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Friday, November 10, 2006 

Levinas and Atonement
Topic: Philosophy

Levinas and the Inner Demons: Guilt and Atonement
In the concluding movement in this piece on Levinas' soteriology, we consider to what extent substitution can occur, and in what passive frames.

The Extent of the Atonement

Were we to stop here, one might think that the question had been answered and the race run. We had successfully analyzed Levinas’ project and found the answer to the problem. Guilt was atoned for by the self’s sacrifice of the self, and an inward turn and acceptance of the critique of the Other. However, here we must make an about face in our entire manner of thinking. While everything that we have said is correct, our conclusion is utterly wrong. The truth is, for Levinas, we are never out of the confinement of our guilt.
Why, then, have we come to such a false conclusion? The answer lies in our definitions.

When speaking of atonement or salvation in his monologues, Levinas does not shy away from words like “salvation” or “atonement.” They show up in his indexes and, though not common, are definitely themes of his. However, terms given above often carry with them extra-terminal baggage that implies meanings that may be true in some cases, and completely misleading in other situations. This seems to be the case when studying Levinas.

Both of the given terms, salvation and atonement, carry strong religious connotations that give them certain meanings. This author has a strong background in the Judeo-Christian mindset, of which these two terms both play a prominent and essential part. It is easy, therefore, to hear much of what has already been said and understand something other than what is meant. When Levinas says “I am saved by accepting the Other’s critique,” we unfortunately smuggle our categories into his text, and therefore miss his meaning.[1]

An objection could be raised that wonders just how we know that we are missing the mark, and maybe this is precisely what Levinas meant. Perhaps the best way to quell the questions is to let Levinas answer himself. We can know that Levinas has no room for complete redemption. He says, “No repentant sinner can have access to the place of the just, who have never sinned. It is better not to sin than to be granted forgiveness. This is the first and necessary truth, without which the door is opened to every perversion.”[2]

So what are we to do with all of this salvation talk? In what sense can Levinas also speak of an atoning or that by which I am saved? There seem to be two ways in which Levinas means this type of salvific talk. The first is that of subjective, individual alleviation. Just as we saw earlier that the guilt is entirely subjective, so also is this sort of redemption. The guilt that should be felt so strongly is tempered, not done away with. For to do away with the guilt, we would have to do away with its source; its source is the responsibility from the voice of the Other. This inner, subjective atonement is manifested in the individual as a peace that buoys up alongside of the guilt. This peace makes the pain bearable, and is felt within the person.

The second aspect that Levinas speaks of in atonement is a more corporate flavor, in contrast to our previous individual experience. Levinas speaks of our atonement as a sort of “at one-ment.” This is not to say that the self becomes one with the Other. This loses the asymmetry needed for the I, the ego, to draw near to the Other. Instead, this oneness felt in relationship to the Other is very similar to what has already been spoken of in substitution. This oneness promotes the asymmetry, and helps Levinasian dialogue to flourish. It becomes easier for the self to participate in substitution, so that substitution encourages substitution, both to the self to propagate more, and to onlookers.

So for Levinas, such a complete salvation does not truly exist. There are definitely rewards and benefits for attaining salvation. The chance for lessened wrackings of guilt and inner peace, as well as developed relation with the Other and further opportunities for substitution are all new graces and boons to enjoy. So where does this leave us? Does this truly leave us still bound to guilt, and never finally atoned for? The answer is a very simple yes from Levinas. But this should not surprise us, for he has never been very concerned to save us. From the very beginning of any study of Levinas’ soteriology, one is struck by the lack of text concerning salvation or hope for the future. That is because Levinas has never looked to the salvation of the self. It is the Other who must be saved by our substitution, by my bearing his load. Yes, I receive grace from this act, but not final grace. That is something that Levinas would reserve for the Other, not the self. Here is the final persecution, the last dying to self. Here is Levinas’ chief and final cry, to exonerate the Other.


[1]It is easy here to talk about what has been a large part of the project of what is now commonly called postmodernism. A discussion of Lyotard’s narratives and deconstruction within the text, as well as Foucoult’s power struggles that may be even now taking place between the parties could be very fruitful, since there is at least the reader, Levinas, and the this author, to contend with. However, this is again beyond the scope of this paper. At best, one could commend to the interested reader Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Back

[2]Cohen Ethics p. 212. Back

[Levinas] | [philosophy]


That is great to hear, thank you for reading!

Thanks for sharing that. It was fun reading it. :-)

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Transplanted from the artic blight of Minnesota to the sunny paradise of SoCal, I am attending school and learning to say "dude." I like to think of myself as equal parts surf rash, Batman, heavy metal, Levinas, poetic license, and reformational. Other than creating blund blogs, I enjoy reading, sporting, and socializing with serious and funny people.
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