The Theology of Slavoj Zizek, a Critique – Part 1

I’m a huge fan of Slavoj Zizek, both as a philosopher and as an ideological critic. I think his pointing out of assumptions that modern society holds without realizing they hold them is important for our age, an age where it’s common to believe that we are purely rational, we have transcended religion, and we are more enlightened and free thinking than ever, as Zizek often points out, things are more complicated. When it comes to theology, I think Zizek’s insights are interesting, I’ve written on them before, however they are problematic. Zizek, in his theology, tries to build up a Materialist Theology, not along the lines of the ultra-liberals like John Shelby Spong, but rather along Lacanian lines mixed with his brand of Hegelianism. In order to understand his theology we have to understand how he defines God. In his book “the Monstrocity of Christ” he gives the definition of what God means to him in his materialist theology (Location 3966 on the Kindle):

How, then, is this reference to God to be taken; how do we use this term? Literally – so that there “effectively is” God, divine history, inclusive of God’s death, or “merely metaphorically,” so that God is ultimately a “mythical name” for a meta-psychological process? Both versions are to be rejected: it is, of course, not “literally” (we are materialists, there is no God), but it is also not “metaphorically” (“God” is not just a metaphor, a mystifying expression, of human passions, desires, ideals, etc.). What such a “metaphorical” reading misses is the dimension of the Inhuman as internal (“ex-timate”) to being-human: “God” (the divine) is a name for that which in man is not human, for the inhuman core that sustains being-human.

This is the starting point. For Zizek, once you strip away the various “masks” that a person wears, deep down underneath there is a void. This void, is what it is about a person that we actually fall in love with when we fall in love. It is the void which, in a sense, makes us human. It is the inhuman core which sustains being human. It seems to me that Zizek speaks of God as being part of that void, if not that void itself.

Now that we have his description of “God” let’s move on to his theology. For Zizek Christology is extremely important, it is absolutely fundamental that Christ is both fully man and fully God. For Zizek Christ is no more than a literal man, but that man is God, who himself is no more than a man. I actually find this view extremely coherent, especially when we compare its simplicity and coherence with the complex and incoherent different theories of the hypostatic union that are available in orthodoxy. With that in mind, let’s look at a quick summary of his theology, found on page 55 in the book “God in Pain” in which he responds to Jean-Luc Marion, and in doing so lays out his theology:

Is what in the most emphatic sense appears on the cross not precisely Christ himself as giver, and not God the Father who disappears in the background of the fascinating figure of the suffering Christ? Is his act of sacrifice not the ultimate gift? In other words, is it not much more appropriate to read Christ’s death as a sacrifice for the real: Christ really and fully dies on the cross, so that we humans get the gift of the Holy Spirit (the community of believers)? Furthermore, if we take this gift in all its radicality, does it not compel us to read its meaning as full acceptance of the fact that God is dead, that there is no big Other? The Holy Spirit is not the big other of the symbolic community, but a collective which ne s’autorise que de lui-meme, in the radical absence of any support from the big Other.

So for Zizek God is truly the one who sacrifices himself, in Christ, and he really dies. We will get to the resurrection later, but for now it’s important to realize that the death of Christ is the death of the “Big Other.” The “Big Other” is, for Zizek, the guarantee that we look to for meaning, in other words what we can call “God.” The crux of Zizek’s theology is that God is dead. I suppose one could summarize it thus: God is the “Big Other” to which we cling to maintain meaning, God turns out to be Jesus, a man, in space and time, who is killed, the “Big Other” is dead in the body of Christ. But in reality, he was never there all along, and the death of Christ forces that reality on us, and forces us to deal with the aftermath and implications of that.

Now Zizek doesn’t usually defend his materialism in depth in his theological writings (at least that I’ve read), but our starting point will make a huge difference. Zizek and I start from very different places, I am an unabashed theist, I believe in a personal God, who is both transcendent and, in a way, immanent, who created all things, who determines right and wrong and who really does act in the world. In other words I believe in the ultimate “Big Other” and affirm that he is real. I am also a Unitarian, I believe that Jesus was not Yahweh and he is a mediator between mankind and God. In a sense Zizek’s theology must end with “there is no Big Other” since he starts as an Atheist. When one looks at his theology, we have to keep that in mind.

To a degree I think Zizek is on to something when it comes to certain theories of the atonement and Christology. If it is the case that only God can redeem mankind by dying, then he must actually die. The façade of a “human nature” mask dying while nothing actually happens to the divine nature is really nothing more than a cheap trick. It’s a Charade theology.

Another key feature of Zizek’s theology is his take on the resurrection, namely the resurrection of Christ not as Christ but as the Holy Spirit, in “God in Pain” page 172 he says:

What is “sublated” in the move from the Son to the Holy Spirit is thus God himself: after the crucifixion, the death of the incarnated God, the universal God returns as the Spirit of the community of believers, i.e., He is the one who passes from being a transcendent substantial Reality to a virtual/ideal entity which exists only as the “presupposition” of acting individuals.

And one page earlier he clarifies somewhat:

The finite existence of mortal humans is the only site of the Spirit, the site where the Spirit achieves its actuality. What this means is that, in spite of all its grounding power, Spirit is a virtual entity in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition: it exists only insofar as subjects act as if it exists.

Here is the truly materialist theology. The Holy Spirit is the community of believers, period. It’s not that within the community there raises something beyond the community, a kind of transcendent “whole” which emerges, nor is it that the spirit is some spiritual force holding people together. It is literally nothing more than believers in communion, and it only exists as long as people act as if it exists. As long as people are in communion it exists in them and as them.

The problem here without the real “big Other” of God you don’t get community, you don’t get true communion, you get idolatry. Any real community is only possible when based on the love for God and love of God. Christ is the means of reconciliation to God and thus to each other. If God dies, truly dies, there can be no resurrection, there can be no Holy Spirit, the void is not replaced by communion, it rather creates an idol (if not absolute egotistic nihilism). Before I make my case for that (admittedly bold) statement, let’s take a look at Zizek’s explanation of how Christ’s death can lead to the resurrection as a collective of believers. In “the Monstrocity of Christ” Zizek quotes an old revolutionary labour song about a Union organizer (of the Industrial Workers of the World) named “Joe Hill” who was killed by the state, the just of the song is that even though Joe Hill was killed he lives on in those who continue his work of organizing workers, Zizek says in Location 4768 (on the Kindle version):

Joe Hill is not alive “out there,” as a separate ghost, he is alive here, in the very minds of workers remembering him and continuing his fight – he is alive in the very gaze which (mistakenly) looks for him out there. The same mistake of “reifying” the object of search is committed by Christ’s disciples; Christ corrects this mistake with his famous words: “When here will be love between the two of you, I will be there.”

And later on in Location 4804:

Is this not Christ’s message of resurrection – what “God is love” means is: “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (John 4:12, NIV). Or “no one has ever seen Joe Hill since his death; but if workers organize themselves in their struggle, he lives in them….”

The Industrial Workers of the World more or less collapsed, it still exists but it’s small, not at all the force it once was. I’m not knocking them, there are plenty of historical reasons they fell, there was intense and brutal attacks on them from the United States government for example. Nevertheless, why is it that they fell as a movement, yet the Christians who in their early ears were just as persecuted, in fact more so, did not? I think the answer is that Christianity was based on the Love for and of God.

Any person who looked up to Joe Hill after his death, and who desired to continue his work and keep his dream alive, did so for various very contingent reasons. They believed they could make a difference, they believed in the movement, they thought it would lead to a more just society. Chances are they believed this before Joe Hill’s death, but after they surely used Joe Hill as a rallying point from which the struggle could continue, so in a sense one could argue that he was “resurrected” as the spirit of the struggle, in a very loose sense.

The only thing that this kind of sacrifice can do is motivate people who are already motivated, and do so at the risk that some may no longer be motivated. The community of believers must believe prior to the sacrifice. Once the sacrifice is done, the “resurrection” as the spirit of the community of believers only holds if the followers still have reason to continue the struggle. I think Zizek takes this for granted sometimes. He assumes after God dies his followers would say “God is dead, all we have is each other,” rather than something more like “God is dead, all I have is myself” or “God is dead, I must take what I can before others take what there is” or “God is dead, I must find a new God.” Or in fact that people would say “God is dead, all we have is each other, and this represents each other on which we can stand,” or “God is dead, let us make an idol.”

In the following post, I will continue my argument against Zizek’s theology, and explain why there can be no true community of believers, no “Holy Spirit” if God truly dies.

Read Part 2 here.

The Theology of Slavoj Zizek, a Critique – Part 1

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