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The Monstrosity of Christ, by Slavoj Žižek, John Milbank, and Creston Davis

Some half-formed thoughts on the contemporary debate about atheism, sparked in large part by a recent reading of Slavoj Žižek’s and John Milbank’s new book, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009 [a review copy courtesy of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies]):

The Monstrosity of Christ documents a debate between Milbank (a highly influential Catholic theologian and a founding member of the Radical Orthodoxy movement) and Žižek (a philosopher, intellectual celebrity and professional madman) about the nature of Christianity, or at least about Hegel’s interpretation of the nature of Christianity, largely as mediated through the central figure of Jesus as Incarnation.  There is a good deal of interest in the book and both authors make some pointed criticisms of the other – Milbank accuses Žižek of being little more than a heterodox Christian, while Žižek claims that ‘it is Milbank who is guilty of heterodoxy, ultimately of a regression to paganism: in my atheism, I am more Christian than Milbank’ (248 – all page numbers in this post refer to Monstrosity).  If for nothing more than watching two brilliant if equally flawed minds at work against one another, Monstrosity makes for very good, very fun reading.

However, what stuck me as the most intriguing point of all of this was Žižek’s simultaneous defence of an essentially materialist (and thus atheistic) view of the world and his continuing interest in Christian intellectual history.  In doing these two things at the same time, which might seem to be wildly counterintuitive, Žižek makes some tentative first steps towards establishing a viable and historically responsible contemporary atheism.  He by no means settles the matter and by no means even thinks out his own argument through to the end (always a problem for Žižek), but what he does do is present a potential means of arguing for an atheistic worldview that properly acknowledges that such a stance occurs against a deeply-rooted religious milieu dominated by Abrahamic understandings of God.  In Žižek’s view – and here I am extrapolating on his work here – atheism in traditionally theistic cultures is always already a matter of religion, but atheism is in itself not necessarily a religious position (though in some cases it must be).

Žižek here pushes us towards a different and more substantive version of atheism than that being offered in the populist work of Christopher Hitchens, Bill Maher, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins.  Regardless of what one thinks of these arguments from a philosophical or logical standpoint, the overarching point of much of this work, that religion in all of its forms – though they all, as a rule, focus on theistic traditions – is illogical, destructive, and misguided and should, therefore be discarded, or at least ignored, is eminently impractical.  Firstly, people are rarely swayed by rational arguments in such matters.  It is very difficult to imagine a new-earth creationist being swayed by Dawkins’ recent book defending evolution, The Greatest Show on Earth, particularly in a cultural climate where the teaching of evolution has again – and bafflingly – become a matter of controversy, in American schools at least.  In such a highly emotional and frankly juvenile sphere of debate, Dawkins is going to be dismissed before his arguments are ever even voiced.  Given this, such attempts at the reasonable assertion of atheism are preaching largely to the choir. If modernity has taught us anything, it should be that people will persist in all manner of irrational and illogical behaviour, no matter how rational our picture of the world may be.  Secondly, and ever more so since the late 1960s,  many froms of religion have shown that they can co-exist quite happily with the modern.  Religion in its many guises is not going anywhere – though it will very certainly mutate into new and at times surprising forms – and to argue that it should (no matter how valid the reasons for making such a suggestion might be) is to argue in essence nothing at all, at least nothing with any social utility whatsoever.

An incidental point should be made here as well: if we are to discard anything that is illogical, irrational, or responsible for violence and oppression, what would we be left with?  To carry this logic through to the end, if we are to begin by discarding those religions that do not hold up under logical scrutiny, we must continue by discarding the mythology of the nation-state and finally rid the world of any and all financial systems based on illusory, artificial conceptions such as ‘money’.  Any system that has the requisite complexity to exist in a modern society is going to be, to at least some extent, rooted in the selective application of reason and truth.  To put this another way: are the central tenets of the Christian Trinity (to take a notorious example of convoluted religious nonsense) really any more nonsensical than Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ or the belief that it is possible to have a financial system that requires infinite growth in a system of finite resources, two ideas upon which the contemporary world balances ever more precariously?  If there is going to be a revolution of the rational, it will have to be total.

Creston Davis, the facilitator and editor of the debate in The Monstrosity of Christ, like so many scholars of religion (myself included), is almost entirely dismissive of the philosophical weight of the theism vs. atheism debate as it appears in the Alister McGrath vs. Richard Dawkins title card:

But for all the pomp and circumstance of this ‘debate’, in the end, it only manages to recapitulate the same premises with which each side begins.  Consequently, the debate over the truth of either stance can never be resolved through the arbitration of speculative reason – and this because each side appears to be different, but, on a deeper level, they share the exact same version of that which underlies their very thinking, viz. secular reason.  Reason functions in this atheistic/theistic debate in a very limited, even reductionist way as it becomes the final arbiter of all truth forced into propositional form and thus sundered from everyday life … In short, although this Dawkins/McGrath debate looks genuine, and is certainly successful in terms of selling a great many books, it nevertheless is only a limited and not very intellectually significant debate.  It is more an exercise in ideological (mis)interpretation of the same premises than a real debate, because is fails to risk forgoing the very existence of what both sides presuppose. (8-10)

What Žižek argues for in Monstrosity is something else from the dismissive and reductionist arguments for atheism that are taking up so much space bookshelf space these days.  What he argues for here seems on the surface to be counterintuitive or simply nonsensical: he is making an atheistic plea for the absolute singularity and necessity of the monstrous figure of Jesus – though Žižek regularly uses the theological title of ‘Christ’, his argument is still thoroughly materialistic in a Hegelian sense and thus at least formally atheistic.  He makes this point in no uncertain terms, something which in itself isa rarity in Žižek’s work:

It is only in this monstrosity of Christ that human freedom is grounded; and, at its most fundamental, it is neither as payment for our sins nor as legalistic ransom, but by enacting this openness that Christ’s sacrifice sets us free … This is the way Christ brings freedom: confronting him, we become aware of our own freedom.  The ultimate question is thus: in what kind of universe is freedom possible?  What ontology does freedom imply? (82)

All praise to Žižek aside for the moment, there is in all of this an unresolved and very troubling tension between Žižek’s evident hopes for liberation from the excesses of contemporary capitalism and what appears to be – and this is not putting it too strongly – a refigured Christian universalism.  In all of this, when he uses the word ‘religion’, what Žižek is talking about is Christianity, the only religion he really considers in these essays.  Even when he addresses Judaism, he does so obliquely and only as it pertains to Christianity.  In doing this, Žižek is (oddly enough, given his track record) repeating a mistake made by a great many theologians, one arguably rooted in a long history of anti-Semitism in European intellectual history, and in Christian theology in particular.  There is something odd, even disturbing, in Žižek’s reaffirmation of Christian universalism in an atheist guise, though such an idea does have a fairly long history, reaching its apex in the ‘death of God’ movement in theology, which briefly caught the public imagination in the 1960s to such an extent that it made the cover of Time magazine.


Time magazine, 8 April 1966

Is this really a step away from the harm that such universalism has wrought in history, or merely a restatement of this central tenet of European superiority?  Though he makes a compelling argument later in the book that seems to address this precise point head-on, one can’t help be beset by lingering doubts at taking such a tack in a work that purports to be advocating a new and less violent world order based on a new kind of balance between the secular (whatever that might mean) and the religious (whatever that might mean).

In this book, there is a closer agreement between Milbank and Žižek than might be expected, and one of the things that they agree on is that that naïve, de-historicised atheism is of little value.  Bringing us back to my unease with Žižek’s restatement of Christian universalism, this is a position that is fiercely relevant to the contemporary study of religion, but one that no one – at least in this reporter’s opinion – has managed to convincingly lay out the reasons for, until now:

The incompleteness of reality also provides an answer to the question I am often asked by materialists: is it even worth spending time on religion, flogging a dead horse?  Why this eternal replaying of the death of God?  Why not simply start from the positive materialist premise and develop it?  The only appropriate answer to this is the Hegelian one – but not in the sense of the cheap ‘dialectics’ according to which a thesis can deploy itself only through overcoming its opposite.  The necessity of religion is an inner one – again not in the sense of a kind of Kantian ‘transcendental illusion’, an eternal temptation of the human mind, but more radically.  A truly logical materialism accepts the basic insights of religion, its premise that our commonsense reality is not the true one: what it rejects is the conclusion that, therefore, there must be another, ‘higher’, suprasensible reality.  Commonsense realism, positive religion, and materialism thus form a Hegelian triad. (240)

Žižek argues that our position is thus a precarious one that our religious inheritance can help us to understand, regardless of whether or not we are willing or able to make the leap to theistic belief: ‘we created our world, but it overwhelms us, we cannot grasp and control it.  This position is like that of God when he confronts Job toward the end of the book of Job: a God who is himself overwhelmed by his own creation.  This is what dialectics is about: what eludes the subject’s grasp is not the complexity of transcendent reality, but the way the subject’s own activity is inscribed into reality’ (244). He repeats this all-important gesture a few pages later in answering the slightly different question ‘but why God at all?’: ‘The true formula of atheism is not “I don’t believe”, but “I no longer have to rely on a big Other who believes for me” – the true formula of atheism is, “there is no big Other”’ (297).

We cannot ignore Christianity as a whole and the problematic of the Incarnation in particular, Žižek claims, because these things from an essential part of the intellectual world of modernity.  Here he also offers at least a partial answer to my own charge of universalism, despite the fact that he never bothers to articulate this explicitly.  Christianity achieves its unique position in history because it is an essential element of modernity itself, an essential piece of the dominant logic of a globalising capitalist modernity.  Given this, Žižek is quite correct when he argues that he is moving into new territory with this particular argument: ‘A new field is emerging to which the well-known designations “poststructuralism”, “postmodernism”, or “deconstuctionism” no longer apply; even more radically, this field renders problematic the very feature shared by Derrida and his great opponent, Habermas: that of respect for Otherness’ (254).  This is a hybrid (or, to use Hegelian language, synthesis) of modern and postmodern (to use two very loaded, very inadequate terms) territory that many others – Terry Eagleton, for one, in his After Theory (2003) – are also trying with varying degrees of success to define and understand.

What Žižek does here is to make atheism respectable again, after the onslaught of what Eagleton quite rightly calls ‘school-yard’ atheists, reactionaries like Hitchens and Harris as well as (slightly) better-informed critics of religion like Dawkins.  In Žižek’s arguments, we find the deeper meaning to Milbank’s assertion that ‘the supposition of naive atheists that the West can leave behind either Christology or ecclesiology is worthy to be greeting only with ironic laughter’ (181).  One cannot blithely ignore the centuries of theological thinking that lies at the back of any assertion of atheism, philosophically justifiable as any such an assertion may be, at least not if there is to be actual, productive debate – not just people shouting at each other or simply restating their own presuppositions over and over again – about all of this.

This might not be an argument that will ever be resolved, and The Monstrosity of Christ, may not document a proper argument in the strictest sense of the word – Žižek and Milbank might, as Dawkins and McGrath seem to, be simply talking past or at rather than to each other.  However, Žižek, in dialogue with Milbank, gives us a way to argue – or to at least to begin to argue – for an intellectually respectable and historically responsible atheism that both avoids the abuses of an overly prescriptive ‘secular’ rationalism that seeks to discard the past and transcends this ironic laughter by searching to explicate the present though a respectful and critical re-examination of the past.  For what has modernity taught us about history?  The past haunts the present and there can be no exorcising the spirits of History.