Tony Jones has been hosting a symposium of sorts on the thought of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who has been attracting a bit of attention recently due to his increasing influence on some progressive Christian theologians like Peter Rollins and others. Because Tony was, um, otherwise occupied, he decided to turn his blog over to a discussion of Žižek's thought, which has been both informative and provocative.
First Zane Schertz offers a primer in Žižek's approach in the first posting. Here's the core of his argument (all emphasis in the original):
Zizek states that religious belief is an objectively functional illusion. For an example, he cites Christmas and Santa Claus. We all realize that Santa doesn’t exist, it’s a mere illusion, and yet we haven’t discarded the belief. Why? Because it functions objectively as an illusion that signifies our worldview of the holiday. Another example is the ancient Greeks and mythology. Zizek claims the ancient Greeks were not idiots. They knew on top of Mt. Olympus they wouldn’t find Gods, yet it remained an illusion which functioned objectively in their worldview. ...
Now Zizek says, and I agree, that only by willing the death of God [Christian atheism] can we live fully as Christians. So to break it down, Z is saying, when we believe in the illusion of the transcendent/omnipresent God who pulls the strings ‘deus ex machina’ we cannot function as true Christians because we’re too busy keeping the illusion of Santa real. ...
The idea is that God [abstract] engages the world in all it’s profanity through the Incarnation of Christ. We are the profane [negative] and stand in complete contradiction to the Spirit/Divine. At the cross we find the death of Christ which is also the death of God. Now through the death of God we find the end of transcendence. The God who was once [out there] is now [right here]. This is ultimately the [concrete] in the dialectic. So what we find is not a bodily resurrection back into transcendence, but instead the complete self emptying of this transcendence into immanence. There is nothing pulling the strings in our life, so now we as humans must face the responsibility of our actions/in actions. The immanence creates a forward movement into our modern world. Now theology is no longer a static discussion based on rituals and dogmas, but instead we find a religionless Christianity that engages our modern world.
This is crucial, because now Christianity isn’t about life after death, but about life before you die. For Zizek the message of Christ was apocalyptic at its core. For us to find meaning and live as fully human we must rupture the structures that shape and skew our ideologies. With that comes true freedom from not only the state, but from religion itself.
This is, as I said, both fascinating and provocative. For my part, I've long been intrigued by the idea of "religionless Christianity" in the sense in which Bonhoeffer seems to have meant it (which is quite different from what Žižek seems to mean). Here's what Bonhoeffer wrote in his Letters and Papers from Prison:
And we cannot be honest unless we recognize that we have to live in the world etsi deus non daretur [translation: "as if there were no God"]. And this is just what we do recognize--before God! God himself compels us to recognize it. So our coming of age leads us to a true recognition of our situation before God. God would have us know that we must live as men who manage our lives without him. The God who is with us is the God who forsakes us (Mark 15:34). The God who lets us live in the world without the working hypothesis of God is the God before whom we stand continually. Before God and with God we live without God. God lets himself be pushed out of the world on to the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which he is with us and helps us. Matt. 8:17 makes it quite clear that Christ helps us, not by virtue of his omnipotence, but by virtue of his weakness and suffering.
Out of such a recognition, he writes, may be the creation of a new way of being Christian in the world, in which even the language we use to describe it may be fundamentally changed. As he writes:
"It will be a new language, perhaps quite non-religious, but liberating and redeeming—as was Jesus’ language; it will shock people and yet overcome them by its power; it will be the language of a new righteousness and truth, proclaiming God’s peace with men and the coming of his kingdom… Till then the Christian cause will be a silent and hidden affair, but there will be those who pray and do right and wait for God’s own time.”
Key, as I read it, to Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" is the idea that the language of Christianity needs to change to accomodate God's mode of being-in-the-world in light of the failure of traditional theological and moral categories to provide resources to describe and respond to the reality of fascism, world war, and genocide. The failure of that language calls for a new language that can give a new way of living that may finally be consistent with the call of the Gospel.
There is overlap in this view with what Žižek seems to be arguing (though with Žižek, you can really never be completely sure). And, as Schertz notes, much of this is rooted in a very deep reading of Hegelian philosophy coupled with Lacanian psychoanalysis. On top of all of that, Žižek seems to take a perverse pleasure in being obscure and elusive (as well as allusive). Yet, for him, unlike Bonhoeffer, God seems to ultimately be a way of symbolically expressing a particular relationship with the world, rather than the transcendent reality that gives being and meaning to existence. In other words, Bonhoeffer's "religionless Christianity" is predicated on the idea that there is a God to whom we are accountable whereas in the "Christian atheism" of Žižek, the point is that the symbol of a transcendent God is ultimately emptied of meaning on the cross, and thus must be abandoned in order to effectively follow the way of Jesus Christ into the world, rather than the way of Christianity out of it.
In response to the initial post, Nathan Duffy writes in order to ensure that we know that, really, Žižek doesn't believe in God at all. Apparently he felt there was some unclarity on the issue. He writes:
Žižek doesn’t believe any of that, though. He’s not so much a heretic as an outright unbeliever who occasionally uses the Christian story as a kind of plaything. He would tell you as much. His theorizing uses the constituent elements of the Gospel as, perhaps, a lens through which to view and analyze history and the human condition, but he doesn’t believe any of it. It’s no more than a useful metaphor, and just one among many that he employs.
The title of ‘Christian atheist’ that he has ascribed to himself, and which Zane references, is just one of his fun, ironic little juxtapositions. There’s nothing slightly Christian about it. It would be interesting if he attempted to hold the two poles of Christianity and atheism, and go between them per standard dialectical protocol, which I suspect is what this title ‘Christian atheist’ is trying to suggest is happening. It would still be an ultimately frivolous and useless project, of course, but at least then the ‘Christian atheist’ title would be somewhat fitting. As is, it’s just false, even in the paradoxical way he wants to mean. An atheist using Christian concepts and terminology for anti-Christian ends is just atheism, if not something worse.
It is hard, I must say, to know what to make of Duffy's response. It was clear from the initial post, at lesat to me, that Žižek doesn't believe in any kind of literal God who exists or ever has existed. It's quite clear that he understands the term wholly symbolically and anthropologically, as indeed one might expect from a philosopher who partakes quite abundantly from both Freud and Marx. In his post Duffy seems somewhat alarmed that someone might misunderstand this. Duffy also wants to make sure that we understand that Žižek frequently engages in a form of playful blasphemy and engages in "false teaching."
But the usefulness from my perspective, of Žižek to Christians who may continue to believe in the existence of God, even as they allow themselves to be provoked by his ideas (or at least his rhetoric) is precisely that he challenges us to take seriously the negative dimension of Christian theology. To speak of "Christian atheism," to me, is to engage in a form of via negativa, which accentuates what God is not in order to illuminate what God is. To focus on the negative space of God's absence allows us to think more clearly about what it is we affirm about God, and whether those affirmations are as valid as we may suppose. Negative theology reminds us of what Žižek frequently calls the "abyssal" dimension of thought, the way in which the contemplation of the thing can take us to depths that are both difficult to contemplate and ultimately unreachable by the conceptual patterns to which we adhere.
Far too often, we treat the word "God" as though it referred to an object that we were capable of of comprehending. Žižek's insistance that the symbol is emptied of meaning in the cross reminds us of that fact. Whatever God may be, God is not what we expect. Jesus Christ as the incarnation of the God is not a way of boxing the God-concept into a particular flesh-and-blood form, but of reminding us that God's being and action violate our prior expectation of what God is and does.
What I think is unfortunate about Duffy's response is that he falls into the trap of thinking that Žižek's provocations are, by virtue of being provocative, something harmful or dangerous to Christians, rather than a reminder that God is always more than we believe God to be.