- Critique, Theology and the Future of Cultural Criticism
Over the last several decades, there have been two distinct turns towards theology within secular cultural theory. The first of these—which was mostly associated with postructuralist thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Jacques Lacan—began in the latter decades of the twentieth century and, with a few notable exceptions, took a combative stance towards Christianity. The project of these theorists was generally to interrogate the church and its theology, and to deconstruct the Christian residue within Western culture. The second turn towards theology, which is emerging from the Marxist tradition, began around the dawn of the twenty-first century (with important precursors) and shows signs of being more constructive. Thinkers in this vein—such as Alain Badiou, Terry Eagleton, and Slavoj Žižek—have tended to engage living theologians in direct dialogue and to argue (despite their persistent atheism) that Christian theology possesses resources which secular theory lacks, both for criticizing oppressive structures of power and for conceptually grounding the work of resisting oppression in pursuit of a better world. Moreover, this second turn towards theology is mirrored by a turn of contemporary Christian thinkers like John Milbank, Miroslav Volf, Emmanuel Katongole, and James K. A. Smith towards direct engagement with leading secular theorists. It is my contention that this emerging dialogue between theology and theory has unrealized potential for literary criticism, including the potential to redeem “critique” as it is widely practiced by literary scholars today.
There are several reasons to believe that the dominant modes of contemporary cultural criticism are in need of redemption, some of which are stated explicitly by those Marxist thinkers who have recently taken up theology. Perhaps the most noteworthy feature of the growing body of works written by such theorists is their consistent claim that the Christian tradition contains resources for making a meaningful critique of contemporary culture that secular theory lacks. For example, in their introduction to Paul’s New Moment (2010), John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, and Creston Davis claim that the secular Left has lost any capacity for criticizing the globalization of neoliberal capitalism because it cannot think beyond the “formal freedom” promised by liberalism, the freedom of individuals to choose between options that are available in the existing order. But such freedom offers no positive, alternative vision of social life that might provide a standpoint from which to criticize the commodification of everything in the age of global capitalism. On the contrary, secular liberalism’s emphasis on the individual’s unhindered right to choose fits rather nicely into the logic of this capitalist order, wherein the market supplies innumerable opportunities for the exercise of banal individual freedom: the liberty—as Milbank, Žižek, and Davis put it—“to buy this deodorant and not that one.” In contrast with liberalism, however, Christian theology “has a positive truth claim, namely, that God’s disclosure happens most fully in the Event of Christ’s death on the cross.”
During an era when the majority of cultural theorists have rejected every form of philosophical idealism while stressing the historical contingency of all ideas and values, secular theory has lost the capacity to apprehend or articulate any universal truth, but Christianity posits a “Christ Event”—not an eternal ideal, but a historical phenomenon, immanent within the contingencies of human culture—that constitutes just such a truth. Later in Paul’s New Moment, Žižek argues that, according to St. Paul, the decision to live in “fidelity” to this “truth-event” constitutes people of faith as subjects who are now free from the dialectic of prohibition and desire inherent in the existing symbolic order. Thus, the “Christ Event” is emancipatory in the deepest sense: it shatters existing structures of meaning and power, establishes a new zero point for culture and individual identity, creates new possibilities for radical justice and equality, and constitutes subjects capable of living in fidelity (or not) with these new possibilities. Herein lie the beginnings of a positive vision of human social life, which can serve both as a standpoint from which to critique oppression in all of its forms and an impetus toward redemptive social...