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The (Im)Possibility of (Desire of) God:
A Response to John Paolini

by Brian Tee

"The Desire of God"

What indeterminacies does this signify?

— Our desire for God?
— God's desire for us?
— Both?
— Neither?

"Fusion in erotic human love and in the love of is impossible." John tells us that according to Levinas and Derrida it is a form of violence, 'a shared dementia'.

Desire between man and God then cannot take the form of a fulfilment, a satisfaction, a union. Rather there must be a gap, a lapse between man and God — a non-coincidence, a constant vigilance (on both sides?) against implosion. And yet, whilst we are concerned with indeterminacy, shouldn't we ask whether this non-coincidence could itself hide/ produce/ partake of its own violence, isn't there a need for a constant vigilance, a suspicion for gaps and holes?

Opening, Keeping Open (and Closing?) the Gap

The desire of god is a desire never completed: Moses asks to see God's glory and God refuses; "You cannot see may face, for no man shall see me and live" (Exodus: 33.20) Why? Wouldn't the glory of God be so powerful as to overwhelm a man, wouldn't Moses lose himself in a meeting with the full glory of God? Moses would 'die' because his separateness from God would be destroyed. God's refusal is in order to protect Moses. God is maintaining the gap.

But the story carries on: "And the Lord said, behold, there is a place by me and you shall stand upon a rock. And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock and will cover you with my hand while I pass by. And I will take away my hand and you shall see my back parts: but may face shall not be seen" (Exodus: 33.21—23).

Can we say that Moses' desire to see God is the desire to know God — to close the gap? And yet Moses only sees His back, God will not be seen as a totality, God as "wholly other" as infinite 'overflows' all thought, is greater than any conception, all knowing. The gap is maintained — the noncoincidence of man with God.

And yet man's desire and attempt to close the gap is an effect due to God's original opening of the gap: When god appears to Moses as the burning bush and calls his name. Moses is aware of the difference between him and God only desires God after the fact of God's showing himself. God seeks men out before men seek out God. Augustine knew this well, when he writes: "You have shed your fragrance about me; I drew breath and now I gasp for your sweet odour. I tasted you and now I hunger and thirst for you. You touched me and I an inflamed with love" ('Confessions' Book 6). It is because God has first touched him that he is inflamed. And could Descartes quest for certainty, a quest that leads him to God, be due in fact to the idea of infinity placed in him by God when he was created (Meditation 3)? And could we not find a contemporary example in the case of Anne's childhood longing?

The desire of God is a response made to the 'trace' of God left by his desiring us. The trace of God, not God himself — He is never present, this is how the gap is opened. The trace is the absence of God from being/ existence, his "Otherwise than being", his infinity and wholly difference.

How then is it possible to close the gap? If there is such a difference between God and man, how is it possible to merge with God? If God exceeds the totality of knowing, of conceptualisation, if God is Wholly Other such that this otherness could not be appropriated, how could my attempts at trying to close the gap affect God? How could conceptual violence be foundational (in that its is the worse kind, the most harmful)? Unless it is the very maintaining of this gap that constitutes the violence.

The Other and The Wholly Other

The structure of the desire of god and the opening of the gap is reproduced when it comes to the other person. The other also has a face that I cannot conceptualise. The other is infinite and seeks me out before I seek he(r) out. (S)he seeks me out in order to help them, to respond to them. The other is "wholly other": "so distant from oneself as to have traces of divine transcendence".

But if the other is so infinite, so 'sacred' why does she need my help? Because Levinas tells us the other is also naked and destitute, in distress. Physically, materially the other is cold and hungry. The other is encounter 'concretely' at the everyday level, on the streets. The response the Other demands of me is a physical response not to harm her. The violence occurs when I turn away from her, when I fail to feed and cloth her, it is a physical violence that harms her. "The first word of the face is 'thou shalt not kill'" ('Ethics and Infinity' p.89).

In fact the face is the only thing I can want to kill. Not because it has been made into an object but precisely because it is a face, because it exceeds the powers of knowledge — a sadist does not abuse chairs. It is the others otherness that leads to her murder.

Because the other meets us as destitute wouldn't then the conceptual violence directed at the other in fact arise in the non-coincidence? By maintaining the distance between the other as wholly other and myself does this de-existentialise the suffering of the beggar turning it into something almost sacred meaningful, instead of recognising it for what it is horrible and useless? (or is it only the holy that can suffer, that can endure?).

The Wholly Other and The Holy Other

I return then to the suspicion for a suspicion of gaps. If the other and God are both wholly other, if the other carries the trace of God, if each other is an other, if "every other is every other(tout autre est tout autre)" then along with Derrida we are lead to the aporetic claim that "every other (one) is God or God is every (bit) other" (p.87).

However the other is not God, not even Levinas goes this far, but even if s/he were, then every other would be God, but what then of the non-coincidence between man and God? The lapse would has caught up with itself, the gap closed and thus a violence committed.

And if every other (one) is every (bit) other then what of the incomparable uniqueness, the very otherness of the other, this other before me? Would not all others be subsumed under this 'wholly other' — isn't it this 'wholly other' that destroys their own otherness, and that treats them as 'sames', as belonging to categories? "If every other is wholly other does it still matter who or what exactly the other is?" (Caputo and Scanlon p.124). If so then is not seeing in Ann's love of her daughter 'the possibility and surprise of providence' an act of violence against Ann and her daughter?

Illeity and 'Il y a'

If God is every bit other, then God is His own other.

Then what is to prevent us desiring evil and horror and submersion rather than good, responsibility and transcendence?

Along with the trace of God, what Levinas comes to call 'illeity', he also finds the trace of an 'existence without existents', an impersonal neuter, where neither being nor nothingness fully describe it, a state of which nothing can be said apart from 'there is...'

Here there is neither anyone nor anything which takes on existence. It's what there is before there was anything (including the nothing of Heidegger's 'nothing nihilating itself') It is a claustrophobic closing in of an 'atmospheric density'. The il y a. From which were enclosed and cannot escape. All knowing and thinking come to a stop.

But the il y a haunts us, as the trace of God haunts us, both have left their mark on me. It's trace is manifest in our desire to escape from being, to transcend towards the infinite. And yet the threat of the 'there is' is constant, in the rumblings of a dark room where all forms are lost and the absence of anything is itself a presence, heavy and all consuming, a structure not unlike the glory of God faced by Moses! Has then the gap between God and man revealed itself as an abyss?

What a strange outcome: an ambiguity, an undecidability, an indeterminacy between Gods and Monsters, between the holy and the horrible.


What is it to desire God over monsters?

"Desire for God is prayer, with tears, to whatever god that may be for justice in our time."

Prayer with tears, yes — for what are tears but an expression of hope, not for our time, but for the future, a messianic future free from evil, a future for our daughters.

But not to whomever it may concern, not to whatever God. Wouldn't the desire of God rather be the desire for the name of God, of the absent God to show himself — and show himself different from, better than monsters?

In this sense the desire of God has not changed from foundational religion to post modern religion, from Moses to Ann. The difference is that this time we may get to see his face:

"Only one who has recognised the veiled face of God can demand that it be unveiled" (Kolitz p.86).


Caputo, J.D. and Scanlon, M.J. God, the Gift and Postmodernism (Indiana University Press 1999)

Derrida, J. The Gift Of Death (University of Chicago Press.1995)

Levinas, E. Ethics and Infinity (Duquesne University Press 1985)

Kolitz, Zvi Yosl Rakover Talks to God (London: Jonathan Cape 1999)

© Brian Tee 2003