Carl Packman argues that Žižek’s theological atheism beats the crudities of “Ditchkins”The Marxist cultural critic Terry Eagleton, renowned for his much-quoted review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, began his scathing tirade with the line; “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.”
Of late, Eagleton has spoken of a fictitious character he calls “Ditchkins”, a nomenclature that finds its etymology in the merging surnames of (Christopher) Hitchens and, of course, Dawkins. Given his recent book Reason, Faith, and Revolution which aims to offer a “revolutionary account of the Christian Gospel” – as one review describes – one might naturally assume that Eagleton is a no-holds-barred antagonist to atheism.
But this wouldn’t be accurate at all, and in fact it would indirectly be giving credibility to the erroneous claim that atheism is necessarily hostile to religion, since if it were Dawkins-inspired atheism that was to be hated about atheism, then this would be suggesting that “new atheism” was the sum total of atheism proper, which is very much not the case. The fact that Eagleton is a Marxist – however we might react to this term – first of all tells us that he must draw a lot of inspiration from figures that have in their time poured scorn on the logic of religion and have made no apologies for criticising the phenomenon that is God worship (we could cite Marx himself here). But a significant proof that Eagleton’s energies are not spent wholesale rejecting atheists can be found in his advocacy of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
Žižek is an avowed atheist, albeit one who has spent a significant amount of time and chapter space exploring the pitfalls and potencies of theology, whereas “Ditchkins” – as Eagleton again put it – has “come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.” It is Žižek’s informed critique of religion – not to mention embrace of its revolutionary legacy – that earns him the respect of Christian critics such as Eagleton as well as respected theologians such as John Milbank, who has recently been engaged in debate with Žižek documented in the book The Monstrosity of Christ.
From as early as his first English language title The Sublime Object of Ideology, most of Žižek’s books include some kind of passing reference to, or mere examples of, God, religious discourse, or even the theology-inspired quips of crime writer and Catholic G.K. Chesterton, though the substantial regard for the “perverse core of Christianity”, as Žižek terms it, came at a later stage in Žižek’s great deluge of work, influenced by fellow radical philosopher Alain Badiou.
In his 1999 work The Ticklish Subject, Žižek critiqued Badiou’s – at the time relatively unheard of - work Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, a work which attempted to find in the life and times of Saint Paul, apostle to the gentiles, a politically revolutionary method which opened up the concentration of power from the top, and one that undid the postmodern notion of multitudinal, or many-layered, truths – which for Badiou is the logic of globalisation – into the radical assertion that there is one universal truth. The way in which Saint Paul was a figurehead for these two aspects is itself twofold; first, on his way to Damascus with the intention of arresting Jesus’ followers Paul experienced a calling from Jesus (who is at this stage dead) telling him to turn back and embrace him and his word, to which Paul, on that road, became converted. Second, and very important for both Badiou and Žižek, Paul was Jewish, and thus must be analysed as someone emerging out of the Jewish tradition in order to show how Pauline Christianity (the early branch of Christianity linked with Paul) traversed Jewish law to create an opening for a gentile embrace of Jesus.
This point – with a great deal of emphasis on Romans 7 where Paul speaks of knowing sin through law – is very important for both Badiou and Žižek, and it is also where their readings on Paul depart from one another. For Badiou, Paul symbolises the point of departure from Jewish particularism (differentiation on the grounds of race or cultural practice) to the “neither Jew nor Greek” of Pauline Christianity. Further, Badiou perceived Paul as representing the escape from law into the realm of political grace. But Žižek, though to begin with rather complimentary about Badiou’s position, later viewed the law as not so much something to hurdle over, but as something that itself defined the political bearings of Christianity.
It is here for Žižek that we encounter his notion of the “perverse core of Christianity”. To get the full sense of what is meant by perversity requires a small deviation into the world of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan – Žižek’s mentor – via Sigmund Freud. Freud characterises the superego as the part of the psychic apparatus which acts as a kind of moral high ground, an overseer of the ego which represents an understanding of reality distinct from the id which can make no coordinated considerations of the world in which the subject finds himself.
For Lacan, public law such as “No Photos” or “Do not go on the grass” implicitly attracts the subject of that law to commit the very thing it prohibits (exactly in the way that if we tell the child not to eat the freshly baked cakes, we are simultaneously pointing out the method with which the child can ignore our demands). The point at which the attempts of prohibition by public law fail, like here, is precisely where superego emerges. And for Lacan, as it is for Žižek, the superego is not the moral conscience (as it would be for Freud) but rather the stigmatisation of our ethical betrayal, or in other words the invitation to transgress the law whether we like it or not, what is known as the superego injunction to enjoy! This adds something rather provocative to the pushing of boundaries.
This is the groundwork for Žižek’s point; that the Jewish law is a necessary and constitutive element of Christianity (as he would put it, its “obscene shadow”), and that “perversity” is the key strategy to what he calls “Really Existing Christianity” (owing his usage to the Soviet propaganda term “Really Existing Socialism”) which is why at this stage Žižek is strictly appropriating the Judeo-Christian legacy. What might be less obvious is how looking at the Jewish stance towards the law has anything to do with atheism. This all becomes clear when we look at Job.
In the Book of Job, Job finds himself caught up in a tit-for-tat argument between God and Satan, where Satan opines that Job’s loyalty to God is only a product of the protection that God supplies him. To prove to Satan that this is not the case, God starts to lessen his protection over Job, to which Job regardless remains loyal, inadvertently proving Satan wrong. In this, Žižek rejects the notion that Job was a patient sufferer, rather preferring to evaluate Job’s silence, after realising that God was only acting up for Satan, as Job’s realisation of God’s impotence. In Žižek’s opinion, this kind of catastrophic revelation would normally spell doom for ethnic groups and nations under God, but it is this that binds the Jewish community together. (Tragically, the holocaust has been represented as the foremost narrative for God’s impotence in the way in which we have just seen – and it is one that has not been lost on Žižek who exemplifies similar versions himself – that instead of being stumped by the problem of evil, the reason the Jews were not saved by God in the gas chambers of Dachau and Auschwitz, was simply because he wasn’t able to save them.)
From here, Žižek moves over to speculate on the crucifixion of Jesus. Within the context of God’s impotence, we can see why he would not have been able to simply save Jesus on the Cross (with Job his position is nullified by an argument with Satan; and with the Jews, his chosen subjects, he is unable to deliver them from tragedy). The Cross, for Žižek, reveals God facing up to his own impotence, but further, because God is Christ, the crucifixion demonstrates a gesture of atheism, or as G.K. Chesterton put it – which Žižek frequently paraphrases in reference to the Cross – “God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”
And it is precisely here that Žižek takes a giant leap from speculating on theological matters, to asserting something significant to theological discourse, that being what he has called “Materialist Theology” – meaning that there is more than just analogical value in theology to describe human society, though it seeks no grounding in a presupposed divine figure. In other words the legacy of Judeo-Christianity specifically has meant that the world has been shaped by a philosophically materialist enhancement of Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” But can a materialistic theology take this passage literally?
It seems it can be so taken by Žižek, who elaborates on a materialistic rearticulating of the Holy Spirit, which features in his latest offering The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? co-written in debate form with the Radical Orthodox theologian John Milbank. The book is the brainchild of Creston Davis, who studied under both Žižek and Milbank, and is premised on the notion that “modern Christianity has finally met its doom”. Žižek, arguing his corner with Hegelian dialectics (thesis + antithesis = synthesis), cites Jesus as the “monstrous exception”, that is to say the figure who cannot be grounded in rational terms due to his part in the Trinity, but who all the same grounds the rational itself. This takes some thinking, but what Žižek is suggesting here, using the same logic as before with the superego injunction to enjoy, is that the conception of the other world which Jesus is said to occupy given his Godly status, is the foundation with which reality (on Earth) has been based, in contradistinction to the beyond.
It is vital that everything usually assumed in the Christian reading of Jesus on the Cross (since Paul, of course) remains in order for Žižek to reach his radical conclusion. As was mentioned earlier, for Žižek the Cross was one of the factors that represented the impotence of God, therefore on the advent of Christ’s death the functioning of both Father and Son in the Trinity ceased to be, so only the Holy Spirit must remain – which naturally for Žižek means the community of believers, through whose activity the notion of “reincarnation” can properly exist (incidentally the parallels between this and “Death of God Theology” are well established by Žižek himself). It is clear to see Žižek’s point: in dialectical fashion, the otherness or monstrousness of Christ, spliced with human substance opens up a community of believers that preserve Christ as in the midst of us.
Not only does this dialectic demonstrate Hegel’s place in addressing the Trinity (Žižek’s main task in the said book), the synthesis presupposes what Žižek might call the “non-all” of material reality, or what we shall call the limits of knowledge. Put simply; our knowledge of the world has blind spots, and this is clearly demonstrable in the dialectical way in which the Holy Spirit has been coordinated. The grounding of material reality is partly based on the assumption that there is more to reality than we can claim to perceive (even in the sense of scientific limits which cannot logically verify that there is no more to life than what is available to scientific or human perception). Coming full circle, isn’t this the problem of today’s hubristic atheism of the type purported by “Ditchkins” who pretends to have found the answers to God’s existence (or lack of) in either scientific discovery or carefully worded deductions?
The beauty of Žižek’s theological atheism is that it accepts the limits of knowledge (even scientific) regarding material reality, but also views in the legacy of Judeo-Christianity room for an atheism that isn’t just based on simple caricatures. There is substance to the notion of Holy Spirit that is born out of a gap in knowledge and the human referent of divine impotence that binds a community together, precisely the project of Saint Paul. For Žižek this version of atheism is the very supplement necessary to save modern Christianity from doom.
Carl Packman is a freelance writer who has written for the New Statesman and Seven, and the author of the blog raincoat optimism.