Perhaps as a consequence of the close ties between phenomenology and existentialism in the 20th Century so it may be associated with atheism. This association of existentialism with atheism is not unfounded as existentialists such as Albert Camus subscribed to the view of life as totally meaningless. And indeed Jean-Paul Sartre was a vehement atheist. The same may be said of Nietzsche though in many respects it may be argued he remained firmly within Lutheranism. Then there is Kierkegaard, a man who may even be deemed a Christian fundamentalist by some. The most significant reaction to Husserl’s transcendental phenomenology came from Martin Heidegger was a student of theology before he moved onto philosophy and developed hermeneutical phenomenology. But it was the reactions to Heidegger which took the most overt stances on the question of God. It may safely be said from the outset that there is no reason phenomenology can be strictly either theistic or atheistic.
The reactions to Heidegger took both theistic and atheistic forms. In Sartre’s reaction to Heidegger he presented an existential phenomenology which was atheistic as it acknowledged the human desire for God. Then Emmanuel Levinas introduced an ethical element into phenomenology which went further than a mere acknowledgement of the desire for God. If we take phenomenology as the study of appearances, as Heidegger did, then it may seem as though it begins at a secular point and doesn’t necessarily rule out the existence of God. As it would seem that the study of appearances could well be agnostic on the question of God, as it is beyond appearances, phenomenology may be better described as non-theistic rather than atheistic in this sense. We might be able to maintain this stance on Husserl and Heidegger, but it is disputable and even more so when we move to the later phenomenologists.
The explicitly atheist phenomenology can be found in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, where God is a contradiction as God would have to exist at the modes of in-itself and for-itself. Being-in-itself is the mode of being held by inanimate objects, whereas being-for-itself is integral to human freedom – a human being is not a human being in the sense that a stone is a stone. The for-itself arises once in-itself has been negated by it, then it rushes into the future as the human subject strives towards authenticity. In this process then the for-itself becomes what it isn’t – being-in-itself – and negates what it was. This is the exact condition of human freedom from which the desire for God emerges. There is a hypothetical being-in-itself-for-itself and that is God, it implies a coincidence of the self with the self and absence of the negation that it takes to form the self. But it is the instability of the subject, which Sartre described, that opens up a temptation to ‘flee from being’ and into bad faith. This is where the desire for God comes from and it is followed by the futile attempts to reach out to this impossible mode of being.
Of course, it may be said, it is the framework in which Sartre works that has closed off any space for God from the outset. So it is the framework which is to be questioned here. But not to revert to a non-existent ‘neutral’ space from which we can see whether there is or isn’t a God. Rather we should look assess the problems with Sartre’s framework and then look at a rival framework. The problem might be down to some of the vestments of Cartesianism that Sartre brings to the table. The conception of freedom that Sartre develops is predicated on a notion of consciousness as nothingness. Because freedom is consciousness it is detached from the causal forces of the external world. There is literally nothing which traps the self ‘inside’ consciousness because there is nothing there. It boils down to a modified version of the mind-body distinction that Descartes drew. It’s precisely this aspect of the Cartesian tradition that Heidegger wanted to throw out completely.
It is this levelled plain of radically free individuals, with the subject as an unstable moral agent – lacking any objective moral values – whose relations with others is typified by feelings such as shame. Sartre was preoccupied with the ‘look’ which separates the subject off from the world and turns them into a thing. The Other raises the instability of our already fragile consciousness. The existence of the Other is not problematic, though the Other is a potential threat to the freedom of the subject. The subject exists as in-itself and for-itself but does not exist in isolation, to the contrary the subject must coexist with others and so the subject is not just for-itself it is being-for-others. The Other reduces the for-itself subject to a thing-like in-itself existence, the subject is deprived of its autonomy and freedom. The relationship with the Other is inevitably prone to conflict, the subject can only dominate or be dominated. As Garcin says famously at the end of Sartre’s No Exit “There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is – other people.”
The important thing to remember about Sartre is that he was writing in reaction to Heidegger, who had thoroughly rejected the Cartesian tradition. To do this Heidegger had questioned the basic claim that the knowledge we have of ourselves differs from the knowledge we have of others at a fundamental level. Heidegger used the word Dasein to signify not just the subject, but the temporal unfolding of existence – we might think of it as experience. In this way we are embodied experiencers of a world that we are thoroughly wrapped up in and share with others who compose the They. The mind-body distinction is something to be thrown aside, along with the notion that there is an external world from which we can retreat. Heidegger had conceived of being-in-the-world to signify the human existence as bound up with reality, both as constitutive and constituted by it. For Heideggerians then Sartre fails insofar as he doesn’t totally reject Cartesianism, even if it only survives in modified form.
This is where Emmanuel Levinas enters the picture with a take on the Other which is in opposition to the position that Sartre had carved out. Levinas shared Heidegger’s worries about the implications of a selfhood which is cut-off from the world in its autonomy. And at the same time Levinas was concerned about the absence of an ethics in Heidegger’s project. For Levinas the Other is not a threat to one’s freedom, that we can only dominate or be dominated by. Rather the face-to-face encounter with the Other is positive as it challenges the self-assurance and self-containment of the subject. It inaugurates the possibility of an ethical code. The naked face of the Other appeals to the subject in a way that cannot be ignored or forgotten. It is an appeal for the subject to go towards, to welcome and to take responsibility for the Other. The identity of the subject is dependent on the Otherness that is always and already present before the subject is constituted, it is founded by the ethical demand to take responsibility for the Other. This is where a space for God is prised open.
Recall the words of Terry Eagleton that “To move from Husserl to Heidegger is to move from the terrain of pure intellect to a philosophy which meditates on what it feels like to be alive.” We might add that Levinas takes off from ‘what it feels like to be alive’ to the realm of the ethical. The encounter with the Other is a mere glimpse of the Infinite, or more bluntly God, from which the most we can receive is an imperative. The only means of relation to God is through moral conduct and this is especially the case in regards to the Other. Levinas was one of a line of Jewish phenomenologists, which began with Husserl and included such unlikely bedfellows as Hannah Arendt and Leo Strauss. But Levinas may have been the first in this line to introduce a Judaic turn to phenomenology. The trace of the ever elusive Infinite which we detect in the face of the Other comes in the form of an obligation in the same way that all Moses received from God at Mount Sinai were the mitzvoth – the commandments. The Infinite seems to hold no content for us, but what we can relate to and that is moral in character.
There is a moment in A Serious Man (2009) which holds some relevance as Rabbi Nachtner says “Hashem doesn’t owe us anything. The obligation runs the other way.” God has left us to our own devices, which is why we can and must do His work. We might even go to the end and conclude that God does not intervene because we are the intervention. For Sartre it is the Other which is presupposed, for Levinas it is the Infinite which is presupposed. But it is Levinas who grounds our moral obligations in theistic terms. In doing so, Levinas reformulated the Cartesian case for the existence of God by substituting the Infinite for the Other. And so we could charge him, as we would Sartre, with bringing back the old baggage as part of his bid to bring morality into phenomenology. Though it should be noted that Levinas called for a revision of intersubjectivity as developed in the Cartesian tradition and by Husserl. This means that the basic concept of the subject: a mind which grasps what it confronts in experience and turns it into its content. The troubling assumption being that everything is ‘given’ as representation, even though everything is ultimately other than the mind it can be possessed by the mind.
There is a more direct way whereby the subject can stand in such relations, e.g. face-to-face with another person. For Levinas the relation to the Other is essential to what it means to be human, it is irreducible. It’s a negative theology of sorts as Levinas shirked from a theorisation of God. If you can theorise about him then he isn’t God, this view that we cannot theorise Him seems compatible with the Heideggerian view of phenomenology as a study of appearances. Deliberately Levinas avoided the game of providing an argument for the existence of God as that would be ‘bad theology’. So the idea of a practical atheism may have had its use in terms of coming to grips with what it means to be human. This differs with the early work of Heidegger which carries the panentheistic tones of Heidegger's Christian background. But it also differs sharply with Heidegger's later nostalgia for the Pagan plethora of Greek gods. By contrast Levinas refuses any compromise with polytheism and insists on a universalist approach tempered by particularism.
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