(Adapted from the introduction to Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology.)
Slavoj Žižek is a contemporary philosopher, a material atheist who rereads Christianity through the filter of Hegel and Lacan.
The starting point for Žižek’s work could be said to take place with Paul’s stance: “now we see in a mirror dimly” (1 Cor. 13:12); the world is, in the first place, a congealed void of obscurity whose outcome is far from being known. Because for Žižek the world’s outcome is radically open: evil may indeed win the day, and so calls one to participate in a materialist struggle in the here and now. This is why Žižek critiques orthodox theology as being not truly Christian at all, precisely because orthodox Christianity is too prideful to live in the real and concrete materialist history where the outcome is not something to be taken for granted.
When God is the one who knows all things and ensures, no matter how nihilistic and secular the world gets, that the end result will be guaranteed, namely salvation, a materialist struggle in the present world is radically neutralized. In other words, the belief in God (as the big Other) is tantamount to a disbelief in one’s very materialist existence in the present, which then cancels out the very ability to struggle for liberation and truth – the heart of the gospel.
Christianity, on its own terms, commits its own negation–or in Pauline terms, a scandal that turns the entire world upside down. This happens when God in Christ utters the horrifying words, “Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?” This is the darkest hour within Christianity because the narrative offers up a meaning that is unthinkable, namely, that God the Father is not safely up there in heaven ensuring that all things will work out to his own glory. And here the “system” and “institutionalization” of Christianity cracks open, revealing its perverse core–a truth that there is no big Other, no paternal God, but nonetheless one continues believing in God. This is Žižek’s idea of “disavowal,” when one fully knows better but continues to believe precisely because it is absurd.
Žižek sees in the figure of Paul someone whose version of the Christ-event on the cross is something that cannot be domesticated but that inherently upsets the status quo on every level of the cosmos. This is why Žižek things that Christianity alone is the religion that can found a true materialist struggle–not by systematically containing and covering over its radical nature but rather by living into this struggle in the here and now.
(Adapted from The Monstrosity of Christ.)
To explore Žižek is to explore Hegel. And to explore Hegel is to explore Idealism.
Hegel thinks that the empirical sensing of an object tricks us because we do not question how the object’s appearance becomes an “immediate certainty.” He shows how the empirical view of knowledge traps us because it perceives the object as if it were not mediated through something else.
So rather than thinking about the world as an object, Hegel develops an idealism founded in unity. The basic premise of Idealism is that individuated objects such as a book, a cow, a house, a person, and so forth may not exist without the accompaniment of the idea the mind (consciousness) has about them. So the object is always-already bound up in the complex mediating process of the subject’s thinking it, and conversely, the subject’s thinking the object is bound up in the object’s very existence.
Before there is anything there is relation.
Conscious belief always contains an unconscious excess that does one of two things. Either it 1) sustains the conscious belief by disavowing the “underside” of that injunction or 2) instructs the believer to transgress the conscious belief.
Žižek argues that Christianity is the perfect example of “perverse” belief, which is characterized by multiple strategies to disavow what we suspect is true while maintaining fidelity to a cause. The death of God means that the only remnant of God left – the Holy Spirit – is the radical, egalitarian community bound by love that embraces material existence and pursues liberation.
The Christian must decide whether to leave the mysteries of the faith in a state of paradoxical limbo or follow the antagonisms to their unsettling conclusions.
Žižek calls himself a psychoanalyst of cultures. What a culture consciously believes is secondary to what it unconsciously believes, as demonstrated in the culture’s actions. A belief functions differently depending on whether a person is psychotic, neurotic (obsessive, hysteric, or phobic), or perverse.
“Normal” individuals are neurotic by default, but Žižek claims Christianity, is perverse. This means the doctrines we hear are interpreted very differently by each individual because of how religious symbols are understood. Žižek’s wager is that we can analyze how a belief will function by understanding how communities and even entire cultures respond to symbols of belief. Further, he claims that Christianity – with its founding myth of the death of God and the resurrection of Christ in the holy community – has enormous liberating potential, even radical political potential so long as we are able to forsake our preoccupation with divinity and embrace material existence.
Following Marx, Žižek is hostile to centrist/liberal politics because centrism always mitigates contrast, preventing radical progress. This is also seen in his debate with theologian John Milbank in The Monstrosity of Christ. Their debate centers on whether Christian theology must rest indefinitely in paradox or resolve dialectically. Žižek claims that Milbank’s paradoxical stance is more pagan than Žiźek’s atheistic Christianity, because paradox bypasses rigorous thought by assuming there is some unknowable harmony between (seemingly) opposed beliefs. In contrast, Žižek claims we must make the full, dialectical turn that makes the death of God a central facet of Christian belief. For Žižek, the message of Christianity is that there is no God coming to save and that we, as the Holy Spirit, bear the responsibility of saving ourselves.
For Žižek, a paradox is anathema. We must risk throwing ourselves fully into our faith even when that faith leads to materialism. The problem of political centrism and “pagan” paradox is the same: each bypasses the felt antagonism that leads to a more mature, radical, and faithful solution.