Slavoj Zizek and John Milbank on the death of God

Slajoz Zizek, the famous Slovenian Hegelian/Lacanian/Marxian philosopher, champion of the left, and materialist theologian, is someone who I both love and hate, love for his insights into how ideology permeates so much in modern society, for his breaking down of so many of the idols of Capitalism and Liberalism, and hate for his inability to write in a way that doesn’t give me an aneurism trying to understand what his point is. It’s the same with John Milbank, I love his attack on the false distinction between sacred and secular, but I just wish he wrote a little bit more user friendly.

A few years ago, they wrote a book together “The Monstrosity of Christ, Paradox of Dialectic?” where they go back and forth over various theological problems, from theodicy, to the incarnation, to atonement theology, to kenosis, to political theology and so on and so forth.

Here is an excerpt from the book (I’m reading from a kindle so I’m sorry I don’t have the page numbers), that I found extremely interesting, it starts with a quote from Milbank (responding to Zizek’s idea that God redeems himself).

Milbank: Then only Humanity is redeemed; the redemption has no effect whatsoever upon God as God, who is and only is an absolutely immutable and ineffable God. Thereby the passion and death of God is only the suffering and death of the humanity of Christ, for while the Son of God underwent a real death. Christ died as a man and not as God…. Thus Christian orthodoxy knows a Redeemer who suffers and dies only in his humanity or human nature. The divine nature of Christ is wholly unaffected by his death, and redemption can only be the redemption of a fallen humanity.

Then Zizek responds.

Zizek: The death of Christ is thus only the death of his carnal body – it has no effect upon God as God, who is absolutely transcendent, “absolutely immutable and impassive, absolutely unaffected by the suffering and death of Christ.” The whole point of Gnosticism is to oppose this transcendence: For Gnosticism, the transcendent God-Master is the evil (or, at best, clumsy) Creator, i.e., Satan himself. I should mention here the central exegetic insight of Milton, the greatest of all Protestants: his insistence on the “absence of any real scriptural foundation for the dogma of eternal generation of the Son of God, demonstrating on the contrary that such a generation could only be a temporal generation.” Here we are at the furthest possible point from Orthodoxy: the son is not part of son eternal Trinity which is God’s Eternal mystery; on the contrary, the Father and the Son differ in essence, since the infinite essence of God cannot become incarnate. Protestantism thus fully asserts the death of Christ: when Christ died on the Cross, he died there totally, “his divine nature succumbed to death as well as his human nature”; it is only such a full death that is the true event, the sole source of Redemption. However, the price paid for this assertion is that the God-Father himself withdraws into absolute transcendence, turning into a superego figure of a capricious Master predestining our destinies, much more severe than the Catholic God of law and just punishment.

I’m only going to be dealing with a very specific issue raised here, Zizek and Milbank are engaging all sorts of issues in and around what I quoted, which I’m going to ignore for the purposes of this post.

The issue I’m pointing to is the question of what became incarnate and what died? The traditional view is that God the Son became incarnate as the Christ, who is the God-man. However the question is, when Jesus dies, what is it that dies? Is it the God-man that dies? Or is it just the man part of the God-man, or the “human nature” of the God-man, Milbank says it’s just the “human nature.”

Let’s say we accept John Milbank’s position, that God as God is immutable, in which case only the human nature of Christ suffers and dies. What we have, then, is a human being, a “mere man” (as many Trinitarians like to call the Christ of Unitarians) dying for all of mankind, not God. If that is the case we have a problem, in an almost Gnostic sense, Christ’s flesh and human nature dies, but the real Christ, the divine Christ, lives, the hypostatic union is broken in the sense that one nature lives, and is unaffected, one suffers and dies.

I can see at least one problem with that position. “Natures” don’t suffer and die, people do. If I get beating up and stabbed to death, my soul, all of me, is beaten up and stabbed to death, even if one believes in an immortal soul, which survives death, the soul is still the recipient of the experience along with the body, when I die, all of me dies, if my soul does not stop existing but is brought up to heaven (or down to hell, who knows) it still undergoes a kind of death, it still experiences it, since I consciously as a person experience it.

Earlier in the book Zizek writes this:

Zizek: What, then, happens with the basic Christian theme of the death of God within this perspective? What is allowed to “die” in a “deconstruction” of Christianity? As expected, just the temporary-contingent historic-symbolic specification/determination of God:

(Now Zizek quotes Caputo) So my theology of the event is prepared to concede, if not exactly the death of God, at least the mortality or historical contingency of the name of God, the separability in principle of the event from the name, like a spirit leaving a lifeless body behind.

(Back to Zizek) But does this not entirely miss the truly new traumatic dimension of the Christian death of God: What dies on the cross is indeed God himself, not just his “finite container,” a historically contingent name or form of God? If we claim the second, we reduce Christianity back to the pagan-Gnostic topic of a nameless divine Real which takes different shapes in different times. Caputo relies here on the opposition between God as ens spremum et dues omnipotens, the highest Entity, the creator and ruler of the world, the highest power, etc., and God as a totally desubstantialized promise, the source of an unconditional claim on us, a spectral life that “stirs within the name of God,” but is already betrayed by each positive determination.

Zizek brings out an interesting point, albeit from a perspective of trying to read atheism into Christianity, which is that if it is correct that all that dies is some finite container, then God entering his own creation is much more of a pagan idea of separating individual “gods” from the divine realm, and having those gods do the dirty work of incarnation and all that it entails, while the ultimate divine realm is untouched. If it is true that it’s not “really” God which suffers and dies and so on, but just his “human nature” or his “finite container” then frankly there is nothing really that unique about incarnation, there really is no divine Kenosis.

But, if you accept the full idea of incarnation and Kenosis, as Zizek wants us to do, then we have to struggle with his suggestion that God has died, God has died being fully God. Then of course there’s the question of what it means to die for a Christian standpoint, does dying mean one ceases to exist until or unless one is resurrected, does dying mean that one’s body just decomposes while the immaterial self or soul continues to exist? Whatever it means, if you fully accept the fullest concept of incarnation and kenosis, and a theory of atonement that says that God died for the sins of man, you must also accept that the meaning of death also applies to God.

Very often what Trinitarian Christians tend to do is either minimize the reality of the incarnation, and kenosis, reducing it to a transcendent God appearing in a finite human body, but not fully as a finite human body (I’m way over simplifying it of course), or they fully accept the full incarnation and kenosis and but then going to further in considering what it would mean for God to suffer and die.

I don’t know what it would mean myself. Zizek has his own ideas; he’s trying to construct a materialist Christianity, an atheistic theology, where the God that never was appears as Christ and dies, killing the idea of a transcendent big other which guarantees meaning and being reborn as the Holy Spirit which is the community of believers. Of course Zizek is coming at his as an Atheist, but that doesn’t mean that the issue’s he raises aren’t legitimate areas of concern, and interesting trains of thought. Of course there are and have been theologians struggling with issues like these for centuries, but sometimes looking at the issue through completely new eyes, such as the eyes of an Atheist Marxian/Hegelian/Lacanian philosopher who also takes theology seriously, can be helpful in fully grasping the theological issues that anyone who is interested in Christian theology and accepts trinitarianism has to deal with.

Slavoj Zizek and John Milbank on the death of God

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