Emmanuel Levinas Goes to Quaker Meeting
I’m late and rushing. Other cars blur by me.
I buzz down the gravel lane, with stones crunching under my tires. I’m all too wary of the loud hum of my car’s muffler. Yet I continue driving, turning past the large trees and into a gravel parking lot. Now I can shut off my car, put a stop to the muffler.
In this turn of the key, I feel the engine halt. My ears, previously adjusted to the sounds of my car, are now returning. The fresh silence settles over them, and I begin to feel the importance of the hour. I begin to calm down.
I tuck my cell phone away. I leave my wallet in the car also. I have need of neither, nor do I want them. I hear the gravel crunching again, this time under my feet. I look down at my feet, these curves and protrusions of flesh that carry me. I look up toward the building, not quite ancient, in the distance. I’m surrounded by trees and birds, grass and peace.
The silence, even now, works its way into my bones. I begin to watch my steps again. I don’t want to step on any crunchy leaves. That would be too loud.
I walk up the wooden steps, without a creak, and I look up to find a bench to sit on. As I look up, I catch the faces of a few people who’ve already claimed their spots. Some glances are familiar; others seem more quizzical. There are a few that seem to look almost through me.
I find a seat among the others. Perhaps William Penn sat in this spot. Maybe Rufus Jones looked at the sturdy beams and out that large window from just this angle. They were both here at Third Haven Meetinghouse. What were they thinking? What did God open up for them?
There are those who close their eyes in meeting. I do this sometimes. More often, I will look around the room: I’ll see the faces of others looking back at me, expressing that which must be expressed: sadness, joy, love, life, pain, fatigue, energy. They are faces all too human, waiting in silence for something from God. They are faces waiting together, searching together, looking deeper.
I have often been struck by the power of this meeting together. It is not a normal activity for twenty-first-century Americans. Sitting in silence, for an hour, with other human beings brings with it a solemnity. Because what are the times when you sit with others in silence? Someone has just died; a relationship has ended; or maybe you saw something so amazing that you lost your words. Even these times of silence don’t last very long—certainly not for an hour.
Why do we do it, we who call ourselves Quakers?
This question has been asked often and answered differently for the almost 400 years that the Religious Society of Friends has worshiped together. I’ll give here my own witness to the fact. Maybe it will speak to your condition.
Since a child, I have often been struck by the piercing life in the eyes of others. I’ve relied heavily upon intuition my whole life, and I intuit a story in every face that I see.
In every photo I find of Emmanuel Levinas, he’s smiling. Levinas was not a Quaker, though to read his philosophy you could be convinced otherwise. He was Jewish, and he not only wrote philosophy but also some serious thoughts on Talmud. His writing is dense—he could have learned a lesson from plain speech—but his work sticks near to the concrete human senses.
The philosophical concept of “otherness” was all but invented by Levinas. This idea attempts to move an individual past her or his egocentric way of looking at the world, a way of desiring everything to revolve around me, myself, and I. Levinas wants a person to look out past the nose of one’s own face. Otherness was a notion that Levinas employed to get us to hear and respect the thoughts and feelings of people who are not us.
He develops this deeply ethical thought in the most striking way. The philosopher asks us to pay attention to the face of another person. It is in this encounter with another visage that we see someone like us but not us at the same time. This other person, this face, evokes a response from us. We are called to listen and to speak. We are moved to behold the infinite reality of another person, what Quakers would call “that of God.”
The face of another is arresting in the way that it persuades us to pause.
In his magnum opus, Totality and Infinity, Levinas pays dividends of attention to listening and conversing, one person with another. Dialogue is ascribed with the utmost importance. Through dialogue we are able to articulate who we are—even as we listen to the other speaking from her place in the world. I am allowed to be myself and the other is permitted to be herself. We each remain open to the infinite possibility pouring forth from the face of this other person.
As I attend meeting, I hope for this kind of encounter. I long to see the faces of the others gathered in silence. I prepare myself to hear the vocal ministry of those who are led to speak. In meeting for worship, we are witnesses to one of the most holy things available: the formation of persons through a community founded in peace.
I leave meeting, feeling a little more human. I start my engine, but take things slowly as I leave, rolling again over the gravel. I put my blinker on, turn, and start down the road. I begin to see through the windshields of oncoming cars. I see the faces of the drivers. I see the infinite reality with hands at 10 and 2.