Archives for posts with tag: Christianity

I had originally intended this as a comment on JJ’s recent critique of Zizek’s theology (which is really a theological critique of ideology, via Marx, Hegel, et al. — the usual players). However, it’s thorough enough that I think it’s more suited for posting. Maybe we can start a ‘conversation’ of sorts this way.

You’re right that there seems something false, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing and even ‘obscurantist,’ ironically, in Zizek’s theological (and other) work. He does make glaring omissions, and he always uses the critique of capitalism as the ultimate excuse to take potshots. It’s a painfully obvious crutch. If he weren’t so good at theory in general, it’d be an embarrassment.

It’s true, as you say, that many on the far-Right use the notion of the supreme, ‘sacred’ right to one’s own (irrefutable) beliefs/opinions in order to avoid criticism. However, they also use this in defense of what they truly believe to be real facts (think of Creationism). The obsession with reading the Bible as fact, regardless of the evidence, does not mean that fundamentalist Christians cling to belief despite facts, despite the inaccuracy of the Bible. They’re still obsessed with facts and not belief. It’s just that they develop their own facts against any reasonable position, and they claim that the Bible is the ultimate source of facts. They’re still very anti-Kierkegaardian. There’s only one way to God, and it’s through their own, bizarre facts.

I think the same could be said of the misogynist, homophobic, etc., strains in fundamentalist Christianity. These beliefs are based on what they assert to be facts. It’s as if anything they don’t like, they can say they don’t like it because they Bible tells them they shouldn’t (the ultimate proof of this false reliance on the Bible as an authority is that, ironically, they add their own ¨facts¨ to the Bible when it doesn’t say something they want it to say about a form of social life that’s alienating to them).

In a way, it’s very risky what Zizek is doing. He’s bypassing the critique of the specific problems with the fundamentalist beliefs in order to critique the basic form they take, their ideological ‘matrix.’ This leaves open the possibility that those specific problems will continue. In other words, the ultimate way to bring down the fundamentalists wouldn’t be to convince them of the ridiculousness of their theories (since obviously that’s failed time and again). It would be, rather, to meet them head-on, on their own terms, take what they believe, and criticize how they themselves do not even follow their own legacy, how they themselves, if they wanted to be good Christians, wouldn’t cling to their ¨facts¨ (see how that’s more appealing to them, to hear a critic who’s ostensibly like them? — even though, yes, Zizek is an atheist). By accepting their terms, he could begin to start a successful dialogue with them (if one can speak this generously about such a confrontational personality). In a way, I think this is what reviewers mean when they say Zizek is ¨the most dangerous philosopher in the West¨ — he’s doing great work, but his ideas are so radical, it’s risky and dangerous for even the Left to follow them.

Of course, then the question becomes, well, is he actually speaking to the Right at all? That is up for debate. I think I’d say he’s actually not at all speaking to them… so, perhaps I’ve just contradicted myself… hmm, maybe Hegel has something to say about that?

But to continue anyway, as far as Zizek’s real audience, here’s my argument for why he’s actually speaking to the Left. The type of rhetoric that goes on in far-Right and fundamentalist Christian discourse is so disturbing, it almost seems hopeless to continue to critique it. It’s just astounding. People won’t listen to reason. And when there’s a new critique, whether an article or a documentary, etc., the author’s always preaching to the choir… no one who needs convincing is actually going to be convinced. So in some ways, frankly, I think that Zizek is right to avoid making criticisms that seem very important to us. He’s said somewhere that the way to triumph is to symbolically ¨castrate¨ the far-Right so that, all of a sudden, ¨their voices will get a little bit higher,¨ meaning that no one will listen to them. It’s like giving someone the cold shoulder. Sometimes that’s more effective, I think, than directly confronting them. So I think  Zizek’s ultimate concern is to help the Left formulate its own project, to convert more and more people already on the Center or the Center-Left to the radical Left. Then, maybe, we’ll be a majority, and the conservatives simply won’t have an effective platform?

I’ve always had suspicions about Zizek’s ‘theories.’ I keep thinking that there’s gotta be a reason for it — that there’s wisdom behind all the weirdness. But my doubts keep lingering. I usually defer to his word because I haven’t done nearly as much study as he has. And sure, he’s just as fallible as anyone else. But I think you’re right on some points. He does seem to misread, or misleadingly read, several philosophers. I haven’t read as much Kierkegaard as you have. And I might dive back into it.

Theodor Adorno famously said that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” Later, in an essay titled “Commitment,” he responds to critics:

I have no wish to soften the saying that to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric; it expresses in negative form the impulse which inspires committed literature. The question asked by a character in Sartre’s play Morts Sans Supulture, ‘Is there any meaning in life when men exist who beat people until the bones break in their bodies?’, is also the question whether any art now has a right to exist; whether intellectual regression is not inherant in the concept of committed literature because of the regression of society. But Enzensberger’s retort also remains true, that literature must resist this verdict, in other words, be such that its mere existence after Auschwitz is not a surrender to cynicism. Its own situation is one of paradox, not merely the one of how to react to it…

…by turning suffering into images, harsh and uncompromising though they are, it wounds the shame we feel in the presence of the victims. For these victims are used to create something, works of art, that are thrown to the consumption of a world which destroyed them. The so-called artistic representation of the sheer physical pain of people beaten to the ground by rifle-butts contains, however remotely, the power to elicit enjoyment out of it. The moral of this art, not to forget for a single instant, slithers into the abyss of its opposite. The aesthetic principle of stylization, and even the solemn prayer of the chorus, make an unthinkable fate appear to have had some meaning; it is transfigured, something of its horror removed. This alone does an injustice to the victims; yet no art which tried to evade them could confront the claims of justice.

So, to make a simple comparison, I would say that to believe in God after Auschwitz is barbaric.

God has often been understood as a supernatural force that orchestrates all events unfolding in the universe. It is by his hand that things follow an understandable, if unpredictable, pattern. Thus, things have meaning. This was the same conception introduced by the first religious peoples, those for whom every major environmental feature presented itself as a deity, each one part of a pantheon of gods. But many contemporary popularizations of this old way of existing in a world of gods are surely mistaken. People did not literally “see” gods all around them. The gods were metaphors used to weave a coherent narrative of the world. Each god was the archetype of a certain set of attitudes or behaviors. Each had its own peculiar agency. One could describe an event to others by telling a story involving gods. But there weren’t gods everywhere. There was “sense” everywhere.

These narratives short-circuited a possible encounter with the senselessness of the Real, with a world of indeterminable scope. By delimiting the possible scope of the world, narratives made the world manageable; since so much of it could thereafter be taken for granted, weaved into a coherent whole, a solid deep structure, one could all the more easily react to day-to-day surface-level changes in the world. Otherwise one would be left without anything to focus on, no focal point around which to structure a general motivation for, or mode of, survival.

Narratives set in place a closed loop of causal explanations, a reservoir, an easy shortcut for explaining all manner of phenomena. But after Auschwitz, such narrativized understandings of the world are barbaric, and stupid. They do an injustice to the power of nature, its inexplicable, terrifying aspects, into which science can only begin to probe. The notions of God in circulation today unfortunately often follow the scheme laid out above. God has a “plan” (for me, my family, my nation, our planet, etc.). Nothing has changed, except that the multiple centers of agency in the polytheistic worldview are now condensed into a singular point containing every possible causal explanation; the monotheistic notion of God condenses into one agency the omniscience and omnipotence at work in any polytheistic scheme before or since.

Gods delimit the space of narrativized reality; they still decide not only what happens within that space (what action or happening is possible or actual), but also what is necessarily outside it (what is impossible or unreal — Lacan’s ‘Real’). Even when gods had foibles, as in Ancient Greece, they played a crucial role in a totalizing narrative, a source of absolute knowledge and power. In fact these foibles make things easier to understand, since they help us relate to the masters of the universe. And that way they’re more likable authority-figures. It’s hard to avoid making the comparison to politics today, in which figures like Berlusconi achieve electoral victories by entertaining the people; information, however powerful, is plain when compared to the drama of hapless and corrupt leaders. In the same way, it took a long time for the stern, sober Christian god to catch on in an ancient Roman world in which the people could worship all manner of interesting characters.

So the question is, what kind of God can there be after Auschwitz? What is a committed notion of God, a committed religion? Maybe we can look to Zizek for guidance here. Is God the divine grace of the Event, the violence of Terror and Love? The force beyond the confines of the vicious cycle of the law and its transgression? If any conception of God can respect the horror of life, then surely it is this one.

To add to my analysis of the final installment of the Harry Potter (movie) saga, I’d like to turn to the subject of Harry as Christ. Let us examine the concept of the support of the believers, the symbolic community, more closely. Of course, first we must take a detour through (who else?) Žižek. Please forgive the perhaps excessive length of the following quote!

In Metastases of Enjoyment, pages 39-42, he outlines Hegel’s examination of Christianity:

the ‘death of God’ designates for Hegel the death of the transcendent Beyond that exists in itself: the outcome of this death is God qua Holy Spirit – that is, the product of the labour of the community of believers. The relationship between cause and effect is dialectically reflected here. On the one hand, the Cause is unambiguously the product of the subjects’ activity; it is ‘alive’ only in so far as it is continually resuscitated by the believers’ passion….

On the other hand, these same believers experience the Cause as the Absolute, as what sets their lives in motion…Subjects therefore posit the Cause, yet they posit it not as something subordinated to them but as their absolute Cause. What we encounter here is again the paradoxical temporal loop of the subject: the Cause is posited, but it is posited as what it ‘always-already was.’….

[Christianity] involves the absolute mediation of both sides in the person of Christ, who is simultaneously the representative of God among human subjects and the subject who passes into God. In Christianity, the only identity of man and God is the identity in Christ – in clear contrast to the pre-Christian attitude, which conceives of such an identity as the asymptotic point of man’s infinite approach to God by means of his spiritual purification [e.g., paganism, the great Eastern religions, Judaism, etc., in which God is a mystical ‘Beyond’ that can be approached but never reached]….

[The content of Christian Doctrine is the death that happens to a particular individual who achieves reconciliation with the universal]. Here the death of Christ is “still experienced as the force of negativity that affects a particular, finite being; it is not yet experienced as the simultaneous death of the abstract Beyond itself….

[The content of Christian Faith, however, is] salvation, accomplished by Christ when he took upon himself the sins of humanity and expired on the Cross as a common mortal – salvation thus involves the identity of man and God. This identity, which in the Doctrine was a mere object of knowledge, occurs in Faith as an existential experience….How do I, a finite mortal, concretely experience my identity with God? I experience it in my own radical despair, which – paradoxically – involves a loss of faith: when, apparently forsaken by God, I am driven to despair, thrown into absolute solitude, I can identify with Christ on the Cross (‘Father, why has Thou forsaken me?’)….[M]y personal experience of being abandoned by God thus overlaps with the despair of Christ himself as being abandoned by the divine Father….

What expires on the Cross is thus not only the terrestrial representative of God (as it still seemed in the first syllogism of the Doctrine) but God himself, namely the god of Beyond, God as the transcendent Substance, as the divine Reason which guarantees that our lives have Meaning….

The content of the Ritual, finally, is the Holy Spirit as the positive unity of man and God: the God who expired on the Cross is resurrected in the guise of the Spirit of the religious community. He is no longer the Father who, safe in His Beyond, regulates our fate, but the work of us all, members of the community, since he is present in the ritual performed by us….

Conceived this way, the ‘death of God’ can no longer appear as a liberating experience, as the retreat of the Beyond which sets man free, opening up to him the domain of terrestrial activity as the field in which he is to affirm his creative subjectivity; instead the ‘death of God’ involves the loss of the consistent ‘terrestrial’ reality itself. Farm from heralding the triumph of man’s autonomous creative capacity, the ‘death of God’ is more akin to what the great texts of mysticism usually designate as the ‘night of the world’: the dissolution of (symbolically constituted) reality.

In the Christian faith, Christ’s resurrection is the resurrection and continuation of the principles that Jesus stood for, not of Jesus himself. But in the final stage of the Harry Potter saga, Harry must literally be brought back to life.

So the most unfortunate aspect of the movie is that, instead of exemplifying the triumph of the revolutionary Cause (Good vs. Evil), with the transmission of the Cause to the Holy Spirit, sustained through the ritual action of the community of believers,  the plot takes the shallow turn of Harry’s actual, corporeal ‘resurrection.’

Worse still is that this resurrection requires a magical/mystical supplement; the community doesn’t have any part in Harry’s resurrection – the magic of the Resurrection Stone is a kind of ‘deus ex machina’ that relieves the community of its own, existential despair, and of the hard work of keeping the Idea/Cause alive, taking away the most fundamental sacrifice of any revolutionary/religious commitment.

If Harry had died, we wouldn’t have the cop-out happy ending. Rather, we’d have utter despair within the community of believers. Harry’s death could then symbolize for the community the fragility of their own way of life, the non-assurance of their safety in the world, even, yes, the possibility that they will die (literally or figuratively), forsaken by what they’d thought was a secure life, held in tact by an everlasting guide/father figure (Dumbledore).

So while we do get the death of Dumbledore, who stands for the God of the Old Testament, the father figure for Harry and the rest of Hogwarts, the movie never runs its full course; the New Testament and its hero, Jesus Christ, with his Good News — the news of the community’s salvation in their own, collectively sustained (and never guaranteed) belief system — never arrives!

Harry never made the ultimate sacrifice for the community, thus sabotaging the birth of the Holy Spirit.

In a sense, Harry, since he somehow comes back from the dead, becomes, for all intents and purposes, a new Dumbledore. So this moment of ‘ressurection’ is not a moment of triumph, but, rather the ultimate failure of the series’ guiding force.

Rather than accomplishing the radical gesture of faith, Harry’s survival signals the series’ regression toward a kind of pre-Voldemort world.

For a contemporary analogy, this is the same kind of regression into premodern beliefs that’s been frighteningly successful among Christian fundamentalist groups. These groups search for material evidence of the Bible’s authenticity. They want hard evidence, proof. They take the Bible literally, as if the Bible’s literal meaning were even half as important as its existential meaning.

When Harry survives, the community’s freedom dies. Instead of the ‘death of God,’ in other words, we get the opposite, the reassurance that there really is a God: Magic.

Thus instead of accomplishing the radical gesture of Christian faith, the Harry Potter sage ends with a regression into the myth of the God as a mystical, metaphysical Beyond that one can’t ever fully grasp, but which nevertheless has enormous consequences for human life. Even the best wizards can only approach ‘asymptotically,’ as it were, the possession of the ultimate, universal power of Magic.

This is why Christians might rightly oppose J. K. Rowling’s remarkably successful franchise. But not for the cliche, stupid obsession with magic as some kind of metaphysical alternative to the ‘real’ world as ostensibly posited by the Bible, the obsession with Harry Potter as some kind of anti-Christian evil. Rather, Christians should remark that the message of Harry Potter doesn’t offer half the ‘good news’ of the Bible. (But it’s still a lot of fun to read. And damn, what a great movie! Five stars).