Friday, August 6, 2010

Tarrying with Theology: Slavoj Žižek & The Monstrosity of Christ

The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?
Slavoj Žižek & John Milbank, edited by Creston Davis.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009.


Introduction: Holy Saturday or Resurrection Sunday? Staging an Unlikely Debate / Creston Davis

The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity / Slavoj Žižek

The Double Glory, or Paradox versus Dialectics: On Not Quite Agreeing with Slavoj Žižek / John Milbank

Dialectical Clarity versus the Misty Conceit of Paradox / Slavoj Žižek

Creston Davis is a jackass: he is the philosophical correlate of the Democratic Party, of Clinton-Obama bipartisanism: overcome the cleavage between liberals and conservatives by capitulating to conservatives. In philosophy, is there anything more disgusting than postmodern theology?

Apparently, one of Žižek's other conceits, besides being a poseur tough-guy born-again Leninist, is to pose as an atheist Christian theologian. This is almost as sickening as the rest of the book, but there are some interesting moments. I'll confine myself to Žižek's first essay "The Fear of Four Words."

Žižek begins with a quote from Chesterton. The aims is to posit Christianity against magical thinking, nature worship, and other religions. Žižek has an animus against New Age mysticism, which is at least interesting:
The next standard argument against Hegel’s philosophy of religion targets its teleological structure: it openly asserts the primacy of Christianity, Christianity as the “true” religion, the final point of the entire development of religions. It is easy to demonstrate how the notion of “world religions,” although it was invented in the era of Romanticism in the course of the opening toward other (non- European) religions, in order to serve as the neutral conceptual container allowing us to “democratically” confer equal spiritual dignity on all “great” religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism . . .), effectively privileges Christianity—already a quick look makes it clear how Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, simply do not fit the notion of “religion” implied in the idea of “world religions.” However, what conclusion are we to draw from this? For a Hegelian, there is nothing scandalous in this fact: every particular religion in effect contains its own notion of what religion “in general” is, so that there is no neutral universal notion of religion—every such notion is already twisted in the direction of (colorized by, hegemonized by) a particular religion. This, however, in no way entails a nominalist / historicist devaluation of universality; rather, it forces us to pass from “abstract” to “concrete” universality, i.e., to articulate how the passage from one to another particular religion is not merely something that concerns the particular, but is simultaneously the “inner development” of the universal notion itself, its “self- determination.”

Postcolonial critics like to dismiss Christianity as the “whiteness” of religions: the presupposed zero level of normality, of the “true” religion, with regard to which all other religions are distortions or variations. However, when today’s New Age ideologists insist on the distinction between religion and spirituality (they perceive themselves as spiritual, not part of any organized religion), they (often not so) silently impose a “pure” procedure of Zen- like spiritual meditation as the “whiteness” of religion. The idea is that all religions presuppose, rely on, exploit, manipulate, etc., the same core of mystical experience, and that it is only “pure” forms of meditation like Zen Buddhism that exemplify this core directly, bypassing institutional and dogmatic mediations. Spiritual meditation, in its abstraction from institutionalized religion, appears today as the zero- level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.

Adorno did as good a job or better on this subject. Later, Žižek approvingly quotes Chesteron again:
Love desires personality; therefore love desires division. It is the instinct of Christianity to be glad that God has broken the universe into little pieces. . . . This is the intellectual abyss between Buddhism and Christianity; that for the Buddhist or Theosophist personality is the fall of man, for the Christian it is the purpose of God, the whole point of his cosmic idea. The world-soul of the Theosophists asks man to love it only in order that man may throw himself into it. But the divine centre of Christianity actually threw man out of it in order that he might love it. . . . All modern philosophies are chains which connect and fetter; Christianity is a sword which separates and sets free. No other philosophy makes God actually rejoice in the separation of the universe into living souls.

Žižek has his problems with Western mysticism, too, e.g. Eckhart, who, among others, neutralized the "monstrosity of Christ". A couple more interesting paragraphs:
The trap to avoid apropos of Eckhart is to introduce the difference between the ineffable core of the mystical experience and what D. T. Suzuki called “all sorts of mythological paraphernalia” in the Christian tradition: “As I conceive it, Zen is the ultimate fact of all philosophy and religion. . . . What makes all these religions and philosophies vital and inspiring is due to the presence in them all of what I may designate as the Zen element.” In a different way, Schürmann makes exactly the same move, when he distinguishes between the core of Eckhart’s message and the way he formulated it in the inappropriate terms borrowed from the philosophical and theological traditions at his disposal (Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Aquinas . . .); even more, Schürmann designates the philosopher who, centuries later, was finally able to provide the adequate formulation of what Eckhart was striving at, Heidegger: “Eckhart came too early in his daring design. He is not a modern philosopher. But his understanding of being as releasement prepares the way for modern philosophy.” However, does this not obliterate the true breakthrough of Eckhart, his attempt to think Christology (the birth of God within the order of finitude, Incarnation) from the mystical perspective? There is a solution to this impasse: what if what Schürmann claims is true, with the proviso that the “modern philosopher” is not Heidegger, but Hegel? Eckhart’s goal is withdrawal from the created reality of particular entities into the “desert” of the divine nature, of Godhead, the negation of all substantial reality, withdrawal into the primordial Void--One beyond Word. Hegel’s task is exactly the opposite one: not from God to Godhead, but from Godhead to God, i.e., how, out of this abyss of Godhead, God qua Person emerges, how a Word is born in it. Negation must turn around onto itself and bring us back to determinate (finite, temporal) reality.

Later on, Žižek does reveal what a reactionary Chesterton is without naming him as such; Chesteron has merely failed to see that the anarchist lawlessless of the philosopher is not just the most criminal act, but an indictment of the criminality of an entire system. I imagine that Orwell would have a field day--perhaps he did, for all I know, with Chesterton's contention that orthodoxy is the greatest rebellion.

Here is a curious comment on the diversity of atheisms:
Peter Sloterdijk was right to notice how every atheism bears the mark of the religion out of which it grew through its negation: there is a specifically Jewish Enlightenment atheism practiced by great Jewish figures from Spinoza to Freud; there is the Protestant atheism of authentic responsibility and assuming one’s fate through anxious awareness that there is no external guarantee of success (from Frederick the Great to Heidegger in Sein und Zeit); there is a Catholic atheism à la Maurras, there is a Muslim atheism (Muslims have a wonderful word for atheists: it means “those who believe in nothing”), and so on. Insofar as religions remain religions, there is no ecumenical peace between them—such a peace can develop only through their atheist doubles. Christianity, however, is an exception here: it enacts the reflexive reversal of atheist doubt into God himself. In his “Father, why have you forsaken me?”, Christ himself commits what is for a Christian the ultimate sin: he wavers in his Faith. While, in all other religions, there are people who do not believe in God, only in Christianity does God not believe in himself.
Žižek demonstrates here how little he knows of Jewish atheists, and how he obtuse he is to real, historical Christianity, not the sanitized version of theologians. It is the same intellectual fraud that real theologians and mystics perpetrate via their religions: that their constructs constitute the inner meaning of the vulgar exoteric religions that form the actual substance of history.

Žižek digresses from there to Frankenstein, the Book of Job, pop culture, and Freud. Then back to Kant and Hegel. Another curious assertion follows:
This double kenosis is what the standard Marxist critique of religion as the self-alienation of humanity misses: “modern philosophy would not have its own subject if God’s sacrifice had not occurred.” For subjectivity to emerge— not as a mere epiphenomenon of the global substantial ontological order, but as essential to Substance itself—the split, negativity, particularization, self-alienation, must be posited as something that takes place in the very heart of the divine Substance, i.e., the move from Substance to Subject must occur within God himself.
A little farther down, another indictment of "standard" Marxism:
This is why standard Marxist philosophy oscillates between the ontology of “dialectical materialism” which reduces human subjectivity to a particular ontological sphere (no wonder Georgi Plekhanov, the creator of the term “dialectical materialism,” also designated Marxism as “dynamized Spinozism”) and the philosophy of praxis which, from the young Georg Lukács onward, takes as its starting point and horizon collective subjectivity which posits / mediates every objectivity, and is thus unable to think its genesis from the substantial order, the ontological explosion, “Big Bang,” which gives rise to it.
More rehabilitation of Hegel. Then literature, movies, detective stories. . . and Wagner.

Žižek poses the question of what is different about the Jewish communal spirit and the Christian one? I must have missed his answer, for we are back to Hegel. Then on what makes Christ different from other wise men.

The next section begins with Pope Ratzinger's verbal assaults on Islam, secularism, and Darwinism. Then comes a curious defense of Islam, coupled with Judaism. Christianity as the monstrous exception that unifies the two abstractions. More Chesterton. Žižek sees an affinity between Catholicism and dialectical materialism (vs. the ontological incompleteness of the universe, viz. quantum mechanics, Badiou). More on Badiou and materialism . . . and of course Lacan. Passing remarks about the new atheists. Then ruminations about the relationship between monotheism and atheism, e.g.:
. . . what if the affinity between monotheism and atheism demonstrates not that atheism depends on monotheism, but that monotheism itself prefigures atheism within the field of religion—its God is from the very (Jewish) beginning a dead one, in clear contrast with the pagan gods who irradiate cosmic vitality. Insofar as the truly materialist axiom is the assertion of primordial multiplicity, the One which precedes this multiplicity can only be zero itself. No wonder, then, that only in Christianity—as the only truly logical monotheism—does God himself turn momentarily into an atheist.

More on materialism, Deleuze, Badiou, Lenin, Bukharin, Chalmers, Lacan . . . . Then:
What, then, is the proper atheist stance? Not a continuous desperate struggle against theism, of course—but not a simple indifference to belief either. That is to say: what if, in a kind of negation of negation, true atheism were to return to belief (faith?), asserting it without reference to God—only atheists can truly believe; the only true belief is belief without any support in the authority of some presupposed figure of the “big Other.”

Žižek is a clever boy. Interesting little observations here and there, but he adds up to nothing. And this intervention in theology is outstandingly worthless and devoid of integrity.

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