Žižek on Sin and Redemption, or, The (Omni-/Im-)potence of God, or, Bringing the Conversation into a New Comment Box

[warning: long post ahead – an apology: this is not (by intention) a monologue]

Our discussion, inspired by iambillpower’s post about the “Revelations” mini-series (which I will undoubtedly have to wait months to see), has been fruitful thus far, and I figured it couldn’t hurt to bring the conversation over into a new thread. I’ve been reading this book by Slavoj Žižek, the Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist, called The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (MIT Press, 2003), and I would risk saying that it contains some of the most compelling theological reflections I’ve read lately (which isn’t necessarily saying much considering my literature background and the fact that I’ve only been studying theology qua theology [*wink* jimmy] for a couple of years).

You can read for yourselves how this got started – eschatology and the evangelical penchant for “end times” paranoia; how we understand the Fall (and hence sin); God’s role in terms of master-plan and endgame; grace, faith, works, etc etc – but here’s what I want to toss out, and maybe see how the rest of you help me get my head around it (or maybe see if, perhaps, Žižek’s ideas here are something we could/should get our heads around).

In the book, Žižek is interested in (re)discovering the “subversive kernel” of Christianity, which he (shockingly) believes is unique amongst the religions because of something that we might describe as the “weakness” or self-abandonment of God by God in the Christ event (i.e. the cross). Žižek owes his intellectual roots to Lacan, so the notion of desire is fundamental to all of this – in brief, desire does not drive toward fulfillment (because to possess the object of desire is to bring an end to desire), but rather drives toward the maintenance of separation between the subject and the object of desire. In other words, I desire something because I am separated from it. I don’t want what I want; I want to continue to want it. Desire desires desire. (Or something.)

SO, this has implications for the relationship between God and humanity; hence, the passage I quoted before: “It is the very radical separation of man from God that unites us with God, since, in the figure of Christ, God is thoroughly separated from himself–thus the point is not to “overcome” the gap that separates us from God, but to take note of how this gap is internal to God Himself” (p. 78). He goes on to write:

“We are one with God only when God is no longer one with Himself, but abandons Himself, “internalizes” the radical distance that separates us from Him. Our radical experience of separation from God is the very feature which unites us with Him… only when I experience the infinite pain of separation from God do I share an experience with God Himself (Christ on the Cross)” (p. 91).

(There are definitely Kierkegaardian overtones here…more on this in a bit.) For Žižek, the only true desire issues in love, and true love is born of lack – lacking that which one does not possess. “Only a lacking, vulnerable being is capable of love: the ultimate mystery of love, therefore, is that incompleteness is, in a way, higher than completion. On the one hand, only an imperfect, lacking being loves…Perhaps the true achievement of Christianity is to elevate a loving ([hence] imperfect) Being to the place of God” (p. 115).

He deals a fair bit with St. Paul (the previous quote is in the midst of a discussion of 1 Cor. 13, the “Love” chapter), and finally arrives at this (bracketed interjections below are my own):

“According to the standard reading of Paul, God gave Law to men in order to make them conscious of their sin, even to make them sin all the more, and thus make them aware of their need for the salvation that can occur only through divine grace [I suspect this is akin to Kierkegaard’s notion – please correct me if not] – however, does this reading not involve a strange, perverse notion of God? [I suspect this would be sensei JFK’s “sadistic view of the universe”] As we have already seen, the only way to avoid such a perverse reading is to insist on the absolute identity of the two gestures: God does not first push us into Sin in order to create the need for Salvation, and then offer Himself as the Redeemer from the trouble into which He got us in the first place; it is not that the Fall is followed by Redemption: the Fall is identical to Redemption, it is “in itself” already Redemption. That is to say: what is “redemption”? The explosion of freedom, the breaking out of the natural enchainment – and this, precisely, is what happens in the Fall.” […]

In other words, Eden is paradise, but also prison; only post-lapsarian man is free to live, that is, to experience pleasure/desire/love (etc) by “falling” into pain/hatred/selfishness (etc). Continuing on: “…We should bear in mind here the central tension of the Christian notion of the Fall: the Fall (“regression” to the natural state, enslavement to passions) is stricto sensu identical with the dimension from which we fall, that is, it is the very movement of the Fall that creates, opens up, what is lost in it” (p. 118).

I feel like the difference between Žižek and Kierkegaard is that, for Kierkegaard, this is all a very interior/personal thing – i.e. we only become our true “self” by finding God, hence realizing our differentiation from God. But I really want to think about how Žižek fits Jesus into the equation, and what ethical implications this has for us. Like the death-of-God posse from days gone by (especially Tom Altizer), the Christ-event is central to all of this, the moment of utter abandonment on the cross. For Altizer, this is when God (having forsaken Spirit to become Flesh) “dies” (an all-too-human death), but for Žižek this isn’t so much God’s death as it is the moment of God revealing God’s own “weakness” (recall: love = imperfection, lack, vulnerability).

And it is God’s weakness and essential incompleteness that demands that we, as followers of Christ, act on God’s behalf as agents of redemption in the world. “What this means, in theological terms, is that it is not we, humans, who can rely on the help of God – on the contrary, we must help God…God is not omnipotent – [this is] the only way…to explain how God could have allowed things like Auschwitz to happen.” And so the question of creation is raised (I guess we can’t get around it, jimmy):

“The very notion of creation implies God’s self-contradiction: God had first to withdraw into Himself, constrain his omnipresence, in order first to create the Nothing out of which he then created the universe. By creating the universe, He set it free, let it go on its own, renouncing the power of intervening in it: this self-limitation is equivalent to a proper act of creation. In the face of horrors like Auschwitz [or the tsunami, or genocide in Sudan, or…], God is thus the tragic impotent observer – the only way for Him to intervene in history was precisely to “fall into it,” to appear in it in the guise of His son” (p. 137).

One could, I suppose, try and discredit this for being rather deistic, but it remains a distinctly Christian vision. Abandoning the idea of an omnipotent or sovereign God is not necessarily to abandon God-in-Christ; in fact, it appears that this understanding is profoundly consistent. (This seems to me something like what Jean-Luc Marion is doing in God Without Being – i.e. the “Being” of God is love-continually-given, demonstrated in the Christ-event; ergo, God is always emptying Godself of God’s very Being [love] on behalf of creation.) The bottom line is: we are implicated in the whole thing.

What fundamentalists fear is that if we weaken our grip on our foundations – Sovereign God, Inerrant Bible, Substitutionary Atonement, Irrefutable Truth (about the end times or whatever) – “things fall apart / the centre cannot hold” (to quote the already over-quoted line from Yeats). Or, as Tevye says in Fiddler on the Roof, struggling desperately to hold onto his “Tradition!!”, “one little time you pull out a prop, and where does it stop?…pull out a thread, and where has it led?” But maybe, just maybe, if we let go of this idea that God is omnipotently controlling everything from on high, we’d have to face the stark reality that we had all better get busy doing God’s work here and now – bringing the Kingdom of Heaven as near to earth as possible.

Plus, it would make it seem really stupid to petition God for things like convenient parking spaces or finding a really good sale on those shoes you’ve been wanting…

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  1. wow… ok… this IS a long entry on the blogsite and I am still chewing on big chunks of it… but I will start the ball rolling:

    1. the search for the “subversive kernel” of Christianity is certainly nothing new and quite Victorian (see J. Keuss’ epic “A Poetics of Jesus” for further blather on this one…;-) in this Hegelian desire for extrication of the “vorstellung” from the “begrifft” that spawned the first Historical Jesus quest. I find Zizek’s assertion as to the uniqueness of the Christian story certainly agreeable – but I would assert that this “kernel” is essentially… here it comes…wait for it… ‘authentic kenosis’ or to riff on Martin H. = ‘aletheia mit sorge’ (truth grafted to supreme concern). More on this in a sec…

    2. I can see where the Freudian psychoanalysis ala Lacan might come into play with Zizek… and I certainly agree that “desire” is part of this “subversive kernel” we seek – but “desire” that does not drive toward commitment just doesn’t wash. Two things – (1) re-read your Jacques Lacan and you will note how tied ‘desire’ is to his use of ‘le regard’ or ‘the gaze’ – that ‘desire’ is to be transfixed, held, engrossed, enraptured, etc by the ‘other’ that pulls you in beyond your capacity to overcome on your own (Wesley called this “prevenient grace”). (2) I just dont buy this “desire desires desire” thing… this is pornography, not intimacy. Desire seeks that which it longs for… not the longing itself. Granted, there is the romantic notion of the existential angst and the wallowing emo boy in the cafe off the Parisan left Bank with a half smoked cigarette hanging out of his mouth at 3am writing in his journal about ‘the glorious pain of love’ and whatnot. In the end… bollocks. Try this experiment on for size with your number 4 Zizek lovin’ monkey butlers – bring a bottle of 17 yr old Highland Park into the seminar room, pour a dram for everyone, and say “let’s now long for a drink – for it is the desire to desire this whisky that is the end of all things, is it not?” Then after 30 minutes of this exercise, pour the stuff out the window and say “There… wasn’t that experience of desire what we all want to hold on to?” Doubtful you will have many friends at the end of this exercise and your point will be made as they rush to the College Club – true desire pulls us beyond ourselves and beyond desire and like Mary, we will pour ourselves out as precious perfume upon the feet of the source of our deepest longing with ‘regard’ (gaze) upon ourselves nor upon our feeble ‘desire’ – for like the pearl of great prize… we will sell everything not for the experience of “selling” but to come and buy that which holds our gaze and ultimatley our very ground of being.

    3. What’s with the re-birth of Alfred North Whitehead and Process Thought in this notion of “God’s incompleteness” and we need to help God out? I am reminded of Star Trek 5 – a sucky movie in the series, but bear me out – where the ‘crew’ comes the end of the universe and think they have found God who commands them to take the Enterprise and carry him back to tell the universe about him. Spock, the great apologist, muses aloud “why would God need a starship?!” In this sense, I really question the answer to theodicy (why there is evil in the worold with a good God as creator?) as God is ‘dead’ or ‘impotent’. How incredibly vain to think we can suppose God’s ethical system let alone God having to perform within certain boundaries of reason. Kant surely taught us that this is a great fallicy – we have limits to our reason…lets embrace that fact and move on. I dont think ‘soverignity of God’ needs abandonment at all in order to square God’s relation to tragedy… and this is where you need to embrace more Eastern Orthodoxy on this point – the mysterion is not to be solved, but embraced. I couldnt agree more with the call to act as “agents on God’s behalf” in the world… but this is not to make up for a lame deity who is asleep on the job. Rather, it is a profound statement of kenosis to empty ourselves of self before the kenotic presense of the Divine in Jesus and allow the paradox and uncertainity to exist amidst the Prodigal freefall into the embrace of the father. Not merely the “idea” nor the “desire to embrace”, but risk the embrace and ‘totou poiete’ – ‘do this’.

    4. Ok – so you pull Yeats and Fiddler on the Roof out in the end… thats cool and sounds great … but I disagree with Keats that just because its ‘beautiful’ makes it ‘true’. I certainly dont ascribe to a Foundationalist view of God’s divinity and I dont see that God needs be any less than God – this is what Marion is getting at in God without Being… not a deminishment, but a breaking down of category and a humilty of our subjectivity and an overturning of the Kantian revolution so that we return to being the object of God’s consideration.

    OK… that’s enough there… good stuff though and I certainly am still chewing on it (along with this awesome carrot cake Diana made…yum… I desre it AND am eating it… weclome to the eschaton my friend…)

  2. okay, this is why I wanted to write this post (which should’ve been entitled “A really long post about an obscurantist philosopher which no one but Jeff is masochistic enough to read”), so I could get some help thinking about these things. I take many of your points as much needed correctives to Žižek. I had the thought that there is nothing particularly novel to what he’s doing (except perhaps his [misguided?] application of Lacan). Further, he might just be a philosopher steppin’ a bit too far out of his realm and waxing theological, betraying in quite a convincing way that all philosophers are theologians manqué (meaning simply “failed,” but I’ll use the French word, in italics, just to bug jimmy a bit).

    That said, I don’t think your “whisky experiment” really makes the point about desire, at least in Z and Lacan. If I poured the whisky out the window, I eliminate the possibility that I could ever have the whisky, and defeat the purpose of the exercise. If I did this, I certainly deserve a swift and thorough ass-kicking. I think a better whisky analogy is the fact that we never pour ourselves a pint-glass of 17-yr-old Highland Park. If I am lucky enough to possess a bottle (which of course, in this case, to own the bottle is not really to possess its contents – not until I drink), I’m going to make that sucker last as long as I can! I’m not going to pour myself a dram every night, probably not even every other night, and I’m not going to offer it to just any ol’ visitor who comes through the door, either. I know this breaks down a bit because, yeah, I am going to drink it…but much more like the wine I receive in communion. Just a small sip is enough, and only from time to time. I think that what you write at the end of that paragraph (“true desire pulls us beyond ourselves and beyond desire…” to end) is quite close to Z’s desire.

    It’s more like, to invoke a rather crude image, the carrot dangled out in front of the mule that keeps him pulling the plow…it seems cruel, yeah, but that mule desires that carrot, and if you gave it too him, do you think he’d keep on truckin’? No way! He’d stop and, as mules do, have a leisurely munch-down on some tasty carrot. But of course, if you didn’t give it to him after a long, hard days work, there’d be no pay-off, and he might not work for you the next day. We might apply this broadly to our lives (i.e. carrot = heaven, our “reward”, as much as I cringe at that notion), or more locally to our week-to-week activity (i.e. carrot = communion, our transport into the Kingdom which enables us to continue to live and work as Christ’s body in the world). So some sense of “promise” (of fulfillment) is needed. This is why pornography doesn’t solicit true desire – because there is no promise (i.e. no way you’re ever gettin’ wit’ that chick!).

    I’m not ready to concede; maybe there are different types or modes of desire. I take your point about the ‘gaze’, although your concept of Otherness is leaning more toward Levinas than Lacan, right? (I could be, and like am, wrong, as I’ve not read very much of either.) But the point is my own “inability or unreadiness to fully confront the consequences of my desire” (quoting Z), ergo, I don’t pound home that entire bottle of whisky, no matter how much I enjoy it, because it would, indeed, kill me. I’m thinking also of Buechner’s bit about how “a genuine, self-authenticating religious experience would destroy me in the process – if there’s no room for doubt, there’s no room for me” (paraphrased).

    Z also invokes this image: “the only way to have an intense and fulfilling (sexual) relationship is not for the couple to look into each other’s eyes, forgetting the world around them, but, while holding hands, to look together outside, at a third point” (p. 38). For Christians, this point might be Christ, or more profoundly, it might be Christ’s incarnation in and amongst “the least of these” – the third point is our common cause/mission/goal, not heaven as some far off place, but our unquenchable desire to be Christ to the world (I’m thinking of Tykwer’s films Heaven and The Princess and the Warrior, as good attempts to capture this). And the closer we draw to Christ, the closer we get to each other (imagine an isosceles triangle).

    I love your connecting this to prevenient grace – that does my ol’ Nazarene heart good. I think you’re on to something here that might be worth taking a bit further (if you don’t, I might!). You’re right about the Eastern corrective – you know me, such thoughts were not far off – Z’s omission, not mine. (Again, this is what we get when we let a philosopher ‘play at’ theology, perhaps.) But I think the point is precisely the Eastern Orthodox one – embrace the mysterion: that is, God’s vulnerability, God’s internal “void” (incarnation, crucifixion), is precisely what makes (our) God worth worshipping at all. That is precisely what we are embracing when we “do this in remembrance” – the broken givenness of God. Which is to say, I think you and I are saying much the same thing, even if Z is not. The main (only?) difference, it seems, is that I’m quite taken with this idea of the “weakness” of God and am trying, feebly, to defend it, while you’re maintaining God’s sovereignty.

    I think we’d agree that Marion flat does this better, and even with greater philosophical rigour. Re: the Yeats (not Keats) quote – my point is that this is not true, however much fundies fear it. I think the Centre holds, with the gap. Things don’t fall apart. This doesn’t destroy our idea of (or our relationship to) God, but radicalizes it.

    Let’s keep going on this – I hope others will chime in, get pissed off, toss out other thinkers/writers, or whatever.

  3. somewhere between sensie and mr. power falls jimmy white shoes.

    As an anti-intellectual intellectual, I would like to toss the notion of “beauty” into this discussion. I think when we get to intellectual in this debate, it gets too intellectual (ironic). We’re constantly approaching this problematic from an ego-centric, linear, logical perspective (DAMN the enlightenment) when I think a more arty approach can be of some benefit. Unfortunately, it turns very circular, and we have to got back to the question of sin (sorry, I honestly am stuck in here in my personal process)

    Is there more or less beauty in:
    1. a scultpture that turns on itself and needs itself to continue existing and moving
    or
    2. a photograph that has been torn in half and taped back together
    ?

    To gete more specific, what is the greater, more complete, more beuatiful creation:
    1. A creation that moves and interacts – a creation created to force creation, ie a creation that doesn’t NEED the redemption, but a creation meant to find fulfillment in the redemption
    or
    2. A creation that “breaks” and needs fixing
    ?

    More….
    Yes, I said it… what IF sin is part of creation? More directly, what if creation was created in order that sin might exist? Not “sin” as an act of murder or rape, but “sin” as the distinction between man and God. God creates something “other” in order that the beauty of redemption has the potential of existing.

    Let’s remember, redemption is a beautiful thing – and without creation, it could have never existed – no way for God to redeem Himself.

    I don’t mean to start any blasphemous rumors, and I am not saying that god has a sick sense of humor… BUT, pull yourself out of your own pain and frustration and realize that what God is doing cosmicly is beautiful. It’s when we believe we deserve paradise NOW that we get angry at God. But, if we believed that God created us to move into paradise someday, well, that’s a different persepctive.

    OK, intellectuals – how many philosophers that I haven’t even read did I rip off in THAT one?

  4. JWS – you rock the casbah, my friend…

    I couldnt agree more regarding the addition of aesthetics/beauty to the mix here. In what way does beauty qua beauty (dont you just love the way we riff on that now?!)help to move us beyond getting tangled up in words and word play and break us loose to engage God and each other? Is it that beauty is translogical or metalogical?

    I think someone needs to blog something on beauty as a 3rd way through reason and experiencial knowing…

  5. BTW – will someone please tell what Zizek is doing there on the back cover of “the Puppet and the Dwarf” at the Freud museum… is that really what an (to quote to blurb on back) “academic rock star” is all about?!

  6. No kidding – he might as well have his trousers still half-unzipped and be smoking a cigarette.

    Honestly, I was somewhat uncomfortable reading that book in certain situations…I sometimes tried to keep the fingers of my right hand partially covering the crotch-shot, but then at times it would creep me out (“I don’t wanna be touchin’ that!”) and I’d give up.

    Academic rock star…hah. Check out Brad Johnson’s review of the “St. Paul Among the Philosophers” conference at Syracuse, posted here:

    http://www.adamkotsko.com/weblog/2005/04/on-conference.html

    (sorry no hyperlink – you’ll have to cut and paste). The bits about the Zizek fan-boys and girls is funny…but the report on the conference, on the whole, is a bit disturbing, I must say…

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