"Esau I Hated: Levinas on the Ethics of God's Absence

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Abstract
Emmanuel Levinas objects to traditional theodicy. But his objection to theodicy is so untraditional that God’s existence is incidental to it. The primary problem with theodicy, he argues, is not evidential but ethical. The primary problem with theodicy is not that its claims are false, but that its claims are offensive. In laying out Levinas's unusual view, I first sketch out the specifically ethical nature of theodicy’s offense: failing to acknowledge suffering. Next I discuss Levinas unusual account of this suffering, which theodicy fails to acknowledge. I then show how Levinas’ accusation against traditional theodicy does not hinge upon positive claims for the existence of God. I show how Levinas’ ethical objection to theodicy serves equally well as an objection to the negative existence claims of atheism. For atheism, too, has an overlooked “atheodicy” which fails to acknowledge suffering, and so may similarly offend. I then shift from the theoretical to the practical. I treat the insights gained regarding theodicy and its offenses not as ideas considered but as a strategy lived. I offer a profile of the biblical figure of Esau, whose remarkable reaction to God’s malicious absence involved no consolation, sense of grievance, or resentment of his brother Jacob, God’s beloved. I conclude that the brothers’ eventual rapprochement demonstrates a deep spiritual affinity between atheist and theist. Both live out their lives under "a gospel not to be preached". And the end of such preaching suggests a way forward in our own God-centered disputes.
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Archival date: 2019-09-27
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2019-09-27

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