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Theodicy, Useless Suffering, and Compassionate Asymmetry: Primo Levi, Emmanuel Levinas, and Anti-Theodicy

Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA 22903, USA
Religions 2018, 9(4), 114;
Received: 31 January 2018 / Revised: 27 March 2018 / Accepted: 29 March 2018 / Published: 5 April 2018
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Theodicy)
Emmanuel Levinas declares that we have reached the end of theodicy, but we have not reached the end of discussions and books and special issues on theodicy, and people continue to ask, and answer, the questions “Why?” and “Why me?” about their suffering. In this essay, I would like to explore this persistence of theodicy as a topic of scholarly discussion and as an ongoing human activity, despite powerful and convincing critiques of theodicy. How might we take seriously what Levinas calls “the temptation of theodicy” and, at the same time, take seriously the ways that engaging in theodicy might be a vital part of how someone navigates her own suffering? I suggest that we look to Levinas’s asymmetrical configuration of the uselessness of suffering—that is, while the other’s suffering must remain useless to me, my suffering in response to the other’s suffering can be useful—for a parallel asymmetry concerning Levinas’s declared end of theodicy: while theodicy that justifies the other’s suffering is forbidden to me, I cannot forbid the sufferer’s theodicy in response to her own suffering. Further, I suggest that even in Levi’s harsh rejection of his fellow inmate’s implicit theodicy, Levi still seems to refrain from condemnation of his fellow sufferer, through his use of interrogative and conditional rhetorical structures. Thus, while we might agree with Levinas’s argument that we have reached the end of theodicy on a collective or historical or interpersonal or, even, personal scale, we are forbidden from declaring the end of theodicy for the other. The sufferer always has the prerogative to narrate her own suffering in the manner in which she chooses, and the imposition of meaninglessness onto her suffering, through a prohibition of all theodicy, may be a violent imposition, that mimics, in part, the violence of the imposition of meaning onto her suffering. View Full-Text
Keywords: theodicy; anti-theodicy; Emmanuel Levinas; Primo Levi; suffering theodicy; anti-theodicy; Emmanuel Levinas; Primo Levi; suffering
MDPI and ACS Style

Geddes, J.L. Theodicy, Useless Suffering, and Compassionate Asymmetry: Primo Levi, Emmanuel Levinas, and Anti-Theodicy. Religions 2018, 9, 114.

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