[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…