On Being Vulnerable: Or, a Modest Plea for a Levinasian Chick-fil-A Day

The cultural monstrosity of “Chick-fil-A Day” would do well for itself by reading Emmanuel Levinas. In Levinas’ classic text, Totality and Infinity, the great 20th century philosopher works to define two terms.  Not surprisingly, they are, in fact, totality and infinity. This distinction marks a serious conflict that spans the entire history of what Levinas calls Western “Ontology”—namely, questions about the meaning of being in general.[1]For Levinas, the most fundamental concern of all philosophy is primordially ethical. This means, quite literally, that an ethical disposition is a philosophy–in the same constitutive way as actual beliefs.

According to Levinas, “Western philosophy has most often been an ontology: a reduction of the other to the same by interposition of a middle and neutral term that ensures the comprehension of being” (43). Totality is, for Levinas, nothing more than the reduction of the other to the same. It is a denial of any sort of exteriority—or perhaps more precisely, a denial of anything outside the comprehensive realm of being.[2] Ontology strives towards this goal of totality: namely, that there is nothing outside being’s all-encompassing discourse.

Conversely, Levinas draws his conception of infinity from the unlikely source of modernist progenitor, Rene Descartes. Although Descartes is famously responsible for the first articulate formation of foundationalism as epistemology, he also authors an ontological argument for the existence of God that is interesting to Levinas.[3] To summarize the argument: I can conceive of something called infinity. I, as a finite mind, could not have conceived of infinity without an infinite being implanting the idea in my mind. Therefore, an infinite being must have implanted the concept in my mind. This infinite being is God.[4] Important for Levinas’ sake is that infinity is a “revelation . . . a positing of its idea in me.” (Levinas 26). The discourse of being cannot contain infinity because the latter necessarily overflows the enclosed, self-referential reality of the same. Not to be confused with the totalizing project of ontology, the goal of preserving the otherness of infinity is the project of metaphysics.

Put very simply, then, Levinas defines totality and infinity as such: The former means a conquering, of sorts, and the latter means being vulnerable before that which/whom we cannot explain. These ethical horizons upon which the debate operates make all the difference. This is true not because it’s good to be “tolerant” in a vague and meaningless way (indeed the liberal notion of tolerance is often a different kind of totality), but because our primordial ethical commitments actually constitute our philosophy/theology.

Levinas teaches us today that engagements of difference (i.e. evangelical Christianity and homosexuality) are actually two sides of the same coin if the guiding metaphor for the debate is something like a  “culture war.” Christians have reasonable precedent to reject gay marriage on historical and scriptural grounds. This is difficult to deny. Yet, insofar as Christians perceive themselves to be warriors who must “re-take America” by implementing “family values,” they snuff out the light of infinity instead of preserving it humbly and hospitably. They are geared toward totality.

If there must be a Chick-fil-A Day, then, let it proceed from this fundamental point of vulnerability. Yes, iterate differences. Speak truthfully. But if the truth does not humble one to the point of acknowledging the unfathomable mystery that is the other person, then Christian truth it is not.

[1]    See Westphal, Levinas and Kierkegaard in Dialogue (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press 2008) 46.

[2]    For the argument’s context, see Rene Descartes Meditations on First Philosophy (Indianapolis: Hackett 1993) 24-34.

[3]    Note here the Heideggerian assumption that “language is the house of Being.” See Heidegger, “Letter on Humanism” From Modernism to Postmodernism, 192-193.

[4]    This language of “the meaning of being in general” is evidence of Levinas’ deep indebtedness to Heidegger. See Heidegger, Being and Time 2.

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