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Žižek Has a Lot to Say About Christ, but Should the Church Listen?

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Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek has a lot to say about Jesus Christ, which might not appear terribly out of place in the present journal, especially during a month devoted to discussing the ecclesial imagination. It is his other qualifiers, however, that mark him an unlikely candidate. Žižek is perhaps one of the world’s most important leftist intellectuals, an ardent Marxist, resolute materialist, committed atheist, and, paradoxically, a “faithful Christian,” though Žižek himself will provide the terms for being the latter. My present intentions in writing about Žižek and his thinking about Jesus are pure, I hope, aiming only to pose the question whether or not Žižek deserves to blip the Catholic radar. Even the most casual of armchair theologians will be rightly wary enough of intellectual trends that announce themselves on the theological scene—“Finally, a new kind of Christianity!”—only to recede back into the ether, often leaving the less than faint impression that a good deal of time had been wasted and attention misdirected.

The popularity of Slavoj Žižek in both academic and pop cultural circles only raises the question of his lasting impact. Though my own perspective is that Žižek’s thought, particularly his religious thinking, will stand the test of time, we will only set about the business of making introductions here—the who, what, why, and so forth.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be granted from the outset that Slavoj Žižek is probably not for everyone, and I’d imagine this holds true with respect to both his writing as well as his personal presence. He is ruthlessly critical of the so-called New Atheists, the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexual ethics, and Western practitioners of Buddhism with equal and ample measure. He defends the political use of terror (in a certain way) and criticizes Hitler for not being violent enough (for his money, the pacifist Gandhi is much more violent than Hitler). He keeps a portrait of Joseph Stalin in the foyer of his Ljubljana apartment and his underwear in the drawers of his kitchen.

In addition, in nearly every media article on him—the same ones that often confer such bombastic titles upon him as “the most despicable philosopher in the West” or “the Elvis of cultural theory” and so on—much is made of his appearance, manner, and personality. In a 1998 article for Lingua Franca, Robert Boynton describes Žižek as “bearded, disheveled, and loud . . . like central casting’s pick for the role of Eastern European Intellectual.” Moreover, his many speaking engagements and media spots document a dizzying array of physical and verbal tics that punctuate his already manic delivery. Helen Brown, writing for the London Telegraph, describes the delivery of the sixty-something year old as “spluttering, lisping and pawing frantically at his face,” at one point “[f]lapping his elbows and lathered in sweat . . . like a man in the final throes of radiation sickness doing the birdy dance,” though in fairness he was at the time pantomiming being trapped in a human-sized prophylactic. Never mind that he was once married to the Argentinean supermodel Analia Hounie and that, more recently, Italian Vogue reported rumors of a romantic entanglement with Lady Gaga.

ŽIŽEK TELLS A JOKE

Žižek’s writing—a heady brew of the German Idealist philosophy of G.W.F. Hegel, the psychoanalytic theory of Jacques Lacan, and Soviet-vintage Marxist analysis, cut with a liberal dose of pop culture references, seems often to have a likewise bewildering effect, admitted by his detractors and admirers alike. Yet one of the most surprising aspects of Žižek’s writing is not the difficulty of his prose. Rather, it’s that Žižek recurs to relentless joke telling, from the relatively tame and self-deprecating to the more disturbing and scatological, the sort of jokes that my mother would say were “in poor taste.”

It is par for the course to find Žižek joking and using jokes in the midst of extended treatments of, say, the speculative dialectical Trinitarian theology of G.W.F. Hegel, or, the finer points of Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytic notion of symbolic castration or the tragedy of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. It is important not to misunderstand Žižek as making jokes out of such serious things; he certainly is not. It is not the seriousness of these things that he wishes to subvert or call into question, but rather it is our responses and attitudes toward them. To understand Žižek’s perspective and to begin to appreciate his potential contribution to genuine Christian thinking, we must turn to the notion of the joke itself.

One of my own favorite childhood jokes, and it’s one that I can now admit to laughing at long before I got it, I remember first hearing from my godfather Randy, who was coincidentally the first atheist that I ever met. It’s the one about the String who goes into a bar: A String walks into a local drinking establishment and bellies up to the bar, but before he could make his order, the bartender points and snarls, “You! Get outta here! We don’t serve your kind.” The String is naturally taken aback, but keeps his composure and leaves the bar, still parched. Soon after, the String has something of an epiphany. He quickly ties himself into a knot and tousles his ends, and heads back to the bar. He walks in, sits down, and says to the same bartender who had run him off earlier, “I’ll have a shot of whiskey, my good man.” The bartender nods, and begins to pour before stopping short, saying, “Hey, wait a minute—aren’t you that String that was in here earlier?” Feigning puzzlement, our protagonist replies, “I’m a Frayed Knot.”

What I like so much about that joke, the more I’ve thought about it over the years, is its lean economy. The punch line, it seems to me, is funny simply in virtue of being told, not because of anything particular to Strings or bartenders. For Sigmund Freud, as he writes in his Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious (1905), some jokes have tendencies which orient them to hidden meanings or purposes, often lascivious or hostile, whereas other jokes are more innocent, simply trading in the difference between the different modes of interpretation that are implied in the single telling of the joke. Žižek, to my knowledge, never tells the joke about the String, but I think he’d probably like it. Beyond its cleverness, the joke reveals something striking, once it is read in a psychoanalytic way. As Freud suggests, jokes are either tendentious or non-tendentious; that is, they either have their own agenda with respect to hidden meanings or purposes or they introduce a “comic difference” between the two levels of meaning at play in the joke.

A key insight of Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious is Freud’s correlation between jokes and dreams, arguing that the structure of the human psyche is reflected in and revealed by both. Dreams, according to Freud, have what he referred to as a navel, the point at which the meaning of a dream cannot be further unraveled, “the spot where it reaches down into the unknown.” Jacques Lacan, the controversial innovator of Freudian theory in France, and perhaps Žižek’s most formative influence, adapts this concept into the “navel of the joke.” In Book I of his famous Seminar on Freud’s writings and technique (1953- 4), Lacan writes, “In the dream, there is an extremely confused navel. Inversely, the navel of the joke is perfectly sharp—the Witz [the German word for joke or witticism]. And what expresses its most radical essence is non-sense.”

What is interesting to me about the joke about the String is that it seems to complicate Freud’s taxonomy altogether. At first blush, the joke seems to be a classic instance of the non-tendentious joke, without ulterior motive or hidden meaning, and is certainly not at anyone’s expense. That which is “perfectly sharp” in the joke is the degree to which it undermines Freud’s distinction between the tendentious and non-tendentious. Thus, what Freud doesn’t seem to take into account is that the very possibility of the cleavage between modes of interpretation present in its telling, which characterizes the more innocent (that is, non-tendentious) joke, might have its own hidden malicious tendency. When the bartender asks if the Frayed Knot is that same String, the answer oscillates between the two ways of reading. In one sense, of course the Frayed Knot is that same String from before, just a bit more tangled and tousled. In a deeper sense, perhaps, in his act of transformation into A Frayed Knot, the String’s self-identity becomes over-invested with meaning, creating a sort of contradictory surplus of identity, such that in any articulation of self-identification, the String can’t help but deceive. It is by a sort of homonym that whatever answer the bartender is provided, the String can neither fully tell the truth nor adequately articulate his identity.

What is revealed, then, as the hidden tendency of the merely comical joke is its potential to reveal the gap, the break in continuity between self-identity on the one hand and the articulation of identity on the other, which Žižek exploits in his own paradoxical self-description as a “Christian atheist.” In fact, for Žižek, to say that you are a Christian is to say (or should say) that you are an atheist. Likewise, the assertion of atheism should be seen as fundamentally correlated to the experience of God-forsakenness of the crucified Christ. The difference, Žižek continues, is merely modal: for the Christian, the God-forsakenness of Christ is experienced as the source of faith, and for the atheist, it is its termination. Both, however, are shares in the experience and power of the Cross, but the logic here is not one of sense or meaning, rather of the non-sense of the Witz, the perfectly sharp navel of the joke.

Of course, this is a lot to make out of a simple joke, but no one knows this more than Žižek himself. For Žižek, jokes are serious business. Two things are directly in play: first, jokes are particularly suited to express difficult truths, and, second, every truth is difficult by nature. That a joke expresses its truth in the guise of nonsense means that our own reaction formations that often impede the reception of truth might be short-circuited. On this point, Žižek often provides the example of racist jokes. If someone were to make the flat indictment of our own implicit racism, surely most of us would make the requisite exclamations of denial, gestures of righteous indignation, and so forth. What the joke can do, Žižek argues, is bring us face-to-face with our hidden pathologies by confronting both our reflexive impulse to laugh at the joke’s object, as well as whatever self-serving incentives might motivate our emphatic denials of racism (or sexism or the like).

Žižek is not commending racist jokes on their therapeutic value by any means, nor is he downplaying their ugliness and harmfulness; rather, the point is that jokes can plumb deeper depths than other forms of speech, which accords them a diagnostic significance in our analyses of culture, politics, religion, as well as our own interior lives. That we might be surprised at what we find ourselves laughing or wanting to laugh at both highlights the usefulness of jokes, as well as helps to identify the unconscious region of the human psyche that wields tremendous influence over our thoughts and actions, however much from the shadows.

THE RELIGIOUS JOKE OF THE SUFFERING GOD

For Žižek, the religious joke par excellence is, if you will, the one about the Suffering God. It is important to understand that, for Žižek, neither Christianity nor its claims about Jesus are jokes, but rather Christianity tells a joke in and by the revelation of God in Christ. On this point, though scandalous, his language isn’t entirely unlike that which we find in the Church Fathers, who refer to the Incarnation and Cross as folly and scandal.

Both Žižek and Tertullian, for instance, are identifying the way in which the advent of Jesus Christ challenges both the status quo as well as the ideological formations that we have accumulated psychically, culturally, religiously, and so forth. Thus, both Žižek and the patristic writers are in the business of making an apologia not only for Christianity as discrete systems of belief, knowledge, and morals, but also for the universal significance of the historically specific person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Central to Žižek’s atheistic Christology is the notion of divine abandonment. This idea, inherited mainly from Hegel, states that in the Incarnation, God the Father fully and without remainder becomes manifest in the Son incarnate in Jesus Christ, and upon Christ’s death on the Cross, God the Father, that is, God as such, dies. For Žižek, the advent of the Holy Spirit, then, is nothing more than the gathered community of faithful believers, which is no mere consolation, but the material reality of the Godhead itself.

Thus, divine abandonment is first and foremost the experience of Christ on the Cross, whose cry of forsakenness reveals Christianity’s fundamental truth, namely that God has given himself to death. Not only has God consented to his own crucifixion, but God has also given the gift of his own being so completely in the Incarnation, that in the divine exchange of Son to Spirit, nothing beyond the world and those gathered in it remains. Hegel’s theological genius, Žižek argues, lies in his understanding of the nature of God’s gift and gratuity:

God doesn’t give what he has, he gives what he is, his very being. That is to say: it is wrong to imagine the divine dispensation as the activity of a wealthy subject, so abundantly rich that he can afford to cede to others a part of his possessions. From a proper theological perspective, God is the poorest of them all: he “has” only his being to give away. His whole wealth is already out there, in creation.

For Žižek, this is the cost of true divine gratuity. What else can God give but himself, in full, keeping none of himself for himself; anything less than this total kenotic gift would be necessarily less than divine. Thus, God’s divinity and sovereign goodness are indexed by God’s death in Jesus on the Cross.

In a secondary sense, divine abandonment is itself a mode of that divine gift. The gathered community of the Holy Spirit is the divinely instituted community of the divinely abandoned and that, more than any other quality, is what qualifies membership in it. More than sacramental participation or even personal belief in the saving power of Jesus Christ, in Žižek’s view, the community of the Spirit is made up of those forsaken by God, who possess only their divine abandonment as what is common to their collectivity. Žižek goes on to stress that the gathering of this forlorn community is the only meaningful way to talk about a physical resurrection of Jesus. Interestingly, Žižek refigures Hegel’s understanding of the Trinity within a psychoanalytic frame to emphasize the universal significance of the gathered community. He writes,

When, in Christianity, the Son dies on the Cross, this means (as Hegel was fully aware) not only that the Father also dies, but that the patriarchal genealogical order as such dies—since the Holy Spirit does not fit into the family series, it introduces a post-paternal/familial community.

This means not only, Žižek continues, that the transcendence of divine being becomes wholly immanent in the movement of Father to Son to Spirit, but also that the paternal logic of communal identity that designates Israel as God’s chosen people is terminated. Moreover, as God is relieved of his paternity, so also are we freed of the psychological ill effects of what Freud called the Divine Father, the mythologized projection who insists on absolute obedience to the law (both moral and Mosaic) that he himself arbitrarily instituted.

Generations earlier, Freud explained that the Jesus myth is simply a recycling of more primitive hero mythologies in which the Hero/Son self-sacrifices to achieve a reconciliation with the Divine Father on the behalf of others. Though Žižek argues against Freud for both the historicity and uniqueness of the Christ event, he does follow Freud in seeing a psychological dimension to Christian freedom. Here Žižek focuses on the necessity of Christ’s material existence, both His living body as well as His corpse. Žižek argues that it is the historicity of Jesus’s real human body—a body that eats, sleeps, suffers, and dies that forestalls the reduction of the Christian story into mere myth or symbolic “game” in which divine symbols are traded and manipulated. Moreover, Žižek argues that it is Christ’s material body that dies and is resurrected into the community, which is the material reality of the Godhead itself and the utter moment of God’s self-realization, divested and sanitized of any and all transcendence.

Thus, we can begin to understand the radical nature of the believing community, on Žižek’s account, which has become a universal human community insofar as all humanity has been abandoned by God. Thus, traditional interpretations of Christ’s promise to send a comforter to the faithful miss the point entirely. For it is the post-resurrection community that exists as Comforter, as Paraclete. Additionally, the experience of God-forsakenness has been universalized as well. For Žižek, both the Christian and the atheist share the same fundamental experience, that of Christ on the Cross, abandoned by God. Žižek argues forcefully that in light of this, the relationship between Christianity and atheism has to be reconceived, not as antagonistic to one other, but as kindred and complementary, along with the requisite notions of faith, belief, and so forth. Atheism, for Žižek, is the meaning of Christianity on the one hand, and Christianity is atheism’s most profound expression, on the other.

Thus, we can begin to see how Žižek’s Christology resembles the logic of the joke. The symbol of the crucified Christ (who is no mere symbol, even for Žižek) does the work of decentering both belief and non-belief in God that provide the terms for its shocking meaning. Just as a joke requires a space of ambiguity between levels of interpretation for its humorous effect, so also does the meaning of Jesus. In Christianity, the affirmation of God as Transcendent Father by Christians and the denial of God’s existence by atheists cease to be contradictory claims.

The cleavage between these two conceptions of God does not reveal a binary of belief or opinion, but rather reveals the moment of a certain kind of fall in which the one atheistic God—and for Žižek, it is God who is the arch-atheist—is abstracted into two antagonistic concepts. On this count, Žižek seems to resemble an inversion of Christian negative theology, which, even in such classical sources as Denys the Areopagite, resists the metaphysical language of existence for God as well. Thus, to emphasize a distinction predicated on the existence or non-existence of God would be to miss the point entirely. For Denys, God is beyond existence in the order of transcendence, whereas Žižek conceives God as beyond existence in the order of material immanence, and further, that immanence is something accomplished and realized in the life of God by the death and resurrection of Jesus.

A CATHOLIC TAKE ON ŽIŽEK

Approaching Žižek as something of a qualified Christological theologian, as we have here, is nothing like an endorsement. To most Catholic readers, Žižek’s theology, especially his Trinitarian Christology, is nothing, if not alarming. And for good reason. In addition to the heterodox internal theological content of his Christology, Žižek’s theology would have profound existential effects, particularly with respect to the status of the Church and other aspects of tradition Christian life. As we recall, Žižek’s understanding of the Holy Spirit is utterly materialistic, such that the post-resurrection community is itself the Holy Spirit, the material reality of the Godhead, the full and final self-realization of God as such. Žižek will go on to say, following Hegel, that while there are legitimate internal principles of self-organization that develop entirely within and according to the material constitution of the community, external organizing principles would attempt to de-materialize that identity and purpose by orienting it to the will of some transcendent “big Other.” Thus, the identity of the post-resurrection community, for Žižek, must be atheistic, proceeding self-consciously in the absence of a big Other. Moreover, both Žižek’s atheism and anti-ecclesialism are not only Christologically-specified but also Christologically-justified; that is, Žižek is suggesting that his argument is not merely Christian in character, but rather entailed by the Christian Gospel itself.

The question of Žižek’s importance for Catholic theology and intellectual culture is a complex one. It would seem that much of Žižek’s explicit theology is largely, on the face of it, unsuitable for Catholic use, especially on the grounds of its presentation of Trinity, Christ, and Church. Of course, its unsuitability says nothing of its seductiveness: his specious revelation of a more culturally respectable and socially active Christianity, free of dogma and piety—free, in fact, of God as such—represents, in my view, a complex and potent challenge on the horizon for Catholic thought and culture. Such an intuition, not singular to me, evidently, has been felt by the Catholic bishops of Žižek’s own Slovenia, who have reportedly encouraged pastors and lay leaders to read Žižek in order to become more effective preachers and witnesses to an important emerging demographic, who may find Žižek’s theological claims convincing.

Yet, Žižek does offer the Christianity an impetus to reconceive the received antagonism of Christianity and atheism that we see hopelessly stalemated in debates like those between Christian apologists and the New Atheists. Furthermore, Žižek provides common ground for dialogue in the notion of God-forsakenness, even if we reject Žižek’s “Christian” account of it. On this point, Žižek finds easy company in Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who in his landmark Introduction to Christianity (1968), identifies the experience of doubt as both a shared experience of believers and atheists, as well as a potential means of establishing mutual respect between them.

Moreover, both Žižek and Benedict wish desperately to resist the marginalization of the Christian legacy in an increasingly secularized Europe. In his book The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (2000), Žižek makes the case for the immense emancipatory potential of Christianity, a potency which is uniquely symbolized by and concretized in the person of Jesus Christ, revealed in his Incarnation and suffering death on the Cross, and as such warrants a certain cultural prestige. For Žižek and Benedict, the power of the Gospel is too precious a largesse to be excluded from the discourse of European culture, and too potent a dose to be given over to the fundamentalists, believing and nonbelieving alike, who will only remake it in their own image. Ultimately, there’s a deep irony to Žižek. For whatever hope he places in a gathered community, Žižek himself occupies a strangely solitary space, one in which there is neither belief nor its rigid refusal, neither God nor God’s absolute absence. For Žižek, there can be no home for him within a Church, however much he might enjoy the shade its considerable edifice casts.

Editorial Note: This month, Church Life Journal will be considering the ecclesial nature of the Catholic Imagination. Too often, the “Catholic” imagination is treated as a series of intellectual principles. But the Catholic imagination must also be an ecclesial one, grounded in a Church that is one, holy, apostolic, and Catholic. We’ll hear this month from accounts of the Church throughout the world. In addition, we’ll also read a series of articles (click for a list of articles) about the ecumenical quality to the Church Catholic. 

SEE ALSO:

The Conformism of Catholic Ideology

Featured Image: Slavoj Žižek with Fr. Maciej Zieba, OP, 1989, Warsaw, Author: Artur Rosman; All rights reserved, Artur Rosman ©2009.  

 

Jay Martin

Jay Martin is a PhD candidate in systematic theology at the University of Notre Dame. His research concentrates upon theological themes in the work of Jacques Lacan, Slavoj Žižek, and Alain Badiou.