There are two ways

There are two ways of reading a biblical verse. One consists in appealing to the tradition, in giving it the value of the premise in one’s conclusions, without distrusting and without even taking account of the presuppositions of that tradition. . . . The second reading consists not in contesting straightaway, philosophically, but rather translating and accepting the suggestions of a thinking which, once translated, can be justified by what manifests itself.
. . .
Of course, I try to enter first into the language of the nonphilosophical tradition which is attached to the religious understanding of Jewish writings; I adopt it, but this adoption is the not the philosophical moment of my effort. There I am simply a believer. A believer can search out, behind the adopted intelligibility, an intelligibility which is objectively communicable. A philosophical truth cannot be based on the authority of a verse. The verse must be phenomenologically justified. But the verse can allow for the search for a reason. . . . I illustrate with the verse, yes, but I do not prove by means of the verse.

Emmanuel Levinas, Is it Righteous to Be, 61-62.

I put this quote up on Facebook as a stand alone.  It initially spoke to me of, or validated for me, how the biblical text can be used beyond confessional ‘logics’.  Immediately after reading this, however, Levinas went on to describe how confessional and philosophical readings acted like separate disciplines for him.  He even mentioned having separate publishers for these works.  Levinas continues this distinction maintaining that we need both Greek and biblical thought; one of reason and the other of sociality.  This troubles me because I simply do not know how to exercise these distinctions in practice.  I can understand how the distinct disciplines of politics and geology separately ‘read’ the land.  But if I understand Levinas correctly I cannot, as of yet at least, make his distinction in practice.

The context I am thinking of in particular is preaching.  When I approach the Bible as an ordained minister I do not know what it means to read it ‘simply as a believer’ as Levinas puts it.  The Bible continues to come to me as strange and I will literally take anything (philosophy, art, literature, psychology, observations, etc.) that will give me some point of orientation or manner of conversing with the text.  In the same way I cannot bracket some of my devotional postures of prayer when I try and gain congruence and coherence in my thinking.  Something other than reason wanders through my thoughts that I could not and would not want to exorcise from my ideas.  There is the matter of trust (I find that is a better term than ‘faith’ in most cases) that continues to inform and shape my reasoning.

In any event I look forward to working through my first full text of Levinas.  And I suspect in as much as he himself embodies both processes he may not adhere to strict divisions all the way through.  But what I am left wondering about is to what extent the sheer discipline of distinction would actually benefit both my faith and thought (or are those categories already too reductive)?


5 comments on “There are two ways

  1. I left you note over at Kait’s blog I won’t repeat here. But to answer myself, now I remember, and I am working on it. obliged.

  2. Thanks, I also processed this with another friend who loves this guy. I think the distinction makes more sense now in terms of role of Greek discourse and the call of biblical holiness. I also am coming to appreciate the role that ‘the third’ plays in how our obligations are navigated.
    . . . and I am also seeing the light of your signature sign-off!!

  3. Let me just offer this to think about for a bit till I get time to get back to this ( I am having to spend a lot of time practicing music for a recording soon and I just don’t have enough time for everything right now dang it!). Think of what it meant to be a devout Jew, and also a philosopher in Nazi Europe between the world wars (I don’t just mean Germany, but also France, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands, all the north countries, they were all shot through with antisemitism and nazi-isms (and all are experiencing a resurgence today as well (but then so are we here in the US). This is most apparent in the neo-falangism of Rightist Catholics like Santorum, but also Murdoch, the EWTN, etc.. Santorum’s and Gingrich’s speeches have a chilling resonance with the speeches/envocations of the murderously devout Generalisimo Franco of Spain. Then rememberf some of Heideggers post SZ work, for example “An Introduction Into Metaphysics,” (setting aside his more overt cheerleading for Hitler in the infamous ‘Rectors Address’). Brother Martin was infected with a certain kind of virulent fascist Catholicism found in Baden-Württemberg and other enclaves in Germany and Austria (and apparently in Australia too if Mel Gibson is representative). He and Levinas always had a tumultuous relationship (Heidegger’s intransigence is to blame in my opinion). Think about Derrida’s post war, but much more complex, often indecipherable, yet ever lurking referentially in all his work, relationship with his Judaism and philosophical project (think of Hélène Cixous’s “Portrait of Jacques Derrida as a Young Jewish Saint.” I am thinking of painting an Icon of Derrida btw). Recall how Husserl was abused, Arendt was fu%#ked over (literally) and Edith Stein was sequestered (though less so after she converted to the RC’s, though she still died in the camps). Delineating ones Judaism from ones philosophical career is an understandable strategy for both endeavors. Now I ain’t saying that’s the whole story, just one small piece of the puzzle. btw, “Is It Righteous to Be” is in my top 10 most important books, yet I haven’t found many Christians that share my enthusiasm, i hope your appreciation grows as well, blessings and obliged.

  4. Thanks for the time in responding. I definitely agree that it will take some pause to in any way realize the situation of the Jewish intellectual in that context.
    I think part of what I struggled with was the assumption that my preaching was somehow not ‘Greek’ (but influenced by the Greeks). I now suspect that the vast majority of what I would call my ministry is indeed Greek but there remains something prior that I cannot articulate (or not without reduction in any event). It is perhaps here that I must understand ‘the Bible’.
    Also I remain conflicted over ‘the face’. I cannot divorce it from plasticity as Levinas asks us. For my the plasticity of the face is actually the face that Levinas is writing about. When I was about half-way through Is it Righteous to Be I went out for a walk with my 2 year old son. There are many children and few parents on my street when weather gets nice (as it barely starts to now). There was a boy of about 8 who fell off his scooter and when I saw him at a short distance he still had his head down and was crying. There was no one around. As he picked his head up it was a face full of blood. I saw it from a certain perspective but my son saw it ay more of a ‘face-to-face’ level. I don’t know if the event affected him; whether it was traumtic or redemptive or neither or both. What I know is that I cannot divorce the Levinasian face to that boy’s face. And so Levinas’s work troubles me. It remains so damned hard. And what makes it more problematic is the introduction of ‘the third’ and the seemingly necessary violence that will follow in any judgment and decision. It seems though that I must simply own up to this and also name that my viceral sympathy did nothing for the boy on the street and perhaps get over myself in this matter.
    So in this way Levinas is not ‘exicting’ for me but that is no criticism.

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