Dynamic Incarnationalism- Žižek and the debate regarding materialism in theology

I am currently working on an article in response to Charles Taliaferro and Stewart Goertz’s article last year in Christian Scholars Review entitled “The Prospect of Christian Materialism” (volume XXXVII, number 3, Spring 2008) which is a chapter in a book I am completing entitled “The Kenotic Self”.

In the article Taliaferro and Goertz assert that ‘most, if not all, orthodox Christian theologians of the early church were anthropological dualists… [and] God has allowed dualism to dominate Christian anthropology for two millennia’  Hence, it is relevant to make clear that while contemporary Christian materialists advocate going materialistic, we support remaining dualistic.’

Well… I disagree on a number of fronts with their assertion and am arguing in my article for what I am terming a return to ‘dynamic incarnationalism’ in light of the Gospel accounts and testimony of the Church.  To assert dualism as a ‘fundamental’ category of Christian theology seems pretty spurious to me. What I am terming ‘dynamic incarnationalism’ builds on the dialectical materialism found in post-Marxist critique yet still acknowledges the mystical Divine amidst imminence.  This builds on Žižek’s dialectical materialism which is essentially a Marxist commentary (from Engels’ Dialectics of Human Nature and Marx’s Das Kaptial through to  Feuerbach’s Essence of Christianity) framed by Hegel’s continually reforming dialectic. The problem with materialism for many Christians is a view that it creates a hegemonic essentialism that it purports to free us from – shifting one form of hubris for yet another.  That said, by acknowledging the dynamic nature of materialism and the multi-valiant nature of imminent existence (read: the nature of the Church as the body of Christ), we can expand and deepen the material life without leaving behind the spiritual.   In dynamic incarnationalism we can see truth as Heidegger did – a work/poiete ( Luke 22:19) of  aletheia – something worked out in the midst of  immanent human history passing through various dynamic phases, which includes moment of error or apophatic negativity that provide counterpoints as essential component of truth.  As Marx’s dialectical materialism argues and is deepened in Foucault’s critique against Hegel’s Geist-centric idealism,  our real life existence/Existenz is not actualized in a transcendent spiritualism (whether it is an idealized Geist or a temporally localized Zeitgeist) in exclusive polarity to the material existence; rather the Spirit (paraclete) is immersed and bound fully within the material – a radical ‘Emmanuelism’ if you will.

As a Presbyterian and therefore Reformed by tradition, I realize that this puts me at odds with the recent trend of Neo-Calvinist views that argues for a radically transcendent God as “wholly other” to the created order.  In my article I dialogue with Žižek in concert  with the Gospel of John as a via media in this debate. For Žižek, the turn toward dialectical materialism asserts that true (alethia) existence is not a disconnected mix of things isolated from each other, but an integral holistic presense that freely offers particularity.  Rather, all of nature is in a state of constant motion and dynamic deepening akin to Goethe view of morphology and Engel’s view of nature  as ‘becoming’ (“All nature, from the smallest thing to the biggest, from a grain of sand to the sun, from the protista to man, is in a constant state of coming into being and going out of being, in a constant flux, in a ceaseless state of movement and change.” Friedrich Engels, Dialectics of Nature).  Additionally, we have much to learn in theoloogy as to the deepening of existense in Christ as a process whereby insignificant and imperceptible quantitative changes lead to fundamental, qualitative changes – see John 15 for the immeshed life of the body as a branch engraphed into the Vine. This is both catalytic and still point in a turning world – think of Acts 22 and Paul’s testimony of the Damascus Road.

My question: Why would the church choose dualism as a mode of being when intimacy – aka ‘materialism’ after Žižek or ‘dynamic incarnationalism’ for the Devout – is what we ultimately are seeking?

I will end with Žižek’s bold statement from The Puppet and the Dwarf:

“What we are getting today is a kind of suspended belief, a belief that can thrive only as today is a kind of “suspended” belief, a belief that can thrive only as not fully (publicly) admitted, as a private obscene secret.  Against this attitude, one should insist even more emphatically that the “vulgar” question “Do you really believe or not?” matters – more than ever, perhaps.  My claim here is not merely that I am a materialist through and through, and that the subversive kernel of Christianity is accessible also to a materialist approach; my thesis is much stronger: this kernel is accessible only to a materialist approach – and vice versa: to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience. (emphasis mine)

Couldn’t agree more…

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