January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
April 21, 2011
[We are offering three different reviews of this book–kind of a review symposium from different angles. You can find the first review here.]
John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, and Creston Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (Brazos Press, 2010).
Reviewed by Nathan Barczi
Nathan Barczi is an economist and an elder at Christ the King Presbyterian Church in Cambridge, Mass., where he lives with his wife and two children. He holds degrees from Stanford University and MIT, and is currently studying Systematic and Philosophical Theology at the University of Nottingham.
Although the essays in this volume locate themselves relative to the re-discovery of Paul by continental philosophy, the main ideas set forth by at least Milbank and Žižek have been promulgated in earlier work and in non-Pauline contexts. A reader looking for a clear debate between Milbank and Žižek, as opposed to a loosely related collection of their work, would be better directed to their earlier engagement The Monstrosity of Christ, also edited by Creston Davis. It is, nonetheless, a powerful and provocative collection of essays. For the sake of space I restrict attention to those by Milbank and Žižek themselves, although Catherine Pickstock’s essay on liturgy is certainly intriguing.
In the opening essay to the volume, Milbank stands Paul, with and against Giorgio Agamben, against the dominant standards of law and contract as reactions to death. At the foundations of a civilization for which law is basic, Milbank argues, stand an original violence, a Hobbesian condition which can be no more than smoothed over by modern governments and technocrats. Against this, Milbank develops a Pauline politics founded on an ontology of peace, which takes resurrection rather than death as basic, and in which the latent violence of law is overcome by trust. He sees in the modern political turn to theological idiom a cynical partnership of violence between conservative evangelicalism and liberal governments, driven by the need of the latter to legitimate transgressions of their own legal authority. “Where legal authority once more assumes a manifestly armed guise, the danger that this guise will give it an anarchic appearance may render it necessary to look for legitimation in terms of an absolute transcendent personal authority.” (28)
In Žižek’s opening essay the interaction is primarily with Alain Badiou and the idea of the Truth Event, the unpredictable and underivable happening which renders legible the oppression of a given structure. Though the Truth Event has the quality of a sheerly contingent irruption upon a state of affairs, it nevertheless transforms the world into one in which it is now the old state of affairs which seems incongruous – the ancien regime in the wake of the French Revolution, for instance. From the perspective of the new world, the contingency of the event is obscured (here, Žižek’s reading of Badiou aligns well with Milbank’s criticism of Protestantism near the end of the book, that it assumes that the history we have is the only one that could have transpired). For Badiou, Paul is the first theoretician of the Truth Event, offering the resurrection as the archetype underlying them all, signifying a break in the reigning order of things – the “law”. Milbank’s final essay is likewise concerned with Badiou, and in particular with the way in which Paul’s Trinitarian theology and the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo most adequately satisfy Badiou’s Platonist preference for the transcendent, actual, and relational as ontologically basic. Like Milbank, Žižek sees Paul conceiving of a cycle of mutually supporting sin, law, and suffering, and of the resurrection as a rejection of suffering as original or redemptive in itself.
But lest one get the idea that Milbank and Žižek are in basic agreement, Žižek’s second contribution covers ground developed more fully in Monstrosity, arguing that Christ’s cry of dereliction should be taken altogether literally: God is abandoned of God; God loses his faith; God dies and, with him, any notion of the Lacanian “big Other” standing outside our world as a guarantee of the future. In dying, God in Christ leaves the world over to us; Žižek argues that Christianity is most properly claimed as the grounds for a radically atheist community of believers. In his final contribution, Žižek fleshes this out further, explaining what his brand of Christian atheism would motivate its adherents to do, living in what he characterizes as an apocalyptic age.
“We live in a world of apocalyptic scenarios,” he writes, “all too imminent and easy to imagine.” (191) What would it mean, Žižek asks, to live in such a world following a God who has disavowed belief in God, and who has handed it all over to us, the community of the spirit? It means that ‘We are the ones we have been waiting for,’ as put by a Hopi proverb quoted by Žižek (and also, notably, by then-candidate Obama during the run-up to the 2008 presidential election). It means not only that there is no big Other standing outside of us guaranteeing the future but, worse, in a reversal of the optimistic Marxist-Hegelian view of the process of history, it means that the big Other stands against us, proclaiming our doom and not our salvation. “That,” according to Žižek, “is why theology is emerging again as a point of reference for radical politics: the paradox is that it is emerging not in order to supply a divine big Other guaranteeing the final success of our endeavors but, on the contrary, as a token of our radical freedom with no big Other to rely on.” It was once materialism that claimed to offer an escape to freedom from the hands of a capriciously predestinating God, but today, with the end of the material world inscribed in droughts, tsunamis, nuclear crises, wars and rumors of wars, Žižek locates our freedom to fight for the future in God abandoned of God.
This is Žižek’s answer to the question with which Davis begins his introduction to the volume, whether in a world “coming apart at the seams… Can anyone, or any discipline, speak up?” (1) It is an answer which turns Nietzsche’s aesthetic rejection of Christianity on its head: for Žižek, God on the cross does not elevate the weak, but discloses the weakness of God, in light of which our strength must be made perfect if there is to be any future. The disagreement between Milbank and Žižek is here at its starkest: for Milbank, the resurrection is the vindication of precisely the kenotic weakness of trust and, indeed, of love. These authors “speak up”, then, with radically different voices – one which recoils from weakness and one which embraces it, one driven by the threat of final disaster and the other drawn to the hope of final reconciliation.