Some Theological and Philosophical Musings on the Human Face

Emmanuel Levinas: “Philosopher” of the Human Face


The Face in Jewish Philosophy and Christian Theology

Facial expressions reveal a great deal about the emotional states of a human being, such as sadness, happiness, depression, anxiety and anger. The reason is that the face, more than any aspect of the human body, reveals the person. To paraphrase the eminent Jewish “philosopher” of the human face, Emmanuel Levinas, the face suggests the otherness of the human person. For example, because of observing your face and experiencing mine, I realize that I am not you; nor are you I.

Similarly, in Christian theology, the Logos or pre-incarnate Son of God (to be born as Jesus of Nazareth) is “face-to-face with God,” suggesting a distinction between the Logos and God (cf. John 1:1c). In other words, there is interpersonal communion between the Son and Father. Now, because the human person is made in “the image of God,” a human being, by nature, is a communal being, needing face-to-face human relationships.

Face-to-Face, Not Back-to-Back, Relationships

Interpersonal relationships, then, are not developed back-to-back but face-to-face. To borrow the language of Jewish philosopher-theologian Martin Buber, the “I,” that is, the self, is revealed in the face. But the “It,” that is, the back, hides the face or manifestation of a person’s presence. That is why, for example, it is an insult for one person to turn his or her back, walking away from the other, when the two are engaged in a conversation. Therefore, face-to-face promotes an “I-Thou” or person-to-person relationship. But back-to-face inhibits interpersonal communion and is, as it were, an “I-It” or person-to-object relationship.

The Appropriateness of Face-to-Face Relationships

To make the same point in slightly different terms: To see my face is, most fully or completely, to see me as a person but to see my back is only to see a part of my body. For example, typically, I do not say “Hello” to someone, when his or her back is toward me. Rather, I say it when I am face-to-face with that person. Human beings, then, positioned back-to-back, do not develop truly interpersonal relationships.

To “drive home” the same point, take two more examples. First, when doctors or nurses walk into a patient’s room to see him or her, they do not, typically, communicate with his or her back. Rather, they want to see the patient’s face and talk face-to-face. Second, it is bad enough to slap a person’s back but it is even worse to slap his or her face, “adding insult to injury.” The reason is that a person is most fully expressed through his or her face.


The face suggests that without other human faces, that is, without other human persons, I cannot be complete as a person. Thus, at the very root of a person’s being, expressed through and in his or her face, is the need to be face-to-face, in interpersonal communion. In the words of Kallistos Ware, the eminent Orthodox bishop and former lecturer at Oxford University, “I need you in order to be myself.”

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