Rapport de face à face: what Emmanuel Lévinas and the Three Wise Men have to teach us this year

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“They think they are having not a quarrel but a conversation.”

These are the words of Plato, in his dialogue The Republic. I don’t know about you, but I certainly feel that we have forgotten how to have a conversation and our public debate has descended into not so much a quarrel, but an all-out fight.

The culprit? Perhaps it is the constant march of digital communication and the resulting loss of face-to-face contact; perhaps social media has caused us to live inside echo-chambers, where we are surrounded only by the views of people with whom we agree, so divergent views come as a horrible shock; perhaps contentious national and international issues such as the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as US President have cleared a space for people to disagree more openly and aggressively.

I suspect it is a combination of all of these things, but one thing is for sure: it feels really nasty at the moment.

It feels like everyone has gone to their corners and, of course, the only way to be heard across such a distance is to shout.

It feels like we are locking ourselves inside echo chambers, where only the voices of those with whom we agree can be heard.

It feels like we are attaching labels to those with whom we disagree so that we can cast them aside as irrelevant: the right-wingers are stupid or xenophobic or both; the left-wingers are liberal snobs who think themselves smarter than most.

It feels like we are going around in ever-decreasing circles in our desire to be offended by something that we hadn’t heard of five minutes ago.

It feels like our ability to listen is being lost in the cacophony of our desire to be heard.

It feels like we are stuck in the ivory towers of our own right-ness, throwing stones at the ‘wrong uns’ below.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently and I’ve been reading some of the writings of a French Jewish philosopher called Emmanuel Lévinas who, I think, can give us a clue as to why things have gone wrong and how we might put them right.


He wrote about the importance of the rapport de face à face or the face-to-face relationship. He said that, when we look into the face of another, all of our preconceptions, our presumptions, or prejudices about them melt away, as we encounter them as another human being. In his book Totality and Infinity, he wrote:

‘The face of the Other at each moment destroys and overflows the plastic image it leaves me.’

Last Sunday was the Feast of the Epiphany: the moment in the Christmas story when the three Wise Men arrive at Bethlehem.

These were clever individuals, who must have spent months, maybe years, theorising about the ‘King of the Jews,’ about where he would be born, about what he would be like about what he would achieve. They must have formed in their minds their own ‘plastic images’ to use Lévinas’ term. But the high point of this story is that they step out from behind their theorising and travel to the manger, where they see Jesus face à face: face-to-face. Then, their plastic images are destroyed and overflowed by this tiny child.

In St. Matthew’s Gospel, it says that the Wise Men returned home a different way: not just on another road, but they returned home having been changed by what they saw.

There was, of course, another king in this story: Herod. When he heard that a ‘king’ had been born, he ordered that all baby boys under the age of two should be killed, so that any challenge to his authority would be eliminated.

Lévinas writes:

‘The first word of the face is the “Thou shalt not kill.” It is an order. There is a commandment in the appearance of the face, as if a master spoke to me.’

In other words, when we look at someone, we see them as flesh and blood, as vulnerable, as someone who needs protecting. But this was something that Herod could not see in the Christ-child because, unlike the Magi, he refused to leave his palace, his plastic images, to allow himself to be changed by a face-to-face encounter. Instead, he issued the command to kill that which threatened his own power.

Massacre-of-Innocents-WM-Giotto-PD.151445340325.jpgSometimes, the face-to-face encounter can literally be the difference between life and death.

As we begin a new year, a year which promises to be ‘interesting’ in terms of the political life of our nation, I think the arrival of the Wise Men and the thinking of Emmanuel Lévinas have something to teach us about how we communicate with one another.

I think that the nastiness we see both in public and online has something to do with the fact that we are losing our ability to truly see one another face-to-face, to comprehend the humanity of the people we encounter; to see that if we prick one another, then we will bleed.

Like the Wise Men, I encourage you this year, to step out from behind your presumptions and preconceptions, from behind your computer and phone screens and journey towards one another so that you can see face-to-face, thereby allowing yourselves to be changed by what you encounter. But more importantly, to allow, as Levinas puts it, that face to speak to you and ‘thereby invite you to a relation.’

Happy New Year.


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