by Jacob Baker (also published at RationalFaiths.com)
Renowned Jewish thinker Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995) spent much of his life thinking about how and why we relate or fail to relate to others. A French Jewish prisoner of war during World War II, Levinas endured 5 years in German prison camps. Many of his family were killed in the Holocaust. Consequently, his philosophical thought, though complex, was intensely personal. Levinas’ philosophy is framed by what it means to encounter another person. He has been called, in fact, the Philosopher of the Other.
The Other is unlike any object or thing in the world. The Other is like me, acts like me, has consciousness like me. But the Other can also address me, can call to me, even without using words or language. The Other is other because she has the ability to summon me.
The encounter with the Other is disruptive. It can tear me from my subjective and self-absorbed world and bring me to myself, confronting me with myself, showing me other possible worlds. This summoning disruption is what creates in me accountability and responsibility. Because the Other summons me and brings me to myself, I am in a significant way actually created by her. I in turn am an Other who calls to and creates others. So, in this sense, we create one another; our identities and personalities are largely a result of our interactions with other people. For Levinas, human beings are intrinsically relational, and the face-to face encounter with the Other is for him the foundation of knowledge, the place where philosophy and inquiry begin (as opposed to beginning with God or the world and working out from there). Experience is inherently “intersubjective,” not objective (where experience comes from the material world) or subjective (where experience originates in my own internal state). I discover my own particularity when I am singled out by the gaze of the Other. The human face, Levinas says, has an “interruptive” (unsettling, disruptive) impact; it interrupts our self-enclosed world and calls to us. We are created and given conscious life under its gaze.
Generally speaking, French Catholic theologian and philosopher Jean-Luc Marion agrees with Levinas’ philosophy of the Other. But he critiques Levinas for focusing too intensely on “otherness” to the point of almost pure abstraction. As Marion says, following Levinas, when I am stripped clear of myself and exposed by the Other’s address, I discover myself obliged to the Other, and begin to feel responsibility for her. “Before being conscious of myself, I am conscious of my obligation [to the Other], the first to come,” he says. This is what he calls the “injunction,” the responsibility I feel toward the Other under her gaze. Losing consciousness of myself produces obligation for the Other. Thus, my gaze of intentionality (where I intentionally look at other objects), met precisely by the other’s gaze of injunction, traces a cross or a line by which we become visible to one another for the first time. Though we may have crossed paths before, and acknowledged each other as simple biological facts in the world, only when our gazes really meet do we become real to and for one another. So, for Marion, to love is to “see the definitively invisible aim of my gaze nonetheless exposed by the aim of another invisible gaze; the two gazes invisible forever, expose themselves to each other in the crossing of their reciprocal aims.” In other words, intentionality and injunction come together in common lived experience. Love is the lived experience of invisible gazes truly seeing one another, as if for the first time.
Marion’s disagreement is not that Levinas is wrong here, but that Levinas doesn’t go far enough. Marion’s question to Levinas is: Can this phenomenon occur with just any other? Does this obligation merely stir in me affection for a universal ethic, and the other’s particularity—their singularity as a particular individual—matter not at all? With regard to ethical responsibility we must answer in the affirmative. The Other (any other) produces in us some kind of an ethical responsibility under her gaze. We know we should not hurt or injure the Other. We know that we must agree on and strive to inculcate certain general values in order to create a just and prosperous society. But love is distinct from mere responsibility. Love goes beyond justice. In Marion’s phenomenology of love, the Other who is loved becomes unsubstitutable and irreplaceable. This injunction of responsibility, in fact, reaches atomic particularity, requiring haecceity (Latin for “thisness,” this particular thing, that particular other). The Other is not just any other but this particular other, with a particular face, name, and history. Haecceity is necessary for me in order for the injunction to allow me to experience this particular gaze. The other’s gaze has no weight if it is substitutable for just any gaze. Only when we allow ourselves to be fully summoned by another’s gaze and therefore another’s injunction do we begin to understand and experience what it is to love. My own unsubstitutable individuality is due to the other’s intentional gaze and summoned injunction. I owe myself to those who created me by addressing me (or failed to address me). Love is the “the act of a gaze that renders itself back to another gaze in a common unsubstitutability.”
This past week we learned that Charles Cooper, the Republican attorney who defended California’s Proposition 8 before the Supreme Court, is now in the process of planning his daughter’s wedding to another woman. Ironically, his daughter Ashley had become engaged to her girlfriend just months before Cooper began arguments against the legalization of same-sex marriage in California. While Cooper has not definitively clarified his own personal views on same-sex marriage, he has been quoted as saying, “What I will say only is that my views evolve on issues of this kind the same way as other people’s do, and how I view this down the road may not be the way I view it now, or how I viewed it 10 years ago,” and, more importantly, “I told Ashley that what matters most is that I love her and she loves me.” If Cooper had held any firm beliefs about the positive prohibition of gay relationships, it was not argumentation and logic that swayed him; after all, he was a paid expert in all the legal, cultural, and religious arguments to be had one way or another about same-sex marriage. And it was not just an abstract universal responsibility to love another human being (which at best becomes mere toleration). The only thing that changed his heart and mind (the only thing that could have changed his heart and mind) was an injunction derived from that particular face and that particular gaze of one whom he loved.
Part of the problem in living within the Mormon cultural mass (which, though becoming increasingly diverse is nevertheless still fairly homogeneous) is that gays and lesbians very often have no face, no particularity. They are invisible, both as individuals and as an accepted and legitimate category within the culture, and thus recede into the mass of otherness toward which we are supposed to feel some sort of general “ethical obligation,” tied to our notions of shared humanity. But such general ethical obligation—even where it genuinely exists—cannot produce genuine love and charity. We cannot genuinely love a universal ethic; we can only love a face with a gaze with a particular history, etc. When Mormons learn that someone they know and love is gay, this might produce an actual struggle for acceptance, which may at times change their views about the gay community because and only because of this particular gay person who has a face, who is that particular other that they love, whose own unsubsitutable gaze has helped to make them what they are as individuals. Of course, it also happens that at other times nothing substantively changes and they continue to hold previous beliefs and/or prejudices. There was nothing inevitable about the conclusions Charles Cooper arrived at through his love for his daughter; he might not have chosen to be open to her summons at all. But, no longer are these beliefs and prejudices beliefs and prejudices about a faceless other that one can believe just anything about. Now, they are must deal with these beliefs overlayed onto an actual person they are forced to reckon with. As Marion says, before the gaze of the face we are unsettled. Things change when the other has a face, and genuine love is only possible when this occurs, even when the other does not love us back. (This is important: we can love those whom we might not have chosen or preferred to love in different circumstances. What counts is that we are confronted with the face, gaze, and injunction of a particular other, not that they must love us in return).
Our beliefs regarding our LGBT brothers and sisters (and I daresay some of our doctrinal orientations and certainly our cultural attitudes) will change in proportion to gays and lesbians emerging from the faceless mass (toward which we have a mere ethical responsibility to treat fairly as human beings, and therefore are free to fear and not to love) and taking on the faces of those we love. Not all of us will love them simply because this occurs, but some will, and no doubt all of us would be unsettled.
That the gay community is mostly faceless to the average Mormon has, I am arguing, the effect of there being no particularized call, no one to address, no gazes to meet, no injunction to enact. And thus we remain settled and sure in our knowledge, enclosed in ourselves and comfortable in our separate worlds. To the extent that more gays and lesbians become that particular person–sons, daughters, friends, neighbors, with names, faces, and gazes, unsettling and breaking our hearts, and destabilizing our preconceptions–is the extent to which unpredictable events will begin to happen, and love and charity will do the work that loose, abstract ethical obligation cannot.