God and the Other: Review Symposium (Part 1) – Christina Smerick

 “God and the Other” Symposium: Part 1 – Smerick

by Christina Smerick
Originally published at The Church and Postmodernism on Monday, June 6, 2011

Our first engagement with J. Aaron Simmons’ God and the Other: Ethics and Politics after the Theological Turn  comes from Christina Smerick who holds the Shapiro Chair in Jewish-Christian Studies at Greenville College.

I am honored to have been asked to weigh in on Dr. Simmons’ weighty tome, God and the Other: Ethics and Politics After the Theological Turn.  I find myself in much sympathy with this intricate and wide-ranging text.  Its goals are lofty and laudable: to find areas of common interest between analytic and Continental philosophy, particularly regarding religion, ethics, and politics; and to demonstrate that Continental philosophy does indeed offer us concrete ways of navigating the world and living out our responsibility to and for it and for Others (be they human, divine, or…other).  These are difficult goals to achieve, and Simmons comes closer than most, even if I do have some concerns about what is sacrificed in order to arrive at these objectives.  First, however, I would like to touch upon the many strengths of this work.

Simmons evidences a deep understanding of both Continental philosophy’s language and methods, and analytic philosophy’s structures and concerns.  His main concern seems to be to ‘translate’ Continental philosophy’s main constructs to appear more reasonable and ‘grounded’ than they are often understood to be.  As such, the ‘translation’ is mostly in one direction: that of translating Continental philosophy into terms and structures more familiar to analytic philosophers.  In the first part of the text, he provides an in-depth reading of Soren Kierkegaard and Emmanuel Levinas, taking these thinkers as prime examples of  ‘Other’-first methods of philosophy.  While Kierkegaard maintains that this Other is primarily God, and Levinas insists that the Other who ‘comes first’ is the other person, Simmons demonstrates their areas of overlapping concern and has almost convinced me that Kierkegaard does have a ‘politics’ lurking in his existential philosophy.

Simmons also claims that, “Levinas and Kierkegaard…offer an account of human subjectivity and sociality that is worthy of our assent precisely because it is one according to which all inhabitants of the earth are part of the same ethico-political community,” (32).  While I find this claim too bold (using language of ‘assent’ seems very problematic when applied to Levinas, as it may indicate a self-that-asserts rather than a self that is itself constituted by the gaze of the Other), this reading of both philosophers makes them more palatable to someone coming from a place of critique similar to Richard Rorty.  Simmons’ term for this human subjectivity is “constitutive responsibility”.  Rather than seeing the world in the Foucauldian sense of politics and power plays ‘going all the way down,’ Simmons is arguing that Continental Philosophy, via the figures of Kierkegaard, Levinas, Derrida, etc., offers an ontology of the ‘self’ that is first and foremost ‘ethical’.  The self is itself in its submission to the ethical, rather than as a freestanding cogito or ego ‘self-presencing’ itself.  I find this argument to be very helpful in framing Continental philosophy’s provisional conclusions in a language that may resonate with more traditional philosophical language.

The work’s other concerns are to demonstrate the practicality of Continental philosophy’s constructs, and to address the ‘theological turn’ that it is ‘accused’ of making.  In this area, I found his account of Derrida’s philosophy to be particularly strong.  The notion of the ‘messianic’ in Derrida, while not strictly speaking ‘religious, suggests another plane than the lateral one we assume to be operative. Accordingly, the distinction between what politics can reasonably achieve and what our hope is regarding ethical relations must be maintained. Rather than imagining ourselves as the bringers of a future utopia, if only we work hard enough, get enlightened enough, sympathize with the other enough, religious thinkers maintain a ‘both/and’ dynamic.   The political as such will never be able to achieve justice, because by its very structure there will be losers and winners; but this does not get us off the hook, as we are still called to live toward a future Justice-to-come.  Simmons is not content to remain within the atheistic religiosity of Derrida, however, and makes the case that there is space within Continental philosophy not just for religious language, but also for specific religious beliefs.  In particular, the kenosis of Christ as a specific religious belief resonates strongly with Continental philosophy’s concerns for the Other, and its desire to maintain a construction of the self that is addressed by, rather than addressing, God and the world.  Simmons completes his project by attempting to bring Continental Philosophy ‘down to earth’ via exemplars—people who have embodied in some way the ‘trust and hope’ Simmons finds in the works of Continental philosophers.

Given the scope of the project, there are some areas in which Simmons may have over-reached.  For example, it seems at times as if he is trying to arrive at some sort of ‘normativity’ in Levinas–he does not want Levinas to remain primarily descriptive, because then the accusations that Levinas (or Derrida or Kierkegaard) is ‘inapplicable’ to real life seem to hold water.  If these thinkers will not tell us how to live, it seems, then they have no pragmatic advice to provide the world, and thus Rorty and others are right to dismiss them (111).  I agree that what we stand to gain from Continental philosophy is a notion of selfhood that disallows the collapse into reified notion of the liberal individual self, acting out of her own self-interest in the polis, with other free individuals.  The stories we tell ourselves about our relations with Others define the political landscape and delimit what we see as possible (or impossible)–thus, a different account of subjectivity, one that prioritizes the Other rather than the Self all the way down to the ontological level, is a crucial gift Continental philosophy can provide.  However, extending this gift to a more pragmatic level of ethical systematicity or ‘advice’ seems to be a stretch.

Secondly, I am a fan of Gianni Vattimo, but I think Simmons lets him off the hook here.  The main issue I have with Vattimo’s philosophy is that it seems to adopt a loose notion of the liberal self: one imbedded in a hermeneutic and a tradition, to be sure, but a self that can act and will act freely within those bounds.  I think this blind spot in Vattimo’s perhaps problematic ontology of the being of the self is similar to Simmons’ relatively unexamined (in this text) belief in democracy–in fact, in such a  thorough work as this, his light treatment of democracy as the ‘hope’ for the world seems out of place.

However, my main concern throughout the text is this: the manner in which Simmons frames the conflict between analytic and Continental philosophy  falls back into the very ideas or lingo that Levinas, et al, was trying to problematize: that of agency and choice.  Simmons writes in the introduction, “Unless I put the Other ‘first’ and work to make the world better for her…this ‘firstness’ risks becoming only a theoretical perspective and not a way of life,” (6).  If one falls back upon this language of agency, one undermines the ‘firstness’ that Simmons wants to retain.  The language of agency and action may be part of why we are not yet ethical.  We are not eager to be ‘submitted’ to one another, not eager to be submissive, to be responsive rather than active.  This is the key insight that Levinas’ philosophy provides us.  Further, while I am in deep sympathy with the call for ‘clarity’ that Simmons echoes, I am concerned that Continental philosophy is being asked to speak the language of analytic philosophy in order to be considered ‘legitimate’.  Thus, Continental philosophy is asked to adopt a language that it is trying to interrogate.  This implies a power dynamic, suggesting that those who are ‘serious’ about the world will only allow such philosophy in as submits to the subject/object dichotomy and language. I am in hesitant agreement with Simmons’ insistence that Continental philosophy cannot expect to be taken seriously by non-Continental philosophers without joining in some common language game.   However, is capitulation to the categories of analytic philosophy necessary for dialogue, or merely the rendering palatable of a language that seeks to avoid such palatability–and seeks to avoid it for ethical reasons?  Should analytic philosophy justify itself in the same way to Continental philosophy–speak its language? To his credit, Simmons raises this very question, and even points out that he may be trying to make Continental philosophy do something that it cannot, or should not, do (283).  Further, I think that he attempts a translation of analytic language to ‘Continental’ language in his chapter on “The Epistemological”.

I admit to being at a moral impasse regarding this issue.  On the one hand, if I ascribe to the ‘tenets’ of thinkers like Levinas and Kierkegaard, then I must be willing–indeed I should be willing–to submit to the structures of analytic philosophy.   To hold to my own language and resist translation may be in violation of the very constitution of my selfhood as defined by the Other who faces me.  At the same time, if one wants to hold that the subject/object dichotomy is not just problematic, but perhaps unethical in its very structure, how does one, who takes one’s subjected self seriously, agree to submit to a language that seems inherently unjust?  My concern, from a ‘Continental’ perspective, is that Simmons’ laudable desire to bring the schools of thought together so as to better serve the world and our Others in it ends up succumbing to the very language (and language shapes our thinking and action) that can promote the kind of injustice he seeks to fight.

A work like God and the Other has been needed for a long time, and Simmons represents the ontologies of Continental philosophy in a powerful way to those who may be unused to its linguistic structures or resistant to its ‘poetics’.  The problems I addressed here are not those of Simmons’ making; and while it may be the case that it is a call to ethics to try to confront and undo these problems, this is not Simmons’ task alone.  This ‘dragon’ cannot be slayed by one book, or one person.  I am profoundly glad that this work has boldly entered the fray.  It is an honest, well-crafted and well-argued attempt to reconcile differences such that we may better live authentic lives with each other and in the world.

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