The Face of the Other

It was while reading books by Marilynne Robinson and George Mackay Brown while staying the Orkney Islands that I came back to a place where I had started and found I knew something more about it for the first time. I have long been convinced that each baby is wired for, or born with, an inbuilt reflex (desire, hunger) to seek and find a human face. In particular they search out a face that will smile back at them. This is widely accepted whether by those who come via the routes biological imprinting (for example Konrad Lorenz) or more theological/psychodynamic routes (for example James Loder). But through Robinson and Brown I discovered the work of Emmanuel Levinas (1906-1995), the Jewish writer and philosopher whose writings give a central place to the face, and particularly the face of the Other. His essential point is that when we look into another’s face that person has a claim on us, we find ourselves under obligation to them, even if it is of the most primary nature such as “Thou shalt not kill me”.Levinas, like Søren Kierkegaard before him, and countless scholars after him, was troubled to the depths of his being by the story of Abraham and Isaac, where as a father Abraham prepares methodically to sacrifice his only son. The story leaves the serious reader with no easy solutions or ways out: if anything, the more we seek to grapple with what might be going on, the more troubling it gets. Why on earth did Abraham come to believe that God wished him to kill his only, beloved son? And what or who was the angel that restrained Abraham at the very moment when his knife was drawn?

Levinas leads others like Claire Elise Katz and Marc Bregman to consider the face of Isaac:

“Abraham is bent over looking down at Isaac, who is lying on his back looking up into heaven. In the next ‘shot’, we see the face of Isaac through the eyes of Abraham. What he sees in his son’s face is so horrific that it causes him to weep to a surrealistic extent and to let out an inhuman cry. Though the end of this midrash has the angel staying Abraham’s hand, I claim that Abraham was changed when he looked into Isaac’s face.”

“The Voice of God and the Face of the Other: Levinas Kierkegaard, and Abraham”, C. Katz, in The Journal of Textual Reasoning, Volume 10, 2001. (

To look into the face of an Other is, in the light of this dramatic story, and following this line of argument, to open oneself up, to put oneself at risk of being confronted by “an ought”. There is no longer the option of passivity, neutrality, or of continuing with a course of action that would harm the pleading face.

And it is this that stirred me. I have always found difficulty with statistics (in more ways than one). A particular problem is that they are often presented as a way of inducing feelings and obligations: many children around the world will die of preventable diseases in the next 24 hours, and so on. We are supposed to be horrified, but is there not the risk that we may become immune to the statistics over time, however they are packaged?

In Rolf Hochhuth’s play, The Representative, Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for the deaths of countless Jews in the ‘Final Solution’ is asked how he could possibly do it. He replies that the only problem was with the first one, the first time, because he was a real human being, “The rest were statistics”.

The point is that whenever we lose sight of the individual human face, there is a risk that our sense of human obligation wanes. As it happened, I had just been reading the harrowing descriptions of the state-inspired famine in Ukraine in Vassily Grossman’s novel Everything Flows. Unlike Stalin and his henchmen, who orchestrated this unimaginable human tragedy, Grossman describes mothers and children looking at each other face to face. The leaders were fed nothing but statistics: everything was second hand, and at a distance.

With all this (and much more flooding into my mind as I read) it came to me that in child care and children’s services we have to find a way of ensuring that everyone employed to help children is regularly confronted by the actual face of a single child, and given time and space to take in the obligations that come through the encounter.

I am, as I write this piece, coming towards the end of work on a book on Child Theology that I have been trying to get into shape with my friend Professor Haddon Willmer for over ten years. We have taken as our starting point and guide the passage in Matthew’s Gospel (Chapter 18) where he places a little child in the midst of his disciples as a sign of the kingdom of God. He calls the disciples to become humble like the children (that is plural in the text of the gospel), but then goes on to state the following, “Whoever welcomes the least of these little ones in my name, welcomes me and the One who sent me”. This is singular, and well it might be, for genuine reception of a child requires like we open ourselves up to the full implications of the obligations presented by her face.

Is this, I wonder, why I have always sensed that my calling was primarily to relate to a few children in a very particular time and place, rather than to work for the children in the world in general? Perhaps those who do the latter (I think of UNESCO, World Vision, Compassion International and many other organisations) are themselves inspired in what they do by memories of a single child’s face.

When we begin to draw up policies (for example the 1989 UNCRC) is there not the ever-present risk that we will lose sight of individual children and the immediacy of their contexts, situations, gifts and needs? Another way of putting this is to wonder whether such policies, however laudable in their manifest intentions, might actually serve to help us evade the searching gaze of individual children.

It is a sobering thought, and I muse on it not to throw a spotlight on others, but to ponder the reality of my own life and engagement with children. I give thanks that in my daily life I have the opportunity of being open to the faces of individual children and young people, so that as I write and contribute to thinking about how we might respond more effectively to the crying needs of children worldwide, I have unforgettable reminders of my obligations.

What does this mean in practice? It is probably unwise for me to try to say, but I hope that it means at the very least that I do not build a life and career on the basis of seeking to help unnamed thousands of children, or at the cost, albeit indirectly, of the well-being of some of them. What I hope is that I am constantly reminded of my humanity, my mortality, my earthiness, so that I never fly too high, inspired by vaulting ambitions of how I can help them in general. Also, that as I reflect in writing there may be a few working examples of the implications of such an approach in practice.

As it happens, I must wind up this article right now because I will be having a meal with some of those who live at Mill Grove. Of course I know that names of each one, and their life-stories, but I pray that I may be open to the face of the little one sitting across the table. Who knows what that will mean for the rest of the evening, and the obligations that there will be for the coming weekend?!

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