"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, November 19, 2018

Slavoj Žižek and Christianity

Routledge is one of the most important publishers around today, especially in the fields of philosophy, psychoanalysis, and theology, all of which come together in this newly released volume, Slavoj Žižek and Christianity, edited by Sotiris Mitralexis and Dionysios Skliris (2018), vii+230pp.

And for those who do not know him, Žižek  is also one of the most important figures writing today at the intersection of those three disciplines. His work comes in for scrutiny and dialogue in this volume, which features contributions from several Eastern Christians, and those conversant in recent developments in Eastern Christian theology.

The editors do a nice job in the introduction explaining the relevance of engaging a man who identifies as a Marxist communist atheist, but who nonetheless maintains that there is much of value in Christian theology for both philosophy and psychoanalysis. Moreover, Žižek offers a welcome critique of Christianity which helps it recover its emancipatory power and potential outside of its too-frequent institutionalization and accommodation to imperial and other worldly powers.

In his chapter, "From Psychoanalysis to Metamorphosis," Brian Becker pursues a line very much in keeping with what I have been arguing for several years now: theology and psychoanalysis need each other and have much to offer each other, not least in dealing with questions of finitude and uncertainty stemming from unconscious ideas and desires. When we approach limits, as analysis certainly does in its confrontation with what is not known because not conscious, theology offers a way forward beyond the impasse. Becker makes use of a number of interesting sources in his chapter, including John Zizioulas's Communion and Otherness: Further Studies in Personhood and the Church.

In his chapter,"Pacifist Pluralism vs. Militant Truth," Haralambos Ventis of the University of Athens also notes, as several other authors do, the similarities of Marxist and Christian critiques of social structures. Here Ventis draws on the fascinating figure of Cornelius Castoriadis  and his landmark book The Imaginary Institution of Society (The MIT Press, 1998), as well as a whole cast of other equally fascinating and influential figures, including Terry Eagleton (The Illusions of Postmodernism). the father of modern hermeneutics, Paul Ricoeur (especially in his Oneself as Another), and the widely influential moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who should need no introduction around these parts. Ventis in particular draws on MacIntyre's under-appreciated 1999 book Dependent Rational Animals, which I have sometimes used with undergraduates, who find it an easier introduction than After Virtue

There is much in this chapter that is also connected to very recent and ongoing debates over the supposed terminal decline of liberalism today. Here Ventis draws on a number of contemporary Greek Orthodox theologians, including Pantelis Kalaitzidis, author of Orthodoxy and Political Theology.

The author concludes very succinctly and soberly by noting that "leftist" critics of Christianity are useful in reminding the latter of its duty to work against injustice and to repent of those many times when the Church has sided with those perpetuating injustice against, e.g., the poor. But equally he reminds those critics that they cannot abandon eschatology to create the Kingdom of God on earth for any and all attempts at doing so end up "creating hell."

In Bruce Kajewski's short but really intriguing chapter, "Murder at the Vicarage," he draws out the relationship between Žižek and Chesterton of all people, especially in the latter's fictional character Fr. Brown, the priest who solves murder mysteries and other crimes. (The BBC rendition of some of those stories, available on Netflix, has been a source of delight to my children. It often guts much of the theology, but does not make a total hash of things--although its liturgical scenes are absurdly anachronistic.) The chapter makes some bracing claims, but could have done with further elaboration, especially of what it calls "the linkage among violence, capitalism, and Christianity."

In his chapter, "Žižek and the Dwarf: A Short-Circuit Radical Theology," Mike Grimshaw looks at and situates himself as part of Žižek's idea of a "community of the Holy Spirit," a community that consists in part of atheists who have rejected the idea of God as a Big Other, and who want almost nothing to do with the conservative, reactionary and often self-serving institutions of Christianity like the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Rather, this community wants to be part of the "ethics of revolutionary love." Grimshaw's title and chapter is obviously heavily indebted to The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity as well as to The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For?

Both of those books are by Žižek, who provides a brief Afterword to Slavoj Žižek and Christianity.It starts off with a bracing engagement of Pope Francis, moves almost immediately to the moral implications of the murder of Reinhard Heydrich, and then looks at the lessons of the book of Job--all in the context of considering the role of temptation and its relationship to the good. Žižek sees the book of Job as the first systematic critique of ideology and its tendency to rationalize meaningless suffering. This is wonderfully bracing stuff, and it only gets better.

Žižek, far from being bothered by the idiocies in Job and other parts of the Bible, says Christianity must keep them: "they are the very stuff which confers on Christianity the unbearable tensions of a true life" (222).

From here, he concludes on a note that will irk a lot of Eastern Christians (and those in the West increasingly coming to appreciate deification): he denounces theosis/deification/divinization. I won't give away what he says, but it's a definitive declaration made in his fulgurating style before lighting on to another topic and then quickly ending.

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