Learning From a Jewish Philosopher Admired by John Paul II

Author Speaks of Convergence Between Wojtyla and Emmanuel Levinas

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Since the election of Pope Francis, the Catholic Church has been engaged in a re-discovery of its close association with the poor and those who suffer.

In his call for “a poor church for the poor,” Francis has reminded Christians of the need for solidarity and advocacy for those who lack wealth and power. He takes up the tradition of his predecessors in a fresh new way, one that both Benedict XVI and John Paul II pursued in different styles.

Indeed, John Paul II spoke at length about the dignity of every human person and the Christian requirement that we give witness to that dignity. As well as a voice for those whose voices were silenced by oppressive regimes, John Paul II was a scholar and intellectual, and one of the philosophers he admired was Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), a Lithuanian-French Jewish philosopher.

Levinas wrote his philosophy with close attention to ‘the other,’ and argued that we cannot think or act for the suffering other without the language of God. Some theologians have therefore found encouragement and inspiration in the thought of Levinas.

ZENIT spoke with Nigel Zimmermann about his book, Levinas and Theology, published by Bloomsbury in September 2013. Zimmermann teaches theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia in Sydney.

ZENIT: Tell us about your inspiration for the book.

Zimmermann: I first discovered Levinas through reading John Paul II, especially his interview, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994). There, His Holiness called Levinas’ thought a ‘testimony for our age’, and paralleled his philosophy of the other with the ‘radical solidarity’ that the Christian Gospel maintains with every human person. The points of convergence between John Paul II — and especially his earlier writings before becoming Bishop of Rome under the penmanship of Karol Wojtyla — with Levinas, were remarkable. In fact, Wojtyla and Levinas had begun a dialogue and friendship which has largely been overlooked.

Out of this, I developed an interest in both thinkers which took hold as I completed my doctorate at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I recall my supervisor (the recently departed Rev Dr Michael Purcell) joking that one of my problems is that people who like John Paul II don’t read Levinas, and that people who like Levinas don’t read John Paul II…but in fact they had read each other’s work with great interest! A challenge for a Catholic theologian is to read both charitably and critically.

So, after my PhD was completed, Bloomsbury gave me the opportunity to write a book on Levinas, and what his thought might mean for theology. I have tried to be a fair assessor, and in fact theology has the resources to more perfectly answer some of the questions that Levinas views as crucial to ask.

ZENIT: What do you think is the key to Levinas’ philosophy?

Zimmermann: There remains much argument as to how we might interpret a prolific writer such as Levinas. I agree with others that a key to Levinas’ wider project is to reflect on the ethical significance of what he calls ‘the face’. For Levinas, the face of the other makes a demand that we act responsibly and ethically for the sake of the other. Levinas’ language is often quite strong, which reflects the influence the Holocaust had upon him. At times it is a joy-less responsibility for others, and in this way I think Catholic theology has a capacity to honour Levinas’ insights, but to understand them critically in light of the Incarnation, in which Christ gives himself for others with joy and in friendship. Understanding Levinas’ philosophy of the face takes time and attentiveness, but is a rewarding challenge. It also requires that Christian theologians think more generously about the Jewish context from which their own faith springs. Every pope since the Second Vatican Council has called for closer friendship and understanding between Jews and Christians, and this includes scholars across both traditions.

ZENIT: What do you hope people will learn from your book?

Zimmermann: I hope that people come to see both the opportunities and the short-comings of Levinas’ thought. For anyone interested in questions about God, Levinas should be on the must-read list, because he comes from one of the richest philosophical traditions to develop in the last century, phenomenology, and insists that ‘God language’ cannot be divorced from philosophy if it is in any way true. His philosophy is not perfect or complete, but it gives proper attention to how the other, God, and ethics are intimately related. Also, Levinas lost friends and family to the Holocaust. Despite suffering, he insists that the language of God does not pass from history, but is required more carefully and diligently. This is a voice to take seriously.

Further to this, I hope people learn that theology is not a closed science, but an open dialogue that carries its convictions and commitments out into the world. Not unlike Francis’ call for a Church to be bruised and affected by what it experiences out on the street, I think Levinas opens a way for theology to be bruised and developed more fruitfully precisely by its association and interest in the suffering other. 

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