A Taste for the Sacred

Light of truth

Spirituality is basically a taste for the holy. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the holy emanates in the face of the other. For Jawlensky, a Russian painter art is longing for God and a kind of “worship.” His paintings are “prayers with colours.” The beginning of language is in the face. In a certain way in its silence before the face. The connection between the “face” and the “word” lies at the centre of the thought of Emmanuel Levinas. “The expressing of the face is language.” The face speaks. It is in this that it renders possible and begins all discourse. The face is not the mere assemblage of a nose, a forehead, eyes, etc.; it is all that, of course, but takes on the meaning of a face through the new dimension it opens up in the perception of a being. The face is an irreducible mode in which being can present itself in its identity. Those eyes, which are absolutely without protection, the most naked part of the human body, none the less offer an absolute resistance in which the temptation to murder is inscribed: the temptation of absolute negation. “The Other is the only being that one can be tempted to kill. This temptation to murder and this impossibility of murder constitute the very vision of the face. To see a face is already to hear “You shall not kill,” and to hear “You shall not kill” is to hear “Social justice.” The face speaks and in its silent language it states what lies at the very basis of language and what provides the sine qua non for discourse: the commandment “You shall not kill.” Hence, Levinas concludes that “language is not only a system of signs in the service of a pre-existing system. Speech belongs to the order of morality.” We express something that lies deeper than what eyes can see and, thus, transcend visibility. The artist wants to paint the invisible. We want to speak to the invisible person. It is precisely through the face that language as such becomes possible. It is the face that gives human beings the possibility of having a language and of being able to speak in fact, the link between art and the concept of the face goes even further “Perhaps art seeks to give a face to things, and in this its greatness and its deceit simultaneously reside.”

The face cannot be seen as such. It is beyond representation and cannot be grasped through perception. The face is beyond visibility which makes it at first sight difficult to understand. Yet in this beyond of visibility lies the crucial feature of the face “Far from yielding an essence of the human or a universal moral law as a distillate of faciality, the face transcends images, remains exterior to them.” In this sense it can be conceived as the starting point of whole perspective of the sacred which stands against “the opposition to the idea of totality.” The need of the other is to take time seriously. The apparently banal fact of conversation quits the order of violence. This banal fact is the marvel of marvels. It is in the word spoken to a fellow man face-to-face where the idea of peace is realized: “The face is what one cannot kill, or at least it is that whose meaning consists in saying: “thou shalt not kill.” Therefore, the dialogue holds such a crucial position in thought. “The Infinite passes in the saying.” “Word must be response, in order to be word.”

The experience of Hitlerism was not sensed by everyone to be one of those periodic returns to barbarism. Hitlerism is the greatest trial the incomparable trial that Christianity has had to go through. The temptation to look at the other’s face as a lion and fox is the tragic advice to the Prince of the church by Machiavelli. The church anywhere can fall to the crusading infidels and weeding of heretics. This fall arises out of blindness of power and wealth. Christians can become persecutors and persecuted. The pathetic destiny of being Christian becomes a fatality. We can no longer flee it. The way out is return to the taste of the holy. The Christian has to be ineluctably riveted to his faith. In the barbarian and primitive symbol of race Hitler has reminded us, that we cannot abandon faith. Hence the necessity to repeat the mystery of Golgotha. Abraham Joshua Heschel underlines: “We shall never be able to understand that the spirit is revealed in the form of words unless we discover the vital truth that speech has power, that words are commitments.”

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