One of my favorite weekly writing opportunities is to write for the Tuttle Times. My role is to write a piece on spirituality and I do so as pastor.
There are a number of resources I find interesting from which to reflect on life and faith. This is a recent column that one of my friends suggested offered a way to think about the Gospel in seven words. It is always nice when your friends read what you write.
He survived World War 2 and the Shoah, the Holocaust. Though Jew by ancestry, he did not study the Hebrew Scriptures and the Talmud until well beyond his adolescence. The combination of his personal experience and his study explains some of the questions that drove Emmanuel Levinas.
Reading Levinas for many might be compared to reading an extant, dead, foreign language. However, one of Levinas’ insights is anything but dead and may be put clearly. Levinas is summarized as contending that, “your physical need is my spiritual need.” Or, the trace of God is in the face of the other. And by face, Levinas means our experience of another person. So when we witness the physical need of another person, it is our spiritual need to find a way to help.
Levinas actually says our responsibility for the Other, the other person, is infinite.
Maybe Levinas had in mind Maurice Blanchot who helped keep his wife and children safe while he suffered in a Nazi work camp. Blanchot cared for their physical needs and kept them safe from the Holocaust. He helped Emmanuel keep in contact with his wife and children. Other members of Levinas’ family died in the Holocaust.
Blanchot may well represent how the physical need of another became the spiritual need for himself. For Levinas the ethical act of taking infinite responsibility for another as a spiritual need and provides a means to talk about God.
There is a simpler way to put this. When we take up within ourselves to care for the physical needs of others, we give life to our thoughts about God. Otherwise, we spend all our time in our head and no one gets helped.
James put it this way, “Be doers of the word, not hearers only.”
** The material on Emmanuel Levinas is taken from an introductory essay on Levians written by Robert Gibbs in, The Postmodern God: A Theological Reader, edited by Graham Ward, p.48ff.