According to Levinas, it is in the face of the other person, and not in the face of God itself, that God “solicits and appeals to us.” Therefore to turn to God one has to turn to man. St. Augustine asks, who do you love when you say you love God? The answer implies man: “God is not approached outside of all human presence” and “rises to his supreme and ultimate presence as correlative to the justice rendered unto men.” The ethical relation is our relation with God. The face of one’s neighbour is thus also the promise of salvation, and to respond to him\her in mercy and compassion is to embrace that promise. To seek justice for the other person is also to assist in the redemption of the world. To love one’s neighbour as one loves oneself is to find what is both strange and common in the commandment.
To insist upon reciprocal obligation as the basis of morality would be to transform ethics into ideology. “The dimension of the divine,” says Levinas, “opens forth from the human face.” This is of course an elevation of the ethical relation beyond all other relations in this world, but it is also a defence of the transcendence of God. “God” is that by which each of us is bound to his neighbour, before and beyond any act of either accepting that fact or refusing it. One can even concede that some religious practices are always dangerous in this way—prayer is constantly exposed to personal desire, as the mystics tell us— so that an ethical critique certainly is frequently necessary. The essence of discourse is prayer. “True prayer then, is never for oneself, never for one’s needs,” wrote Levinas. This involves a critique of prayer and even liturgy. We need a robust religious worldview of both an ethical critique of prayer and of worship, but the latter of these will always be lacking so long as one accepts that anything short of a foundation solely in inter-human relations is “forever the primitive form of religion” for Levinas. He argues that God reveals in the face of the other human the secret of his semantics. God comes to the-idea-in what is beyond, prior to Being and beings.
The Second Vatican Council’s critique of liturgy facing humans makes a liturgy of the neighbour. Atheism is first a natural and inevitable tendency of our being for itself, but denoting an inner feature of the ethical and religious relations. Levinas calls this bond anterior to being, a “plot” une intrigue”. Each of us is always already bound to the other, and in that bond, also in relation with what alone transcends anything that could be held in a relation. “This plot,” writes Levinas, “connects to what detaches itself absolutely, it connects to the Absolute.” We recognize the plot of being bound to the other and open to God before being free to act as agent and author of everything we do. Would liturgy and devotion signify nothing more than primitive religion, as Levinas has told us? And would believing in the notion of sacrament, of a promise spoken directly by God, in and through Jesus Christ, necessarily not lead to idolatry but to the infinity of responsibility. The responsibility to the call “you did it to me.”
Religion escapes the demoniac ecstasy, but accepts responsibility, increasing in the measure that it is assumed; duties become greater in the measure that they are accomplished. The better I accomplish my duty the fewer rights I have; the more I am just the more guilty I am. This responsibility is asymmetrical: “what I permit myself to demand of myself is not comparable with what I have the right to demand of the Other. It is only in approaching the Other that I attend to myself. To speak is to make the world common, to create common places. Speech itself is therefore a teaching in its founding of the world and community. Speech first founds community by giving. The essence of language is goodness… the essence of language is friendship and hospitality”(TI, p. 205). To receive from the Other beyond the Capacity of the I, which means exactly this: to have the idea of infinity. But this also means this: to be taught. The relation with the Other, or conversation, is a non-allergic relation; but inasmuch as it is welcomed this conversation is a teaching, facing, which implies eternity.