Mondes européens

Levinas and Kierkegaard between Religion and Ethics

. Introduction (1)

It remains a contested question whether there is any sense to the religious outside of the ethical in the thought of Emmanuel Levinas. Even as Levinas employed religious language and evoked a monotheistic religious sensibility in his philosophical and Jewish writings, he could quote Vasily Grossman’s words that “There is neither God nor the Good, but there is goodness” and remark that this “is also my thesis.” (2) Such tendencies have led a number of interpreters, recently Samuel Moyn, to argue that Levinas is secularizing the vocabulary of religious transcendence by prioritizing its ethical moment. (3) Yet, assuming such a secularizing intention-and that secularization usually means the desacrilization of God as well as the disenchantment of the world-Levinas’s commitment to religious language and forms of life becomes perplexing. It is particularly problematic given his interpretation of the secularization of God, which is inevitably ontological in construing God negatively in light of characteristics of beings and being, as the destruction of transcendence. (4)

Speaking somewhat schematically, and hopefully not too controversially, interpretations of the priority of the ethical in Levinas diverge into two general positions: (1) an ethical-political reading emphasizing the primacy of the human other and the rhetorical and/or deconstructive character of his religious language; and (2) an ethical-religious reading focusing on the inherent mutuality of the human and divine other in which the religious is not to be secularized as a linguistic strategy but is necessary in being pre-theoretically constitutive of ethical life. For the former, God is an indication of what Walter Benjamin called the “weak messianic power” (5), an interruptive breakthrough of the good and the just into the injustices and horrors of historical life, a promise and break that does not require and might well be violated by a present God or Messiah. For the latter, the religious signifies more an ethical way of life than faith, given Levinas’s rejection of the language of subjective faith and insofar as the good is exhibited in the performance of the divine command in the activities and rituals of the daily life of a community. (6) Examples include the “pardon,” “God bless you,” and “after you” that are for Levinas not merely formal politeness. Both approaches, which each have their sources in Levinas’s own work and are perhaps at their most divergent over its political implications, agree that the religious-whether it is understood as an ethical idiom or a transcendent trace ethically interrupting worldly immanence from beyond it-primarily occurs in altruistic and responsive behavior towards others. That is, in charity and proximity to the neighbor and in responsibility for “the stranger, the widow, and the orphan” as well as the exile, destitute, and proletarian. (7)

2. Questioning Levinas Questioning Kierkegaard

The portrayal of religion as unconditionally and solely ethical in opposition to religion as faith strongly contrasts with standard interpretations of the works of Søren Kierkegaard. Levinas repeatedly denies that religion concerns faith as a variety of belief, subjective truth, or what he argues is an egotistical and self-interested search for consolation, redemption, and salvation, which for Levinas even in Kierkegaard belongs to the violence of the conatus and being rather than the movement toward ethical alterity. (8)

Levinas describes his strategy as one that offers a “religion for adults,” which evokes the intellectual maturity of the Enlightenment, emphasizing Abraham’s break with idolatry and the disenchantment of the violence of participation in the ecstatic and the numinous for the sake of saintliness. (9) If, he maintains, “religion is to coincide with spiritual life, it must be essentially ethical.” (10) As a movement without teleology, an insatiable desire for the good beyond being that exceeds all intentions and projects that can be activated in the realm of being, his use of the word religion conceals “no theology, no mysticism.” (11) Freedom is described in Existence and Existents as consisting of responsibility rather than grace, and messianic hope as hope in and for the present. (12) One finds a similar kind of hope, even if proceeding through the grace of the absurd, in Fear and Trembling when stress is placed on the fulfillment of faith in the present moment and in this life. (13) Levinas later speaks of the strange possibility-in the context of Auschwitz and the Shoah-of religion without any consolation or promise, of “faith without theodicy.” (14) That is, it is “an awaiting without an awaited, an insatiable aspiration,” which is not due to the limits or finitude of human existence but the in-adequation of infinity itself. (15) Religion is the ethical without expectancy, without future, even if these are only understood as the impossible promise on the paradoxical basis of and in the face of the absurd. Although the Kierkegaardian absurd also exceeds one’s own intentionality and activity, and thus in some sense indicates the transcendent that individuates, it might not appear from Levinas’s perspective to adequately break with the dramas of participation and self-concern.

Despite the apparent abyss that opens between Kierkegaard and Levinas concerning the import of faith in such comments, Levinas further remarks concerning a religion without nostalgia about the past and expectation about the future that all one can require ethically is to assume responsibility for oneself without demanding it of others. I am responsible to the point of substitution for the other even as I cannot expect the other to substitute herself for me, as such an expectation “would be to preach human sacrifice.” (16) Responsibility is accordingly the traumatic passivity of my obligation for and to the other, rather than my obligating the other. (17) This substitution extends even to the point of persecution, I am hostage to the other even when the other troubles and persecutes me. (18) At the same time, it is I-and no other-who is addressed and singled out as responsible via the command, face, and height of the other. Whereas contemporary moral theory commonly grounds ethics in the mutual and symmetrical relations between equal agents, Levinasian responsibility is asymmetrical in that it is not grounded in but precedes the symmetry of reciprocal recognition and communication. It unequally demands more of me than it does of anyone else and, as such, it is a singular obligation addressing ‘each’ rather than a universal duty addressing all.

Levinas’s notion of asymmetrical responsibility, depicted as holiness beyond the expectations and promises of reciprocal exchange, unsurprisingly brings to mind responsibility in Kierkegaard. Yet Levinasian asymmetrical responsibility is not necessarily identical with Johannes de silentio’s version, as ascribed to Abraham in Fear and Trembling. This is indeed how Levinas himself analyzes the situation: whereas Kierkegaard’s interpretation emphasizes Abraham’s asymmetrical responsibility to God and separation from the human, Levinas criticizes this for the sake of ethical responsibility to the human other, in this case his son Isaac, and God only via this human other. Religious responsibility in Kierkegaard’s sense, as alone singled out before God in one’s responsibility, seems incompatible with ethical responsibility to God exclusively through responding to the human other. (19)

The question of the relation of the religious and the ethical cuts both ways, however, as it might be asked whether anything like Kierkegaardian faith is possible given Levinas’s interpretation of religion, in which the objectivity of the book and the command matters more than phenomena such as subjectivity, interiority, and conscience. Although some might find Levinas’s elimination of modern Protestant religious categories unproblematic, more troublesome is Levinas’s contention that Kierkegaard’s wound, passion, and turning in of the self upon itself is not sufficiently monotheistic but essentially pagan. (20) This is a damming claim, because Levinas often-if rhetorically-identified the pagan with evil and the primitive, the darkness lacking the light of God (21), and in discussions of Heidegger assimilates paganism and atheism to National Socialism, as if they were inherently identical. (22) Nature itself falls under this pagan “logic of indifference” as inhuman and without God. (23) Whereas there can be apparently no ethical pagans and atheists for Levinas, at least according to some readings that have their sources in Levinas’s own texts, I would like to suggest that Kierkegaard is less reductive and more pluralistic. Even as Kierkegaard critiques fallen Christendom as only self-deceptively Christian and actually pagan, the genuinely pagan-as opposed to the Christian pagan obsessed with worldly power and wealth-can achieve a greater religious consciousness than indifferent monotheists through passion and awe for the incommensurable, the eternal, and the divine. Likewise, for Kierkegaard, or some of his personalities, the pagan, the atheist, and non-monotheist can attain the virtues of ethical life, if not the faith that constitutes the fullness of the religious as distinct from the ethical that cannot overcome sin. (24)

By separating the ethical and religious spheres, and describing the abysses and breaks requiring leaps between them, Kierkegaard more adequately differentiates religious and secular ethical life without assimilating one to the other. In The Moment and other late polemical pieces, he fiercely radicalizes such separation for religious reasons in order to focus Christianity on individual freedom and responsibility and away from Christendom’s coercion and constant calculations concerning power, status, and wealth. (25) Although Levinas criticizes the ‘violence’ of his language, it is noteworthy that Kierkegaard himself sees Christianity as the renunciation of authority and power, including concrete instances such as making war and controlling marriage. (26)

By contrast, it remains a genuine question whether Levinas allows any ethical meaning to non-monotheistic ways of life and whether the atheist, the pagan, or the non-conforming pan-entheist like Spinoza can be ethical based on Levinas’s portrayal of the ethical as essentially monotheistic. Levinas’s polemics against mystical Judaism have similar implications. This issue of Levinas’s apparent orthopraxy does not seem resolvable by arguing against religious appropriations of Levinas, secularizing his way of speaking and taking it as a rhetorical linguistic strategy, if it remains privileged as a rhetorical and argumentative strategy. Indeed, it then seems coercive and disingenuous.

Consequently, a number of interpretations of Levinas if not Levinas himself risk reducing ethics to the religious and religion to the ethical, doing injustice to both. An injustice that, oddly enough, the mere religious writer and theologian-as Heidegger called him-Kierkegaard contests. At the same time as Levinas suggests that the tragic pagan is unethical, Levinasian ethics is arguably closer to it from a Kierkegaardian perspective. If the tragic ethical hero acts for the universal by altruistically and therefore asymmetrically sacrificing what is most precious-child, life or the self-for the sake of others, i.e., by assuming a greater responsibility without the paradoxical absurdity of faith that distinguishes the hero of faith, then Levinas’s idea of responsibility without hope or promise is closer to the altruistic resignation of the tragic hero.

If it is the case that Levinasian ethics is neither a secular nor a religious ethics in undermining both by confusing their terms, then it needs either to be interpreted as a theological ethics for the religious, or a religious form of life, without pretending to be an ethics for each human, or it must abandon its religious pretenses in order to be a secular ethics for each person and hence applicable to each regardless of religious affiliation, belief, or practice. This includes atheists, pagans, and pantheists who, as the supposedly hyper-theological and fideist Kierkegaard recognized, do not and need not partake in monotheistic language-whether as truth or as rhetorical linguistic strategy-in order to have some form of ethical life, even if it is deemed ultimately inadequate by Kierkegaard in comparison with the religious that overcomes sin. The inadequacy of paganism for Kierkegaard consists in the fact that it is tragic in lacking the possibility of salvation, not because it is intrinsically evil and dark, since (1) ethics is ultimately futile without the category of sin and transcended with it (27); and (2) the demonic is one form of the tragic illustrating how ethics and society can intervene yet not save. (28)

In the editor’s preface to The Book on Adler, Kierkegaard repeats his critique of the dangers of secularization as part of the confusion of modernity, which he illiberally analyzes as an inability to obey. Kierkegaard is of course not a liberal, yet he continues by presciently warning that the greatest danger is not the self-willfulness of secularization. It is the self-willfulness that in the name of God illegitimately assumes all authority from God by attempting to make every aspect of life-even that which is non-religious such as the political sphere-religious. The modern crisis rests in the confusion and totalization of the divergent and plural spheres of existence, including the destruction of the religious by the religious who force everything non-religious to be religious thereby making the religious non-religious. (29) As he argues in his critique of the fallen Christianity of Christendom, the drama of faith and redemption are lost in the machinations of earthly interests and power.

A number of approaches to Kierkegaard, Levinas, and the philosophy of religion make their living from the ambiguity diagnosed by Kierkegaard to the extent that they cannot differentiate the secular and the religious. As a critic of the Enlightenment, who places in question the overextension of the secular in modernity rather than its difference from the religious, Kierkegaard is closer to its aspirations in rejecting the conflation of the religious and the secular characteristic of ‘Christendom’. Instead of making the decision for Christianity, which is an interruption of and differentiation from the secular ways of the world, the decision has always already been made by society thus taking it away from the individual. Kierkegaard’s analysis of such placidity evokes Nietzsche’s argument in III, 25 of the Genealogy of Morality, where the worshiping of uncertainty, the question mark, the inability to know, and the identification of this uncertainty with God is described as the radical intensification of the priestly ascetic ideal under the conditions of modernity. (30) Instead of concluding with the undecidibility and consequent conflation of the religious and the secular, Kierkegaard sharpens the difference by criticizing the confusion of the secular and religious, or dulia et latria as what is ethically owed to other humans as distinct from what is owed to God, in order to contest religious confusion about the religious as a symptom of the modern crisis of religion. Such tendencies anti-dialectically rather than dialectically promote totality in the name of rejecting it insofar as they subordinate the plurality of ways and spheres of existing to one inflationary or conflated term. No term is magically protected from the uprooting process of dialectical reversal, not only the ontological and aesthetic but also the ethical and religious. In the name of messianic justice, Benjamin’s weak messianic power is at risk of being converted back into the worldly power, yet there is not only injustice in separating the secular and the messianic but also in sacrificing secular life for religious dominion. This is perhaps why current philosophical and theological discourses denouncing pagan idolatry and atheistic evil resonate so disturbingly with contemporary religious fundamentalisms, and their ideological and social-political uses.

Whatever proximity Levinas and Kierkegaard share concerning the interruptive character of being called to self-responsibility in being addressed by the transcendent, and concerning the abjection and suffering of witnessing (31), their accounts of ethics, religion, and their relation through shared concepts such as asymmetry and responsibility appear highly disjointed and potentially incommensurable.

3. Abraham and the Ethical

How do asymmetry, responsibility and the non-universal singular allow us to interpret the story of Abraham and Isaac? On the one hand, Levinas argues against Kierkegaard’s definition of the ethical as the universal and the religious as the singular. Both should be taken as proceeding from my singular and asymmetrical responsibility. (32) On the other hand, the point of the story of Abraham and Isaac is for Levinas the moment in which Abraham hears “the voice that brought him back to the ethical order,” adding that we should also think of Abraham pleading with God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah. (33) Abraham’s asymmetrical responsibility is for the human rather than the divine other, even as it has a moment of universality to the extent that ethics concerns the fate of all, even those deemed unworthy of life. For Levinas, ethics cannot be derived from theoretical or cognitive knowledge even as my pre-reflective responsibility inherently elicits reflection. Reflection and its universality are not excluded from the ethical, but derivative of my chosenness and election in being uniquely and singularly responsible for the other without expectations about the other. (34)

Universal responsibility for the other is at the same time the singularity of my individuation (35), as it is not a universal property or Heidegger’s death that individuates but the “other individuates me in the responsibility I have for him.” (36) This each time singular universality in my responsibility contrasts strongly with the general and abstract universality and symmetry as conceived from Kant to Habermas and Honneth. (37) According to Kant in Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, “if something is represented as committed by God in a direct manifestation of him yet is directly in conflict with morality, it cannot be a divine miracle despite every appearance of being one (e.g., if a father were ordered to kill his own son who, as far as he knows, is totally innocent) […]” (38); and “even if [a revelation] were to appear to him to have come from God himself (like the command issued to Abraham to slaughter his own son like a sheep), yet it is at least possible that on this point error has prevailed.” (39) Since morality is the standard by which the validity and worth of religious claims ought to be evaluated, claims contradicting that standard should be rejected despite every appearance of being a genuine religious command, miracle, or revelation. In Kant’s ethics, morality demands universality and the recognition of each person’s autonomy as an inviolable end in itself.

Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling takes such an understanding of the ethical, as universal and applying equally to all, as its point of departure for what Abraham must contend with and potentially overcome. If ethics is the universal, then Abraham is lost. Despite Kierkegaard’s way of speaking about faith as embodied in the figure of Abraham, as entailing a suspension of the ethical, some recent interpreters argue that this is not so much a departure from the ethical as it is an achievement of another kind of ethics. For example, T. P. S. Angier contends in his recent book that the works of Kierkegaard cannot be appropriately read as advocating an antinomian and unethical, inherently arbitrary and irrational, hyper-existentialist choice-which he associates with Nietzschean nihilism-but instead promotes a different non-universal and personal ethics of humility, self-giving, and self-sacrifice. (40) The ethical as universal is suspended for the sake of the more genuine ethics of charity, friendship, and the neighbor unfolded in Works of Love. Yet, in Fear and Trembling, Johannes de silentio asked “whether this story contains any higher expression for the ethical that can ethically explain his behavior, can ethically justify his suspending the ethical obligation to his son, but without moving beyond the teleology of the ethical.” (41) He answered that it is the tragic hero who has his “telos in a higher expression of the ethical” (42), whereas “Abraham’s situation is different. By his act he transgressed the ethical altogether, and had a higher telos outside it […].” (43) Rather than being another variety or understanding of the ethical, it is the ethical as such that is Abraham’s test and temptation. Although Abraham’s situation entails a “unique responsibility” (44) rather than aesthetic irresponsibility, redefining the ethical as being in accordance with Abraham’s paradoxical situation undermines the point of the text, of a singular interrupting and exceeding all justification. Such a normalization of the exceptional, given his respect for the ethical even in the figure of Abraham, would also have perhaps horrified Kierkegaard as not being very ethical at all, since it never rises to the universal.

The figure of Abraham is an exception to the moral order, yet not on the basis of another morality considered as a discourse that could justify and explain him to the public and the world. Kierkegaard is not articulating another ethical theory or some alternative to Kantian ethics, but is pointing to the limits, finitude, and other of the ethical as such. This should not be mistaken for an ethics, even a religious or asymmetrical one, since Kierkegaard’s general portrayal of ethics is found elsewhere. Of diverse provenance, because of the use of various and conflicting pseudonyms, the ethical is not simply Kantian and universalistic or to be eliminated in the name of faith. He repeatedly asserted that there can be no character, culture, or propriety without passion, highlighting the role of the affects and emotions in ethics. (45) He suggests an indirect and Socratic “ethical-ironic” discourse critical of the present. He argues for the moral rather than merely aesthetic character of Christianity. And, in works such as Either/Or and Works of Love, ethical life is unfolded as being much richer and complex than an empty universal applying equally to all without any consideration of particularity. Yet neither the earnestness of Judge William’s life of Kantian-Hegelian social duty, which Kierkegaard ironically teases as misunderstanding the aesthetic from the perspective of the ethical but does not therefore dismiss, nor the rich texture of religious-ethical love developed in his upbuilding confessional writings can make Abraham explainable to the understanding or ordinary life, which is perhaps how it should be given what is about to take place. To this extent, for Kierkegaard’s purposes, Abraham is an exemplar of and model for faith and its unique responsibility before God, in its disruptive incommensurability with human ethical judgment and activity.

In an intriguing account of the issues at stake between Levinas and Kierkegaard in the context of Jewish readings of the Akedah, Claire Katz argues that religious responsibility calls for and culminates in ethical responsibility to the degree that the real drama begins for Levinas after it has concluded for Kierkegaard. (46) Yet if the above reading is appropriate, then the paradox of faith and its responsibility is inherently incompatible with Levinasian ethical responsibility, in all its pre-discursive passivity and dependence on the wholly other, as a discourse concerning ethical justification and action.

4. Must one really be Religious to be Ethical? Demystifying Levinas

Although it has become fashionable to read Levinas as a religious author and edifying moralist, the religious is not a simple, univocal, and unambiguous category in Levinas’s works. In this section, I problematize the religious reading of Levinas unfolded above while avoiding excising the religious from his thought. This is possible insofar as the ethical and the religious are not an either/or for Levinas. At times he emphasized the need for some sense of monotheism and God in constituting the ethical, while at other points speaking more radically of a Comtean religion of humanity that does not utter the word God. (47) For Levinas, we cannot avoid the possible confusion of terms of referring to God and the human other, of employing an earthly horizontal and heavenly vertical religious language. This ambiguous tension is an irresolvable necessity due to transcendence exceeding intentionality (48); “the distinction between transcendence toward the other man and transcendence toward God should not be made too quickly.” (49) There is a hesitation in distinguishing them even as their irreducibility prevents us from equating the divine and human other. (50)

As Fear and Trembling is not an ethics but explores its limits in religious experience, so the main philosophical works of Levinas do not offer a religious or theological ethics but a philosophical exploration of the conditions of the ethical that potentially addresses all as an each, including the non-believer and non-monotheist. Ethics is not so much a belonging to any order or institution of being, including the religious, as it is the transcendence and utopianism of “small goodness” to use Grossmann’s expression. (51)

Levinas’s thinking of the ethical in Totality and Infinity begins precisely with disturbing yet unavoidable questions about the normalcy of the condition of war and the emergencies that excuse the deferral of the ethical to better days. Rather than naively asserting the ethical, Levinas’s preface presents the reader with questions that seem to suggest its impossibility. Given the facticity of war and the allergic almost spontaneous reaction against the other, how can ethics be possible? Given the ordinary egoism of self-enjoyment and participation in the daily world, how can the ethical response to the other even begin? How can there be an ethics that extends beyond the friend and the neighbor?

Despite recent religious appropriations and uses of Levinas, the significance of religion for Levinas is not the conquest and reward of heaven but the invisible height that elevates in deference, wonder, and worship, and that cannot be located in consumption, caress or liturgy. (52) Transcendence-in its alterity, infinity and incommensurability-indicates the distinction and separation of the human and divine such that the ecstatic and mystical, the violence and orgiastic (and its symbolic substitutes) assimilation of participation, direct union and communion are not characteristic of the religious as ethical rather than mythical. (53) For Levinas, who praises the Pharisees non-participation in divine drunkenness (54), the divine is not subsumption into the same but the interruption and throwing into question of identity. Its meaning is not revealed in the ecstasy and enthusiasm of story, myth, liturgy, the supernatural, the miraculous or faith.

As he elucidates the word “religion” in Totality and Infinity, standard definitions of the religious are decentered for the sake of the non-idolatrous transcendent of ethical address. The religious emerges as “the bond that is established between the same and other without constituting a totality.” (55) It is a responsibility and obligation to the other as a beyond and excess transcendent to the sameness of the ego and the reproductive identity of conceptual and social totalities, including the sacred violence. That is, the religious is enacted in moral responsiveness to the concrete reality of the other as exemplified in the vulnerability and height of the face. This dimension of height is associated not with heaven but with invisibility (56), and revelation, testimony and witnessing refer to the heterogeneity of the other by whom I am always already addressed and to whom I am called to respond. (57) I am called to respond to the other prior to all ideology and theology, and their forgetting of the other as more than and external to myself. For Levinas, “to wish to escape dissolution into the Neuter, to posit knowing as a welcoming of the Other, is not a pious attempt to maintain the spiritualism of a personal God, but is the condition of language […].” (58) All knowing, all discourse, already presupposes the ethical encounter of self and other even if it is suppressed, distorted and bracketed.

Levinas exposes the ethical core of the religious by “atheistically” confronting and destructuring the sacred violence of Dionysian participation. Whereas Levinas rejects atheism as the denial and absence of the transcendent, he praises atheism in another sense as the break with mythic absorption. Atheism, in this second sense that echoes Nietzsche’s category of the Apollonian, is a revelation of God’s glory in denying mythic powers and allowing ethical individuation to occur. The atheistic break is portrayed as a condition of monotheism in that it separates the alterity of the transcendent from immanent participation and the religious as ethical responsibility from mythic irresponsibility. (59) He comments: “The idea of infinity, the metaphysical relation, is the dawn of a humanity without myths. But faith purged of myths, the monotheist faith, itself implies metaphysical atheism.” Unfortunately, in the previous sentence he mentions that, “the believers of positive religions, ill disengaged from the bonds of participation, […] accept being immersed in myth unbeknownst to themselves.” (60) The religious as the ethical announces the disruption of sacred violence and holy war, which is the true meaning of the pagan for Levinas, and the invisible and unknowable God challenges idolatry by evading identification through speculative argumentation and enthusiastic participation, since God is not a presence at all but the absence of signifiers-an infinity and “relation without relation” that cannot constitute a totality. (61) Given this account, most self-described monotheists remained trapped in the idolatry and paganism of which they accuse others.

Infinite and beyond, and this without mediation or incarnation, God is only accessible in and through the human relation and justice. (62) That is, the transcendent as infinite occurs only in its ethical enactment in the rituals and practices of everyday human relations and encounters, in acts of responsibility. The ethical relation thus has priority over all theological, ontological, and aesthetic sublimity and terror. The ethical cannot be reduced to supernatural rewards and punishments. It interrupts the logic of sacrifice, the theodicy that excuses the facticity of actual suffering and horror, and what he described elsewhere as “the egotism of grace” and salvation. (63) Levinas accordingly claims: “When I maintain an ethical relation I refuse to recognize the role I would play in a drama of which I would not be the author or whose outcome another would know before me; I refuse to figure in a drama of salvation or of damnation that would be enacted in spite of me and that would make game of me. This is not equivalent to diabolical pride, for it does not exclude obedience. But obedience precisely is to be distinguished from an involuntary participation in mysterious designs in which one figures or prefigures. Everything that cannot be reduced to an interhuman relation represents not the superior but the forever primitive form of religion.” (64)

In addition to his over-generalized and problematic concept of paganism, we find an element of virtue ethics in Levinas insofar as the ethical is embodied and cultivated in practices and rituals such as those of solidarity and-as we clearly see in his Jewish writings-of the Jewish community. If religion consists of the communal and individual practices of the ethical, of solidarity between distinct persons who need to be recognized as such rather than assimilated to the logic of the same, then it can be legitimate to rethink the meaning of the religious as post-mythical and mystical, i.e., as ethics, without reducing the ethical to the particularity of one faith or religious form of life.

“Religion” is a relation to the wholly other, the transcendent, the infinite “that is not structured like knowing” and does not concern “an abstract eternity and dead God.” (65) This religion is not a doctrine or theory about God that is some kind of entity or person and which one can be used to convert the non-believer or produce a theological discourse or religious-political ideology about God. Yet it is also not the negation of God implied by the secularization thesis, which allows Moyn to conclude that Levinas failed in secularizing God radically enough. (66) A caveat needs to be added to this thesis such that its non-fulfillment is not simply a failure by Levinas to carry through his own project and intentions. If Levinas’s was truly interested in ‘secularizing ethics’, and to some extent he was and must be, then why did Levinas retain and rely on highly charged religious language? Can ‘God’ and the language surrounding God ever be truly ‘secularized’? Given the importance of the religious and the word God for Levinas, and the pertinent detail that he explained the religious through the ethical but did not reductively eliminate religion in ethics, religious language must be more than merely rhetorical if not dogmatic theological truth.

If the religious in Levinas is not so much a failure at secularizing ethics as it is a vehicle of its enactment, then the dogmatic content of theology from the philosophy or phenomenology of the religious might need to more carefully distinguished. After all, Levinas does not so much want to secularize God as secularize pseudo-religious idolatry, and it is this atheism and secularization that joins the God of Israel and western philosophy and science. (67)

Levinas praises atheism as disenchantment while rejecting atheism as the absence of transcendence. The former ‘ethical atheism’ preserves rather than destroys the invisible. It confronts the anonymous in-difference of participation in the sacred, which institutes religious violence against others, and challenges the idolatry that attempts to reduce the transcendent to the immanent by making visible the inherently invisible. It does not demystify God to the extent that, according to the logic of the Bildverbot that is also at work in connection with prophetic justice and the messianic in Walter Benjamin, it is not the invisible but the visible that is at the root of mystification, idolatry, and fetishism. His secularization questioned the theological not by dismissing or excluding all that is suggested by the religious but by addressing, saying, and unsaying what it indicates. One might accordingly question claims that ethics needs to be secular, immanent, and autonomous rather than involving passivity and obedience to something outside of oneself-the heteronomy to the transcendent that he described as the “impossibility of escaping God, the adventure of Jonas” (68)-if excluding all dependence would not simply exclude relations of power and domination but also charity, compassion, love, and respect. The fecundity and singularity of ethical life, as opposed to the subordination of the individual to common life, requires distinguishing rather than conflating ethical responsiveness-i.e., heteronomy as the other in the self that is the prerequisite of acting for the other and the ethical-with the elimination of responsiveness in ascetic self-denial, sacrifices to higher powers, and authoritarian subordination. (69)

Levinas consequently pursues a twofold strategy of making the secular religious and of secularizing the religious via the ethical moment of the transcendence of the other interrupting the immanence of the same. This double strategy, which Levinas does not continuously sustain, is a transversal of the ethical rather than a double negation or reversal culminating in synthesis. Given this dual and at times aporetic strategy, Levinas should not be construed as a secularizing atheist, a deceptive obscurantist mobilizing religious language for ulterior motives, or a theological, literal, or dogmatic theist. The other is not of course God and God is not the other, and yet transcendence is neither exclusively atheist nor theist. It is tied to these two names that indicate different aspects (one horizontal, the other vertical) of that which escapes the self and in doing so disturbs and addresses it as an ethical claim within the dominion of everyday and immanent life.

5. Concluding Comments on Asymmetrical Ethics and the Political

Kierkegaard and Levinas’s approaches to the secular, the religious, and the ethical can inform and complement each other in the tension of their divergence. Although often critical of Kierkegaard, Levinas also praises him for taking transcendence as his point of departure: “His point of departure is no longer experience, but transcendence. He is the first philosopher who thinks God without thinking Him in terms of the world.” (70)

I have suggested in my previous remarks that the suspension of the ethical, understood as universality and symmetry, in Fear and Trembling and other works does and should not by itself constitute an ethics yet can contribute to a broader alternative ethics that includes considerations of the asymmetrical relations between singular subjects. Although intersubjective universality, reciprocity, and equality are in a sense suspended, they are not bracketed for the sake of the unethical, violence or domination but for a different way of enacting the ethical itself-involving characteristics or virtues such as humility and generosity-in its non-universal and non-reciprocal difference and singularity. In the Two Ages, Kierkegaard reverses possible egalitarian criticisms of his work by arguing not only for the individuating power of passion-even the passion for equality and democracy of the revolutionary age as opposed to their calculative and manipulative established forms of the present age-but further that religious asymmetry leads to an elevating equality between individuals qua individuals before God in contrast to the leveling equality of symmetrical public life of modern mass societies. (71)

Kierkegaard’s interpretation of the asymmetrical responsibility, silence, and self-relation of the ‘knight of faith’, and its accompanying notion of subjectivity, differs from Levinas’s articulation of the religious as asymmetrical ethics involving dis-relations of height, distance, and alterity. Levinas does not deny the importance of symmetry and equality in questions of politics, justice, and the citizen, relations involving the third, although he criticized liberal universalism as well as both the subjectivism of Kierkegaard and the ethics of dialogical symmetry in thinkers such as Buber in the name of the absolute rather than relative-reciprocal priority of the other. (72)

Asymmetrical ethics, or the claim that individuals are inherently unequal in their moral obligations, is often thought to be incompatible with political equality. For social theorists such as Habermas and Honneth, ethics can only be founded on intersubjective relations between symmetrical agents, and the denial of their moral symmetry dangerously undermines political equality. In addition, the phenomenological emphasis on receptivity, passive synthesis, passivity, and openness and letting-a language Levinas radicalizes by speaking of dependence, heteronomy, and a passivity beyond all passivity-is interpreted as being complicit with political subordination and oppression, involving a submissive or reactionary political sensibility.

The responsibility of ethical responsiveness-which is constituted in the impossibility of ever adequately responding to the other qua other-challenges political dominion, as shown in Levinas’s reflections on twentieth-century politics with its numerous failures and horrors. Rather than establishing a static and hierarchical ethics of subordination, as feared by Habermas, Honneth, and other theorists of moral egalitarianism, this variety of religiously oriented yet not exclusively religious ethics offers a basis for and correction to standard liberal and socialist accounts of social-political equality by attending to questions of alterity, heterogeneity, and singularity. This is a significant modification of the contemporary discourses of ethical and critical social theory insofar as practical inquiry is nontrivially extended beyond the equal yet abstract symmetry and prudential negotiations of mutual recognition and consensus.