- To Reverse Our Premise with the Perverse Core: A Response to Žižek’s “Theology” in Chinese Context
In recent years, the interaction between Christian theology and the humanities has drawn attention in Chinese academia. Scholarly works such as Critical Terms for Religious Studies and Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology have generated huge responses, and theological debates between leftist intellectuals and Western Marxists have proven provocative.1
Admittedly, Chinese academia is a fairly nonreligious context. The accumulated research into theological subjects of the past thirty years has not burgeoned from a seminary system, but from the humanities and social science departments in universities. Such academic theology is distinct from popular theology, subaltern theology, feminist theology, or black theology; Western scholars have led discussions on such phenomena under the rubric of “Cultural Christians.”2 Indeed, debate has persisted over whether academic theology should even be categorized as theology — an issue that stands out in Chinese academia. [End Page 781]
However, once theology is unrestricted by religious belief, it can create the intellectual space for considering fundamental issues of cultural identity, value systems, and meaning generation.3 This is precisely why theological studies can be independently developed in universities. When Slavoj Žižek investigates theology beyond the Christian tradition, he confronts similar challenges to those faced by Chinese scholars. For that reason, The Fragile Absolute and The Puppet and the Dwarf have drawn considerable attention in China.
Interestingly, the negative thinking of Christian theology has a counterpart in classical Chinese thought. A basic element of wisdom, negative thinking has long been fundamental to the Chinese tradition of dialectical thought, alerting us to the limitations of subjectivity and language. Western humanities, however, may reject processes of self-emptying or kenosis (Philippians 2:7), which has led to difficulties of subjectivity and language in modern philosophy. While it is hard to pinpoint a precise English translation for Derrida’s account of “Comment ne pas parler,”4 analogous phrases can easily be found in Chinese classics, such as 知者不言 (zhizhe buyan, He who knows the Tao does not speak about it, he who is ever ready to speak about it does not know it)5 or 大辩不言 (dabian buyan, The great argument does not require words).6 Žižek’s reverse or dialectical thinking on theology thus resonates in Chinese academia.
All Žižekian reflections bear the mark of alterity, which renders his works both attractive and easily misread. For example, in the preface to The Žižek Reader, Žižek frankly admits, “I am well aware that for many a reader the main attraction of my work resides in the way the theoretical line of argumentation is sustained by numerous examples from cinema and popular culture, by jokes and political anecdotes often dangerously approaching the very limits of good taste — this is the main reason why reviewers repeatedly characterize my style as ‘postmodern.’ ” Žižek’s attention is drawn to the following question: “Where do I stand with regard to the present theoretical imbroglio in which deconstruction and the cognitive sciences, the tradition of the Frankfurt school and that of Heideggerian phenomenology, New Age obscurantism and new historicism, fight for hegemony?” He generalizes the “present theoretical imbroglio” into four types of “commonplaces,” and then claims that “[his] gesture is the exact opposite.”7 [End Page 782]
If we follow Žižek’s own explanation, perverse (with its variations perversion, perverseness, and the pervert) becomes the essential key word. Is this perverse part of the legacy of Christian tradition? Does it offer a critique of postmodernism? To address these questions, we need first to restore theological meaning to the term.
Radical Orthodoxy, an essay collection edited by John Milbank, Catherine Pickstock, and Graham Ward, is the foremost contemporary theological work related to Žižek’s thought.8 Although theologians who advocate radical orthodoxy would oppose Žižek’s claims in many respects, radical orthodox theology also involves a perversion — namely, a theology that is manifested in a nontheological manner in processes of secular modernity. Compared with traditional theologies, Radical Orthodoxy shifts the focus to secular experience in the modern world. Language, nihilism, desire, eroticism, bodies, the city, and aesthetics are...