Thursday, August 16, 2012

Levinas, Hitlerism and New Atheism

Much of my study of Pius XII has focused on the historical actions, archival material and the interpretation of the received record in order to reach empirically verifiable conclusions.  However, any study of the pope must also include the theological and philosophical worlds in which Pius and the Catholic world lived and operated.  Jeffrey Boldt's article Levinas, Hitlerism and New Atheism is an interesting contribution to the study of the intersection between religion and ethics in coming to a deeper understanding of the causes of the Holocaust.  Boldt's stimulating article, published in the June edition of Tikkun, draws on the writings of the French philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995).

Levinas argued against the historical perception of Nazism and other forms of totalitarianism - fascism, Stalinism, communism etc - as political religions, and counter-argued that they were fundamentally anti-religious, because they had no connection between the individual and the individual's ethical responsibility towards other individuals.  Nazism in particular, Levinas wrote, drew forth from its materialism and crude biological determinism, "an urging of the blood".  As one who experienced Nazi terror personally, Levinas' arguments carry considerable force.

It is not religion that lies at the root of Nazism and exterminatory antisemitism according to Levinas, but the anti-social nature of National Socialism that sought to re-order human society on the false basis of pseudo-science and the rejection of the human solidarity.  In other words, the premise of Nazism lay in its core inhumanity, its "anti-ethical" system.  Authentic religion is a positive force in the world because of its ethical component that demands, as Levinas argued, that the "I" engages with the "Other", for the simple reason that the human reality is grounded in this reality; I become human through engagement with the other.  

It comes as no surprise that Emmanuel Levinas' philosophy was richly informed by his Jewish faith and practice.  And yet he argued that his philosophical positions drew from the logical demand caused by the reality of ethical responsibility.  Religious faith is dependent on ethics, not the other way around.  For reasons such as this Levinas held Pius XI in high regard, naming him a "moment of human conscience" for his refutation of the "anti-ethical" systems of fascism, Nazism and communism.

The application of this insight into the study of Pius XII does not contradict any of the questions posed about his papacy during the war years.  Did Pius act with "ethical responsibility" in allowing the "I" to engage with the "Other"?

I recommend the article as a stimulating addition to our collective study of the Holocaust and beyond.

Emmanuel Levinas

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