Prophetic Apophasis: Emmanuel LÌ©vinas and Johann Baptist Metz on Philosophy/Theology, Subjectivity, and God after the End of Theodicy

Doctoral Dissertation


In this dissertation we will examine the philosophical and theological projects of Emmanuel LÌ©vinas and Johann Baptist Metz as discourses involved in the remembrance of the prophetic Jewish and Christian roots of Western thought in response to the persecution of the Jewish people during the Shoah and more broadly to any persecution or oppression of the other. As a consequence of this focus, LÌ©vinas and Metz are particularly concerned to prioritize the ethical response to the suffering of others as the most basic and important commitment of philosophy and theology. This movement toward the prioritization of ethics and praxis is intimately linked to the task of contesting and criticizing alternative approaches to philosophy and theology which fail to acknowledge this prioritization. Thus, the projects of LÌ©vinas and Metz stand in contrast with alternative first philosophies and theologies based on a commitment to metaphysics, ontology, or even doxology and mysticism as the fundamental starting point of philosophy or theology.
Although they share this prophetic focus, LÌ©vinas and Metz adhere to different methodological and disciplinary protocols and as a consequence the style and ultimately the content of their prophetic retrievals remain distinctive. As will become evident over the course of the dissertation, LÌ©vinas is engaged in a philosophical redescription of central prophetic themes from the Hebrew Bible and as a consequence generalizes prophetic commitments in the direction of a radical ethics of responsibility for the other, particularly those who suffer unjustly and experience persecution and oppression. Metz, on the other hand, while concerned to defend responsibility for the other as something of an ontological Faktum of the human condition, nevertheless prosecutes his defense of prophetic discourse in terms of an explicit retrieval of the prophetic and apocalyptic contours of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Metz’s theology, furthermore, as an apocalyptic theology, represents an intensification of prophetic discourse which differs from the generalizing tendencies of LÌ©vinas’s philosophy (we will return to these points in the introduction to chapters two and three). While these different inflections of prophetic discourse account for notable differences in their projects, LÌ©vinas and Metz share a focus on subjectivity as responsibility for the other, the centrality and irresolvability of the problem of theodicy, and eschatology as an approach to philosophy and theology which focuses on the unfinished and unreconciled character of history and prioritizes the ethical interruption of the status quo.
In order to describe these prophetic retrievals in the projects of LÌ©vinas and Metz this dissertation will unfold in five chapters, each chapter exploring different contours of their engagement with prophetic discourse. In the first chapter, we will examine the intellectual biographies of LÌ©vinas and Metz with specific attention to the ways in which the Shoah constitutes a rupture in their biographies and more broadly in their philosophical and theological development. While the exact terms in which LÌ©vinas and Metz reorient their thought in response to the Shoah remains debated, it is clearly the case that the projects of both thinkers constitute direct and sustained responses to the incomprehensible tremendum at Auschwitz. After examining the development of LÌ©vinas’s philosophy and Metz’s theology in response to the Shoah, in conclusion to the first chapter we will briefly describe their projects as discourses of mourning. Because LÌ©vinas and Metz refuse to integrate unjust suffering into the order of the meaningful their projects are characterized by a constant critique of those forms of philosophy and theology which accent reconciliation. This mournful contestation of idealist and aesthetic discourses of reconciliation leads to the prioritization of a radical ethics of responsibility that attempts to respond to the suffering of the victims in a world which remains tragically unreconciled. In the second and third chapters we will focus on the way in which LÌ©vinas and Metz prophetically transform philosophical and theological discourse by focusing on the priority of ethics or praxis in response to the suffering of others. In an introduction to chapters two and three I will introduce the prophetic and apocalyptic movements of LÌ©vinas’s philosophy and Metz’s theology by first examining their projects more broadly in terms of their remembrance of the Jewish roots of the West. In chapter two we will explore LÌ©vinas’s specific criticisms of ontological forms of philosophy (Husserl, Heidegger, and Parmenides) and his return to a prophetic form of philosophy that focuses on the encounter with the face of the other as the interruption of self-concern and self-interest. In chapter three we will examine Metz’s own contestation of idealist forms of philosophy and theology as well as his criticisms of the postmodern aesthetic projects of Nietzsche and Heidegger by returning to an apocalyptic form of theology that disrupts and disturbs the march of the victors by remembering the nameless victims of history.
In the fourth and fifth chapters we turn to the two central concerns of the projects of LÌ©vinas and Metz: the defense of the subject as unconditionally responsible for the suffering and death of the other and the critique of theoretical forms of theodicy and the discourses on God which issues from these reconciling theodicies. Both LÌ©vinas and Metz explicitly define their projects as defenses of the subject against the postmodern critique of the subject. But in their defense of the subject they resist returning to modern forms of subjectivity predicted on self-consciousness and instead maintain that the identity of the subject is located in its asymmetrical responsibility for the other. This defense of the subject culminates in their criticisms of Heidegger’s approach to death which points toward the death of the self as the limit experience which discloses the authenticity or inauthenticity of Dasein. For both LÌ©vinas and Metz, Heidegger is right to focus on death as a central event in the life of the subject, but Heidegger misinterpreted its significance by failing to see that it is the death of the other which is central and not the death of the self. In the fifth chapter we will extend our discussion of the unjust suffering and death of the other by examining the thoroughgoing criticisms of the project of theodicy in Western philosophy and theology. The criticism of Western ontologies and idealisms (as well as aesthetics) that we traced in chapters two and three are intimately connected to their retrieval of prophetic and apocalyptic discourses which focus on the problem of suffering rather than the acquisition of knowledge or the experience of beauty. Specifically, both thinkers are concerned to the assault the totalizing nature of these ontologies and idealisms which engage in projects which justify meaningless and useless suffering by comprehending this suffering in terms of knowledge (gnosis) or by referring this suffering to some harmonious whole (aesthetic). In either case, suffering is explained away or aestheticized and thereby made bearable. Writing in the shadow of Auschwitz any practice of justification of the suffering of the other is not only resisted, but interpreted as scandalous and unethical. We will conclude the dissertation by reflecting on the significance of the prophetic projects of LÌ©vinas and Metz for contemporary theology by returning to the juxtaposition that we pointed to in the introduction to chapters two and three between ethics and aesthetics as the privileged post-metaphysical discourses. In particular, I want to sharpen the terms of the debate between ethical-prophetic and aesthetic-mystical forms of theology by placing the projects of LÌ©vinas and Metz in dialogue with the aesthetic, mystical, and sacramental retrievals found in the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar and the phenomenology/theology of Jean-Luc Marion. While I ultimately think that what is urgently needed in contemporary theology is a renewed mystical-prophetic theology, for our purposes this juxtaposition will serve to accent the distinctiveness of the projects of LÌ©vinas and Metz and point to the important contribution that prophetic theology offers to debates in contemporary theology. After juxtaposing these trajectories and briefly analyzing what is at stake in their different starting points, I will then move to offer a constructive analysis of the focal points of a prophetic starting point in theology and conclude by bringing LÌ©vinas and Metz into critical conversation on the issues an ethics of the flesh and the ethical status of memory.


Attribute NameValues
  • etd-04162010-150327

Author Matthew Todd Eggemeier
Advisor J. Matthew Ashley
Contributor Cyril ORegan, Committee Member
Contributor J. Matthew Ashley, Committee Member
Contributor Gerald McKenny, Committee Member
Degree Level Doctoral Dissertation
Degree Discipline Theology
Degree Name PhD
Defense Date
  • 2010-03-31

Submission Date 2010-04-16
  • United States of America

  • prophetic theology

  • theodicy

  • continental philosophy

  • political theology

  • University of Notre Dame

  • English

Record Visibility Public
Content License
  • All rights reserved

Departments and Units


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