Notes on Zizek’s Christianity

13 01 2011

When Christian commentators get excited about Slavoj Zizek’s dialogue with Christianity, it seems to be sort of like the biggest high school nerd getting excited because the head cheerleader casually said hi to him in the hallway. As one of my mentors told me some time ago, for anyone to get excited about intellectual developments in Christianity in the last fifty years is a little like becoming obsessed with the politics of a kindergarten sand box. It goes without saying that we are on the defensive. It should go without saying that even the most militant Christian ideologue doesn’t believe in half the words that come out of his mouth. As Zizek would point out, most fundamentalists say and do absurd things precisely because they don’t really believe, not because they do.

Nevertheless, to continue to torment you with analogies, Slavoj Zizek telling us about the heart of Christianity is a lot like a travel agent who has never been to Japan rapturously telling us how beautiful that country is. A central point is missing, I think. Zizek’s reading of Christianity is very Hegelian: the death of Christ on the Cross is the death of God as the Lacanian “big Other”. Jesus really rises in the community in the form of the Holy Ghost. One must be an atheist to be a true Christian, as Zizek loves repeating over and over again, since Chesterton himself said that on the Cross God Himself becomes an atheist. And so on. Really, Zizek wants to salvage Christianity since he finds it to be a willing ally in his war against postmodern mushy thinking. He is all for metanarratives, as long as they are the ones he approves of, and really, they are not the same ones that Christians back. Compared to other theories floating around the academy, however, Christianity and unorthodox Marxism are almost peas in a pod.

It’s a pity that Zizek knows only of the “official” narrative that Christianity speaks of itself. One could go further and assert that Christianity is a “signifier without the signified”, to use another Lacan-ism. Christianity, especially in its more ancient forms, is not some pristine Ideal marching its way through the contingency of historical events. To use his Hegelian reading of things, the antagonism is present in the very Idea itself. Perhaps the trajectory of modern Christianity is towards atheism (I have stated this before in some of my more Neoplatonic reflections), but the “tarrying with the negative” (Hegel) that has taken place in the meantime has produced quite a few phenomena that I think Zizek would love analyzing if he knew about them. One wonders what sort of field day he would have if he pointed his Lacanian psychoanalytic tools towards the legend of the greyhound St. Guinefort.

But to give my own Zizek-inspired reading of a phenomenon spoken of much on this blog, la Santa Muerte, I would have to say that it is this more than the events of the Book of Job that betray the true future of Christianity. Nothing speaks more of the “monstrosity of Christ” than la Pelona. La Santa Muerte reveals the real vulgar core of Christianity: that death is not conquered, at least not yet. It was Pascal himself who said, “Christ will be in agony until the end of the world; we must not sleep the while”. In the image of the agonizing Christ we can see behind it the true master: death itself. If the suffering Christ is an example of the Divine becoming grotesque, this is even more the case in the cult to the Grim Reaper. And in Mexico, at least, it is feminine.

Hegel himself said that, “the Spirit is a bone”. By this, he meant that the bone is the figure of the absolute negativity of the Idea of the Spirit: the Spirit reduced to an odious piece of matter . The spirit of this Spirit is then a skeleton. She can embody the universality of the Christian message better than the conventional Christ ever could. For everyone dies, but not everyone is saved through grace. Death is the ultimate ecumenical gesture; it is the most effective container of the transcedent in the face of postmodern pluralism. And the fact that Death is feminine, often seen in a dress, called “godmother”, and so forth, means that this mortality is the ultimate source of comfort in our secular society. Perhaps we can also get into how Lacan says that the feminine doesn’t exist, in that it is the hard kernel which resists symbolization. In this case, one could say that la Santa Muerte is the deification of the Freudian death-drive: the continuation of life as absurd repetition. It is the apotheosis of the “organ without body”; a logical outgrowth of the Sacred Heart, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, the Powerful Hand of God, the Shadow of St. Peter, and other “folk Catholic” phenomena.

In terms of the feminine, la Santa Muerte is the Lacanian nightmare of the Virgin Mary, the dialectical progression of the sacred feminine in late capitalism. The primordial feminine is of course the reality of the Mother Goddess in all of her pagan absurdity, seen in orthodox Christian discourse in the disobedience of Eve as an icon of Protean chaos. The Virgin Mary is thus the feminine perfectly submitted to symbolization; she is the dream of the man having finally brought the feminine into the symbolic order. However, even within this image lies its own antagonism. As I have outlined in other places in this blog, the Virgin Mary has often shown a “darker side” if you will, the side best embodied in the phrase: tenebrae lucem praecedunt et illa est Mater. The negation of the negation is la Santa Muerte: the dream ends up in the nightmare of the original feminine that resists symbolization in the face of an increasingly commodified universe. It is no wonder then that I have seen imagery of la Santa Muerte either side by side with the Virgin of Guadalupe or replacing her in such images as the Pietà. La Santa Muerte is the digusting piece of the Lacanian Real emerging in Western traditional imagery as its logical outcome; an antagonism that has always been there emerging in the desert of secularism.

Someone could probably give a better reading of all of that than I could do, but there are many other phenomena (the cult to Maria Lionza, Santo Daime, witch children of Africa, Chinese evangelicalism) that could be read in a similar manner. Perhaps what would come out of all of it is that the institutional version of Christianity, the one that seems to be the most in crisis, never was all that hegemonic to begin with. Behind it were all of these other tendencies, these vulgar cores, that in the past century or so have come to the forefront of modern consciousness.


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40 responses

24 09 2013
Name

It is easy for me to believe that many who identify as Taliban will outwardly nod at but inwardly reject out of hand the 57 Virgins idea. Similarly, just as some working Jesuits avow atheism in friendly company, I would be surprised if some Islamists, Taliban or otherwise, are not atheist as well.

But then I don’t reflexively envision Taliban as cave men.

Islamic fundamentalists with a web connection have the same access to Dawkins’ shallow criticisms as anyone else. And Islamic fundamentalists with web connections encircle the globe. Casting Taliban and their ilk as some stone age others is a pretty (xenophobic? racist?) irresponsible position to take, don’t you think?

What could be a worse move for one of us Imperials to make than to declare someone an ignorant caveman simply on the basis of our weapons and warriors having chased him into a cave?

As for those radical Islamists who do yet lack a web connection? Every time a Taliban hears that buzz and looks up to see a Predator or Reaper preparing to incinerate his cousin’s wedding, I’m willing to call that a bump into people from another religion who would challenge the Islamist’s worldview.

Were you referring strictly to “bumps into” involving polite theological discourse as such? Fair enough. Of course a Predator attack is not that.

But just maybe you narrow the discussion too much. Let’s consider, per your suggestion, the extreme case of some un-schooled back country Taliban who may be one of the few who have not encountered Western ideas from any Western source. Might not robotic death from above amount to a pretty compelling attempt to present to him the thesis that “Our ways are superior to yours, so you’d do well to abandon yours”?

I’ll come back for a moment to the expression “suffering from unbelief.”

Maybe this was meant as synonymous with “in a condition of unbelief”. if so then please disregard what follows.

If, instead, any accent was placed on the word “suffering” then I think Zizek’s idea has been misunderstood. In the situations he describes it is the actual believer who suffers. The would-be Party apparatchik who actually believes in Stalin is doomed alike with the Cardinal who might accidentally relapse into believing in beating swords into ploughshares and giving extra coats to the poor. The average Joe Soviet era comrade or modern Catholic? Same same, I think.

21 07 2013
21 07 2013
Teri

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11 05 2012
Robert

Josh, it’s been a while, but I think it was as a reference as to how Christianity has come to be formulated.

11 05 2012
Josh

Robert –

Just out of interest, what were you inferring with the Hillsong video?

24 01 2011
Robert

@ Mome,

Right on, but remember our gracious host here is RC, so put it all in context. 🙂

24 01 2011
mome

I’m late to this conversation, but felt it worth commenting on the statement that “Palamas was not the undisputed interpreter of tradition.” Perhaps that’s true, in that there existed those who disputed Palamas. But it didn’t take long for him to gain special status. Now, in all corners of the Orthodox church, commemorating Palamas yearly with particular emphasis on the second Sunday of Great Lent, Palamas is hymned as the “trumpet of theology, the herald of the fire of grace, the honored vessel of the spirit, the unshaken pillar of the Church … light of Orthodoxy, support and teacher of the Church … invincible protector of theologians … pillar of the faith, the champion of the Church” who has “revealed in its true beauty the faith of the Orthodox, bringing light to all the world” and whose “words and sacred writings are dew from heaven, honey from the rock, the bread of angels unto those that hear or read,” about whom “earth and sea acknowledge thee as their common teacher, as the holy pillar of Orthodoxy and the sacred armory of divine dogmas,” who is the divine harp of the Spirit, the trumpet that plainly proclaimed the mysteries of the Lord” who has “enlightened the congregation of the true believers,” and about whom it is sung that “the faith of the Orthodox is sealed by thy words and teachings and writings.”

That’s a small selection from the hymns, but it indicates that, for the Orthodox, Palamas and his teachings do not simply amount to controversial flotsam of history, equal in stature with whatever else washes up on the shores of modern consideration, such as Moghila or other Latinized or Protestantized Orthodox theologians from periods of time marked by, as you suggest, “the absence of intellectual life.” In any case, I’m not really aware of any movement in Orthodoxy to discredit Palamas, even in the places and times where he was for all practical purposes, neglected or forgotten.

So when the Russian emigre and the smooth Greek guy suggest that Palamism is true to Tradition and scholasticism has been a troublesome divergence for the Orthodox, they’re not simply pulling the idea out of their asses, and giving them credence (while also disputing some of their conclusions) is not simply hiding out in some kind of romantic orientalism, some exotic Other. Certainly, there are people who take this approach, but I think an exoticist mindset, among Orthodox, Catholics or anyone else, is a pretty hard thing to sustain if one actually gets involved in the messy particulars of parish life or even the simplest practice of a daily prayer life.

Yes, people read into history what they want, but theologically speaking, that doesn’t make all things in history equal, such as Latinized Orthodox, or Orthodox bishops who were Calvinist or Lutheran in their thinking, or Orthodox laypeople reciting German pietist prayers. Some readings into history are more true to the facts than others.

We’re all scholastics now? Why, because we all went to school? You don’t have to answer that.

19 01 2011
mcmlxix

KarlH,

I happen to be Catholic, yet I’ve never been able to summon up much guilt. Perhaps it’s because I’ve become immune due to having emotionally manipulative matriarchs. Also, frequently guilt comes off as too narcissistic to me, that is if it’s mere scrupulosity or faux piety instead of legitimate pangs of conscience. Catholic guilt and liberal guilt are only two of many of Hydra’s heads.

I hope that people don’t interpret my “It’s all about whatever works.” as indifferentism, relativism, or syncretism. On the one hand, it is really all about whatever works, but on the other, I simply don’t want to be syncretic. I think that is the ultimate in either laziness or narcissism. What I am is a cynic, but I’m a cynic who is also a believer. I believe that all systems are participants in the evolutionary cosmic drama called history, not that they’re (necessarily) merely different paths to the same summit. Some systems are more equal than others. In any case, it’s my thinking that Catholicism is the synthesis of all of the religions that came before it culminating in Christ. I remember a few years ago Arturo calling me a blasphemer…perhaps tongue in cheek…and so there it is.

Thanks for sharing your family history. It sounds colorful. Isn’t it also interesting that such psychic gifts more often are found in the female lineage rather than the male? I never fell for Wicca either. After investigating it in my 20s, I quickly came to the conclusion that there’s no there there. Neopaganism, along with western Buddhist wannabes, or whatever else is faddish, is much more of a running from something than a running to something.

One more note on the commodification of religion: it’s easy to find many examples of adherents of any religion (as well as the many sects within Christianity) claiming that their religion/church is the only true one. I’ve noticed this too among Hoodoo root workers and curanderos. It’s not so subtly stated that their products and services are the only genuine ones, or that they have “no comment on the products and services of their competitors.”

19 01 2011
KarlH

Oh, and Wicca (and Neopagans) are still stupid and Wicca is mostly a made-up religion wherein grown people play-pretend to fight the establishment. I never fell for that one and in my teenage evangelical years (though I was never a crazy fanatic) I encouraged a fairly prominent Wiccan leader to attend church. IF and only IF there is any sort of real “magic” or “focused will” or any associated activities outside of confirmation bias and hallucinations it results organically in fairly traditional societies that haven’t yet been hit by mainstream skepticism/science. It simply cannot be reconstructed into whatever grown-up children want magic to be as, so far as I know, it seems to be something inherited whether by genetics, passing-down of traditions and shit that works, or a real and innate proclivity to a “magical impulse” that somehow enters the embodied spirit of a society.

19 01 2011
KarlH

This is off-topic, but I’ve been practicing magic/casting sigils/attempting to talk to trees and such off-and-on since I was six years old (probably odd for someone growing up in a fairly orthodox Protestant household in upstate NY and with no immediate influences outside of a certain attraction to fairy tales [from Andrew Lang to attending tellings of local Iroquois legends] and mythologies of various sorts). I don’t think I’ve ever REALLY believed in any of it even as a child. I’m immensely skeptical of everything and I think my posts show that quite well. Yet surprising things have happened, do happen, etc. I also recently found out that my very Orthodox, very Russian great-grandmother used to practice divination/Tarot for money when times were tough. Oh, and her mother apparently. And my mother. And my aunt. And this is without any of them actually speaking about it to each other/even being aware that such activities were going on until very long after the fact. I wonder if this sort of proclivity is somehow mixed up in blood… Speaking from personal experience, some people are naturally drawn to these things despite being normally skeptical people and we sometimes do and attempt things we don’t fully understand. Your quip “It’s all about what works” hits the matter dead-on.

It’s also maddening for someone as skeptical as me to wonder if such activities should continue/perpetuate madness/simply feed some sort of primal impulse or leftover evolutionary impulse with no basis in reality. There’s also the matter that as soon as I try to be skeptical/scientific about these things, the less I trust my skepticism and I’m thrown back into such practices. I’m also not Catholic or a member of any religion exoterically so I don’t have to deal with the guilt. 😛

19 01 2011
mcmlxix

“But as for starving yourself, holding your breath, and pretending to see things outside of our reality, that is the ultimate wishful thinking.”

Sure, there are mystics who use extreme asceticism to peer behind the veil. Others prefer to sit for hours on end staring at a blank wall in order to gain enlightenment. Still some, as well as their neo mimickers, employ drumming, dance, or entheogens in order to transcend. I won’t make the judgment as to whether any have succeeded or not. But these practices are not the same thing as an apophatic way of thinking. Nor is apophatic theology necessarily lazy or unintellectual. I find Thomism (and many philosophers) only useful as an intellectual exercise, one that gives me a headache, but no real insight.

To bring it back to fundamentalism, many of my encounters with atheists have gone this way…yes, I’m paraphrasing for dramatic effect:

Atheist: I don’t believe in an old man with a white beard sitting on a cloud who smites homosexuals and rewards Republicans with an eternity of harp strumming and cotton candy, therefore, I don’t believe in God.

Me: Yeah, as if that’s what God or an afterlife is.

Theist fundamentalists often believe too literally. Just as atheist fundamentalists disbelieve too literally. Both tend toward the irrational, although the latter often think that they epitomize rationality.

So back again to apophatic theology, KarlH’s creationist friend, reminds me of my Mormon sister. It’s not that she tipped her hand at a fear of nihilism, but of her/their fear of an ambiguous God or cosmology is what leads to accepting such things as creationism as part of a total package. It’s he basic human tendency to fear that which cannot be qualified, quantified, or otherwise defined and therefore perhaps controlled.

Religion is without doubt commodified, but that doesn’t mean that any one of them is inaccurate to a point. Nor does it mean that such systems aren’t personally or collectively beneficial. I’ll admit to having a bias against mega churches with their banal pep rallies cum religion for sale ,and for my neighborhood botanica with all of its products and services for sale. I’ve even known two Wiccans, who have bought into being a DIY magician, who’ve confided in me that sure it’s all made up, but they believe it nonetheless. It’s all about what “works.” Philosophies are no different. What are Dawkins’ and Hitchens’ cut? Likewise, science is packaged for sale too, and it’s the orthodox theories that are the ones to receive funding. We are all capitalists indeed.

Oh, and why is that guy standing next Santa Muerte? Doesn’t he know what she can do on behalf of his wife, is he unerringly faithful to his wife, or does he have no faith in that saint?

17 01 2011
Robert

“Christianity is not moving towards atheism no matter what analysis you want to give.”

Yes, or if still not convinced, what about this?

17 01 2011
Arturo Vasquez

The Sublime Object of Ideology is a good start in reading Zizek. A lot of his more “accessible” stuff is harder to read just in terms of “does this have a point?” Really, the more challenging passages for me on Hegel, Kant, Marx, etc. are far more worth the time.

As for the general concerns, I long ago stopped seeing the value of Plotinian mysticism whether found in the Far East, Meister Eckhart, Ken Wilbur, St. John of the Cross, etc. In other words, I have been profoundly anti-mystical for some time now. Even Hadot says that Plotinus turned from his earlier writings on union with the One towards ethical questions. (“God without virtue is only a name.”) As I have pointed out earlier, Zizek argues against the anti-Hegelian turn of modern philosophy (such as in Nietzsche and some of the existentialists) that posits an Absurd, pseudo-transcendent Other that comes to the rescue of human knowledge. In Zizek’s reading, Hegel already answered all of their objections: the transcendent is the product of failure, the gap. Reality is not merely what is right in front of us (empiricism, materialism) or vulgar idealism (reality is what we get once we jump over all of those contingencies to the realm of the Absolute), but rather is a profoundly imperfect and “incomplete” encounter. (As in a video game, when you try to go into a house for which nothing has been programmed. When you realize that there is “nothing there”, that the programmer made that house as a surface without content, only there have you encountered the Real).

But as for starving yourself, holding your breath, and pretending to see things outside of our reality, that is the ultimate wishful thinking.

17 01 2011
Garrett

I have been a long-time reader of your blog, and as a Roamin’ Catholic (with Hermeticism as my faithful mistress) have often found it as a source of both inspiration, knowledge (gnosis), provocation, and disturbance. Anyways, your mention of Unamuno’s San Manuel, Bueno Martir at last impelled me to comment. I first read the book in high school (more recently than I care to divulge) during a relatively diuturnal “existential crisis,” or what some supercilious archons would deem the adolescent equivalent of one. My introduction to fideism (which I neither subscribe to nor fully understand) , I thank Unamuno for demonstrating the compatibility of atheism and Catholicism. For a long time I adopted his profession of faith much like how your blog championed Yeats’ (which I also cherish): “mi religión es buscar la verdad en la vida y la vida en la verdad, aun a sabiendas de que no he de encontrarlas mientras viva; mi religión es luchar incesante e incansablemente con el misterio; mi religión es luchar con Dios desde el romper del alba hasta el caer de la noche, como dicen que con Él luchó Jacob. No puedo transigir con aquello del Inconocible —o Incognoscible, como escriben los pedantes— ni con aquello otro de “de aquí no pasarás”. Rechazo el eterno ignorabimus. Y en todo caso, quiero trepar a lo inaccesible. Sed perfectos como vuestro Padre que está en los cielos es perfecto”, nos dijo el Cristo, y semejante ideal de perfección es, sin duda, inasequible. Pero nos puso lo inasequible como meta y término de nuestros esfuerzos. Y ello ocurrió, dicen los teólogos, con la gracia. Y yo quiero pelear mi pelea sin cuidarme de la victoria. ¿No hay ejércitos y aun pueblos que van a una derrota segura? ¿No elogiamos a los que se dejaron matar peleando antes que rendirse? Pues ésta es mi religión.”
I share a love with a substantial portion of the world’s population for being counter-cultural. As a student, this almost always entails defending the Catholicism which I practice; however, while surrounded by Catholics who express extreme indignation at the slightest notion that the Church has erred or changed I may as well be Dawkins.
I am still unclear as to what variety of Catholicism or neo-Platonism or crypto-Jansenism you advocate. One characterized by skepticism, pertinence, humility, and, of course, music? Do you like Lacan (I don’t)? Foucalt (I do)? Just curious, but regardless, fascinating post.

14 01 2011
Turmarion

Well, first off, I’d stand by my expressed views on most contemporary philosophy. Regarding that, and everything else as well, I also stand by my assertion (perhaps not forcefully enough expressed) that I am willing to concede ignorance, insufficiently wide reading, lack of information, misinterpretation, misunderstanding, or just plain being wrong on my part.

I’d say, btw, that while Said makes many valid points and is crucial in understanding a lot about East-West discourse and in cutting through romanticized bs about the “Mysterious East”, that I think both he and many of his supporters go way too far in the implications that the West can never really understand the East, merely projecting its own fantasies onto the Orient in order to advance its goals of subjugation and hegemony. I deeply believe that what we humans have in common is greater than the areas in which we differ, and if discourse about others ( or the Other) is truly impossible, as some assert, then we might as well pack it in and go back to tribalist warfare (which is what seems to be happening in the world anyway, alas).

Anyway, I got plenty enough disillusioned with the “mysterious East” in my Buddhist phase.

Also, to clarify–I am not Orthodox, I’m Catholic; and I’m not trying to plug what TomC felicitously calls “pop Orthodoxy”.

Having said that, Arturo, you are exactly right in what you point out, though I think TomC’s caveats are well-taken, too. I understand that my post, long as it was, was rather fleeting and simplistic regarding Orthodoxy (or it’d have been totally unmanageable!). Maybe it’s better to look at it like this:

Conceding what you say, I note you point out, ” Palamas was not the undisputed interpreter of tradition.” Very true; and none of the various forms of Scholasticism were undisputed interpreters of tradition in the West until Thomism was essentially canonized much later. As you know, plenty of Scholastics got in trouble with Church authorities at the time–even Aquinas’s books were burned in Paris. Thus I’d see the question as not whether or not large swatches of Orthodoxy were Latinized, Westernized, and Scholaticized (they indisputably were); or whether this was or wasn’t enthusiastically embraced by many (also indisputably true); or whether Scholasticism is a “great bogeyman” (which is not quite what I’m saying); or whether we’re “all Scholastics now” (also true). The question is, “Is any of this a good thing?”

In short, whether Palamas was the “undisputed” interpreter of tradition or not, the issue is, was he right? Is hesychasm really the right way to go, or were the Latins right in opposing it? On the other hand, was the Latin Church wise to make Thomist Scholasticism “official”, or was that a bad move? As a math/physics major, I can at least say that to the extent that Aristotelian physics in the form of substance/accident distinctions enters in to theology, it’s a real problem, since these views simply can’t deal with quantum physics and atomic theory, in terms of which “substance” and “accident” are pretty much meaningless.

In short, while acknowledging your points (and reminding you, as TomC points out, that there are still real differences between Eastern and Western theology), maybe I’d be nuanced and say something like this:

I believe the hesychastic and apophatic theology of the East is superior to the Scholasticism of the West; this whether or not the former have actually in practice been characteristic of the East. I think this theology is also very much congruent with the writings of Meister Eckhart, John of the Cross, and Theresa of Ávila, though the exact terminology differs. You may disagree, and that’s dandy; but that’s how I see it.

As to the idea that “we’re all Scholastics now”, isn’t that a non sequitur? Are we just to leave it at that? Analagously, iIn a sense, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, we’re all capitalists now, but that doesn’t make it OK or mean we shouldn’t seek something else, does it? I think Žižek would agree with that!

And to Arturo and all, I really would like some reading suggestions regarding Žižek and some of the others we’ve spoken of here. There are many gaps in my reading and understanding that I’d like to fill, and much of this seems very interesting, even if I may disagree!

14 01 2011
TomC

Running in both trad RC circles and the Melkite Church, I largely agree with you. Pop Orthodoxy often cannot see beyond the Russian émigrés. There are, however, important differences between the traditions that should not be brushed aside too hastily. And, I believe many would argue the Russian Orthodox Church was latinized to a greater extent than other churches within the Orthodox communion, so it may not be the best example to describe Orthodoxy in general.

14 01 2011
TomC

I don’t know about atheist Jansenists, but one of my favortie directors, Robert Bresson, was definitely an agnostic Jansenist. His films are full of Jansenist themes, although he was no longer a practicing Catholic.

14 01 2011
Arturo Vasquez

I object to the characterization of Eastern Orthodox theology in your reply in that I think you are committing the same crimes of historical ignorance that the Orthodox try to get away with now. That is, a sort of covering up for lack of intellectual development read through the lens of the post-Heideggerian critique of ontotheology. In plain English, what some read as apophaticism I read as an absence of intellectual life period. There were scholastics in Byzantium, the Summa was translated into Greek in the 14th century, Palamas was not the undisputed interpreter of tradition, Orthodox theology was “scholastic” until the 20th century, to the point that the language of seminaries in Czarist Russia was Latin well into the 19th century (look up Peter Moghila)… in short, I am tired of this exoticist bullshit about the “Christian East” a la Orientalism of Edward Said. Real Orthodox were Westerners or wannabe Westerners, and the Greeks were just fighting to keep their language and not end up speaking Turkish. People just read into history what they want to read into it, or, just because a few Russian emigres in Paris or some smooth Greek guy says “this is the Orthodox tradition” doesn’t make it so. In Russia prior to the revolution, these people were all speaking French and reading Marx while their peasant servants were kneeling in front of their Italian style icons reciting German pietist prayers. Give me a break. Seriously.

And scholasticism is not a great bogeyman, and even if it was, we are all scholastics now, so no use trying to seek refuge in an exotic Other.

14 01 2011
Turmarion

I guess I should start by saying that except for Nietzsche and the Existentialists (both of whom I respect while vehemently disagreeing with them on much) and a few insights from other schools and individuals, I’m not that big on post-Renaissance philosophy in general. I’ve not studied Hegel in detail, but from my understanding of him I really don’t see what’s that great about him or why his views are even likely.

As to Lacan, Alan Sokal pointed out that he had a very bad habit of using terminology from the sciences and mathematics without understanding what it meant. People tend to divide into two camps on Lacan–he’s profound or he’s spouting pseudo-intellectual gibberish. I tend towards the latter view. Maybe it comes of being a mathematician, but I don’t have much patience for stuff that seems to be willful obfuscation.

I’ve read small bits of Žižek, and while he’s much more readable than most contemporary philosophers, and often funny and entertaining, he often seems to suffer from the same faults. Sometimes I read him and think, “Yeah, that’s a really good, incisive point,” whereas sometimes I just think “WTF?!” Can anybody hear give some recommended reading on him, so that I could maybe get a clearer picture?

Arturuo: Žižek wants to salvage Christianity since he finds it to be a willing ally in his war against postmodern mushy thinking.” But isn’t he himself often considered postmodern, at least to some extent? And once again, it may be my ignorance or misreading of him, but his thought doesn’t always seem crystal clear from what I have read. I do agree with Arturo, though, that Žižek is hardly a friend of Christianity as such. It reminds me of Flannery O’Connor’s famous statement regarding the Eucharist that if it’s just a symbol, to hell with it. If Christianity is just an “ally in the war against postmodern mushy thinking”, then to hell with it.

Arturo: And the fact that Death is feminine, often seen in a dress, called “godmother”, and so forth, means that this mortality is the ultimate source of comfort in our secular society.

Not sure I agree with this. Maybe in Latino culture, but my feeling is that Anglo-Saxon culture tries to ignore death to the best of its ability. Maybe the Goth subculture is similar to what is discussed here, but I certainly don’t see mortality as being “the ultimate source of comfort” for most Americans. The idea of the feminine here, is interesting, though–it is true that the Great Mother is both the bringer of life and the dealer of death (cf. Parvati/Kali–I think Adrienne Rich in Of Woman Born makes this point, too, though I think her idea of prehistory is mistaken) in many cultures, so it’s probably not a coincidence that Santa Muerte is feminine.

Broadly I’d agree with the idea that fundamentalism is a mask for disbelief. Leah, the Taliban are in a situation where their beliefs are challenged. Traditional Afghan society, while Muslim, was more governed by the tribal code of Pashtunwali than by Islam. The Taliban arose only in the 90’s in response to invasion by the Soviet Union, encroaching Western secularism, and general societal dissolution–that is, a situation in which Marxism, secularism, Western consumerism (even if second-hand), and modernity in general were indeed challenging their beliefs.

Henry, I’d be interested in reading what Žižek has to say about Buddhism, if you could source it. I need a laugh! 😉 My experience, having studied Buddhism for nearly thirty years, off and on (though not Buddhist myself) is that most Westerners, even Buddhists, don’t really know what they’re talking about.

Robert: I have found theological apophaticism, following the tradition of St. Maximus, to be a substantial antidote. The good news is that God is beyond this dialectic, an understanding which modern Christianity, alas, seems to have forgotten.

Arturo: The Church goes on…even when it is evident that our Christianity is profoundly (if not to say essentially) different from what came before, even though the sign on the door says otherwise. But that was Hegel’s project, was it not? Is not the Hegelian system basically atheistic compared to the “orthodox” version of things? Keep the term “God / Spirit”, just change the meaning around, and presto.

I think these back-to-back quotes really nail the issue. In my view, Western theology began an eight-hundred-year gradual derailment with Scholasticism. Once you start trying to rationalize, define, categorize the supra-rational, indefinable, and non-categorizable, you’re doomed. Ultimately you reify God Himself. Once you’ve done that, you can “change the meaning around, and presto”, and ultimately you end up with Hegel, Lacan, Žižek, and co.

Eastern Orthodoxy, in its various flavors, avoided all that. It is in this sense that Orthodox rightly say that Catholicism and Protestantism are two sides of the same coin. They disagree, but they share the same post-Scholastic, post-Enlightenment, and now postmodern assumptions. Orthodoxy firmy rejected any attempts to reify or define God, insisting apophatically that His essence is absolutely unknowable. We can know His energies (how he relates to us), but that is more a matter of pragmatic action (He loves us, so we should love one another, etc.) than philosophical speculation. By keeping mum about what God actually is and not even playing games with definition and dialectic, the entire mess of modern Western theology is avoided.

In fairness, some Westerners had views much like the Orthodox. St. John of the Cross famously said that God is nada–“nothing”–which is quite accurate. He exists, but He is no thing among things, nothing we can even grasp; only knowable by love. Of course, it’s no coincidence that the Inquisition threw him in jail. It’s a miracle he ever got out, let alone was canonized!

Karl H., your description of the religious choices in your area was not only dead-on, but one of the funniest things I’ve read in awhile. Great job! It seems to me that what you say is pretty much valid in all upper-middle class, white-collar, quasi-academic environments, at least all the ones I’ve known. Also, I think you’ve got the motivations of Fundies dead to rights, too.

Jason: I always think of the monologue in Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” when the drunk man is basically saying that on the last day, the drunkards and most foul sinners will all come forth, and they will be forgiven too. It’s a very beautiful thought, and I think the secret hope that makes art so appealing. Art is a sort of theology for the damned, a way to experience hope and damnation at the same time. But, alas, I don’t know how real this artistic view of Christ is. Christ himself is less artistic, I think. His words are very plain and direct: “Depart from me, you evildoers, into everlasting fire.” These are words that are too much for us to bear, I think, and we use art to get around them.

I don’t know; you read the gospel of John (especially 12:32), you look at Christ’s behavior towards sinners, I think he’s maybe more artistic than it seems. If it’s a matter of our merits, then we’re all damned, right? I’m not a flippant or unconditionally certain universalist, but I’m rather inclined to think that it’s better supported in the early Christian tradition than most think.

14 01 2011
Arturo Vasquez

Trying to kill two birds with one stone:

1. On fundamentalism: Zizek cites somewhere that the majority of young men who blow themselves up in suicide bombings in Palestine don’t really believe in Islamic fundamentalism. This gets into the whole issue of jouissance, the Big Other, and other Lacanian things that I don’t feel up to snuff at explaining here. Since Pascal’s name has been dropped, Zizek also cites him in the Sublime Object of Ideology as essentially believing in a “fake it ’til you make it” approach to skepticism. If you say you believe, and try to believe over and over again, eventually you will convince yourself that you do. (I think there was an Unamuno short story about an atheist priest revered as a saint, which is a clear indication of belief’s entrance into modernity). In order to “prove” belief, one is even called upon to commit acts that appear contrary to the belief system itself. That is perhaps how Islamic fundamentalism started: kill women and children even though supposedly we are not to kill the innocent (that is what theology is for), raze the tombs of the saints since they are “pagan”, and so on. More controversially in terms of the Catholic Church and the child abuse crisis, he says that Catholic clerical culture almost mandated that priests commit such horrible crimes against children. I would not go that far, but I would posit that to say that it mandated that people “look the other way” in the face of overwhelming evidence is closer to reality. Maciel was right in front of the Pope’s nose, and he did nothing. Certainly people around him knew exactly what Maciel was doing, but faith in the institution was far more powerful than common sense.

In fundamentalism, there is a great distrust of human reason and accepted decency. Since the world is seen as essentially evil (maybe not theologically, but de facto), the believer has to do things contrary to the world to show the Big Other that he believes. The more of an affront to common sense and the accepted morality, the better, whether it is having ten kids in a middle class suburb and dressing your women like Russian babushkas to blowing up a school bus. Same attitude, different degrees of fervor.

2. Jansenism: I often say that I am a crypto-Jansenist, since I find an affinity with a lot of their beliefs and practices, though I am pretty darn lax at this point by any standards. What sortacatholic alludes to is correct: the real crime of Jansenism was not that it was “too strict” (Catholicism in those days was way stricter than anything that passes for Catholicism now), but rather the subversive belief that fidelity to the institution does not necessarily save. Their real crime was ecclesiological. If the Church says that you are absolved, you are absolved, no matter how you happen to feel about it or what you actually do. It goes back to that scene in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited where the neophyte says that if the Pope says it’s raining and it’s not, it must be raining spiritually. Informed Catholics snicker at such an anecdote, but we are asked to believe in such things all of the time. Jansenism was the last real gasp of the idea that the Truth and the interests of the institution do not necessarily synchronize everywhere and at all times. It is no wonder that the Lefebvrists are accused of being Jansenists, as they are perhaps closest to this attitude within the contemporary Church.

14 01 2011
sortacatholic

KarlH Him: […] I might not get to go to Heaven. We might actually die when we’re dead.

Over lunch recently I remarked to one of my advisors that I am a Jansenist whether I cease practicing Catholicism or even Christianity. I wondered if there could be such a thing as an atheist Jansenist. The professor thought not, since the very root of Pascal, for example, is sober agnosticism. Fair enough. The Wager is a very cynical resignation to the sovereignty of God and his salvation. Even a sliver of doubt about salvation must be deemed “agnosticism”, even if the Question is beyond our understanding and control.

Arturo: Hegel himself said that, “the Spirit is a bone”. By this, he meant that the bone is the figure of the absolute negativity of the Idea of the Spirit: the Spirit reduced to an odious piece of matter . […] For everyone dies, but not everyone is saved through grace.

Jansensius taught that we absolutely cannot know if anyone is elect. The Hegelian “Spirit is a bone” and, as Arturo’s double hop of Hegel through Lacan reminds us, “the antagonism is present in the very Idea itself”, encapsulates the “orthodox” (Jesuit?) Catholicism dread of Jansenism. The narrative of an ever-progressing, triumphant counter-reformation faith could not countenance the Jansenist possibility that a believer must embody a stoic penitence that amplifies our innate agnosticism and skepticism of sacrament and salvation. The “dry bones” of pietistic Jansenism, the boring slog towards the blind wager of eternal life or annihilation, cannot sustain a Catholicism able to deceive believers into the immanence of salvation in sacramental ritual. To the firm believer in predestination, the Sacred Heart merely caricatures an impossible feat: there is never any iconographic assurance that salvation will come to those who earnestly prepare for it.

14 01 2011
KarlH

Right. Christianity can’t die out because there isn’t anything to replace it. It’s helpful to see Christianity/any religious tradition as the natural outcome of man embracing all his tendencies, even the tendencies to reject whatever’s uncomfortable. Or maybe this is a terrible view. Anyway, nothing can really replace religion. Religion just is. AV’s alluded to this concept a number of times.

Speaking of the other alternatives in the area I grew up in (Saratoga, NY): New Atheism is only acceptable when paired with transhumanism (letting the noetic, spiritual impulse of man find expression), the New Agers can have no community by definition—they’re weird and rich and their vegetarian diets cause them to fart way too much making attending their gatherings rather unpleasurable (they’re also rich/insular), Unitarian Universalism has a long history in my area but it’s only for rich fuckers, the navel-gazing Western Buddhism is only suitable for young hipsters who ignore its history/tradition so they can project whatever they felt they missed in their Christian upbringing or the rational-minded and absolutely brilliant modernist intelligentsia, and Wicca…actually, Wiccans are pretty cool to hang out with and they have probably the strongest communities though they don’t evangelize. Wicca in my area isn’t just for teenagers and contains physicists, truck drivers, and, well, the teenagers who like to practice magic and read Harry Potter. Really, this community sticks together and they’re pretty cool. Of course, I’d never be Wiccan. It’s stupid.

Really, what marks this area and anywhere I’ve ever traveled in the U.S. is just a general apathy. What works, works. If religion doesn’t work for you, then you just say “God doesn’t exist” and throw it out altogether. It’s not like Hell exists in anyone’s mind, anyway.

I’ll note that most of my analysis is limited by the fact that I was a kid/teenager when I lived in Saratoga (actually, I’m still comparatively young and I might as well confess this fact so those older and wiser than me can filter out anything I’ve said that’s too characteristic of my age demographic), but looking back this is pretty much how it is in my area for both parents and children. And, I imagine, it’s the same everywhere there’s a number of choices available/the democratic attitude prevails. I’ve traveled and lived abroad enough to realize it’s different in other areas. Of course, there’s the general sense of sameness. Man’s the same everywhere tho’ infinitely various.

14 01 2011
KarlH

*Referring to the dialogue I posted

14 01 2011
KarlH

There’s a lot of irony and self-deprecation in this post. Since it’s hard to get that on the Internet I might as well say it forthright.

14 01 2011
KarlH

And the observation that fundamentalism is devoid of belief is something I’ve known for a long time. One late night working on a paper in the computer lab, the last semester at the crappy community college I attended, a conversation emerged with my very evangelical, very fundamentalist friend and the topic drifted to evolution. I normally avoid talking to him about this sort of thing because I appreciate him as a person and I’m smarter than him and almost everyone else (a fact of which I’m eternally ashamed).

Me: Why are you so afraid of evolution? I’ve shown you proof upon proof that Creationism is a modern heresy based upon American political tensions. If Genesis isn’t true in a non-literal sense, why do you care?

Him: Because that might mean other things are allegorical too. I might not get to go to Heaven. We might actually die when we’re dead.

*A pause for recovery—he realizes he’s been accidentally honest*

Him: Well, I mean it’s not like evolution is an established concept. I mean, Creationism (of the 6000 year old variety) definitely has solid scientific validity and it’s not really a settled matter…

(He is true about our concept of the evolution of man not being a settled matter. The heresy is often “I don’t want this to be true so I’m not going to seriously consider it and I’ll just shut my ears and wait to be taken into a Heaven of glory.)

Well, at least honesty broke through—even if it was for only a moment. And yes, it’s very fun to laugh about how impetuous I could sometimes get back then. I’ve retained that in the dialogue. Oh, and fuck this emerging religious modern gnosticism and the “waiting for Jesus, lolipops, football and American Idol in Heaven” attitude.

14 01 2011
Robert

Fundamentalism is devoid of genuine belief, and an atheist is calling us out on it. It’s not truth, it is a bastardization of true faith.

14 01 2011
Robert

“The Church goes on, suckers!” – oh thanks for the laugh, I am cracking up over here. Yes exactly. As long as we will continue to believe in the sleight of hand, the show will go on. It must, after all.

But there is hope, we are not left to our own devices.

14 01 2011
KarlH

Meh, I’ve never gotten anything out of Zizek but his wikipedia article is really, really big so of course he’s a head cheerleader. 😉

14 01 2011
Arturo Vasquez

I think that is about right (sort of). There is theism, and there is theism. We can perform the sleight of hand trick by saying, “hah! The Church goes on, suckers!”, even when it is evident that our Christianity is profoundly (if not to say essentially) different from what came before, even though the sign on the door says otherwise. But that was Hegel’s project, was it not? Is not the Hegelian system basically atheistic compared to the “orthodox” version of things? Keep the term “God / Spirit”, just change the meaning around, and presto.

And yes, one of the running theses of this blog is that atheism will not triumph, but neither will triumphalist Christianity. It might be a Frankenstein version of both, a mixture of theistic practice with a secular / consumerist sensibility (megachuch, Pentecostal / charismatic prayer meetings, botanicas, trance religions, psychotropic drugs), with more “orthodox” remnants playing catch-up.

14 01 2011
Leah

But are members of the Taliban really suffering from unbelief? It’s not like they’re in an environment where they meet people from different religions that would challenge their worldview or stumble upon books by Richard Dawkins in random caves.

14 01 2011
sortacatholic

Why is Zizek the “head cheerleader”? Is this because he’s (perhaps) the most popular contemporary philosopher? I do not find the observation that fundamentalism is devoid of belief innovative at all. The daily and ubiquitous examples of this phenomenon contradict its novelty.

14 01 2011
ochlophobist

“Christianity is not moving towards atheism no matter what analysis you want to give.”

Uh, yeah: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gTGsYNUfdgs&feature=related

On a side note, Zizek has said that he does not drink because he does not care for the taste of alcohol and that he does not enjoy sex. This is curious, as Zizek seems to inspire others toward drink and sex:

…Within the club’s brick and black-painted walls, however, a free-for-all was getting under way. The D.J., Villa Diamante, was spinning hip-hop and reggaetón, video graphics swirled faintly on a wall (I caught images from “2001: A Space Odyssey”), and a hundred or so clubgoers in jeans, T-shirts and hoodies were downing cheap beers and whiskey nacional in preparation for the evening’s “cumbia experimental,” an electronicized version of a type of folk music popular in the city’s villas, or slums.

Soon, the real party — the weekly performance known as Zizek — began. A corn-rowed guy took the stage and, over the cumbia’s ch-ch-ch rhythms, began spouting dancehall lyrics in Spanish, while behind him a boy of about 10 carefully strummed chords on a guitar about as long as he was tall. Suddenly a big dude grabbed the microphone and — how do I put this? — squawk-squealed into it for several minutes. The crowd surged every time a singer chanted the refrain “Cumbia-a-a!” No wonder Clarín, Argentina’s largest newspaper, had nominated Zizek as one of the best parties of the year — it was awesome.

But Zizek — named for the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who is married to a young Argentine model and once taught at the University of Buenos Aires — was only the finale of a phenomenally busy but typical Wednesday in Argentina’s capital….

– From: http://travel.nytimes.com/2007/02/04/travel/04culture.html

Great post, by the way.

13 01 2011
Jason

No, now I have come to the point where faith boils down to I am a bastard, you are a bastard, Christ loves and saves bastards.

This is a very artistic view of Christ, I think. I always think of the monologue in Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” when the drunk man is basically saying that on the last day, the drunkards and most foul sinners will all come forth, and they will be forgiven too. It’s a very beautiful thought, and I think the secret hope that makes art so appealing. Art is a sort of theology for the damned, a way to experience hope and damnation at the same time. But, alas, I don’t know how real this artistic view of Christ is. Christ himself is less artistic, I think. His words are very plain and direct: “Depart from me, you evildoers, into everlasting fire.” These are words that are too much for us to bear, I think, and we use art to get around them.

Not sure what this post has to do with this thread, lol. But the The Singular Observer’s comment about faith and bastards brought me on this tangent.

13 01 2011
Robert

I don’t mean to put words in Arturo’s mouth, but I think you profoundly misunderstand what is meant here. The reference is to modern Christianity the way it has come to be formulated. And from an Hegelian sense, if one speaks of God being alive, one has already admitted God is dead. This dialectic is to admit to categories which inevitably lead to nihilism, to atheism. The good news is that God is beyond this dialectic, an understanding which modern Christianity, alas, seems to have forgotten.

13 01 2011
God is dead?

” To use his Hegelian reading of things, the antagonism is present in the very Idea itself. Perhaps the trajectory of modern Christianity is towards atheism (I have stated this before in some of my more Neoplatonic reflections), ”

Lots of people since the Enlightenment thought that Christianity would die out.
People in the 1st Century thought Christianity would die out.
The Rise of Islam caused many people to think that Christianity would die out.
Plenty of people during and after the Enlightenment and the from “Science” thought religion would die. A major magazine even had a cover story about God being dead (I think it was TIme and “Is God dead” or God is dead but I can’t remember)

Christianity is not moving towards atheism no matter what analysis you want to give.

13 01 2011
Robert

SIngular,

I have found theological apophaticism, following the tradition of St. Maximus, to be a substantial antidote. But one has to remind himself, time and again, participation is the key.

13 01 2011
Henry Karlson

I agree with you on Zizek; there is a lot I like of his commentary, but it is the commentary of a critique who, admittedly, often doesn’t get what it is he is criticizing (look to his discussions on love, for example, even though I think you would appreciate them more than I). But I think this becomes even more apparent when you see him discussing something outside of the West, such as Buddhism: here, he really is confused, though I think his confusion nonetheless highlights problems of how the West are looking to Buddhism. At least with Christianity, he has an outer-grasp of the history and the debates (I did think Millbank bested him, though Zizek was more entertaining in their book together).

13 01 2011
The Singular Observer

Good insight Robert (and Arturo). I still find myself occasionaly having to cast overboard some elements of my fundamentalist upbringing – and these events show me again how bloody hard it is to believe. Faith ain’t easy, brother. For intellectual with a fundamentalist upbringing, his fundamentalisms become the crutches of his existence.

No, now I have come to the point where faith boils down to I am a bastard, you are a bastard, Christ loves and saves bastards.

13 01 2011
Robert

No Leah, Zizek means this in a philosophical way: that fundamentalists of all stripes (and not necessarily religious) are not true believers in their professed faith or system: they have to resort to fundamentalist methods in order to convince themselves to overcome their unbelief.

13 01 2011
Leah

“As Zizek would point out, most fundamentalists say and do absurd things precisely because they don’t really believe, not because they do.”

Is Zizek referring specifically to Christian fundamentalists in Western countries? Because it seems to me that fundamentalists in other countries – the haredi population in Israel, the Taliban in the Pakistani tribal regions, Hindu nationalists in India – say crazy things all the time, and have the political and demographic power to back up their nuttiness with concrete actions.

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