Levinas, Ostler and the Face of the Other

Aaron R. returns to ponder the meaning of suffering.

Trying to think through the problem of suffering has been something which has occupied me for around a year now and I don’t have a lot to show for it. However, the work of Emmanuel Levinas will continue to be a source of renewal for me in the future when I inevitably confront this issue. In this post I want to draw out Levinas’ major insight into suffering which is that it is meaningless when we suffer but that suffering of another should bring a change in how we respond them and their needs.

I am drawing my comments almost solely from Levinas’ essay ‘Useless Suffering’ contained in the book Entre Nous. Levinas defines suffering, as ‘the denial, the refusal of meaning’ and is therefore by definition meaningless and/or useless. For Levinas, suffering is in part a passivity, because it involves (to use LDS language) being acted upon.

Levinas writes that pure suffering provides ‘no way out’ and yet ‘a beyond appears in the form of the inter-human’. Thus it is in the suffering of the other that we begin to sense our ‘inescapable obligation’ to lift them. King Benjamin teaches that Christ bled from every pore because of his ‘great anguish for the wickedness and the abominations of his people’ (see Msh 3:7). One reading of this passage might suggests that Christ’s suffering was because of his ‘mourning with those that mourn’ as much as an actual suffering for our sins. In addition, Elder Maxwell has taught that Christ’s love/empathy was perfected through this experience. This indicates to me that Levinas has managed to capture one way that suffering becomes meaningful, and this is through the expansion of our capacity to love and empathise with each other.

For Levinas then, suffering is meaningful if it becomes ‘a suffering for the suffering… of someone else’. Further it is this consciousness that ‘brings us closer to God’. This method of atonement is more difficult but it is also, according to Levinas, more spiritual because it requires of us a faith (without theodicy) that drives us toward the realisation of our responsibility toward the Other. This responsibility has been aptly captured by Elie Wiesel in his speech, ‘The Perils of Indifference’, in which he said ‘to be indifferent to that suffering is what makes the human-being inhuman’ and thus other people become an object or an IT, rather than a Thou. We see then this suffering Other face-to-face or I toThou.

This I-Thou relationship becomes possible because we are able to strip away all other subjectivities and through suffering reveal to ourselves a foundational identity (an essence, an intelligence). Moreover, it helps us to see this same essence in the Other. Perhaps it is for this reason that suffering has the power to propel us to the intimate embrace of God and others because we become stripped of pride, envy and conceit in the depth of our suffering. We become ‘us’ in the presence of that other eternal being, whom I call God.

Without explicitly expressing this connection, Ostler provides a uniquely Mormon view of what I take be Levinas’ argument regarding suffering. Ostler believes that the interpersonal dimension of suffering is central to our ethical responsibility. He extends this into the pre-mortal life and agues that these relationships open ‘the possibility that some persons face challenges to give us an opportunity to learn to express our love for them through service and healing prayer’. Such suffering in others was voluntarily chosen, and therefore is not unjust.

Whether we accept Ostler’s theological foundations or not; the concept of a pre-mortal life does provide a unique lens through which to think about Levinas’ ideas. Despite Ostler’s insistence that if we choose to suffer (even the most ugly and vile experiences) then this is not unjust I feel decidedly uncomfortable with another person suffering for me so that I can learn to love more deeply. This is surprising because it is this same dynamic that I accept whole-heartedly as the foundation of my faith. Perhaps then, being a ‘saviour on Mount Zion’ is not solely linked to our temple or missionary efforts but also refers to a pre-mortal willingness to suffer that another might be saved. Perhaps we have all come here to learn the work of redemption by redeeming and being redeemed through suffering.

Yet, in the midst of all this fuzzy speculation I feel confident that Levinas is right. There is an ethical responsibility to turn toward those others in our life and to willingly see them face-to-face, I to Thou. Then I believe we will be able to fulfill our baptismal covenant to ‘mourn with those that mourn and to comfort those that stand in need of comfort’.


  1. Excellent, Aaron. Time for me to revisit Levinas.

    Thank you–I needed this.

  2. I second the motion. This arrived on my screen at precisely the right time with precisely the right message. Thanks.

  3. I really like what you’ve done with the “act” vs. “acted upon” distinction here. That has always been very meaningful to me, as have questions of suffering. I will need to take this away and give it some thought to process it.

  4. Thomas Parkin says:

    I disagree with Levinas’ proposition as you’ve described it. Finding meaning in our suffering shifts the ground under it in such a way that it can be _used_, and even carried, but it is still suffering.

    Otherwise, thanks very much. Especially the last two paragraphs were very meaningful to me, reflection on this might even help me shift the ground under my own suffering, some. ~

  5. I’m curious about the notion of a “foundational identity.” Aaron, what do you see as this – I note the reference to Abraham’s “intelligences”. I am not sure what part of identity is truly foundational, however; is your argument that suffering winnows out our soul to bring out that foundational aspect of ourselves? If so, why then is joy the object of our existence?

  6. Thomas Parkin says:


    On joy: I don’t take joy to be the opposite of suffering. You can get into a bit of semantic quagmire with this … I would make joy something more synonymous with ‘life.’ We are meant to have ‘life and that more abundantly’, and that is joy. To have a fullness of life, “eternal life”, is also to have a fullness of joy. But life contains suffering at every level. God suffers, and yet remains fully alive and his existence is joyful rather than miserable because of his tremendous capacity for life and, especially, love. Not a shift in attitude, but a shift in being that is the purpose of righteousness. God’s suffering, as well as his happiness, is yet joyful, while the devil’s glee is inescapable misery. The devil is dead, and death characterizes everything about him. ~

  7. The OP states: “Ostler believes that the interpersonal dimension of suffering is central to our ethical responsibility.”

    I agree with this, but interestingly came to feel it more strongly through my study of Buddhism – which obviously has much to say about suffering, causes, and ways to deal with it.

    In Buddhism, one of the highest ideals to which one can aspire is to become a bodhisattva – or someone who not only works towards enlightenment for themselves alone, but pledges their life/lives to helping EVERYONE also achieve a release from suffering. It represents a vow to literally be willing to not accept a final “reward” until EVERYONE has finally come around to receiving the same reward – no matter how many eons it may take.

    It is a very noble cause. To me, it has much more explicitly and profoundly helped me understand how I should deal with my fellowman than anything I have learned in my LDS faith.

  8. I agree with a lot Blake says here. I do get a bit more skeptical in the details. (I think we should, for instance, make a bigger distinction between Buber’s views and Levinas’ — there’s ontological baggage to the I-Thou relationship I don’t buy) Like you I dislike somewhat Blake’s twist of the traditional psychological interpretation of the Atonement via Levinas. I think as outlined it just is unjust to suffer in that fashion. However to be fair Blake’s argument is much more sophisticated that one could guess from either your comments or mine. I’d encourage those interested to read Blake’s book.

  9. Mike, (7) that’s the primary message of Mosiah 15 from the beginning showing the unity of Father and Son to the point about each of us becoming Saviors on Mt. Zion. It’s why that’s been one of my favorite chapters in the Book of Mormon since my mission. I think it has a lot to say relative to the topic of this post as well.

    What’s interesting is that Abinadi makes this weird connection between Christ’s letting himself be led to death and his becoming the Father. (v7) It can be read in several ways. The most obvious and straightforward way is that he’s simply being obedient to the Father by letting this happen. I think Abinadi means something stronger though and closer to what Blake’s use of Levinas is getting at.

  10. Thomas Parkin says:


    Sure. Though seeing the “reward” is the negation of individual identity … kinda makes me squeemish about the whole enterprise. I don’t believe that the mission of Christ was to eliminate suffering. Cool. ~

  11. Thank you for the kind and thoughtful comments.

    #4 – I take your point. I think for Levinas any explanation ever completely satisfies suffering. If it is explainable and tolerable then it is not by his definition suffering. He is not therefore trying to provide an adequate explanation for suffering but instead to promote a particular response to it (the only one he believes is viable).

    #5 – First, I see Joy and suffering as compatible. I agree, with Ostler, that God suffers more not less because of his divinity. This stripping back I see as a mechanism through which we break down the layers of pride, envy and sin (which divide us) until we can enter into a divine relationship with God. I guess foundational entity was a woolly expression. I think what I was trying to get at was the idea that we have at root the capacity to be like God. This is what I meant by foundational identity.

    #8 – I agree that Ostler’s argument is more complex. I tried to do justice to it in a short space.

    #10 -Agreed.

  12. Perhaps there is an antecedent discussion of which I’m not aware, but the definition of suffering seems to exclude any suffering that comes as a result of choices we make. Perhaps that is the intent, and the suffering that arises from our choices has a different name.

    In either case, however, whether the suffering is self-imposed or entirely “a passivity”, the notion of your final statement is one I can wholehearted accept.


  13. Cynthia L. says:

    I’m not sure this is exactly in line with Levinas, but I’ve given both a talk and a gospel doctrine lesson where I’ve talked about my ideas about how suffering increases not only our focus on others, but our capacity to help them. (based on Alma 7:12)

    I usually start with a story or two about times I’ve been helped by someone in a way that was uniquely enabled by their having been through the same/similar thing. Often, it is just someone being able to honestly say, “I know exactly how you feel.” Sometimes, it is having insight into what kind of material help I need (when I was on bedrest, a lot of people brought me gifts and service, which I appreciated very much; but a friend who had been on bedrest for 5 months brought over a few other things that nobody else would have thought to bring that I really needed).

    So I find that one of the ways I can extract some meaning, purpose, or sanctification out of suffering I’ve been through is to see how it has changed me into someone who will be able in the future to help someone else in a way that nobody else can. Riffing off Alma 7:12, in this way we can serve, in one tiny way, as Saviors for each other.

    I’m not sure this idea ultimately helps with the theodicy question (we suffer so we can help others who suffer similar things? why not just no suffering?), but as a practical matter it has helped me feel better about some of my suffering, to feel that it can have some kind of positive outcome.

    Anyway, thanks for the pointer to Lavinas, I’ll have to read that.

  14. Question says:

    Hey, Aaron R., are you or have you been through the BYU Counseling Psychology program? My wife, who was in the program, wants to know. Thanks for a well-articulated argument.

  15. This is really interesting. The analysis of interpersonal relationships sounds similar to work by Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher. He talked about I-Thou relationships as opposed to I-It relationships. I really like thinking of things in that way – we should always treat others as people deserving respect and dignity, and never as a means to our own end.

    I think this philosophy is enriched in LDS theology by our notions of unity, especially through our sealing notion. We are all literally supposed to be one; by treating another person as an “It”, as a means to our own betterment, we are actually ignoring our own needs, because their needs are our needs, because we are one. This is important to me because I worry a lot about “service” and “help” having a potential to be condescending or even demeaning. But if we realize that, while helping others, we are literally fighting for ourselves as well, it can avoid the creation of that unequal social relationship.

    I also like your conclusion (or Ostler’s) about suffering being “not unjust” when it is chosen. I came to the same conclusion after reading “The Brothers Karamazov”. There, they discuss the nature of forgiveness. He tells the story of a Russian landlord who tortures a serf boy, making him run from his dogs in the snow, and hunting him down for sport. They claim that, while the boy does have a Christian obligation to forgive the landlord, the mother has an obligation to NOT forgive the landlord. Her duty to her son is to not forgive the suffering caused to him unnecessarily. Does her obligation to her son supersede her obligation to her oppressor? Anyway, yeah, suffering is a lot easier to process if you think of it as an elective thing.

    Now if only my crisis of faith wasn’t throwing into question that whole pre-mortal agency business…..

  16. renverseur says:

    What is the name of the book where Ostler gives his views on suffering?

  17. It’s volume 2 of his Exploring Mormon Thought. The Problems of Theism and the Love of God

  18. #12 – I think Levinas would argue that if we make a choice and an event follows that causes pain but that we think this logical and/or understandable then that would still not be suffering. However, if that choice brings pain which is incomprehensible, then that would be suffering.

    #13 – I think those are valuable thoughts. His essay critique’s the attempt to provide a coherent theodicy exactly because an explanation will fail.

    #14 – Sorry. I am from the UK and have never been to BYU.

    #15 – Buber is an important source in Ostler’s work. You might well appreciate his work.

  19. Aaron, I applaud your appreciation for Levinas, which I share and have nurtured for some years. Your post above effectively underscores the “height” of the Other that runs throughout Levinas’ thought, but I think your remarks fundamentally misinterpret (1) the nature of suffering within Levinas’ work and (2) the nature of the relation to the Other both (a) within Levinas’ work and (b) in his notion of suffering.

    Entre Nous is an important piece within Levinas’ work, but trying to approach suffering (and Levinas’ thought) via Entre Nous is like trying to hammer our way thorough Joseph Smith’s King Follett discourse without first digesting the revelations that he set out in Doctrine & Covenants. Indeed, reading King Follett without a decent understanding of the Doctrine & Covenants could lead to a dangerously skewed picture of what our Church is about. To use another example, it’s like me trying a Ronaldo fake step without first learning to kick the ball up and down the pitch properly.

    So it is here with Levinas. The “canon” of Levinas’ work that underpins Entre Nous consists of “Totality and Infinity” and “Otherwise than Being”. I won’t recount here the entirety of Levinas’ work (guffaw), but as to the points that I raise above:

    1. Suffering: Suffering within Levinas’ thought is adamantly not “meaningless” (nor does it have meaning solely in relation to the Other). In Section III.C.4 of Totality and Infinity, Levinas explains that suffering is “the supreme ordeal of freedom” where we “find ourselves backed up to being”.

    I will pause here to unpack this thought. For Levinas, “freedom” is the manner in which we as human beings go about our daily existence, interpreting the world around us (what we see, feel, hear, taste, touch, comprehend) in such a way that those external phenomena become an integral part of who we are (the “determination of the other by the same”). Suffering interposes itself into this relation of freedom, stopping “freedom” dead. Our way of being no longer consists in actively seeking out the other (NB this “other” is not the “Other”), and suffering backs us “up to being”; you are right above when you point out the inherent passivity of the relation in suffering. (As an aside: through all of this Levinas is trying to underscore that suffering, and not death, is the ultimate ordeal of the will, which is a rebuff to Martin Heidegger and division II of Being & Time. Levinas, as we know, had very legitimate personal and quasi-legitimate philosophical beefs with Heidgegger.)

    For Levinas, however, suffering poses a unique opportunity: “This situation where the consciousness deprived of all freedom of movement maintains a minimal distance from the present, this ultimate passivity which nonetheless desperately turns into action and into hope, is patience–the passivity of undergoing, and yet mastery of itself.” Extreme passivity, says Levinas, can give way to extreme mastery.

    Thus, when Levinas says (as you note) that suffering is “the denial, the refusal of meaning”, he is not saying that suffering is inherently meaningless. What he is saying is that suffering interrupts the manner in which we usually make sense of the world. The “refusal of meaning” could also be stated as a “denial of freedom”. But, as we see, this creates more, not less, of an opportunity for the self to make sense of itself (as opposed to making sense of the other, the wider world).

    2. The Other: You say above that “For Levinas then, suffering is meaningful if it becomes ‘a suffering for the suffering… of someone else’. Further it is this consciousness that ‘brings us closer to God’.” In this and the preceding comments, it seems to me as if you might be reading into Levinas a Mormon reading of the Other relation and how it relates to “God”.

    (a) Levinas would not deny that a God beyond human being is possible, but confirmation or denial of this is beyond the scope of his work. “There can be no ‘knowledge’ of God,” he says, “separated from the relationship with men. The Other is the very locus of metaphysical truth, and is indispensable for my relation with God. He does not play the role of a mediator. The Other is not the incarnation of God, but precisely by his face, in which he is disincarnate, is the manifestation of the height in which God is revealed.” Much more could be said here, but I will simply echo a couple of the comments above that caution against conflating Buber’s I-Thou and Levinas’s relation of infinity. They are clearly getting at a similar thought, but they take very different approaches with significantly different consequences.

    (b) In Totality & Infinity, Levinas only hints at the direction that he takes his discussion of suffering and the Other in Entre Nous. “Thus alone,” says Levinas, “does violence remain endurable in patience. It is produced only in a world where I can die as a result of someone and for someone.” The “for someone” foreshadows the passages above that (quite rightly) captivate you so much above. Where suffering for others is concerned, I would only point out that for Levinas, the recognition of the height of the Other is an ideal of ethics. The reality of our daily existence is that we in fact inflict violence on the Other. By violence here I do not mean the physical molestation that brings about suffering, but rather the reduction of Other to the “same” that engages in the project of “freedom” mentioned above. I am working on a project at present to explore how all religious relations and affiliations are inherently violent within Levinas’ way of thinking and how that violence might be redeemed.

    All interesting stuff. Again, thank you for posting this thought-provoking entry. It is a matter of the highest importance for careful Mormon thinkers to parse through these arguments and then pass them through the fire of faithful thought.

    To the extent you may be interested, there is a Levinas conference in Toulouse this summer (http://www.sirel-levinas.org/dotclear/index.php?category/Toulouse-NALS-SIREL-Conference-2010). I will be heading down to present a paper and James Faulconer (the Church’s foremost Levinas scholar) will also (last I heard) be in attendance. Looks to be good fun.

    PS We live very close to one another, it would be interesting to meet up sometime and chat.

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