- The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?
Two hard-hitting cultural critics rumble in the jungle of postsecular philosophy of religion. The two agree that Western Christianity reveals the Truth for our twenty-first century condition; their contest is over the prized meaning of this legacy. In the red corner stands Slavoj Žižek, champion of lost causes such as psychoanalytic liberation, militant Marxism, and other cold and cruel passions. In the blue corner, John Milbank, captain of the Radical Orthodox team and Anglo-Catholic rival of “secular reason” and its inevitable reductionisms and relativisms. Žižek launches by arguing that the legacy of Western Christianity is best understood through Hegel’s Protestant speculative idealism. The idea is that absolute transcendence, the notion of God-in-itself (Father), is entirely negated by the dialectical event of Incarnation (Son) whose truth is manifest in the crucifixion. This complete death of the Father in the crucifixion of the Son is redemptive insofar as it apocalyptically reveals the concrete universality of humanity (Holy Spirit). Christ’s cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” embodies the truth of Christianity and discloses behind the illusions of transcendence and otherworldly redemption the fact of concrete human solidarity and the demands (often violent and essentially revolutionary) of political love (agape). Žižek thus argues that the truth of Christianity is materialist atheism and militant Marxism.
Milbank spends several rounds dodging Žižek before nailing his main counterpunch. Charging Žižek with an unduly Protestant reading of Christian modernity, he argues that the reductive Hegelian dialectic fails to account for the excess of the relationality within God (the immanent Trinity) over the relation between God and creation (the economic Trinity). And yet the former, excessive (and proudly medieval) features of Christian theology remain, according to Mil-bank, “fleetingly glimpsed” in the nondialectical experiences of poetry and paradox and in the “playful pastoral tension that once reigned everywhere . . . in the prelapsarian golden age . . . in which human beings took full part.” In Milbank’s view, such experiences pass through dialectic but never resolve themselves there [End Page 136] because they are accessed only analogically, be it in the mysteries of sacraments or in those of ordinary life. Milbank’s counterpunches are historically sounder but conceptually softer. They strike but slide off. Exegetical precision is not enough to force one into a conceptual corner.
The best part of this book is the third round. Dancing like a butterfly and stinging like a bee, here Žižek’s concepts are sharpest, his examples illuminating, and his explanation of the ethical implications of his view most welcome. The revival of metaphysical theology in today’s postsecular climate is a fraught endeavor that cannot be left to defenders of orthodox traditionalism. The likes of Žižek battling in the name of Christian Truth for a materialist atheism and accusing the Anglo-Catholic theologian of heterodoxy and paganism is not just a quirky reflex of the times but an important part of the cultural critic’s role. It is impossible to knock down God or the Church. But on points this one goes to Žižek. [End Page 137]
Michael Fagenblat, senior lecturer in Jewish civilization at Monash University, is the author of A Covenant of Creatures: Levinas’s Philosophy of Judaism and a coeditor of New under the Sun: Jewish Australians on Religion, Politics, and Culture.