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The Non-Existent God: Transcendence, Humanity, and Ethics in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas

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This paper considers three essential gestures in Levinas’s theology, highlighting in each case how Levinas’s thinking allows him to either incorporate or sidestep some of the fiercest modern criticisms of traditional theism. First, we present Levinas’s vision of divine transcendence, outlining his ontological atheism and explaining how this obviates proving the existence of God and avoids the tangles of traditional theodicy. Second, we describe Levinas’s idea of the trace, showing how a non-existent God still leaves its mark in the face of the other person and explaining how this vision of divine immanence accords with the agendas of thinkers such as Feuerbach and Nietzsche, who criticized theology that elevated God while debasing humanity. Third, we present Levinas’s insistence on the philosophical primacy of ethics, showing how he infuses his ethical philosophy with religious themes, elevating moral philosophy to the level of ultimate concern in a way that even atheist social theorists such as Marx or Freud could appreciate. We close by briefly considering limitations of Levinas’s model, discussing problems with its practical applicability and suggesting that its scope might be too narrow: both for its failure to acknowledge potential ethical demands manifest by non-human animals and the natural world and for its inability to recognize solitary or aesthetic experiences as religiously significant. This paper was delivered during the APA Pacific 2007 Mini-Conference on Models of God.

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  1. See, e.g., Totality and Infinity, 80–1 and Of God Who Comes to Mind, 66–8.

  2. For a more detailed discussion of Levinas’s link with Descartes, see Of God Who Comes to Mind, 62–64, and the note on Descartes’s idea of the Infinite, Of God Who Comes to Mind, 198.

  3. Levinas explicitly states that his discourse can accommodate the idea of “the death of a certain God” as “tenant of the world-behind-the-world” (Levinas 2000, 274–5).

  4. As Feuerbach famously put it: “To enrich God, man must become poor; that God may be all, man must be nothing” (Feuerbach 1989, 26).

  5. Though it surfaces in other works as well, the “hostage” symbol is most pervasive in Otherwise than Being, showing up as early as the fifth page, as late as the penultimate paragraph, and in many other places in between. For the “deafness” formulation, see Totality and Infinity, 200.

  6. For Biblical references to generosity toward strangers, orphans, and/or widows, see Deuteronomy 24: 17–22 and 26:13–15. For other places where Levinas invokes this imagery, see, Totality and Infinity, pp. 78, 213; Otherwise than Being, p. 123; Difficult Freedom, p. 26; Of God Who Comes to Mind, p. 166.

  7. Here we see connections between Levinas and Kierkegaard, both of whom ground theological discourse in paradox.


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Correspondence to Donald L. Turner.

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Turner, D.L., Turrell, F. The Non-Existent God: Transcendence, Humanity, and Ethics in the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. Philosophia 35, 375–382 (2007).

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