Face to Face

by Elder Lindahl

“Your face is familiar, but I can’t come up with your name.” It’s a pretty common line, especially if you live in a retirement community. Seeing a person you knew years ago, but have not seen for a time, can be challenging. It’s somehow easier to remember a face than a name. Why? Perhaps the visual is stronger than the verbal. Or, because faces are information centers, the location for the expressions and emotions which indicate character and manifest the soul. Or is the fact that faces are normally exposed and naked to the world striking? Anyway, we know it’s much different to talk face to face with people than it is to read their e-mails, letters, or speak by phone. What is it about a face?

The initial and continuing encounters of an infant with the mother’s face is a powerful force in human existence. For the young child, the mother’s face provides a sense of continuity, warmth, and acceptance. Messages about what kind of place this world is are picked up intuitively and immediately from her expressions of love. Her face is like the face of God for the baby. Looking into her face the infant comes to understand that the world outside the womb is a reliable and trustworthy place. Looking into a baby’s face makes parents and others marvel and wonder about themyriad possibilities in every newly-formed life.

The Jewish thinker, Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), centers his entire philosophy on the human face. In Totality and Infinity, 1961, Levinas describes human relationships in great depth and complexity. Clearly, he is critical of much Western philosophy, especially of traditional attempts to conceptualize the totality of Being. The individual for Levinas is prior in status and dignity to Being in general. Ethics, often thought of as a branch of philosophy, is for him philosophy itself.

In the history of philosophy there have been many different ways thinkers have attempted to ground the ethical dimension. While some focus on God’s will, the universality of reason, Scripture, natural law, the ten commandments, or pleasure, Levinas formulates his ethic on the epiphany of the Other person. For him, the face of the Other sanctions the moral law even before reason comes into the picture.

So what’s the big deal about having a nose, eyes, forehead, ears, mouth, dimples, and wrinkles? We tend to describe a person’s face by eye color, size and shape of the nose, thin or full lips, protruding or double chin, type of forehead, shaved or bearded, and so on. Such descriptions conceptualize or particularize the face of the Other, but this is not the way Levinas comes at it. His response to the question of why the face is such a big deal can be seen in the following quotations:

There is first the very uprightness of the face, its upright exposure, without defense. The skin of the face is that which stays most naked, most destitute. It is the most naked, though with a decent nudity.... The face is meaning all by itself...it leads you beyond. 1

In other words, the face of the Other, whether masked by make-up, earrings, artificial coloring, scarves, and so forth encounters me directly and profoundly. Face to face encounter with the Other discloses the other’s weakness and mortality. Naked and destitute, the face commands: “Do not leave me in solitude.” We ought welcome, be hospitable to, the Other who encounters us, as it were, from beyond, from a transcendent dimension, from “out of the blue.” He or she is the stranger who comes to me in my mundane, self-centered existence demanding from me a “Here I am.” That challenge includes the “Thou shalt welcome the stranger in thy midst,” of Jewish law.

For Levinas, coming face to face with the Other is a non-symmetrical relationship. I am responsible for the Other without knowing that the Other will reciprocate. Whether or not Others reciprocate is their affair not mine. Thus, according to Levinas, I am subject to the Other without knowing how it will come out. In this relationship, Levinas finds the meaning of being human and of being concerned with justice.

Levinas does not limit encounter with the face of the Other to the sighted. The Other’s face is “seen” in different ways, through tactile sensations, from a sense of presence, indirectly. Helen Keller, though blind and deaf, for example, through feeling her teacher’s lips, tongue, mouth, eyes, nose, and vocal cords encountered the command and authority of the Other. This encounter made communication and learning possible.

The face speaks. It speaks, it is in this that it renders possible and begins all discourse.... The first word of the face is the “Thou shalt not kill.” It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face, as if a master spoke to me. (87-89)

Language takes place, originates, in the transcendence or foreignness of the Other. It is a gift which establishes a universal connection and relatedness among individuals. Through speech we make the world common as we exchange thoughts and create community.

The face, actually the whole person of the Other, puts me under a tremendous obligation. Even without saying a word, encountering another person speaks volumes. The human face comes with a built-in “ought.” I can recognize or refuse the gaze of the stranger, the widow, the orphan. Welcoming the Other puts my own freedom into question. It involves a fundamental responsibility that should function in all interpersonal relationships. Above all, it entails the command, “Thou shalt not kill.”

Encountering the face of the Other, when the Other is your officially-designated, mortal enemy, creates problems for military personnel and operations. It is so much tougher to follow an order to shoot or bayonet a person when you are looking him in the eye in hand to hand combat. I remember the instruction and practice in the techniques of bayoneting which I received during my infantry basic training at Camp Fannin, Texas. As I remember it, ugly, hate-filled faces were outlined or painted on the sawdust-stuffed, swinging dummies we had to pretend to fight. Evidently such “faces” were added to make it possible for young soldiers like me to overcome the “Thou shalt not kill” which real faces express. As Levinas puts it, war makes us play roles in which we no longer recognize ourselves. War rescinds the unconditional imperative connected with the Other, it suspends morality.

Levinas’ philosophy and theological reflections were formulated in direct response to his World War II experiences. As a French citizen, he served in the military and became a German prisoner of war. During the time he did forced labor as a prisoner, his wife and daughter were hidden in a French monastery. It is reported that his parents died in the Holocaust. The specific ideas he has for moving human society away from the destructive interpersonal actions of wartime into avenues of peace and justice are significant but beyond the scope of this paper. Back to the importance of the face.

Levinas finds that there is an innate human empathy, one which can be observed in a very common act and phrase when two people arrive at the same door simultaneously.

(We) say, before an open door, “After you, sir!” It is an original “After you, sir!” that I have tried to describe. (89)

Why does each person want the Other to go first when they meet face to face at a doorway? It’s that the encounter with the face of the Other makes one empathic and solicitous. To stand aside and let the other person go first is a gesture which Levinas explores and describes in his philosophy.

Finally, to the question of the face of the Ultimate Other and Scripture. Again, I cite some quotations from Levinas:

In the access to the face there is certainly also an access to the idea of God.... To my mind the Infinite comes in the signifyingness of the face. The face signifies the Infinite.... When in the presence of the Other, I say, “Here I am!”, this “Here I am!” is the place through which the Infinite enters into language.... The subject who says “Here I am!” testifies to the Infinite. (105-106)

What Levinas seems to be saying here is that although we never see God empirically, we do testify to an Ultimate Other in our “Here I am” responses, as we acknowledge we are subject to and ready to serve the Other person. We are encountering God in the face of the Other. In Totality and Infinity, Levinas puts it this way: “The dimension of the divine opens forth from the human face.” (p. 78)

To illustrate, we might recall the importance of testimonies inthe old Pietist meetings. “Testimony time” gave opportunities for individuals to report on what God had done, how He was leading, what defeats and victories were experienced, and so on. Though no one had seen the face of God, their human encounters did attest to Him. It was also a time of communal blessing. And one might say, though I may be putting words into Levinas’ mouth, that accepting the responsibility for the Other comes with a Divine benediction, one similar to the common one we often hear quoted from Numbers 6:24-26: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Italics mine). Respecting the Other testifies to, and seems to receive a “nod” from, the Ultimate Other.

And what about Scripture? In the words of Levinas,

I am convinced that the Bible is the outcome of prophecies and that in it ethical testimony...is deposited in the form of writing.... What one calls written in souls is first written in books..... The Holy Scriptures do not signify through the dogmatic tale of their supernatural or sacred origin, but through the expression of the face of the other man that they illuminate.... The Holy Scriptures signify to me by all that they awakened in their readers in the course of centuries, and by all they received by exegesis and their transmission.” (115, 117)

This topic is too large for adequate discussion here, but if I understand Levinas, he means there is an alternation going on in and about the Bible from oral to written to oral. The Bible reflects in writing the testimony humans give to the significance of the Other as well as being the source, along with other classic writings, of ethical directives for its readers. What becomes “written in our souls,” was learned in part from books like the Bible which are the transcripts of human testimonies to the Other and the Ultimate Other.

One might illustrate again from the importance the Book had in the lives of readers, läsare. Their affinity with the writers of the ancient Book was the basis for their discussions, as well as a guide to their conduct. Some, following the lead of Professor Nils Lund, even noted the various verbal styles of the human authors. Though the early pietists probably didn’t have such explicit thoughts about the human face, sitting in the conventicle they did acknowledge the strength and power of face to face encounters as they witnessed to each Other about God. And without a doubt, they would have extended and applied Levinas’ insights to the central Christian belief in the incarnation of the invisible God in the face of Jesus the Christ.

To conclude this brief introduction to Levinas, I note that in our complex, electronic, modern world we most often have to settle for something less than face to face encounters. Think what it would take for the editors, writers, and readers to exchange the thoughts and reports expressed in even one issue of Pietisten face to face! It makes one appreciate the written word along with some pictures.

I am intrigued with the simplicity of Levinas’ idea that in the human face is found the original ethical code. From a look into the face of the Other we become aware of basic human responsibility and meaning. Levinas is critical of a society in which people are depersonalized, in which they move around side by side rather than meet face to face. I hope this short introduction will inspire you to encounter Emmanuel Levinas face to face in his writings.

1. Emmanuel Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, conversations with Philippe Nemo, translated by Richard A. Cohen, Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1985, pp. 86-87. Unless otherwise noted, quotations are from this volume.

Elder Lindahl is a retired North Park University professor living in Golden Valley, Minnesota.

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