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This week, I have been asked the same question by two readers from quite different backgrounds. One was a religious person demanding to know how people who don’t believe in God or in an ultimate and absolute moral Truth can have any reason to treat each other decently, and the other was an atheist demanding to know what absolute moral Truth we could find outside of religion in order to resolve that same question.
Though I am myself a religious man, the idea that religious belief is a prerequisite for ethical behavior has always struck me as really odd. It’s neither logical (because a moment’s reflection will reveal that a majority of human beings appear to possess a conscience whether or not they possess religious beliefs) nor biblical (in both his speech at the Areopagus and in Romans 1, Paul insists that ethical behavior and a longing for goodness is written into the world, and later in Romans he argues that the law is written on our hearts, whether we have it in our conscious mind or not).
So why do we want to treat each other ethically? And is it necessary to believe in a Divine Being in order to answer that question?
There has actually been a vigorous conversation and study of this going on for the past sixty years, but because it has been going on in French and on the other side of the world, very few people in the U.S. outside of graduate philosophy courses have been a part of it. This post is my attempt to relay a few key points from it in very easy-to-understand terms. This is important to me because our growing understanding of ethics has profoundly informed my novels — I’ve jokingly referred to Strangers in the Land as “Levinas for everyone” — and has informed my views on life and why I tell stories and love books so, so much. Read on.
What Happens When We Look in Each Other’s Eyes
In the 1950s, in his book Totalite et Infini, the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas proposed what in retrospect seems a very simple but powerful idea. Here is the short-short version:
Something happens when we meet each other’s gaze. When two people have a face-to-face encounter and neither avoids the other’s gaze, there is an intimacy that occurs. When I look into the eyes of another person, someone who is not-me, who is in fact different from me, who may have a different gender, religion, race, or class from my own — when I look into her eyes and see her looking back, there is an implicit “demand” in her gaze. (I would call it a request, but Levinas calls it a “demand,” so for now we’ll go with that.)
The demand is that I recognize her as akin to me. In this meeting of our gazes, we are both human. In this moment, I can recognize that she loves, hopes, fears, and desires, even as I do. That gaze bridges, briefly, our separateness and our aloneness. In other words, when I meet her gaze and she meets mine, her eyes communicate, implicitly, the demand that I respond to her as a fellow and equal human being. It is a demand for ethical behavior: for just and compassionate treatment of the other.
This is why we ask others to look us in the eye so that we can see if they are communicating the truth to us. It is harder (not impossible, alas, just harder) to lie when you are gazing into the eyes of the person you’re lying to. It’s also why a hierarchical caste system in which society’s lowest layers consist of “untouchables” is often paired with a cultural restriction on eye contact across castes. When you don’t meet the eyes of untouchables, you are less likely to hear any demand that you treat them justly, equally, and compassionately. Thus, you are less likely to respond, and the system is less likely to change. Gandhi’s project of ahimsa (nonviolence) was about facing the oppressor assertively but non-aggressively, eye-to-eye, making it difficult for them to avoid your gaze — in short, making it difficult for them to deny your essential human kinship.
The Human Other and the Divine Other
This is why ethics is possible whether the universe has a God or not: ethics is a response to that demand in the other’s gaze. That is a demand that we might potentially encounter at meeting anyone’s gaze. It’s why both religious people and atheists “feel” when they see photos of the eyes of children in cages along the US/Mexico border. It’s why both religious people and atheists may, or may not, stop to help an old grandmother across the street.
In Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (the Abrahamic religions), God is the ultimate Other: the Other who is most “other,” most different from us, and yet who calls to our heart with the greatest yearning for union with us. God is the divine Other who responds to our demand for love, compassion, and justice, and who calls out to us with his own demand that we love him and love our neighbor:
- In Christianity, the two “greatest commandments,” upon which “the entire law” — all of ethical and just behavior — rest, are: “Love God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Respond to God’s demand and to the human other’s demand with the very love and justice that you would want given to yourself.
- In Judaism, a core tenet is tzelem elohim (from Genesis 1): that all human beings are made in the image of God, and that when you look into the eyes of another person, you see the face of God. Emmanuel Levinas was an atheist Jew, and his philosophy is deeply influenced by Judaism’s approach to ethics.
Whether or not you hear God’s call, God’s demand for your love and for your justice, whether or not you believe God exists, whether or not you care, you will likely hear the demand of human others for your love and your justice. You will encounter that demand at the meeting of the eyes (and on other occasions, too — we’ll get to that in a moment).
So no, it is not necessary to believe in God in order to find reason to behave in an ethical, just, or “moral” way.
That is not to say that belief in God might not add something to ethics; it simply isn’t a prerequisite for ethics. (If empathy and our response to empathy is hard-wired into human beings on a level much deeper than belief, then belief and religion can either augment or detract from our ability to empathize and respond to the demand of the other with love, compassion, or just action.)
What Christianity can add to our ethical life is 1) a powerful story about an ultimate relationship between two who are other (those two being homo sapiens and God); 2) a demonstration of the demand of the other and the ethical response to the other (including the ultimate demonstration of the salvific, messianic sacrifice, the Cross, as a response to humanity’s cry of pain and yearning for God’s love); and 3) a set of specific ethical premises, such as:
- that we are more able to love others freely when we realize that a divine Other is already loving us and modeling that love for us (“we love, because He first loved us,” says John);
- that all human beings, regardless of race or gender or class, are equally participants in that love (“there is no Jew or Gentile, no male or female, no master or servant, for you are all one in Christ,” says Paul),
- and that agape, self-sacrificing love, is the ultimate ethical or “good” treatment of another person (“Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friend,” says Jesus).
The Power of a Story
While Emmanuel Levinas’ idea was pretty awesome and an effective starting point, it did have its flaws, too, as a complete explanation of ethics. Other thinkers have questioned his insistence that only the face-to-face encounter — the meeting of the eyes — can communicate the other’s demand for justice and provoke our response to that demand. After all, blind people have consciences just as sighted people do. And we often respond to requests for love or just action from people we have never actually seen. So perhaps there are other communications that can serve as proxies for a meeting of the eyes.
Jacques Derrida, for example, suggests that a written text might convey that demand, too. A letter, a speech, a sacred book, words spoken to your ears: any of these might also invoke a moment of intimacy and relay the other’s demand for love and justice. Similarly, C.S. Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, argues passionately that reading a great story can be one of those acts — like love or religious devotion — that permits us to be larger than and outside of ourselves, to be united with others. Reading a thousand stories, Lewis argues, “I see with a thousand faces, yet remain myself.” He goes on to yearn that he might read a story written by an animal, because how much bigger his world might then be, if he might experience it with the multifaceted vision of a bee or the rich olfactory sense of a dog.
Stories can be incredibly powerful because of that potential for sharing in the experience of others, and because we use them to “walk in another person’s shoes” or to “see through another person’s eyes.” In his famous defense of poetry, Percy Shelley argues that imaginative stories train us to “sympathy” for others — that, in fact, all empathy begins with imagination: with the imaginative act of identifying with the other and picturing to ourselves what it would be like to experience and feel what they are experiencing and feeling.
So when we cannot meet each other’s eyes, we can still communicate in stories. Stories can cut deep. They can make us feel what others have felt, even others long past. Even imaginary others who have never been born.
Why do I want to behave well toward other people? Because I can imagine being them. Because when I see their eyes, I realize we are both human. Because when I hear their story, I am moved.
As Hurriya, an ex-slave in my novel Strangers in the Land, tells an aging prophetess:
“When you see another’s face—the face of a child, or another woman, or the face of the goddess, or the face of someone hungry or hurt—their eyes, they look back. They look at you. They ask your love, they ask you to hear their crying and know that you and they are both alive, and some day you may be hurt, you may be hungry. It may be your child carried dying in your arms.” Hurriya choked a moment, then went on. “When I look at you, you look back. Only the dead don’t look back. You think the Law is a pact with your God, a pact with others of your People. But it’s not just a pact. It’s an answer. You have rules for everything. But it’s not the rules that matter. It’s that you want to make them. You want to answer the suffering you see in another woman’s face. You want to give her safety, or justice, or comfort. That’s what matters. That’s why you have your Law, why you love it.”
The core truth of Christianity is that God is on the Cross gazing at us, responding to our pain with his love and demanding that we gaze back and respond with our love, too. And the core truth of the human condition may be that our fellow human beings (whether through a silent gaze or a spoken story) are often demanding our response to their pain and that we all feel that call to respond, that this call is fundamental to human communication, and that we are wired — as relational, communal, social primates — to want to respond. The question demands its response. We are uncomfortable with silence for an answer.
We are also wired for other, contradictory things that prevent us from responding, that prevent us sometimes even from looking at the other’s eyes or hearing the other’s story. Self-defense, for example. Satisfaction of our basic appetites, for another. Tribal identity (to the exclusion of others), for yet another. Whether you want to call the fault sin or appetite or animal instinct or ego or anything else, we have impulses that drive against responding to that call for justice. And so we have crime and conflict, and we start to create laws, rules, or moralities to try to limit that.
It is not the morality or the Law that drives us to be good, though. Moral codes and laws and religious creeds and institutions are the response to our desire to be good (or to our failure to be good), not the cause of that desire. What drives us to be good is the tzelem elohim — that we look into each other’s eyes and see the demand for kinship. Religious people might say that demand for kinship is because in each other’s eyes we see the likeness of God; atheists might say it is a primal instinct for empathy inherited from tribal primate days. But whatever you want to call it, that demand is there.
I am a storyteller and an avid reader because stories are often our best proxy for meeting the eyes. They allow us to take part in the internal life of people (real or imaginary) who are not actually in the room. They make our world bigger, taking it from population-one (myself) to population-potentially-infinite.
It’s also why I care about diversity in fiction and in art. A few days ago, online, I grumped that I had seen yet another poster of a white Jesus with a mullet. I wrote:
If the poster inspires people, I can see that it’s a good thing. It’s just…how are we ever going to navigate racial and religious tensions in our own country if we insist on always depicting God as a white American dude? If God himself is invisible and largely replaced with a white-skinned, rated-PG idol, how are we going to learn to stop treating black and brown people in our own neighborhoods as invisible? That college-aged woman in the airport who said of darker-skinned human beings, “They’re animals, mamma, they’re just animals”: was she aware her “animals” category includes Jesus?
This is why a project like The Zombie Bible is important to me. I get frustrated that we replace powerful, troubling stories with refrigerator magnets and posters. That we get really bad at listening to anyone’s story… The stories we tell and the stories we’re willing to listen to are what make or break our world.
Similarly, the author of the fantasy novels The Gentleman Bastards recently posted a hilariously irate and eloquent response to a reader who had written him indignantly that he should have written his second novel about a male pirate, and not about a black female single-mother pirate. The author, in his response, lamented that the reader’s own vision of the world was so small, that there was room in it for only white male swashbucklers. The author wanted no limits on his imagination: he wanted to envision and experience and share with his readers a world where black single mothers can be pirates and, in fact, where all sorts of extravagant and wondrous things happen. (By the way, just as a footnote, there have been black single mother pirates in the history of our own real world, too.)
In what J.R.R. Tolkien calls “fighting the long defeat” against injustice and evil, our secret weapon is stories. Tikkun olam, they say in Judaism: “Tell the story, and heal the world.”
In stories, we who are so separated draw near each other at last.
That’s part of what attracts me to religious studies in general and Christianity in particular: Christianity is about the power of a story to transform lives, to inspire us to gratitude and love and to just action, to utterly rearrange our lives. That’s because in Christianity, a story — a “good news” (gospel) story — is the occasion for our encounter and union with the ultimate Other, God.
In a less metaphysical and more day-to-day sense, I yearn to hear more stories, and to tell the stories I hear — to tell and retell and pass them on — because in stories I encounter others who are so different from me and yet are human, just as I am. I want to hear everyone’s story. I wish I had the time and immortality and patience to hear everyone’s story. To see the universe with a thousand faces, and to treat the wearers of those thousand faces in the way we treat people when we have taken their stories into our hearts.
We Need a World of Curious, Effective, Avid Readers
Why do we have morality? Why do we want to be ethical, though we often fail to?
Because we are capable of meeting each other’s eyes or imagining meeting each other’s eyes. Because we are capable of hearing and telling stories, of reading and receiving stories. How do you fix the world? I have no idea, but I do know that one of the things we’d need along the way are millions and millions of compassionate, skilled readers. Skilled hearers of stories. People who hear stories of diverse people (whether real or imagined), people who approach everyone’s story as eager, curious readers and hearers.
Yet we have become, increasingly, a culture of folk that spend more of our time talking and soapboxing and less and less of our time reading and listening.
They say that when your one tool is a hammer, sooner or later, every problem looks like a nail. I may be guilty of that; my tools are storytelling and reading. Yet I do believe that what the world needs are really, really good readers and really, really good stories to move into their hearts and do in there the “good news” work of reconciling and reuniting us readers with each other and with God.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.