Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Trauma-Faith: Breaking the Spell (continued and concluded)

The decision whereby one comes truly alive is itself never without risk. If it were, there would be nothing decisive about it. To take that risk is to risk oneself, not just such stuff as one’s money, one’s comfort, or one’s security; and to run such a risk—where the stakes are one’s very being as a “self” in the first place—requires real faith, not just comforting self-bewitchment.

Yet, as Kathleen Norris notes, that faith is nothing out of the ordinary, reserved for only the few. That is the “fascinating trait” of every real choice for life over death—every choice, as Alain Badiou puts it at one point in his recent book on the “metaphysics” of happiness (p. 37), to surmount “the tissue of mediocre satisfactions” held out to us all by our rampantly consumerist society as its vision of what constitutes a happy life. It is a choice to risk real life, and the real happiness that goes with such life, and only with it.

Norris and Badiou are at one in insisting that the opportunity, the opening, to make such a choice is nothing that comes only in rare or unusual moments, and only to a select few. It is, rather, an opportunity, an opening, that can suddenly present itself, as Badiou writes, “in every episode of life, no matter how trivial or minor it may be.” Even the most everyday of occurrences can suddenly break the spell that binds us, calling upon us to display real faith by choosing to begin really living our lives, rather than just passively undergoing them, just going on outliving ourselves day after day to the grave.

Once we are truly given a real choice, everything depends on us, and whether we have the faith to go ahead and choose.

What is more, such simple faith, the faith that permits choosing actually to live one’s own life rather than just trying to survive it, can never be claimed as some sort of permanent acquisition. It is not some piece of privately owned property that, once acquired, can be disposed of as one sees fit. The decision to live, however everyday it may be, is a decision whereby one accepts martyrdom for one’s faith—from the Greek term martyr, to witness—which need have nothing flashy or Hollywood-heroic about it. As Norris helps us see, such genuine martyrdom can be as quiet and unpretentious as the small daily sacrifices, fully embraced, that parents continually make for their children.

Nor, short of death itself, is such witnessing ever over and done with. It is always there in front of us, needing to be demonstrated ever again anew. It demands constant, ongoing reaffirmation—exactly what Kierkegaard called “repetition.” Exchanging truly understood and meant wedding vows in some formal setting, to use one of Kierkegaard’s own best examples, does not let spouses off the hook of then having to honor those vows, to keep them and the love they sacramentally express alive in their daily life together—forever repeating their vows and the love the bestowing of those vows effectively signifies, “till death do us part.”

Nor is that anything peculiar to getting married. It is the same with every decision, once really taken.

The faith witnessed by any real decision to run the risk of coming truly alive is just such a faith that must be kept. The specific “content,” as it were, of the decision and faith at issue, may vary greatly, of course, from person to person and even from one day to the next.

In the same way, each day for each person, temptation to “break faith” (a tellingly accurate expression) with one’s own decision can take a new form. Whatever form the temptation to break the faith with one’s own life may take, however, each and every day one is faced again with the decision either to keep on truly living, or just to fall back into letting one’s days dribble on endlessly, one after another, till one can finally check out of the whole game altogether and just expire—like Nietzsche’s ever-contented “last man.”

Only a faith that accepts the risk of living is one that finally turns and faces trauma, rather than running from it, and then tests and proves itself by faithfully facing trauma again anew, each and every day, day after day thereafter.

That is true faith in trauma, a faith that always keeps the wound open.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Faith Purified by Trauma (concluded)

In my second post of this current series on “Faith in Trauma,” I cited Jean Améry’s observation that the very denial of reality that is present in what he calls “Finalistic” religious or political faith gave believers imprisoned in the horror of Auschwitz a certain distance from the horrifying reality around them—a distance that actually increased such believers’ odds of survival. In contrast, non-believers, lacking such denial-based protection, were more nearly certain to be overcome and crushed by the horrific reality they so clearly saw surrounding them.

Améry’s observation can fruitfully be juxtaposed to a remark that at first glance appears to oppose it, a remark Alexander and Margarete Mitscherlich make in the 1970 afterword to the classic analysis of “the inability to mourn” they give in their 1967 book of that title (Die Unfähigkeit zu trauern, Munich: Piper). In that book the Mitscherlichs are addressing specifically the inability of the Germans as a nation to mourn the misdeeds of their own Nazi past, a past wherein they created such death-camps as Auschwitz—and above all their concomitant incapacity to mourn the millions of innocent victims they murdered there and throughout Europe. What the Mitscherlichs observe at one point in their 1970 afterword applies not just to Germans, however. It applies to everyone. “To endure reality as it is,” they write, “is the presupposition that first makes it possible to alter it into something more bearable; denial unwillingly preserves the status quo.”

Despite the appearance of opposition between the two remarks—Améry’s on the one hand and the Mitscherlichs’ on the other—they can and should be combined as follows:

When reality permits no hope for a better outcome beyond sheer survival, the denial of reality is necessary simply to preserve bare life itself—and with it the possibility of some day returning to true, full, and abundant living, rather than just surviving. As I already argued when first discussing Améry’s observation, that is really just an instance of the numbing against traumatic shock that allows those it strikes to live through it at all (the literal meaning of survive). However, if the survivor is not to be locked forever after into a pattern of compulsive repetition of the traumatic situation itself, at some point that survivor must grow strong enough at last to endure the very reality that has been thus denied. It is only then that any genuine recovery of real life, that is, life in its full sense and not just some endless survival, becomes possible, precisely as the Mitscherlichs observe.

Such faith to live a recovered life face to face with trauma can only be the sort of pure and purified faith Walter J. Ong attributes to Gerard Manley Hopkins, as discussed in my post before last. It is, as well, the simple but difficult faith of a woman freely consenting to bear a child, with no illusions about what that child itself may have to bear once born.

Such faith purified by trauma is true faith, not merely some defense mechanism.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Faith Purified by Trauma (continued) [for posting 3/28/16]

In The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and “Women’s Work” (New York and Mahway, NJ: Paullist Press, 1998), Kathleen Norris, an American poet, best-selling spiritual writer, and Benedictine oblate, recognizes that simple, non-dramatic faith of the purest sort is actually as quotidian (“everyday”) as pregnancy—or, rather, as the free, un-coerced consent to that condition of a woman who, finding herself pregnant, decides to go ahead and bear her pregnancy to term.

In my earlier series of posts on “An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz,” I quoted Emmanuel Levinas’s suggestion that the final meaning of Auschwitz may well just be “that God requires a love that entails no promise on his part,” one that undergoes “a suffering devoid of any promise, totally gratuitous.” Norris gives an unexpected undertone to that suggestion by writing: “At its deepest level the pregnant woman must find the courage to give birth to a creature who will one day die, as she herself must die. And there are no promises, other than the love of God, to tell us that this human round is anything but futile.”

Norris is not proclaiming any “pro-life” dogma that would deny women the right to terminate a pregnancy, if that is their choice. Nor does what she says entail that, once a woman discerns she is pregnant, the only truly courageous choice, “at the deepest level,” would be to continue the pregnancy. In fact, those who freely choose to abort a pregnancy often show no less courage in so choosing that do those who freely choose to embrace one. In some circumstances—circumstances, in fact, that were all too common in the United States not so very long ago—it often takes far more courage to abort a pregnancy than to continue it. When general social conventions, the expectations of significant others (husbands, parents, friends, etc.), the availability of proper medical resources, financial circumstances, and even laws, all militate against abortion, to choose to do whatever is necessary to obtain one can take great courage. Under such circumstances, it is going ahead and having the baby that is typically “the easier, softer way,” to borrow a phrase.

The damage that women in the United States before the Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade often inflicted on themselves because they were denied access to inexpensive legal abortions is well known, no matter how often certain segments of the American public might like to forget it. However, even beyond such grisly realities, the damage inflicted by coerced continuations of unwanted pregnancies—damage done not only to mothers but also, and above all, to their children—is incalculable. To put it mildly, a mother who does not really want a child, but who is pressured by laws or social norms into having one anyway, is not likely to be a very loving mother. She is unlikely to show her child the sort of love all children are entitled to receive from their mothers (and fathers, be it added). The fault for such sad states of affairs lies neither with those made unwilling mothers by being forced against their own desires and interests into carrying a pregnancy to term, nor with the children unfortunate enough to be born to such mothers-by-coercion. It lies with those who continue to derive selfish benefit from denying women the opportunity to live their own lives fully, by making their own choices for themselves, and then living with the natural consequences of their own decisions—rather than having arbitrary penalties imposed upon them by others, should they choose differently than those others want them to.

For some women under certain circumstances, choosing to carry a pregnancy to term does indeed take great courage “at the deepest level,” as Norris says. For other women in other circumstances, however, the greatest courage at the deepest level may be shown in choosing to terminate the pregnancy. In general, whether any choice or decision bears witness to courage and the faith that goes with it, or betrays cowardice and the lack of any real faith, is not a matter of what we might call the “content” of the choice. Put in terms from Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, “choosing and acting rightly and well” is not a matter of choosing this over that. Rather, it is a matter of how one goes about doing the choosing, as it were. If one chooses rightly, which means goes about the business of choosing in the right way, then in those particular circumstances one has make “the right choice”—regardless of what one chooses.

When it comes to choice, there’s always a choice. No one choice fits all.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

Faith Purified by Trauma

At the end of his 1986 book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press), Jesuit priest and scholar Walter J. Ong addresses the sort of Christian faith to which the life and work of 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins bears witness. Like Ong, Hopkins was a Jesuit priest. He was also an exact contemporary of Nietzsche. Both were born in 1844 and both entered into darkness in 1889—the darkness of the grave for Hopkins, that of the madness in which he spent the last eleven years of his life for Nietzsche.

Ong finds in the poems, prose, and letters of Hopkins a “forthright” view of Jesus’ crucifixion, one in which there is no weakening of the suffering and failure involved. That includes any weakening of that suffering and that failure through any consoling idea that what Jesus was working for would somehow still finally be accomplished even after his own death on the cross. That is, there was nothing such as, a century after Hopkins was born, allowed orthodox Marxists to find consolation, even in the face of imprisonment and death in Auschwitz, in the sustained conviction that the eventual victory of communism remained inevitable. In the view of Jesus on the cross that Ong finds in Hopkins, there is no such reality-weakening faith in play. Rather, by the “forthright” view Ong attributes to Hopkins, “[t]he truth was that what Jesus was working for, what he had planned, turned out a total and spectacular failure.” In confirmation of that interpretation, Ong quotes from a letter Hopkins once wrote to his friend Dixon:

His [Jesus’] career was cut short and, whereas he would have wished to succeed by success—for it is insane to lay yourself out for failure, prudence is the first of the cardinal virtues, and he was the most prudent of men—nevertheless he was doomed to succeed by failure; his plans were baffled, his hopes dashed, and his work was done by being broken off undone. However much he understood all this he found it an intolerable grief to submit to it. He left the example: it is very strengthening, but except in that sense it is not consoling.

Ong expands upon that passage by remarking that, in Christian teaching as Hopkins understood it, “God the Father had let Jesus’ ‘career’ work out as a failure not to cancel out the failure later but because he had plans about the consequences of the failure. The failure was never cancelled out and never will be,” regardless of whatever subsequent history—or the supposed end of it—might bring.

A faith purified by trauma, which is to say a faith that no longer avoids or numbs itself in the face of trauma but instead opens to it, can only be the sort of clear-eyed faith that Ong sees in Hopkins. It is not anything like a faith in “pie in the sky by and by,” as one popular put-down of reality-weakening religious faith puts it—no sort of defensive certainty that everything will prove to have been for the best in the end, when the whole story finally gets told, and the mysterious ways of God are at last made clear. Central to Hopkins’ sort of “forthright” Christian faith, a faith that faces trauma, rather than denying it, is the insistence that the wounds will always remain open, even in Christ’s resurrected body.

A faith that has been purified by trauma need not prove itself in dramatic acts that command attention. Instead, such faith is one that carries itself out in the fidelity (which is what faith is all about, after all) demonstrated by the daily living out of a life fully open to traumatic reality. In an important sense, there is nothing complex about such faith. It is a very simple and straightforward. Despite that, it remains demanding and difficult.

The real difficulty lies precisely in the fidelity—what St. Paul in his letters calls the “perseverance”—required for keeping such faith. The hard part is remaining faithful day after day in a life fully lived, and therefore lived in full exposure to the suffering that all true life entails. Yet however difficult the ongoing keeping of it may be, manifestations of such faith are really not all that rare. One does not have to have any special gifts, such as Hopkins’ for poetry, to keep such faith. It can be, and often is, kept faithfully in the daily life of the most ordinary people—a point I will continue to explore in my next post.

Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

The Role of Faith in Withstanding Trauma (Cont.)


Concerning Auschwitz inmates who were sustained by a faith either religious or political, Jean Améry, who survived Auschwitz with no such faith, observes that the believer “is both more estranged from reality and closer to it than his unbelieving comrade” (At the Mind’s Limits, p. 14). By Améry’s analysis the two, estrangement from reality and yet a certain sort of closeness to it, go together.

What removes the believer “further from reality” than the unbeliever is what Améry calls the former’s “Finalistic attitude,” an attitude whereby the believer “ignores the given contents of material phenomena and fixes his sight on a nearer or more distant future,” whether that future is believed to lie at the end of time itself, in some religious eternity, or to lie at the end of a long historical process, in some political utopia.

However, it is precisely such reality-estranging conviction that also allows the believer in a certain important sense to be “closer to reality” than the unbeliever. For the very reason that the believer’s faith distances him from his horrifying reality, “he does not allow himself to be overwhelmed by the conditions around him.” In his very distance from reality, he is given the freedom to act in ways that more “strongly influence” his very surroundings than can the non-believer who is crushed by them: “For the unbelieving person reality, under adverse circumstances, is a force to which he submits. For the believer reality is clay that he molds, a problem that he solves.”

However, despite how much he and other “nonbelieving intellectuals were impressed by this bearing” among their believing comrades at Auschwitz, Améry writes (p. 15) that he is “aware of only extremely few instances of conversion” among such non-believers. “Only in exceptional cases,” he adds, “did the magnificent example of his comrades make a Christian or a Marxist engagé of the skeptic intellectual. Mostly he turned away and said to himself: an admirable and redeeming illusion, but an illusion nonetheless.”

Two different factors are in play in such turning away from the sort of “Finalistic” faith at issue in Améry’s remarks, despite how much survival value might lie in having such faith. The first is that such faith is not something one can just choose to have, as one might choose a product off the shelves. Actually to have such faith one must receive it, one way or another. It comes as a gift—if not from some supernatural power, then at least from one’s upbringing within such a Finalistic religious or political tradition as orthodox Christianity or orthodox Marxism.

The second factor barring the non-believer’s way into belief is even more crucial. It lies in the very thing that gives such faith its survival value in the first place, namely, in the very denial or distancing from reality that defines the “Finalistic” faith at issue, the faith the cause in which one believes will inevitably triumph in the end (whether that end be eschatological or historical), despite all the evidence to the contrary.

In such works as The Road Less Travelled, his longtime bestselling book from the late nineteen-seventies, popular psychiatrist M. Scott Peck defined mental health itself as the insistence on facing reality as it is, whatever the cost to one’s emotions and one’s sense of security. Whoever has a sound mind, by that criterion, must reject whatever denies reality, including any such faith as that from which Améry and others like him turned away. For them, such faith has to be rejected as just another childish security blanket, no matter how beautifully woven. No matter how “admirable and redeeming” the illusion of such security might be, it nevertheless remains, as Améry says, just that—an illusion.

Hence, not only did he or other non-believers “turn away” from such faith, but also sometimes even “rebelled ferociously against his believing comrades’ exclusive claim to the truth.” Especially in its religious variant, such faith even became offensive to the non-believer: “To speak of God’s boundless mercy appeared outrageous to him, given the presence of a so-called senior camp inmate, a powerfully built German professional criminal who was known to have literally trampled a number of prisoners to death.” At any rate, even aside from such outrage: “One could respect one’s believing comrades and still more than once mutter to oneself with a shake of the head: madness, what madness!”



Actually, such mad faith resembles—if it is not actually just one form of—the numbing that Freud long ago defined as one side of what constitutes the primary effect of traumatic shock, which is to say a shock that exceeds the organism’s capacity to process it. Faced by such traumatic shock, the organism itself “goes into shock,” as our expression has it, damping down its sensitivity. Otherwise, the organism simply would not be able to survive the impact. However, Freud also taught that the other side of the same trauma-effect, the one side of which is such numbing against a shock, is the compulsive need to keep on repeating the shocking experience in one form or another, until eventually the shock wears off, and one finally has to face the reality against which one has numbed oneself until then.

Insofar as faith takes the form of the denial or weakening of the impact of reality, then it too is subject to the same process. That in the face of which faith numbs the believer keeps on repeating itself in one form or another. What such faith denies will not go away. It keeps on coming back, ever more insistently demanding to be addressed. The reality such faith represses keeps on returning, until faith is finally brought to face that reality, however horrible. Then even faith itself is put in crisis and traumatized—a topic I will take up in my next post.

Published in: on March 7, 2016 at 1:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

My title—“Faith in Trauma”—is ambiguous. It can suggest four different but, as will eventually emerge, tightly interrelated things.

(1) The title can suggest reflection on what part faith plays in surviving a traumatizing situation: the role of faith in withstanding trauma.

(2) “Faith in trauma” can also suggest reflection on trauma befalling faith itself, so to speak—a sort of “crisis of faith” in the face of trauma, in effect: traumatized faith.

(3) Then again, the same phrase can suggest reflection on what remains of faith once it has undergone severe challenge by trauma—what faith as such finally proves to be, once it is reduced or distilled down to its essence by having to confront trauma. Here, we could speak, perhaps, of faith purified by trauma.

(4) Finally, the title can suggest an unusual sort of reflection on what it would be like to place one’s faith “in” trauma itself, as one can speak of placing faith “in” a friend, for example. In that sense “faith in trauma” would means something such as giving oneself over into the trust of trauma itself, actively trusting trauma as one might trust a friend, or “the power of love,” or the like. Accordingly, just as we might call faith in salvation (the faith-filled certainty of being saved) “salvation-faith,” so we might speak here of trauma-faith.

I will say some things about each of those four in turn, in this and succeeding posts.


The Role of Faith in Withstanding Trauma


All other things being equal, the more faith one has, the better are one’s chances of surviving life-threatening situations. It doesn’t really matter that much what one has faith in, just so long as one has it. Regardless of whether the faith is Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Shintoist, Hindu, or of any other religious or spiritual stripe, what really counts for survival is simply that: to have it. For that matter, faith in the ultimate triumph of communism, capitalism, or the American Way will work just as well as any faith grounded in some religious or spiritual tradition. So long as one really firmly believes that, when all is said and done and whatever is happening is finally over, what one believes in, whatever it may be, will come out on top, then the benefit of believing remains the same.

That even works if one does not believe one will live long enough oneself to see the final triumph of that in which one believes. Indeed, if one is really convinced of the ultimate victory of one’s cause, one may even volunteer to die for that cause oneself, climbing joyfully up to get nailed to the nearest available cross or the equivalent. Such voluntary dying for what one believes in does not in any way diminish the survival-value of one’s faith itself. It bears witness to it: Martyrdom is precisely such witnessing–from martyr, Greek for a “witness.”

No less an authority than Jean Améry, who was no such martyr and who by his own account managed to survive Auschwitz without any faith, bears witness to the utility of faith for survival. In At the Mind’s Limits (translated by Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld, Indiana University Press, 1980) Améry notes (page 12), that he “entered the [Nazi German] prisons and the concentration camps as an agnostic,” and left them the same way, once he was finally liberated. “At no time,” he writes, “could I discover within me the possibility for belief, not even when I lay bound in solitary confinement, knowing that my file was stamped ‘Troop Demoralization,’ and for that reason constantly expecting to be hauled off for execution. Also, I was never bound by a particular political ideology, nor was I ever indebted to one.” Nevertheless, he goes on (pages 12-14):

I must confess that I felt, and still feel, great admiration for both my religiously and politically committed comrades. [. . .] One way or the other, in the decisive moments their political or religious belief was an inestimable help to them [. . .] . Whether they were militant Marxists, sectarian Jehovah’s Witnesses, or practicing Catholics [. . .] their belief or their ideology gave them that firm foothold in the world from which they spiritually unhinged the SS state. [. . .] Both the Christians and the Marxists, who already on the outside had taken a very subjective view of concrete reality, detached themselves from it here too in a way that was both impressive and dismaying. Their kingdom, in any event, was not the Here and Now, but the Tomorrow and Someplace, the very distant Tomorrow of the Christian, glowing in chiliastic light, or the utopian Tomorrow of the Marxists. The grip of the horror reality was weaker where from the start reality had been placed in the framework of an unalterable idea. Hunger was not hunger as such, but the necessary consequence of atheism or of capitalistic decay. A beating or death in the gas chamber was the renewed sufferings of the Lord or a natural political martyrdom. The early Christians had suffered that way, and so had the plagued peasants during the German Peasants’ Revolt [in the 16th century]. Every Christian was a Saint Sebastian and every Marxist a Thomas Münzer.

Published in: on February 29, 2016 at 4:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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An Anxious Peace: ‘God’ After Auschwitz

This is the first of a series of posts under the same general title.

*     *     *     *     *     *

“On the fifteenth of September last year I watched twenty thousand Jews being executed—women, children and old men. That day I understood that God could not allow such a thing and that therefore he did not exist.”

—Ikonnikov, a character in Vasily Grossman’s Life and Faith, Part One: 4 (trans. Robert Chandler, Great Britain: The Harvill Press, 1985)


Sometimes what happened at Auschwitz seems to mean to me that God requires a love that entails no promise on his part. Thought can stretch that far. The meaning of Auschwitz would be a suffering devoid of any promise, totally gratuitous.

—Emmanuel Levinas, “Judaism and Christianity,” from In the Time of the Nations (Continuum, 2007), p. 150


God has been very good to us. That we won the Revolution was extraordinary. The Battle of Midway was extraordinary. I think one of the reasons God has been good to us is that we have done him honor. Unlike the other countries of the world that do not even invoke his name, we do him honor. In presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways. There is nothing wrong with that and do not let anybody tell you that there is anything wrong with that.

—Supreme Court Justin Antonin Scalia, speaking at a Catholic high school in Metairie, Louisiana, on January 2, 2016 (AP report)




Everything is wrong with that.

To borrow a way of speaking from Kierkegaard, if the word ‘God’ is to name anything at all truly worthy of any belief today, a day that comes well after Auschwitz, then ‘God’ must simply mean a love that entails no promises. And today, this day well after Auschwitz, any believing in God—God as God, and not as some bloody idol—any believing in God that does not deserve scorn must consist of just this: loving, without any promises.

Today, after Auschwitz, the only command that can even be imagined to command universally—the only command that might truly command all human beings without exception, regardless of whether they were Jews, Palestinians, Christians, Germans, Muslims, Hindus, Americans, Confucians, Zimbabweans, Buddhists, Slovaks, Wiccans, Aleuts, pagans, African-Americans, people who think themselves “white,” or whatever—would be the command to love. Just to love. To love neither in answer to any promises kept or even any promise just given, nor in expectation of any promises to be made in answer to love, and without love itself promising anything in turn, beyond just loving.

Against the idea of any other sort of God than one whose love entailed no promises, every moral person (to use one of Jean Améry’s ways of speaking) after Auschwitz is duty bound to rebel. After Auschwitz, anyone who should not be ashamed to call herself or himself “moral” must rebel against any theodicy that would try to justify any other sort of God. One must rebel against any such theodicy, just as Levinas says that he does, right after uttering the lines above in a dialogue with the Roman Catholic Bishop Hans Hermann Hemmerle of Aachen at a conference in 1986 addressing the significance of the work of Franz Rosenzweig.

Levinas proclaims his own continuing rebellion against any idea that God could have intervened in order not to let such horror as Auschwitz happen, yet chose not to do so. Every moral being is duty-bound to join Levinas in rebelling against any such idea of God, “thinking it too costly—not just to God, but to humanity,” as Levinas says—a divine “kenosis of powerlessness,” which is to say a self-humbling, self-emptying renunciation of the exercise of coercive power, that “costs man [sic!] too much.”

Any God in whom any moral being has any right to believe any longer after Auschwitz must be a God who was no less powerless to stop what happened there than were the millions who died in Auschwitz and all the other Nazi camps. Any God who could have intervened at Auschwitz should have intervened—and would have done so, had any such God ever existed. The right to believe in any God who could have stopped it all, but chose not to, surely died in Auschwitz, along with all those murdered there. After Auschwitz, to believe in any such God is actually blasphemous.

Today, more than seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops, nothing has changed any of that.



Though theodicy died at Auschwitz, along with the God who needed it, love itself did not. Nor did the command to love—surely a divine command, if any command is divine. What is more, if ‘God’ today, after Auschwitz, just means an ongoing love void of all promises, then to have faith in God today just means to love in turn the same way, with no promises. Faith is just loving as God loves, without any eye to the merits of those who are loved or any expectations of a return from them, but also without making any promises to those who are loved, promises that go beyond love itself, the promise simply to love, to cherish.

To promise to cherish is not to promise to protect from all harm. Nor is it to expect such protection from those one cherishes. It is just to promise to cherish: Therein lies all its promise.



In the “Author’s Foreword” to In the Time of the Nations, the same book that contains his dialogue with Bishop Hemmerle, Levinas writes of those who, like himself, are animated by “the desire for a peace that is no longer the repose of a self within itself, no longer autonomous self-sufficiency,” but is, instead, “an anxious peace, or love for one’s fellow man.” It is just such a peace that is at issue in Levinas’s dialogue with Hemmerle toward the end of the same book, under the title “Judaism and Christianity.” In that dialogue, Levinas speaks first, ending his opening remarks by saying that he had “a very positive reaction to Nostra Aetate, the decree of the Second Vatican Council,” which Council took place from 1962 to 1965. In Nostra Aetate the Catholic Church officially rescinded the old and common Christian doctrine that held Jews as such and as a whole responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus, a doctrine used to justify all the centuries of violent Christian anti-Semitism that laid fertile soil for the eventual growth of Nazism and the Holocaust.

With regard to just that all too Christian heritage, Levinas says that for him Nostra Aetate “is a logical consequence and proof of the fact that an attempt has been made to overcome certain things from the past”—in effect, an act of Christian repentance for its own long and bloody anti-Semitic past. “I am pleased,” he adds, “to accept the parallelism [with his own Judaic heritage and thought] in the [Christian] theory of kenosis, and in the idea of an omni-human universality and a ‘for all men’,” that is, the Christian commitment “‘to live and die for all men.’” He then goes on to address how “Christians attach great importance to what they call faith, mystery, sacrament,” and offers the following “anecdote on that subject,” one which greatly illuminates the nature of any faith worthy of the name—especially after Auschwitz.

“Hannah Arendt,” says Levinas, “not long before she died, told the following story on French radio. When she was a child in her native Königsberg, one day she said to the rabbi who was teaching her religion: ‘You know I have lost my faith.’ And the rabbi responded: ‘Who’s asking you for it?’”

Auschwitz had not yet happened when Hannah Arendt was still a child, and had that exchange with her rabbi. But if even before Auschwitz God did not ask for any such “faith” as Arendt had already lost as a child, then certainly no God who remained after Auschwitz would ask for it. Indeed, such a request would itself be blasphemous—after Auschwitz! If any legitimate request for faith in God is possible at all after Auschwitz, it would have to be a request for that sort of faith that Levinas himself goes on to suggest in his own gloss on the anecdote from Arendt.

“The response [of the rabbi] was typical,” says Levinas—typical of the kind of response worth making to any profession of the loss of faith. “What matters,” he says, “is not ‘faith,’ but ‘doing.’” What matters, most especially after Auschwitz, is not “faith,” if by that word all one means is no more than some sort of verbal or notional assent to some formula, the sort of thing one might check off in some opinion poll. What counts is no such merely propositional affirmation, but rather “doing.” What counts is action, not mere words.*

“Moreover,” as Levinas himself then asks, “are believing and doing different things?” After all: “What does believing mean? What is faith made of? Words, ideas? Convictions?” Is belief or faith just a matter of what we “think,” of our personal “opinion,” what we give assent to merely “mentally”? As Levinas asks pertinently: “What do we believe with?” Is it just with our “minds” that we believe? Rather, says Levinas in answer to his own question: “With the whole body! With all my bones (Psalm 35:10)!” He then concludes: What the rabbi meant was ‘Doing good is the act of belief itself.’ That is my conclusion.”

The faith for which God asks—most especially any God who retains any right to ask for faith at all today, this day more than seventy years after Auschwitz—just is loving: loving everyone in their “omni-human universality” with no promises. Today, only such love is love “in God’s name.”

Whoever does not love in God’s name can go to hell—and will, no matter how often he invokes God’s name “in presidential addresses, in Thanksgiving proclamations and in many other ways.”

*     *     *     *     *     *

To be continued.

* Such action can and should also include ritual action, as Levinas clearly notes by going on to say: “Doing, which means moral behavior, of course, but also the performance of ritual.” That aspect of the matter is itself deserving of the most serious attention, as I want to note here, although I will address it no further in today’s post.

Published in: on January 7, 2016 at 9:19 pm  Leave a Comment  
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