Toward a Material Belief
Competing Christian ideologies result from varying interpretations of a largely singular body of texts. That is, although our interpretive systems are rooted in readings of the same text, they lead us in supposedly antagonistic directions. But this is not only a matter of textual interpretation—the issue of competing fundamentalisms and ideologies is also one of practiced faith, of material belief. We can no longer afford to fragment the issue of interpretation from that of materially practiced faith; belief and praxis are indivisible. Rather than cognitive ideologies producing religious rituals and practices, it is those very religious practices that produce certain ideological positions.
Overcoming a Sequential Understanding
The prevailing understanding of the ideological basis of religious fundamentalisms seems to be that of a sequence. It posits that our operative hermeneutical system determines our praxis. The primary religious task within this sequential understanding, then, is hermeneutical and cognitive with the issue of structuring a lived life—that is, material practice itself—deemed a secondary concern. Religious practice is thus directed by the ideological and doctrinal claims.
The sequential understanding of religious belief and practice must be considered insufficient, though, as a result of the very nature of human being. Rather than acting out of cognitive hermeneutics that function within a vacated, nonmaterial void, our material practice typically precedes our cognitive conception. There is no nonmaterial realm in which we work out our doctrinal and philosophical convictions apart from any sort of material action. Instead, we are characterized by our being in the world, the material world, as Martin Heidegger observed.1 Take, for example, a priest. The priest has been practicing his faith longer than he has been interpreting the text from his influential seat of power. And the priest did not wait to practice his religiosity until he worked out an entire theoretical framework—his theorizing only happened in the wake of his practice.
The problem with discussions of hermeneutics, ideologies, and doctrines is the way in which they marginalize the crucial role of material practice.2 Instead of highlighting the embodied nature of human being, discussions that originate from a sequential understanding orient us toward a non-embodied realm, thereby positing a reductionist understanding of human being. A proper characterization of the nature of human being must always account for the material world, as we are essentially embodied creatures.
I find a helpful alternative model in Pierre Bourdieu’s “logic of practice.” Bourdieu writes, “Practice has a logic which is not that of the logician.”3 A bodily act is not always predicated on a carefully laid out system of methodological thought. Bourdieu continues:
Practical mimesis [the acquiring of habit and virtue] has nothing in common with an imitation that would presuppose a conscious effort to reproduce a gesture, an utterance or an object explicitly constituted as a model . . . [instead] the process of reproduction . . . take[s] place below the level of consciousness, expression and the reflexive distance which these presuppose. . . . What is “learned by the body” is not something that one has, like knowledge that can be brandished, but something that one is.5
As Bourdieu helpfully explains, there is a certain way in which bodily praxis develops theoretical understandings. This model stands in direct opposition to the assumptions of sequential understanding.
Such a theory is perfectly exemplified in the Marxist understandings of the ideological state apparatus. As originally expressed by Louis Althusser, the ideological state apparatus was initially about the perpetuation of a certain economic or political system throughout time.6 Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek adopted this concept to demonstrate his notion of material belief. Žižek argues, “[Althusser’s] theory of the Ideological State-Apparatuses assigned the crucial role in the reproduction of an ideology to ‘external’ rituals and practices with regards to which ‘inner’ beliefs and convictions are strongly secondary. . . .What counted in it was external obedience, not ‘inner conviction.’”7 For Žižek, Althusser represents the overcoming of a sequential understanding of belief, the inauguration of proper materiality.
This is primarily why Žižek is drawn to the work of the seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal. In Pascal’s famous wager, he instructs those of us seeking belief to practice religion as if we already believe; his assumption is that belief will follow practice. Žižek’s claims are predicated on his citation of the Pascalian wager:
Get it into your head that, if you are unable to believe, it is because of your passions, since reason impels you to believe and yet you cannot do so. Concentrate then not on convincing yourself by multiplying proofs of God’s existence but by diminishing your passions. You want to find faith and you do not know the road. You want to be cured of unbelief and you ask for the remedy: learn from those who were once bound like you and who now wager all they have. These are people who know the road you wish to follow, who have been cured of the affliction of which you wish to be cured: follow the way by which they began. They behaved just as if they did believe, taking holy water, having masses said, and so on. That will make you believe quite naturally, and will make you more docile.8
In a summary of the Pascalian argument that is as much Žižekian as it is Pascalian, Žižek concludes, “The implicit logic of [the] argument is: kneel down and you shall believe that you knelt down because of your belief?that is, your following the ritual is an expression/effect of your inner belief; in short, the ‘external’ ritual performatively generates its own ideological foundation.”9 Material practice, then, precedes and actually serves to generate cognitive belief. It is our everyday habits and practices that serve as the material foundation for our ideologies and religious beliefs.
Žižek is not interested in an inward disposition; instead, he holds a radically exterior, material understanding of belief. He argues that belief is not maintained through passion or emotion but through ritual and practice.10 For this reason, Žižek writes, “Religious belief . . . is not merely, or even primarily, an inner conviction; but the Church is an institution and its rituals (prayers, baptism, confirmation, confession . . .) which far from being a mere secondary externalization of the inner belief, stands for the very mechanism that generates it.”11 Žižek is chiefly interested in the way in which our religious rituals and practices generate, even stand in the place of, cognitive belief. The practice is the belief; the two, for Žižek, are synonymous and cannot be disjoined from one another. If material practice precedes cognitive conception, then the very act of our belief is therefore inherently bound up in our material practice.
Žižek looks to Pascal once again to substantiate these claims. Speaking of the way material practice forms cognitive thought processes, Pascal writes, “For we must make no mistake about ourselves: we are as much automation as mind . . . Proofs only convince the mind; habit provides the strongest proofs and those that are most believed. It inclines the automation, which leads the mind unconsciously along with it.”12 If we are to read Pascal charitably, we must conclude that Pascal’s use of the term automation must include the human body as such; at the very least, this is one of the presuppositions of Žižek’s reading of Pascal.13 This reading makes room for both the unconscious and the bodily act in our construction of belief.
The need for grounded reasoning and critical thought is obvious, but Žižek is more interested in the way our thoughts only serve to substantiate our claims. For Pascal, the inwardness of human reasoning is directly correspondent to exterior actions. Žižek argues that religious theorizing only serves to persuade those of us who already believe; we tend to generate content in order to theoretically support the ideological positions we have already assumed in practice. He refers to this cyclical nature of belief?the way that grounded reasons only appeal to the believers?as “transference.”14 Adam Kotsko is right to point out, then, that ideological beliefs are nothing less than rationalized cover-ups of our material actions.15 According to this line of reasoning, there can be no belief that is not believed unconditionally, no theorization that is not justification.16 Our belief transcends and passes completely beyond rational judgment and evaluation.
The value of Žižek’s argument lies in his claim that transference, the cyclical nature of belief, is not only applicable to the case of conversion. Instead, it has a sort of “universal application.”17 In his attempt to demonstrate the universality of this quality, Žižek cites canned laughter. The laugh track on a sitcom is not merely a cue for us to laugh; it also laughs in our place so that we do not have to laugh. The laugh track embodies and incarnates our enjoyment.
Perhaps the most pertinent example of the way in which our material practices form our ideologies is the sacrament of Eucharist. Our belief as participants cannot be separated from our actual eating, smelling, tasting, and digesting of the bread and wine. In the Eucharist, our belief is intrinsically bound up in the ritual itself. The ritual gives rise to belief; the ritual is the belief itself. This is much like the way we raise children in a community of faith: no one delays young children from participating in the liturgy and life of the community until they can sign off on a comprehensive doctrinal statement. On the contrary, we hope that by participating in the rituals and liturgies of the community of faith children will be led to a place of profound and authentic belief. This belief tends to result from the formation of material practice and the cultivation of a life of virtue.
Žižek’s assertion that our rituals believe on our behalf further illustrates how the myth of the sequential understanding of belief leading to practice is false. Žižek argues that “displacement is original and constitutive.”18 To clarify, he thinks that “There is no self-present being of whom belief could be dispossessed, because belief only arises in the gap [between the participant and the ritual itself.]”19 This idea further illuminates the concept of interpassivity, whereby we are passive through another’s activity and a distance is thus created between us and the rituals that sustain our belief.20 In a certain sense, Žižek argues, cognitive processes become interpassive through the activity and bodily form of belief. This is precisely why Žižek wants to examine the ways in which these rituals believe on behalf of us as participants.21
Considering the possibility of pure, unfiltered belief is terrifying for Žižek; he argues that it would be traumatic and mercilessly imposed, much like our entrance into a necessarily linguistic world. This notion is not all together unfamiliar, though, to the Christian tradition. The encounter with the face of the God of the Old Testament is imagined to simultaneously be an experience of unspeakable beauty and horror, an experience that ultimately results in death because of an inherent lack in capacity on the part of the viewer. Žižek adopts Thomas Aquinas’s work on the necessity of the sacrament as a way of working around the superabundance of truth that believers are confronted with in the wake of God’s revelation. In light of the disturbing experience of unfiltered reality, Žižek and Aquinas see the sacrament, the religious ritual, as a filter without which we could not believe at all.22 In fact, through our participation in the religious ritual, Žižek argues that we believe before we ever believe. He writes, “By following a custom, the subject believes without knowing it, so that the final conversion is merely a formal act by means of which we recognize what we have already believed. In other words, what the behaviourist reading of Pascalian ‘custom’ misses is the crucial fact that the external custom is always a material support for the subject’s unconscious.”23 In the embodied practice of the religious ritual, we find ourselves believing, often before our cognitive processes ever catch up.
The overcoming of the sequential understanding of faith, of cognitive belief leading to material practice, paves the way for a revaluation of the nature of religiosity in general. If we primarily inhabit the world through material praxis in a distinctly religious way, then we are necessarily religious beings well before we ever create theories to rationalize our practices.24
Human beings are inherently and necessarily religious beings; we all believe in something. That is, we participate in and inhabit metanarratives that define out interpretation of reality and direct the trajectories of our lives toward certain ends.25 A proper understanding of religiosity must absorb the realm of the so-called secular into itself; there is only one reality.26 There is no neutral space from which we can define our reality apart from some system of value or practice predicated on value. Our everyday lived lives are founded upon the systems and understandings of reality and goodness that we have?often subconsciously but nonetheless whole-heartily?adopted. Even for those of us participating in nontraditional religions (e.g., projects of nationalism, capitalism, scholasticism), we begin with material practice; the articulation of ideological foundations and justifications only takes place in the wake of religious practice. We, as human beings, believe before we believe, and we were practicing religion well before we ever thought or theorized about it.27
Human being is characterized by embodiment, and being in the world is necessarily mediated through bodily senses. Our doctrinal and ideological expressions, because of the way in which they result from a sensual, lived experience, necessarily result in insufficiency.28 A proper conception of religiosity must carefully articulate the priority of our material, bodily practice, as well as the multiplicity of narratives that we inhabit and allow to define our reality. Belief is determined by material action; material action is belief.
In practice, we always structure our lives around some sort of conception of the good life. We are embodied, always already inhabiting metanarratives that define our reality and shape the trajectories, the chief goals and ends, of our lives. The question, then, within this newly oriented and prioritized understanding of the nature of religiosity, concerns the direction in which our practices lead us. The examination of fundamentalisms can no longer be relegated to the ideological foundations of certain traditional religious groups and reform movements. In light of the collapse between the secular and the religious, this discussion must dispose itself toward the multiplicity of fundaments inhabited and manifested by all people. Our critiques of religious ideology must therefore account for the priority of material practice; they cannot be dominated by our examinations and critiques at a cognitive, theoretical level. Any sort of discussion concerning competing narratives or competing fundamentalisms must be on the grounds of telos. The analysis must be predicated on material belief, on the lived reality of a political system that directs its adherents toward certain ends, toward the development of certain concepts and ways of viewing the world.
1. Heidegger, Being & Time (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1962), 85.
2. Jamie Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009), 64.
3. Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), 86.
4. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 67.
5. Bordieu, The Logic of Practice, 73.
6. Adam Kotsko, Žižek and Theology (London, UK: T & T Clark, 2008), 23.
7. Žižek, Tarrying With the Negative: Kant, Hegel, and the Critique of Ideology (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 229–30.
8. Pascal, Pensées (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1966), 152–53.
9. Žižek, Mapping Ideology (London, UK: Verso, 1994), 12-13.
10. Marcus Pound, Žižek: A (Very) Critical Introduction (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2008), 55 and 62.
11. Slavoj Žižek, The Žižek Reader, ed. Elizabeth Wright and Edmond Leo Wright (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 1999), 65–66.
12. Pascal, Pensées, 274.
13. Michael Moriarty, “Žižek, Religion and Ideology” Paragraph 24, no. 2 (July 2001): 126.
14. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (New York, NY: Verso, 2008), 34–37.
15. Kotsko, Žižek and Theology, 24.
16. Pound, Žižek, 62.
17. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, 38.
18. Žižek, The Plague of Fantasies (New York, NY: Verso, 1997), 108.
19. Pound, Žižek, 61.
20. Žižek, The Žižek Reader, 42, 104.
21. Ibid., The Sublime Object of Ideology, 34.
22. Ibid., 61, 63.
23. Žižek, The Sublime Pbject of Ideology, 39.
24. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 69.
25. William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009).
26. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2005), 58.
27. Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), 26.
28. Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 70.
Zachary Thomas Settle is the theology editor for The Other Journal. He earned an MA in the philosophy of religion at the University of Denver, and he currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Settle has written for the Journal of Cultural and Religious Theory and Christ and Pop Culture, and he regularly contributes to The Other Journal.