An interview over Zizek

As promised, below is the English transcript of my forthcoming interview over Zizek and Theology.

1. In general, what are the fundamental formulations of Žižek on theology?

Žižek interprets Christianity along Hegelian lines, as an enactment of the death of God. His approach is similar to that of Thomas Altizer, whose declaration of the death of God caused significant controversy in the US in the 1960s. The basic claim is that when God became incarnate in Christ, that was a total and irreversible decision to empty himself into Christ—and so when Christ died on the cross, God truly and irreversibly died, emptying himself into the world.

2. What is the peculiarity of his approach?

Žižek’s approach goes against the mainstream of Christian theology, where the doctrine of the Trinity has allowed theologians to affirm that only one of the divine persons underwent the ordeal of the incarnation—hence isolating the impact of the incarnation on the divine life. From the orthodox perspective, it is correct to say that “God is dead” in view of Christ’s death, but in a more important sense, God “survived” even when Christ was buried in the tomb.

The Hegelian approach Žižek adopts also differs from traditional Christology, which holds that God raised Christ personally and individually from the dead. In the Hegelian interpretation, by contrast, Christ’s divine power is “resurrected” as the new form of community known as the “Holy Spirit.” Here, however, Žižek differs from Hegel insofar as he views the “Holy Spirit” not as an institutional form of life (like the Catholic Church) but as a fundamentally new form of human life together.

3. In what sense are the works of Žižek, especially the latest ones, relevant to the current theological debate?

I see many mainstream theologians as torn between two desires. On the one hand, they recognize that the Greek philosophical categories through which the early Church Fathers interpreted the gospel were not the best fit and in some ways wound up distorting the Christian message. On the other hand, though, they want to remain faithful to the orthodox doctrines that grew out of that conceptuality. Karl Barth is emblematic of this conflict—he claims to be providing a radical new basis for Christian doctrine, and yet he always comes up with essentially the same answers that orthodoxy had always provided.

In that context, I think Žižek’s approach represents a way out of this deadlock, insofar as the Hegelian interpretation of Christianity attends to the inherent logic of the incarnation without troubling itself about philosophical presuppositions such as the unchangeability of God. In a sense, Hegel, Altizer, and Žižek may represent a real attempt to follow up on Paul’s claim to know nothing but Christ crucified.

From the other direction, I believe that Žižek’s project provides support for other radical attempts to rethink the Christian tradition—particularly in the various liberation theologies. This is not to say that such theologians “need” Žižek, but rather that Žižek’s work could point more mainstream theologians toward the creative, radical work that is already going on.

4. In what sense is the argumentation of Žižek on this subject complex and unusual?

One challenge for theologians who want to read Žižek is the importance of Lacan for his project. While Žižek’s reading of Hegel is somewhat idiosyncratic, Hegel is at least familiar to most theologians—Lacan, on the other hand, is a less frequent point of reference and is in many ways more difficult to approach given that he uses a lot of his own jargon and symbols in developing his concepts. I try to provide some orientation in Lacanian thought in my book, so that people can at least know where to begin.

5. How can we understand the claim of Žižek that, to become a true dialectical materialist, one must go through the Christian experience? Is not this about a paradoxical stance from him?

Žižek understands the Christian experience in terms of the death of God. For him, Christianity is the most radical form of atheism insofar as even God himself becomes an unbeliever in Christ’s cry of dereliction on the cross. This differs from other forms of atheism or skepticism, because Žižek believes that most people who deny a particular God still believe in something else that fills the same role. A scientist, for instance, will generally believe in something like the laws of nature, or a Communist might believe in the laws of historical necessity. Only the Christian experience of a God who doesn’t believe in himself provides the guarantee that we won’t be able to sneak in a new idol to take the old God’s place.

The Christian experience is thus the experience of the undeniable and irrevocable emptying out of any transcendent meaning or purpose—of any “master signifier,” in Lacanian terms. From the traditional Christian perspective, this may seem contradictory or strange, but from Žižek’s own perspective, it doesn’t seem right to call it paradoxical.

6. How can we understand the fact that Žižek is interested in the emancipatory potential offered by Christian theology?

Žižek believes that the total emptying out of transcendent meaning is necessary to open up the possibility of real freedom. For him, death and resurrection represent the movement of completely withdrawing from the present order and setting to work building something new.

7. How does Žižek analyze the continental philosophy and the future of Christian theology from the legacy of Paul of Tarsus? What is the significance of Paul, in this perspective?

For Žižek, Paul’s Christian communities are a model of withdrawing from the present order—or as Žižek puts it in The Puppet and the Dwarf, “unplugging” from the force of law. Where many interpreters believe that Paul is an opponent of the Jewish law, Žižek claims that Paul is trying to give Gentiles access to the uniquely Jewish stance toward the law. In this perspective, Paul’s famous discussion of the law inciting its own transgression in Romans 7 is not talking about the Jewish law, but about distinctively pagan attitudes toward the law. Paul is trying to give his Gentile followers a way out of the vicious cycle he describes there.

This is relevant for today, insofar as Žižek views contemporary culture as embodying a kind of law that incites its own transgression—everything has to be “subversive” and “irreverent.” People don’t feel guilty about having sex, but about not having enough sex. In this context, rebellion against social norms becomes meaningless. A completely different stance that breaks the dichotomy of obedience and rebellion is needed, and that’s what Paul provides in Žižek’s view.

8. To what extent are Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Chesterton leading thinkers in the theological stance of the Slovenian philosopher?

This is an area where I believe Žižek has been misunderstood. Many readers view his use of these thinkers, particularly Chesterton, as an endorsement. In reality, though, his ultimate goal is to show that they don’t go far enough. He enjoys Chesterton’s Hegelian style, for example, but he views Chesterton’s Catholicism as a betrayal of the gospel that returns to the pagan approach to law and transgression. Similarly, though Pascal and Kierkegaard provide very real insights, he wants to go beyond them because they don’t take the next step and embrace the death of God.

9. What are the main points of the debate between Žižek and Milbank in “The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic”?

The encounter between Žižek and Milbank is the encounter between the Hegelian death of God approach and traditional orthodoxy. The debate was productive insofar as it allowed Žižek to develop his critique of traditional theology, particularly of the doctrine of the Trinity, and to reflect on the ethics implied in his position, but both authors’ essays were so long and full of so many digressions that it was almost impossible to discern any actual debate.

For me, the biggest benefit of this debate was that it allowed Žižek to draw a clear line in the sand. Milbank’s followers had sometimes viewed Žižek as a natural ally of their Radical Orthodoxy project, but Žižek declares that Milbank’s vision—which is centered on escaping from the problems of modernity by reasserting hierarchical authority and traditional family values—as “light fascism.” He also makes it clear that he views Milbank’s Anglo-Catholicism, like Chesterton’s Catholicism, as a reversion into the pagan stance toward law and transgression.

10. To what extent does the debate between these two thinkers deepen the dialogue between faith and reason?

In my view, the debate was a disappointment. Žižek and Milbank are simply too far apart for a truly productive struggle to emerge. Far more interesting, in my view, is the confrontation staged between Žižek and Terry Eagleton in Ola Sigurdson’s Theology and Marxism in Eagleton and Žižek: A Conspiracy of Hope. A confrontation with a less traditional theologian like Jurgen Moltmann or Catherine Keller would also have been more interesting. Between Žižek and Milbank, though, there was little more than a missed encounter. Žižek has not yet found a theological interlocutor who can challenge him in a productive way—and I hope that someone does step up to fill that role, because it is so rare for a contemporary philosopher to have any interest at all in contemporary theology. I don’t think I am the right person for the job, but I hope that in my book, I helped to clear the space for such an encounter to occur.

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7 Responses to “An interview over Zizek”

  1. Drew Sumrall Says:

    Adam, I read your Žižek book last week. Well done.

  2. terenceblake Says:

    Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
    Very interesting interview with Adam Kotsko on Zizek and theology. I think this is a very useful corrective to Bruno Latour’s views on religion, which can be qualified as expounding his own version of a theology of the death of God as transcendent signifier. Unlike Zizek however this is not included in a notion of withdrawing from the present order and attaining real freedom. We have already seen the same conservatism in Latour’s views on science: he wants to criticise the current accounts and replace them with better ones, while leaving everything as it is.

  3. Matthew Petersen Says:

    Perhaps Wayne Cristaudo’s book, Religion, Redemption and Revolution, on Rosenstock-Huessy and Rosenzweig would be the place to look for a theological perspective that could engage with Zizek.

  4. erin Says:

    just another note of thanks. I appreciate the very clear, thumbnail sketch…and have ordered the book. :)


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