Friday, 21 September 2007

On Barth and Žižek

The October issue of Modern Theology was released today, and it includes some excellent articles. I was especially interested in Kenneth Oakes, “The Question of Nature and Grace in Karl Barth: Humanity as Creature and as Covenant-Partner,” Modern Theology 23:4 (2007), 595-616 – an article which is also relevant to yesterday’s discussion. Oakes offers a careful and sophisticated defence of Barth against the criticisms of Przywara and Milbank, i.e., that Barth separates nature and grace, with the result that human beings are construed as “closed and alien to the grace of God” (p. 597). Oakes shows that Barth was in fact remarkably close to de Lubac – in Barth’s own words, “man in the Bible is the being for whom, whether he knows it or not, it is necessary and essential to desire God; and he is the being who by his creation is capable of this” (CD, III/2, p. 413).

The same issue includes a fascinating reading of Žižek’s theological writings: Frederiek Depoortere, “The End of God’s Transcendence? On Incarnation in the Work of Slavoj Žižek,” Modern Theology 23:4 (2007), 497-523. Depoortere explores the Hegelian, Lacanian and Marxist coordinates of Žižek’s theological analysis, focusing especially on Žižek’s view that “the Incarnation should be understood as the end of God’s transcendence” (p. 498).

I thought the most interesting aspect of this paper was the elucidation of Žižek’s claim that Christ is “the ultimate objet petit a.” For Žižek, just as “money is the commodity as such, Christ is man as such” (p. 514). In the crucifixion, “a particular human being is stripped of all his particular characteristics and reduced to ‘man as such’. At that moment, he is disgorged by the symbolic order … and therefore he reduces to nothing but a piece of waste, the excrement of the symbolic order. Only at that precise moment, then, does Christ truly become Christ, the ‘ultimate objet petit a,’ the incarnation of the human excess as such, that excess which can never be contained within the symbolic order of exchange. And in precisely this way Christ effects our redemption” (p. 516).

14 Comments:

scott said...

I knew you'd find that Zizek article interesting. Have you read Ziegler's essay yet?

Ben Myers said...

Ah, I hadn't seen your post -- but you've obviously got me all figured out!

And no, I haven't had time to read Ziegler's essay yet -- but I always enjoy his stuff, and I'm planning to read his essay tomorrow. You clever Aberdeenians are really taking over....

kim fabricius said...

Surely I must be wrong, and heaven forbid, but Zisek on transcendence sounds like a neo-Marxist rebranding of those awful "death of God" theologies of the sixties. And I am also edgy about this docetic-sounding dissolution of the particular man Jesus of Nazareth into "man as such" (docetism, and the reduction of Christ to a cipher, is the inevitable outcome of idea-driven theology).

I have just finished reading Badiou's Saint Paul. I kept thinking that Badiou is so right in much of what he affirms, but wrong in what he denies. From this admittedly small taste of Zisek, I get a similar impression. But I am quite happy to be told that a bigger meal will put me straight!

Shane said...

I just don't see the appeal.

Reading atheist marxist 'reinterpretations' of Christianity would be like reading 19th century British civil servants 'reinterpreting' post-colonialist literature.

IndieFaith said...

I agree with Kim in my initial response to some of the work of Badiou and Zizek. Ben, do you have an articulation of the issue of immanence and transcendence in their overall conceptual framework?

Anonymous said...

Like Shane, I wonder about the real fruitfulness of Badiou, Zizek, and Agamben for theology.

I am all in favour of real engagement between philosophy and theology, and think that theologians ought to be philosophically astute--especially when philosophers start talking about matters theological. My own area of interest and research is in Continental philosophy. But the Kierkegaardian muscles in me tighten when theologians start to gush over the wonders of philosophical treatments of Christianity--whether by way of Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, or the recent fascination with Paul. I can't help but think of Johannes de Silentio's famous line in "Fear and Trembling," which describes theology as sitting "all rouged and powdered in the window," courting the favour of philosophy and offering its charms.

I also wonder about the theological merits of Zizek (not to mention Lacan). I enjoy his clever psychoanalytic insights into pop culture--such as his film "A Perverts Guide to Cinema," but even there he often seems to over-interpret the phenomena in question. Zizek often reminds me of another passage in Kierkegaard (this time by Vigilius Haufniensis in "The Concept of Anxiety")--that speculative philosophy like that of Schelling and Hegel is able to make a person clever for his whole life. It seems to me that this is true not only of Hegel, but also true of Marx and Freud (and Lacan). Their reductive hermeneutics is impressive in their ability to encompass and explain any given social or cultural phenomenon (which is why they are so attractive in literary criticism, cultural studies, etc.). But theology ought to be wary of the excesses that often accompany this cleverness.

I would also like to see a response to Indiefaith's repeated question regarding the issue of immanence and transcendence in Badiou. Is his ontology really as fruitful for theology as we might be led to believe?

These are questions that arise for me from this contemporary philosophical interest in Paul. Like several others here, I am intrigued, but hesitant.

Brian

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for these very interesting comments. I certainly wouldn't want to defend Žižek's psychoanalytic reading of the crucifixion -- and I should point out that the author of this article isn't fawning over Žižek either (he ends the article by critiquing Žižek via Girard).

Speaking for myself, the thing I've been finding so compelling in Badiou (and to a lesser extent also in Žižek) is their rehabilitation of the category of truth -- and the fact that they are turning precisely to theology (and, of course, to Paul) as a resource for this rehabilitation. This is especially interesting when you consider that theology (in most of its contemporary forms) has itself given up on the question of truth! In other words, I wonder whether theology might have the chance to glimpse some of its own proper concerns in the strange intervention of this new "secular theology".

To me, that's the really interesting question in all this -- rather than the specific curious details of Žižek's Hegelian psychoanalysis or Badiou's mathematical ontology, etc.

But I'm definitely no expert here: these are just my tentative first impressions!

IndieFaith said...

I have not read enough to challenge this strongly but do you find that they are turning to theology? I find they are interested in reading the text (and certain traditions) but not so much engaging theology (I am only thinking of Zizek's The Puppet and the Dwarf). Does Badiou engage more directly with theology?

dan said...

Shane and Brian,

What I find exciting about Badiou, Zizek, and Agamben, are the doors (or windows) that they open up for increasing solidarity and dialogue between Christians and the post-Marxist Left. I think that Zizek is correct when he argues that Marxists and Christians should be fighting on the same side of the barricades. However, although certain Christian circles began critically embracing elements of Marxism years ago (as in Latin American liberation theology), it has taken some time for that embrace to be returned -- at least to be returned at an academic or intellectual level. Consequently, although we may continue to differ on central issues of immanence, or truth, or whatever, Badiou, Zizek, and Agamben, help us to recognise our common allies, at ground level, in our resistance to the Powers of our day.

Finally, let me close with a quote from Moltmann, in an introduction he wrote for a collection of pieces by (the Marxist atheist) Ernst Bloch:

God's defenders are not necessarily closer to God than God's accusers. It is not Job's theological friends who are justified, but Job is. In the Psalms, protest and jubilation ring out in the same voice. Wherever in history the combination ceased to work, the theologians would learn as much about God from atheists as the atheists could perhaps learn from the theologians.

Grace and peace.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, Dan -- well said! I agree: the contemporary Marxist critique of global Capital is of great importance for any serious theological ethics. And Žižek and Badiou's critique of Capital's concomitant ethic of liberal multiculturalism is also an important word for theologians, who are often all too eager to toe the ideological line.

Ben Myers said...

Speaking of which, our friend Halden has also tried to include this contemporary Marxist critique within his series on radical trinitarianism (which is, by a long shot, the best blog-series around at the moment).

Anonymous said...

Dan and Ben,

I agree--theological ethics may indeed benefit from attending to the critical perspectives of Marx and Freud, as well as Badiou and Zizek. I am also in favour of nurturing alliances between atheists and theologians against common foes.

My concern is that theologians should be wary of embracing the philosophical (or psychoanalytic) recastings of Christian faith. Again, I am entirely in favour of theology engaging philosophy in a serious way; but theology should be cautious in how it appropriates these philosophical insights. Here I am speaking from my experience of the problems that have arisen from making Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida theologically normative. Perhaps this tendency is more pronounced in philosophy, which is where I work, than in theology. But I believe the same caution is in order regarding Zizek and Badiou.

Brian

Halden said...

Thanks, Ben! These days I feel like you're my biggest fan.

Geoff Holsclaw said...

along with the rehabilitation of the category of 'truth' I find Zizek and Badiou compelling b/c of their rehabilitation of the concept of the 'subject', esp. the political subject. Also, they are not afraid of linking ontology and politics which means they actually believe in philosophy. Also, there critique of the political environment is especially helpful.

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