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Žižek and Milbank: The Monstrosity of Christ?

(Antonio Olmos/The Observer)

“However, the purpose of this reading is to stress—contra more conservative interpreters like Milbank—that the disordered post-modern world that we inhabit is not a firm break with Christianity.”

Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged. The soldiers also twisted together a crown of thorns and placed it on his head. Then they threw a purple robe around him. They kept coming to him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they kept hitting him in the face. Pilate went outside again and said to them, ‘Look, I am bringing him out to you to let you know that I find no basis for a charge against him.’ So Jesus came out wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. Pilate said to them, ‘Behold the man!’”—John 19:1-16

One of the most interesting recent developments in theoretical circles has been a rejuvenated interest in the topic of religion. Going back to the 18th century Enlightenment, liberal critics such as Voltaire and Hume often caricatured religion as abetting both political and intellectual authoritarianism. This was given a more systematic twist in the 19th century with Karl Marx’s disparaging comments about religion serving as the “opiate of the masses” in his critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right. In this reading, the social function of religion was to anesthetize the exploited by distracting them from the reality of political and economic oppression. Sigmund Freud largely agreed, labeling religion an “illusion” intended to help us cope with helplessness in the world. Since human beings became ever more scientific and reflective, Freud also believed religion was well past its sell-by date. By the early 21st century, New Atheist movements spearheaded by militant liberals such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris carried these positions forward to praise and controversy.

Yet despite all of this outrage, religion has not disappeared from public life. It remains a potent political force across the world and is at the epicenter of many of the ongoing debates about secularism, liberal toleration, and the like. Theorists have responded to this by taking more seriously both the claims of religious theology and by examining the historical impact of the world’s most important faith traditions. One of the more interesting contributions to this reevaluation is the 2009 book The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic by the left-wing philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the founder of “radical orthodoxy,” John Milbank. The book is a dialogue and debate about the legacy of Christianity in the 21st century and highlights what is at stake on several levels. This makes it a useful guide for thinking through some of the issues facing us in 2020.

Milbank and the Loss of Realism

One of the key issues to come out of this discussion is the relationship between evaluating the theological claims of Christian doctrine and assessing its historical importance, as well as its genealogical influence on contemporary systems of thought. Milbank and Žižek naturally disagree on almost all of the theological issues; however, they come together in agreeing about Christianity’s historical significance.

Milbank differs from Žižek in believing that we need to hold to the idea that there is a transcendent Christian God. Agreeing with the author of Orthodoxy, G.K Chesterton, this is because—without belief in a transcendent God—we cannot hold to a stable vision of existence. Milbank traces the history of Christian thinking to point out that, far from being mystical believers in the supernatural, many of the most intelligent authors in the tradition aspired to synthesize the demands of faith with those of reason. Drawing on authors like Aristotle, they posited how God operated as not just a moral but ontological lawgiver. He had ordered existence to obey the constant laws of nature. And, consequently, each thing that came into existence would have a distinct identity unto itself. This is a kind of “realism” as distinct from the nominalism of the modern world, which sees nature as endlessly plastic, capable of being made and remade according to subjective human wishes:

“…We can start to understand in a new way how in Aristotle, a realist insistence on the importance of sensing for knowing, is connected to his analogical ontology (as it would later be described). When we regard a complex scene, we are able to unify all kinds of disparate realities, both individual and collective: the ‘substance’ of a tree is taken together with its ‘accidental’ shape and color; substance and accident are further linked to the relations in which the tree stands (for example, its being blown about by the wind); different generic realities of mineral, vegetable, and animal and integrated with each other by our gaze. What we most directly see is being, but being materialized…”

This is all because we cannot accept one paradoxical and mysterious belief: that God is real and revealed himself to us as Jesus of Nazareth.

Milbank lays considerable blame for the uncertainty we experience in today’s world on abandoning this vision. Chesterton argued that when we abandon belief in God, far from becoming more rational, human beings will increasingly come to accept any absurdities. This is because we can no longer hold to the vision of reality as a stable order guided by natural laws enforced by God, who intends each thing to be exactly what it really is. Instead, reality appears as a mere flux of contradictions signifying nothing—into which each human being projects his mere subjective interpretation and values. Such a world is fundamentally at a loss with itself, and humanity is left adrift in a constant flux where each person takes it upon himself to reinterpret and remake the world anew. This is all because we cannot accept one paradoxical and mysterious belief: that God is real and revealed himself to us as Jesus of Nazareth.

Milbank’s theological claims convene nicely with the positions of post-liberals and post-modern conservatives, such as Peter Lawler and Patrick Deneen. At a political level, they also reflect a distinctively conservative anomie in holding that the kind of vision of reality we want is of an ordered universe, where each thing has its place. In Milbank’s well-known Theology and Social Theory, he traces how our secular abandonment of this “radically orthodox” vision of reality has resulted in the “self-torturing circle of secular reason” and a nihilistic culture where no one knows who they are or what it all means anymore.

The Monstrosity of Christ

And the LORD God said, ‘The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.'”—Genesis 3:22

Žižek’s interpretation is, naturally, far more radical—in the latinate sense of radix (going to the root). He argues that critics like Milbank fail to see that—far from secularism and modernity being a break with Christianity—they are the natural progression of the emancipatory Christian vision. Friedrich Nietzsche made a similar point in both Beyond Good and Evil and The Genealogy of Morals, in which he essentially castigated Christianity as a nihilistic doctrine: “Platonism for the masses.” Unable to deal with the suffering of the world heroically like the ancient Greeks, Christians insisted that the world as it exists is radically fallen. Only a mysterious world could possibly redeem it, as a humanistic God would welcome the weak and the humble to his Kingdom. Nietzsche argued this “slave morality” eventually became secularized into the modernist doctrines of liberalism and socialism, which dropped the references to God and the eternal kingdom but still held that the highest purpose in life was the alleviation of human suffering. The only possible response to the nihilism of Christianity and its bastard modernist offspring was a reactionary return to the aristocratic virtues of the Ancient world. Žižek follows the Nietzschean story in agreeing that modernity (and for that, matter the radical left) draws on this Christian heritage—in some ways far more than some contemporary conservative thinkers, who long for a return to a pre-Christian ethos of manly striving and hierarchy. But, of course, Žižek feels that we should embrace and celebrate this by pushing modernity even further.

Žižek says this was necessary to complete the process begun in Genesis, as God’s death finally liberates humankind from the last vestiges of divine control.

One of the ways Žižek cashes this out is through a dramatic reading of the New Testament. He builds on the work of other Biblical commentators like Georg Hegel, who say that the Christian story is one of deepening freedom from humankind. In Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, Hegel reinterpreted the conventional reading of Genesis as a fall from grace. Instead, Hegel points out that through eating the forbidden fruit, human beings became like God in knowing good and evil and, consequently, were capable of a higher kind of self-determining freedom and responsibility than Eden allowed. Rather than existing as purely conscious animals, Adam and Eve became self-conscious of themselves and their actions. Žižek agrees with this reading, saying that it showcases the radicality of the Christian message. Unlike many more traditionalist readings of humanity as radically fallen (or intemperate in its freedom), Žižek sees the Genesis myth as highlighting how important emancipation and free thought were to Christianity. However, he goes further by stressing that the story comes full circle in the New Testament. In this telling, God becomes a human being who doubts, suffers, and dies. In a striking moment of self-conscious reflection on the cross, Jesus actually cries out that God the Father has forsaken him. Žižek reads this as a remarkable theological moment; this is because if we follow the Trinitarian logic, we have to see it as God literally coming to doubt himself in front of his all-too-human creations before allowing himself to die at their hands. Žižek says this was necessary to complete the process begun in Genesis, as God’s death finally liberates humankind from the last vestiges of divine control.

Rather than being the responsible lawgiver ruling over reality, humanity was to assume the role of nature’s stewards. Žižek goes on to say that Jesus’ resurrection and ascent into heaven (and the establishment of a Christian community united in the Holy Spirit) further confirms the transition.

Conclusion

Žižek stresses that his idiosyncratic take is, by no means, to be interpreted literally; as a dialectical materialist, he believes there is no transcendent God out there in the universe. However, the purpose of this reading is to stress—contra more conservative interpreters like Milbank—that the disordered post-modern world that we inhabit is not a firm break with Christianity. In some respects, we need to be more incisive and look at the way Christian doctrine itself contributed to the destabilizing tendencies that many right-wing Christians claim to detest by recognizing the emancipatory dimensions of the tradition.

This strikes me as broadly correct. One of the more evasive elements of conservative Christianity is that its critique of modernity and post-modernity has always existed uncomfortably alongside the insistence that religious doctrine has shaped our world and that secularists forget this in their rush to atheism. However, if that is the case, then Christian doctrine cannot be purely juxtaposed as a force opposed to the modernist vulgarities many right-wing Christians despise; their own tradition contributed to it. The yearning for order and so-called “realism” by figures like Milbank, Lawler, and Deneen have a scholastic quality to them which owes as much to Aristotle and the pre-Christian Greeks as anything. My own take is that we should accept Žižek’s message and recognize that the ever-louder demands for more freedom and capacity for individual self-determination in a post-Christian context have deep roots in our religious traditions. If nothing else, it is worth exploring these problems in greater depth—in part because they can prompt a more interesting dialogue between leftists and conservatives than what passes for discourse today.

Matt McManus is a professor of politics at Whitman College and the author of The Rise of Post-Modern Conservatism, among other books. He can be added on Twitter via @mattpolprof.

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