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Radical Tragedy, Subversive Comedy: On Milbank, Žižek, and The Monstrosity of Christ

Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank. The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox of Dialectic? Edited by Creston Davis. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009. 416 pages.$18.45 hardcover. Click on the image to purchase The Monstrosity of Christ from Amazon.com and help support The Other Journal.

For at least several decades, there has been a growing convergence between radical philosophy and certain branches of Christian theology. Although the phenomenon is too large and diverse for me to summarize here, one can safely say that the failures and limitations of global, liberal, and (post)modern capitalism are partially responsible for this unlikely marriage of disparate academic disciplines.1 Capitalism, in this context, is seen not merely as an economic system but as a form of social order, with its own logics of representation and narratives of justice. Both critical theory and Christian thought need to be radical in challenging capitalist thinking, for as Creston Davis points out in his very helpful introduction to The Monstrosity of Christ, modern rationality is premised on a divide between reason and the world, and this divide essentially makes reason close in on itself. As a result, the rationality of global capitalism cannot be critiqued on its own terms. Thus, one needs either something like religious practice or a “hermeneutics of suspicion,” in the tradition of Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, to cut at the root of everyday living and thinking, to reveal the contradictions and failures of business as usual.

Although this coalition of faith and suspicion has produced some truly remarkable and bracing intellectual work, there is, undoubtedly, a clear incompatibility between the two orientations. Like many marriages of convenience, those tensions can often be dealt with in nonconfrontational ways, and as everyone knows, a common enemy can make fast friends. Still, if the intellectual rigor of this movement is to be sustained, that incommensurability must be confronted, if for no other reason than to clarify the grounds by which radical theology or theological materialism can progress, further refining itself in the dialectic between religion and revolution.

By staging this debate, The Monstrosity of Christ becomes a significant book. Its authors approach the conflict between radical Christianity and radical philosophy exactly where it should be fought, namely on the problem of ontology. Ontology asks the simple but inescapable question, “What is the nature of reality?” By attempting to answer this question, philosophy and theology move beyond the limited confines of our contemporary, global thinking, most of which is governed by the seduction of the commodity and the idolatrous vicissitudes of personal desire. But for both Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, only a full-blooded ontology will provide political and social change as well as a reconceptualization of humanity, ethics, and universality in real and sustainable ways. Only an affirmation and investigation of the real will allow us to escape the voids of the marketplace and the evasions of postmodernity.

The subtitle of the work, “Paradox or Dialectic?” defines the key terms by which the respective writers articulate their thought. For Žižek, a self-proclaimed atheistic Christian, Marxist, and Lacanian,2 Hegel’s dialectical reasoning offers not only a methodology for thought, but also a model for reality itself, one that lacks a transcendent God but that, also, is characterized by lack as such (more on this below). Milbank, the author of one of the Radical Orthodoxy movement’s Ur-texts3 and an Augustinian–Thomistic theologian, argues that dialectics is insufficient for an adequate ontology, and instead, proposes the medieval Christian notion of Paradox, by which a truly transcendent and infinite God is co-present with a finite universe that is other than Himself. Most of the book’s three hundred pages are dedicated to the articulation and explanation of these two fundamental and oppositional ontologies.

To supplement the dialectic–paradox divide, I would like to offer an alternative set of terms, which arise in the book itself, though they are not highlighted extensively. If Žižek and Milbank were playwrights and not theologian–philosophers, then they would be master tragedians and comedians, respectively. If, as Nietzsche famously argued, the tragic can be characterized by a rupture of the void into the social order, revealing the black and foundationless abyss upon which we all live and uncovering our subsequent and meaningless freedom, then Žižek’s ontology of the void is decidedly tragic. Alternatively, the comedic can be seen as a celebration of positive love among difference, as a reconciliation,4 as the joining of opposites in the traditional ending of marriage, as the fullness of an ecstatic Eros, all of which Milbank celebrates in his reading of the Trinity.5 Thus, the terms of Žižek and Milbank’s disagreement are ultimately articulated in a simple query: agreeing that both postmodern discourse formations and positivist empiricism, with its accompanying instrumentalist–capitalist reasoning, are inadequate, is there, behind the world in which we live, something rather than nothing? Is there comedic love or tragic freedom?

The stakes could not be higher. As Davis states in his introduction, both positions attempt to offer “an emancipatory exit beyond the deadlock of capitalism, and its supplement, liberalism” (21). And yet, in doing so, the nature of that exit remains undecided, for “the very terms of Christianity are themselves up for debate [. . . .]: Either Christianity is the plenitudal wave of love that takes us all up within the light of divine glory (the paradox of Resurrection Sunday), or else it is about an infinite freedom without teleology which is the ground for the emergence of a true, disillusioned, and disenchanted love (the dialectic of Holy Saturday)” (21). Everything rests on that binary. Although I would contend that the choice cannot be settled based upon Žižek and Milbank alone, the sweeping and revolutionary confrontation between Ultimate Comedy and Ultimate Tragedy is itself a radical event, a glimmering promise of another world as yet unimagined.

Oedipus at the Cross: Vanishing Mediators, Virtual Communities

For those who have read one or many of Žižek’s books, there will be some familiarity to the arc of his argument. At the same time, his two essays in The Monstrosity of Christ may be a useful overview of his philosophy to date, particularly as they reveal his insistence that theology is central to his atheism. Like any Žižek essay or lecture, the movement of the thought is as exciting as the claims, and he (as does Milbank) makes passing and illuminating observations about art, popular culture, ethics, and religious history that are well-worth careful thought and reflection. Still, what grounds his essays is a comprehensive ontological–theological position, and I will merely try to sketch that central argument here.

The claim of Christianity animating all others, for Žižek, is that when Christ dies on the cross, we are not merely witnessing a variant on the common pagan myth of the death and rebirth of God. Instead, following Hegel, he argues that “what dies on the Cross is not only God’s earthly representative-incarnation, but the God of beyond itself” (29). That is to say, the transcendent God of monotheism, in the cross, is revealed nonexistent. Christ’s death proves that there is no Big Other (Lacan’s formulation of the Freudian Super Ego) who guarantees anything. This is why the truth of Christ, for Žižek, is also the truth of Job:

The legacy of Job precludes [. . .] a gesture of taking a refuge in the standard transcendent figure of God as a secret Master who knows the meaning of what appears to us to be a meaningless catastrophe, the God who sees the entire picture in which what we perceive as a stain contributes to global harmony. [. . .] Christ’s death on the Cross is the death of this God, it repeats Job’s stance, it refuses any “deeper meaning” that obfuscates the brutal reality of historical catastrophes. (54-55, italics in the original)

This primary, ontological work of Christ, revealing the nonexistence of the transcendent God, grounds Žižek’s reading of the Trinity. In a key Hegelian move, Žižek argues that Christ becomes the “‘vanishing mediator’ between the substantial transcendent God-in-itself and God qua virtual spiritual community” (29). This point illuminates Žižek’s often derided insistence on theology, for Christ’s resurrection occurs in, and only in, the Holy Spirit as a real force in the human, historical world, but real only in so far as the Spirit is inseparable from that human world. This is Christianity’s radical political truth: there is no God, we are on our own, and we therefore only live in the Spirit through the concrete universality of Love.

Christ further brings the ontological and the political together in his enactment of that concrete universality, dying so the Spirit can be born. The cross is a real actualization of both the infinite and the universal in that Christ “turns the act of violence back upon himself, sacrificing himself [. . .]. In this way, he already enacts universality: he becomes universal in his very singularity, acquiring a distance from his particularity as a person among others, interacting among them. In other words, when ‘each annihilates himself for others good,’ sacrifice self-cancels itself and we enter universal Love” (268). The universal particular, by which the particular divides itself from itself, introduces a gap into the “normal,” “natural”6 order of person-to-person relationships, the common sense and culturally bound forms of life, whether as the will-to-power of the pure animal, as the ideological codes of a given society, or in the suppression of the scapegoat who suffers for the sins of the many. When this condition of self-annihilation becomes general, practiced by each and all, then the universal becomes manifested in the material world. Christ then, in an entirely immanent and dialectical way, brings universality into history: God has become man and the merely human has been transformed into the revolutionary subject.

This collective enactment of universal Love, Žižek’s definition of the Holy Spirit, is the truth of the resurrection7 and the animating principle of the virtual revolutionary community that lives out the death of God and the truth of Christ’s sacrifice. The Spirit is not merely imaginary, for Žižek, nor simply a metaphor for revolutionary commitment. Instead, finite human life becomes “the site where the Spirit achieves its actuality. What this means is that, in spite of all its grounding power, Spirit is a virtual entity in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition: it exists only insofar as subjects act as if it exists” (60, italics in the original).

How are we to understand this, then? If the Spirit has the status of a “subjective presupposition,” then can it be considered in any sense real? Here, Žižek’s dialectical reading of Christianity reflects his materialist ontology. His materialism is not the naive belief that the physical stuff of the world is all there is; instead, he argues for a nihilistic materialism, in which there is the infinite multiplicity of the material world against the backdrop of an ultimate void.8 At times, he describes this as the “non-all” of the universe, evident in the discoveries of quantum mechanics: the material world of quanta is the particles manifested by the subjective measurement by which those particles achieve positive identity (a measurement that, in and of itself, is nothing). Žižek presents this as the inherent incompleteness of the universe: that it isn’t that reality is all there is but that reality, as such, is continually being transformed (whether through the subject or the emergence of multiplicities in new events), and so is dependent upon its contingent actualization (240). What is crucial to remember is that, for Žižek’s version of the dialectic, this non-all, this incomplete universe, does not represent some sort of mystical stuff that we cannot see, floating around our heads. Instead, it is a gap, an excess, inherent in material being as such. Whether as consciousness (subjectivity is the parallax gap between brain and mind),9 universal Love (the revolutionary community calls me to hate mother and father, thus separating myself from myself), or being as such (reality, at the quantum level, cannot be represented as mere “matter”), Žižek’s thinking pursues this kind of immanent dialectics of the negative to the end.

And it is this thinking that informs his ongoing commitment to religion, much to the disappointment of many of his materialist friends. For Žižek, a “truly logical materialism accepts the basic insight of religion, its premise that our commonsense reality is not the true one; what it rejects is the conclusion that, therefore, there must be another, ‘higher,’ suprasensible reality” (240) Consequently, “‘God’ (the divine) is a name for that which in man is not human, for the inhuman core that sustains being-human” (240).10 One might be tempted to say that God can be understood as homologous with the void that sustains the multiplicities, as Milbank points out (158). It would likely be more accurate to say that God is the non-all of humanity, the parallax gap which pulls the human from the merely animal without offering any actual transcendence or possessing positive identity on his own.

As tragedy, then, Žižek’s theology and ontology is powerfully rigorous but undoubtedly dark. It is a vision of Christianity in which absolute freedom is born from the void at the center of reality, a void embodied in the death of God. The only thing one might call hope in this world comes about as a political truth, in the revolutionary community that opposes abstract universality with a Protestant “concrete universality” (reversing the typical association of concrete universality with Catholicism), which, again, is properly dialectical in that

universality appears as such, in its opposition, its negative relation, to the particular organic order; it cuts into every particular community, dividing it from within into those who follow the universal Truth [of revolutionary love] and those who do not. [. . .] Abstract universality is uniting, concrete universality is dividing. Abstract universality is the peaceful foundation of the particulars, concrete universality is the site of struggle—it brings the sword, not love. (294)

I cannot help but read this final statement through the lens of Žižek’s insistence throughout his work that the sword is love, a cold passion, the negation of the ideologies and patterns of life, including the enclosed rationalism of global capitalism. Thus, Žižek’s revolution comes at the cost of plenitude. It is always absent and always created, a life lived in a constant state of emergency. Here, we can sense the power of his atheistic theology, but we must recognize, as he is the first to acknowledge, that beyond this negation there is the void. Tragedy’s only cure is its monstrous repetition in the political, cold love of the revolutionary community, another double kenosis.11 If nothing else, we can respect the consistency of Žižek’s thought. From one perspective, it is by only embracing the void that pure love without remainder can emerge, a love that seeks the universal, untrammeled by self-interest or hope of reward.

John Milbank’s Divine Comedy

Milbank’s long essay makes up the center of the book,12 and he opens his contribution by explicitly acknowledging that the key issue at stake is the role of theism and transcendence in the formulation of a radical, universal logic. Milbank contends that Žižek’s materialist dialectic of universal love is inadequate; instead, he argues that “universal logic must be theistic, must endorse a belief in a transcendent deity” (111). Still, Milbank recognizes that he and Žižek share the same goal: to articulate the materialist consequences of universal logic and of a sweeping ontology. In this respect, he credits Žižek with being more Christian than most contemporary theologians. Milbank pulls no punches, pointing out that his interlocutor’s atheism is

far nearer to “orthodoxy” [. . .] than all those craven, weak, sentimental theologians, doused in multiple tinctures of mauvaise foi, who claim to believe in some sort of remote, abstract, transcendent deity and who yet compromise the universal claims of Christianity in favor of mystical relativism, glorification of hypostatized uncertainty, and practical indulgence in the malignly infinite air-shuttle of mindless “dialogue.” (111, italics in original)

There is something refreshing about a belligerence that is as intelligent as it is abrasive.

Despite their similar goals for a radical, materially consequential theology, Milbank spends his entire essay explaining, defending, and examining “paradox” as an alternative to the dialectics of negativity (112). He applies the significance of paradoxical thinking not only to theological and ontological problems, but also to political, ecclesiological, Christological, aesthetic, and ethical issues. Along with advocating a logic of paradox, Milbank also attempts to articulate an alternative modernity apart from the Protestant one presented by Žižek, even as he recognizes that one cannot simply escape the historical journey that has brought us to where we are today. He acknowledges that authentically Christian developments have occurred as a result of Protestant modernity, specifically recognizing that the “ever-increased emergence of the personal in terms of the search for free expression, sexual liberation, gender equality, and social mobility is ineluctably (as Žižek implies) a Christian phenomenon” (116). Nevertheless, Milbank claims that these developments have been “crippled by the denial of an ultimate ontological reality open to the personal, or for which personhood could sustain itself infinitely in terms of the arrival at a telos of personal fulfillment” (116-17). This is a good example of Milbank’s paradox applied to personal desire: the personal sustains a distinct identity yet is only actualized when caught up in the romance of the ontologically real, participating in a universe charged with God’s self-revelation. The Catholic modernity he advocates would allow for exactly that actualizing romance, while retaining a place for the political, cultural, and scientific discoveries of modernity.

To fully validate his position, Milbank offers a metaphysical alternative to Žižek’s void and multiplicity. I won’t try to rehash that complex ontology here, which, for me, was the most challenging part of the entire book. Suffice it to say, he borrows heavily from the medieval scholastic tradition, ultimately arguing that reality consists of four simultaneous and interrelated modes:13 sameness, difference, and dialectic mediation, united within paradox. The same and the different coincide for Milbank; in theological terms, God’s self-revelation through the material creation is both infinite and finite. This, he claims, is a “true account of mediation” in contrast to which “Hegel offers [. . .] a kind of counterfeit mediation, in which the middle is always exhaustively fractured between the univocal [the same] and the equivocal [the different]” (159, italics in original). Or in Žižek’s terms, Hegel’s mediator vanishes, totally negated by the irresolvable conflict between the univocal and the equivocal.

Milbank is at pains to make this metaphysics philosophically rigorous as well as theologically respectable. Fortunately, for the lay reader like myself, after pages of scholastic heavy lifting, he helpfully offers an illustration he calls a “Misty Conceit.” He asks us to imagine a drive along a river on a cold and foggy morning. He then analyzes this image in metaphysical terms. Ontologically speaking, the mist in the air generates a sameness, a “univocal” being that affects everything, causing the world to appear in a very peculiar and particular light. It is everywhere and inescapable, providing a frame for the world we are experiencing. At the same time, the mist makes every individual object in the landscape (trees, rocks, houses) appear even more vividly as itself, that is to say, as different from every other object, a “suppressed and emergent equivocation.” The univocity and equivocity of mist and discrete entities functions, in turn, dialectically, but, and this is key for Milbank’s disagreement with Žižek, not antagonistically. The mist does not seek to destroy or sublate the tree in a Hegelian manner, just as the tree does not desire to overcome the mist in some sort of arboreal Aufhebung. Sameness, difference, and dialectics are all, thus, mutually coexistent in a paradoxical but no less true reality. Here’s Milbank:

If to be hidden is to be shown (against the background of “mist,” as including a misty density proper to the thing itself), and therefore to be shown is to be hidden, then this implies not an impossible contradiction that must be overcome (dialectics) but rather an outright impossible coincidence of opposites that can (somehow, but we know not how) be persisted with. This is the Catholic logic of paradox—of an “overwhelming glory” (para-doxa) which nonetheless saturates our everyday reality. (163, italics in the original)

It is only by thinking of the world in paradoxical terms, of the finite with but not equated to the infinite, of God as in the world but not identical with the world, that we can think at all. Only paradox, for Milbank, allows us to acknowledge the univocal, equivocal, and dialectical qualities of reality without allowing one to devour the others.

Having explained what a paradoxical ontology would look like, Milbank asks whether it is paradox or dialectic that offers the better presentation of the truth of Christian belief (177). It is here that Milbank’s comedy comes out, that outpouring of a “plenitude of love” spoken of by Davis, as a unification of opposites. In his paradoxical reading of the Trinity, for instance, Milbank argues that the Holy Spirit, far from being the sublation of God’s death in the Son, is the “third,” the mediating “between that always allowed the passage from the one and the two, the same and the different” (185). In this manner, the “Spirit lies analogically between identity and difference, yet it allows the univocal [one God] and the equivocal [The Father and the Son] their place, since it is itself entirely the upshot of the interplay between them” (186). In this reading of the Godhead, “there is no dialectical agon whatsoever, not even of the ‘playful’ variety”; instead, the Trinity relates more like participants in a “dance” (186).

Once this play enters history with the Incarnation, Milbank’s own version of materialism can come to its fullest logical articulation, one that sounds almost like vague spiritualism. If the mediation of opposites in a substantive relation occurs in the Trinity, then the transcendent God can also become the immanent God-Man, and, more radically, the material finite creation as other than God is also, as it were, the infinite God. Material reality is caught up in this paradoxical relationship with God. This leads Milbank to admit that atheism’s assertion that “there is only this world” is “correct,” but that, consequently, “one needs to take in a much more serious and nonrhetorical sense the idea that this world—or the exceptional person within this world [Christ]—is then God. Hence ‘there is only this world’ can also be logically read as ‘there is only God.’” (189).

Here, again, the slippery logic of paradox allows Milbank to wriggle free from some version of pantheistic religious “obscurantism” (one of Žižek’s favorite pejorations, and indeed, he accuses Milbank of being pagan on precisely this point). Milbank argues that this united world of the finite and the infinite, of God and material, allows for an “alternative Trinitarian modernity” which would “affirm that there is an infinite God in his replete immanence, and yet that there is also an infinite finitude” (193). The materialist, even political, consequences of this theology are significant, for “God from his uttermost depths is the God who points all the way back to the reality of the stone by the wayside and the man making his joyful or weary way along the way itself” (193). Far from the void becoming or sustaining man, or from God dying to become man in the form of a revolutionary collective, God remains an actual, transcendent infinitude who immanently relates to an actual, finite (yet participating paradoxically in infinity), material world. In this way, “Paradox alone sustains both God and the reality of the world, so permitting us to search and hope for a meaningful world” (193)

This is the joyful, comedic reading of Christianity that Milbank avers against Žižek’s equally rigorous yet tragic one. Where Žižek’s Christianity finds its fullest and ultimate expression in radical political love, against the backdrop of an ontological void, Milbank’s incarnate but still transcendent paradoxical Trinity allows for hope in an ultimate and actual materially significant reality that participates in the infinite dance.

Although Milbank’s argument is for an ontology that grounds meaningful political action and human worship, he only addresses the practical, political consequences of his argument in passing, leaving those implications to his other work. Žižek, on the other hand, precisely because the transcendent does not exist except in its virtual realization in the real finite human community, gives more points of practical resistance. Still, neither political vision is entirely clear or fully convincing, or, indeed, as materialistically articulate as one might expect. There are few actual, political, and material examples of dialectical love or paradoxical finitude offered by either writer. One could contend that this isn’t the nature of their task—they are, after all, theoreticians. Nevertheless, the text’s dearth of activist engagement shows that Eugene McCarraher’s early criticism of Radical Orthodoxy—that it “ought to get out into the world”—can still be leveled.14 Talk of materialism does not equal material action. Furthermore, when real political visions do emerge, these highly intelligent interlocutors are not beyond slipping into tired accusations. At one point in the debate, Milbank chides Žižek for advocating a stark totalitarian dictatorship (which he does) that is “nostalgic” for Eastern European communism, while Žižek, in turn, characterizes Milbank’s “alternate modernity in which democratic universality and individual freedom remain grounded in a hierarchic proportional order in which each member is in its own place, thereby contributing to global harmony” (a fair description) as “a soft-Fascist vision, if there ever was one” (250).

Not that one would wish simple agreement from thinkers of this caliber. As Davis points out, there is an intellectual sophistication and commitment here that explodes the enclosed binaries that have given us the debates between New Atheists and fundamentalist Christians, thus allowing for a real, transformational dialogue (8, 10). That said, Milbank and Žižek’s debate reveals that the two partners in the marriage of radical theology are not ultimately compatible, even if they form a powerful coalition. Žižek’s atheism might be easier for a modern to swallow, and indeed, it is the kind of sympathetic reading of Christianity as true, though not by its own terms, that has rallied unlikely supporters, such as Terry Eagleton and Camille Paglia, to Christianity’s defense.

At the same time, though, is not Žižek still trapped within the horizon of something like the very humanism he decries, a tragic but well-intentioned striving for justice without reserve that, ultimately, will be swallowed back into the abyss of a primal void? In which case, is the ontological argument really necessary to elicit direct political action? It seems as though the philosophical project could be reduced, in the end, to the power and the glory of revolution with no ground other than itself and its own freedom—one of Žižek’s infamous “lost causes.”15 In contrast, Milbank’s Catholic Comedy, as logically coherent as it may appear, ultimately still depends upon the supplement of faith (faith being, perhaps, the ultimate monstrous Žižekian parallax), without which notions like the Trinity and the Incarnation appear as yet one more set of illusory substitutes for the nonexistent Big Other. Milbank himself acknowledges that divine love is still hidden from us, despite the Incarnation. We are still unavoidably modern, after all, and thus any appeal to the existence of the transcendence demands an act of radical faith even as it requires a thoughtful, consistent, and, in its own terms, convincing metaphysics.

In other words, as much as these two writers are able to talk to each other in far more articulate, significant, and meaningful ways than can, say, Richard Dawkins and Os Guinness, and even though they may be keen diagnosticians of the separation of faith and reason that has produced modern rationalism, they remain divided by, I believe, a parallax gap that, in and of themselves, they will not be able to cross. As dialectical opposites, they have much to offer: Žižek demonstrates the manner in which a ruthless journey of secular thought may bring one to praise the truth of religion, while Milbank, in turn, shows the way in which faith can provide the ground for a complete and coherent philosophical framework. Nevertheless, as advocates of distinct ontologies, there is an absolute difference between a tragic universality born out of the “non-all” of radical materialism and a comedic transcendence working itself out in immanence. To their credit, both writers, individually and in debate, offer us a way to challenge the banal repetition of capitalism, liberalism, and rationalism’s follies. And perhaps that is the strength of the new developments in material theology, atheist Christianity, and Radical Orthodoxy: the trauma of contradiction, the abysmal freedom of choice between Either and Or.

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1. The Monstrosity of Christ offers a useful bibliography of works that reflect this convergence. See, for instance, Theology and the Political: The New Debate, ed. Creston Davis, John Milbank, and Slavoj Žižek (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2005); Phillip Blond, Post-Secular Philosophy: Between Philosophy and Theology (London, UK: Routledge, 1998); and Ward Blanton, Displacing Christian Origins: Philosophy, Secularity, and the New Testament (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007). I am also grateful to Artur Rosman for calling my attention to other helpful titles cited in this review, as well as for his insightful comments.

2. Žižek is an exceedingly prolific writer and speaker, who has, with his striking and often heterodox proclamations, both made friends and enemies. A popular and negative assessment was recently published by Adam Kirsch as “The Deadly Jester,” The New Republic, December 3, 2008. For a theological reading, see Marcus Pound, Žižek: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), as well as “Lacanian Psychoanalysis and the Traumatic Intervention of the Eucharist,” the interview with Pound in The Other Journal 10 (2007).

3. John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, 2nd ed. (London, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, [1990] 2006). For an introduction to the movement, see Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology, edited by John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward (London, UK: Routledge, 1999).

4. To borrow the title of another Milbank book, Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon (London, UK: Routledge, 2003).

5. Of course, both the comedic and the tragic have been co-opted in highly conservative ways, the tragic often used as an excuse to leave the suffering and injustice of the world as it is, the comedic functioning as an ideological apologia for patriarchy and biopower.

6. Both terms Žižek would likely see as ideological evasions.

7. Or more specifically, Žižek claims, following certain theological traditions, that “Crucifixion is Resurrection,” in that Christ’s crucifixion allows the Holy Spirit to come into existence (291).

8. He acknowledges his debt to Alain Badiou here, another atheist philosopher who has had a significant influence on radical theology (90).

9. For a brief and highly non-technical discussion of this, see my review of Žižek’s The Parallax View, “Following Žižek to the End,” The Other Journal 8 (2006).

10. In a follow-up debate to the book, Žižek repeats his formulation that instead of “God is dead,” the proper materialist statement would be “God is Unconscious,” that is to say, the ground of the human unconscious. From “The Return of Christ,” public lecture, Institute of Contemporary Arts, London, UK, June 18, 2009. A recording of the event (unfortunately, of poor quality) can be found here.

11. Double kenosis is a key theological concept for Žižek, whereby “God’s self-alienation overlaps with the alienation from God of the human individual who experiences himself as alone in a godless world” (57).

12. Although Žižek gets the opportunity for both opening salvo as well as final word, the book gives both authors more or less the same amount of space. Fortunately, for us, the debate has spilled out beyond this single volume; both Žižek and Milbank have essays responding to the book in a forthcoming issue of Political Theology, edited by Davis.

13. “Modes” is my term, not Milbank’s, and a more rigorous Thomistic vocabulary, which, alas, I lack, would probably afford a set of descriptors more faithful to his argument.

14. “Theology at the Barricades” Commonweal, July 13, 2001, 21-24.

15. See Slavoj Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes (London, UK: Verso, 2008).

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Paul Jaussen :
Paul Jaussen is a lecturer at Case Western Reserve University. He rides a motorcycle.