Face to Face with the Unknowable God

Given how frequently we come across other people in our day-to-day lives, it’s somewhat shocking how rarely the depths of their humanity become manifest to us. Even walking down the street in a crowd, as often as not we perceive people primarily as objects to be taken into consideration as we navigate the spatial world. Through mindfulness and other such techniques we can, in the novelistic manner advocated by David Foster Wallace, work toward empathy by imagining stories for the people around us. While there’s much to be said for this approach, in the end it only makes the prospect of our really coming to see another person seem all the more improbable.

Emmanuel Levinas wanted to understand this experience of encountering another person, face to face. Born to Lithuanian Jews on this day in 1906 (he died on 25 December, so we celebrate him on his birthday instead), Levinas went on to become one of the preeminent Francophone philosophers of the mid-20th century. His major works—Totality and Infinity (1961) and Otherwise than Being (1974)—explore what happens when the face of another person presents itself to us. First, it makes a claim: “Do not kill me!” This claim fosters an experience of something radically other than the self. Such experiences, which (unlike in Wallace’s model) come unbidden and unwilled, make possible a kind of transcendence that Levinas describes as “the other in the same.” The distance between us and the other person only narrows enough for us to think of the other person as “she”; “you” would be more personal—more explainable—than the nature of the encounter quite permits. Intimate and yet unknowable: this, Levinas argues, is how we experience seeing other people, and it may prompt us to attempt impossible words like “God.” [1]

Indeed, the Psalms often use being set before the face of God as a way of imagining redemption, even when the friends with whom we have broken bread betray us. John, in a twist on this way of thinking, pictures redemption as our being able, when God is revealed, to see him as he is, because we will be like him. These visions of redemption show both the rarity of really seeing face to face and the power of our yearning for such encounters.

Nephi sees us meeting not only God at the bar of judgment, but other people who have tried to be present to us, pointing to an ethic proclaimed by Jesus: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” The mystery of the Incarnation collapses the distance between seeing a human being face to face and seeing God the same way, making the taste of redemption available to us in our encounters with other people.

We cannot force or will such encounters. Kristine Haglund describes one such “wordless, piercing moment of recognition, of meeting face to face”:

[I]n that moment of really seeing Dwayne, I started to understand that once we see each other, we love readily, even inevitably. And real love–Christ’s–comes, undeserved and even unbidden, as a gift of clear sight. Because charity is a gift of God, and not an act of will, it bears all things–even human contradiction; it can come to us even in anger, disgust, or fear, as the infant Christ came to a dark, forgotten corner to dwell among the beasts and his beastly and beloved human kin.

If choosing to experience transcendence lies beyond our power, we can nevertheless present ourselves to others in kindness and without hypocrisy or guile, so that they may know our faithfulness to them is stronger than the cords of death. We cannot bring transcendence to ourselves, but we should try to give it to others. Perhaps then we will come to experience the difficult grace given to Jeremiah, of having a fire in our bones more powerful than we can contain. Transcendence by its nature can never be about ourselves alone: it comes only through the miracle of our connections to other people, and to God. May we celebrate such moments, and may we strive to create them for the people around us!



Mormon Lectionary Project

Emmanuel Levinas, 1995

Jeremiah 20:7-9 (NRSV); Psalm 41 (Common Worship)John 14:1-14 (NRSV); 1 John 3:1-3 (NRSV); 2 Nephi 33:1-15; D&C 121:39-46

The Collect: Father of Mystery, who hast revealed thy face to us through Jesus Christ: grant, through the Holy Spirit, that we may be known to others as thou art known to us; that in seeing face to face we might become one people in the one God, worlds without end. Amen.

For the music, here is Ola Gjeilo’s “Solitude,” which is a setting of the traditional Christmas text “O Magnum Mysterium.” After expressing wonder that animals should miraculously encounter the new-born Lord lying in a manger, the text praises Mary by reflecting on her experience of having the Christ child in her womb. To be pregnant with God seems to me the ultimate figuration of “the other in the same” in its religious dimensions.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rp63c81go2U]


[1] For a more complete account of Levinas’ thought, see the entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.


  1. Thank you for this contemplation of Levinas’ thought and how we as Mormons can appreciate it! I find immense value in his conceptions of “the other in the same” and find your application of that to the Incarnation to be inspirational.

    I would only quibble with your title, which the post itself does not go the length of actually supporting.

    Levinas might indeed have experienced God as unknowable. But one of the values of the Restoration is knowledge about God that brings us much closer to knowing him the One True God, and his son, Jesus Christ, whom he has sent. In fact, the deep meaning many or most practicing Mormons find in the Restored Gospel — and the Church as its receptacle — is precisely that their understanding of the revelations and spiritual experiences provided to them uniquely in the Restoration have allowed them to “know” both that God is knowable and to “know” him in a personal relationship.

    So, for Mormons, I see the principle value or Truth available through Levinas’ thought to be as applied to our relationships with other people. Levinas’ insights are only amplified when applying the framework this way, buttressed by the idea of a God knowable through both institutional and personal revelation.

  2. Thanks, John.

    Re: the title, you’re right that the post only hints at making good on that. You’re also right that Mormonism teaches a knowable God. I’ll just say for myself that, although I experience intense connection with God, the closer I feel, the less it seems I know. So, while fully granting the validity of your comment as a description of normative Mormonism, I have to say that my experience differs, although I still unhestitatingly claim Mormonism.

  3. I like Kant here. We can know God’s phenomena, but his noumenal metaphysics are beyond us.

  4. Me, too, Ronan, which is why Levinas’s phenomenological approach resonates with me.

  5. Yes, very good point, and definitely not inconsistent with the “knowledge” available through the Restored Gospel.

  6. Quite. Great post.

  7. Thanks for this, Jason. It recalls C.S. Lewis’s most profound work (in my opinion), “‘Til We Have Faces.”

  8. A difficult one to do in such short space. You did great. I join with you in praise especially on this note: “Transcendence by its nature can never be about ourselves alone: it comes only through the miracle of our connections to other people, and to God.”

  9. Yeah, cue Trevrizent, again.

  10. I really need to re-read that, Morgan. *Adds to interminable queue.*

  11. I find this especially true as a consider a God the Father and God the Mother. Finding the face of God the Mother, in the faces of the women I easily love and those I don’t love as easily, teaches me more about how to love myself and see myself as the daughter of God’s.

    I find that moving towards understanding God the Father really only come for me, as I recognize that God the Father and God the Mother are both part of me, and everyone else I encounter each day.

  12. Yes, Julia, it’s absolutely key that we learn how to see God in the faces of women.

  13. Carey Foushee says:

    I really like what this implies: Jesus wasn’t saying that if anyone has seen me (really seen me) they have seen the Father (the divine) because of any biological similarities, but because when we see truly see someone we are seeing the divine.

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