(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.