” to borrow a phrase from Michel Foucault.
In general terms, the individual essays in this volume are most engaging and well balanced, advancing provocative readings of Levinas as a philosopher; as a philosopher of religion; as a Jewish philosopher; and as a contemporary thinker highly relevant to discussions about modern and postmodern Christian thought. There is much to learn from these essays, and much to think through. In more specific terms, however, many of the authors featured in The Exorbitant are concerned to examine the challenges attending a Christian appropriation of Levinas’s philosophy. Judging by the variety of assessment that one meets, it is by no means certain whether Levinas provides the conditions of possibility or impossibility for a future Christian thought. As Gibbs starkly--but rightly--frames the matter (in “The Disincarnating of the Word: The Trace of God in Reading Scripture”): “The costs for Christian theology are exorbitant: a focus on disincarnation, a trace replacing full presence, a recognition that Christianity is singular and not the totality ... an infinite that is social and not held in the mind, and a radical ethics of responsibility for others. How Christian theologians will hear this,” remarks Gibbs, “is a great concern--not just in the present context but for the Church” (p. 51). At the risk of sounding one-sided, it is this particular inspection of things that mostly shapes the material uniqueness of this volume.
It is for this reason that Robyn Horner’s essay “On Levinas’s Gifts to Christian Theology” looms large. The author begins her analysis by asking “to what extent is it possible for [Christian] theologians to adopt Levinas as a dialogical partner?” (p. 130). In response, Horner provides a structural overview of the “Theological Uses of Levinas’s Work” in three types. First, as benign dialogue with key twentieth-century theologians (e.g., the work of Michael Purcell, including his own essay in this volume, “The Prevenience and Phenomenality of Grace; or, The Anteriority of the Posterior”). Second, as shielded incorporation of Levinasian themes (e.g., the work of Roger Burgraeve). Third, as the more adventurous reconstruction of theology (e.g., the work of Jean-Luc Marion, including his contribution here, “The Case of the Other and Substitution”). It is in view of these and other developments that Horner concludes that the theological effort to interface with Levinas comes to naught. “To the extent that Christian theology is articulated within a horizon of being,” writes Horner, “it would fall under Levinas’s critique of being as totalization” (p. 139). As a result, the Christian engagement of Levinas’s ideas for the advance of contemporary theology actually throws its validity into doubt. Thus, “Levinas would indeed make an unlikely dialogue partner for Christian theology” (p. 147).
Much the same conclusion seems to hold for the discussion revolving about the doctrine of the incarnation. While we meet differing assessments of this theme in the volume, many of the authors still gravitate toward it as if it were the deciding issue. For example, the lead essay by Leora Batnitzky entitled “Levinas between German Metaphysics and Christian Theology” asserts that christological terms like “incarnation” remain central to Levinas’s philosophy. According to the author, incarnation transpires within the ethical relation with the other where the trace of the living God is equally disclosed. This dynamic bond between the divine and the human inevitably evokes the idea of incarnation, that is, “the fusing of divine and human nature” (p. 29). Of course, nothing could be more wrong if we follow the lead of Gibbs. Advancing Levinas as a decidedly Jewish thinker, Gibbs contends that Levinas is rather anxious to separate himself from the doctrine of the incarnation. “Indeed, despite what you may find in some of the secondary literature,” intones Gibbs, “Levinas does not view the other person ... as an incarnation of God or of the infinite” (p. 33). Rather, what we witness is the “disincarnation” of the subject whereby the other person “becomes something other than the dwelling of God within human form” (p. 36). To be sure, more mitigated positions are offered by Elliot Wolfson (“Secrecy, Modesty, and the Feminine: Kabbalistic Traces in the Thought of Levinas”), Purcell, and Jeffrey Bloechl (“Excess and Desire: A Commentary on Totality and Infinity, Section I”). For the moment it is important to note the limitations that attend the focus on the incarnation. As Paul Franks reminds (in “Should Jews and Christians Fear the Gifts of the Greeks? Reflections on Levinas, Translation, and Atheistic Theology,” p. 212), the doctrine of the incarnation hardly exhausts the meaning and significance of Christianity. Thus, the Christian dialogue with Levinas may be more expansive, more pluralistic, and more inventive than any concentration on the incarnation may allow or suggest. Indeed, I would argue that The Exorbitant encourages the contemporary Christian thinker to pursue alternatives. I am not sure if what follows here constitutes an effort to “keep one eye on Levinas and another on the possibilities of the Jewish-Christian dialogue,” as the editor admonishes (p. 16). I think it is more along the lines of a debt owed that can never be repaid.
Gibbs articulates an essential point when he writes: “But if our task is to ... imagine ... how a Jewish philosophy can contribute to Christian theology, we must see that Levinas cannot view the discourse about God in the way that the Christian theologians do” (pp. 32-33). In effect, the Christian appropriation of Levinas’s philosophy (if it is to be consistently carried through) asks for a radical change of key. Or to echo a question raised by Kosky: to what degree does Christianity “admit alteration by confrontation with Levinas?” (p. 109). For example, Bloechl suggests that within the contemporary epoch (which we may designate as post-Holocaust or post-Christian), the establishment of goodness does not fall upon a God who intervenes (p.188); there is no supernatural intervention (Batnitzky, p. 29); we are rather left to ourselves (Bloechl, p. 200). What this means for Christian thought is that “God does not become human, and neither my neighbor nor Jesus can be God incarnate” (Gibbs, p. 36). Instead, God is met within the ethical relation (Cohen, “Against Theology, or ‘The Devotion of a Theology Without Theodicy’: Levinas on Religion,” p. 83). Says Levinas, “The love of God is the love of one’s neighbor.” Thus, “our desire for greater intimacy with the infinite, with God,” writes Bloechl, “must be expressed in acts that put the other person before oneself” (p. 196). It is for this reason that meaning and work of justice is foundational for Levinas and many of his interpreters. Thus Gibbs: “Access to the spiritual is through the work of justice: not a private intimacy with God and not an ascent to the highest mode of being, but spirit at work in the world. God will be found through doing justice” (p. 35). What matters, then, is not doctrinal belief (“The sentence in which God comes to get involved in words is not ‘I believe’”), but rather works of love. Hence Levinas’s affirmation of Matthew 25:40: “‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did [acts of compassion] to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, did you do it to Me.’”
As I come to the close of this review it is perhaps obvious that the task at hand is not so much “to think otherwise” with Levinas (a Christian preoccupation?), but rather to act otherwise. To be sure, this emphasis on praxis is hardly new to Christian life and thought as the social gospel movement and liberation and political theologies attest. Still, I cannot help but think there is something unique about the encounter with Levinas, something exorbitant, something not quite tried and that waits to be fully articulated. Toward that end, the present volume of essays should prove especially helpful.
. Emmanuel Levinas, In the Time of Nations, trans. Michael B. Smith (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1994), 171.
. Emmanuel Levinas, “God and Philosophy,” in Of God Who Comes to Mind, trans. Bettina Bergo (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998), 75.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-judaic.
Marc Lalonde. Review of Hart, Kevin; Signer, Michael Alan, eds., The Exorbitant: Emmanuel Levinas between Jews and Christians.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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