The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?

by Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank

MIT?Press, 416 pages, $27.95

In Untimely Meditations , Fried­rich Nietzsche spins a tale that goes like this: Once upon a time, on a minuscule planet orbiting a mediocre star, clever little animals emerged from the slime”and not long after began using puffed-up words like truth and goodness . Even worse, they thought they could attain genuine knowledge in this ultimately dead world. But their little C-grade star eventually cooled, and these pathetic little creatures died out, and with them died their proud words and hard-gained knowledge. The universe shed not one tear but merely looked on from its cold, infinite, uncaring skies.

One must at least credit Nietzsche for drawing out the consistent implications of atheism. Recent atheists, in contrast, seem to preach their atheism with an odd fervor, and one looks in vain for these overheated unbelievers to acknowledge that atheism entails a pointless universe. Perhaps, though, we should sympathize with our current crop of evangelizing atheists. Nietzsche’s pointless-universe thesis is so difficult to maintain that not even he could manage it. In a later book, The Gay Science , he came to the conclusion: “It is still a metaphysical faith upon which our faith in science rests”that even we seekers after knowledge today, we godless anti-metaphysicians, still take our fire, too, from the flame lit by a faith that is thousands of years old, that Christian faith which was also the faith of Plato: that God is the truth, that truth is divine.”

Rare is the contemporary atheist who takes his atheism as radically as did Nietzsche. Rare, but not unknown. The materialist Slavoj Žižek, for example, likes to disconcert expectations. Often called (admittedly, somewhat tongue-in-cheek) the most famous Slovenian philosopher in the world, he first gained fame by soldering together Hegelian dialectics, Marxist social theory, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Such a project, predictably enough, gives Žižek’s prose style a density that mirrors his sources: The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan is himself so opaque that the joke is often told that you first have to understand him before you read his books. And Žižek continues the joke by writing bad reviews of his own books, panning them for their turgid style.

Given these antics, one is not surprised to learn that Žižek relishes his cult status as Marxist court jester, which makes it hard to know when to take him seriously (one of his books was on the subject of toilets). In any event, he caused a greater stir than usual when in 2000 he published The Fragile Absolute; or, Why the Christian Legacy Is Worth Fighting For . Unlike the far more sober German atheist Jürgen Habermas, who recently argued that without Christianity European culture will die, Žižek argues for Christianity not because it might shore up bourgeois late capitalism but because Christianity alone can subvert capitalism. Far from being a throwback to medieval obscurantism and antiscience ideology, as the secularists hold, Christianity for Žižek is our best chance to liberate ourselves from an oppressive Enlightened social reality: Unlike old-style Marxism, which proposed utopian schemes that are impossible of realization, Christianity liberates.

Whether these views make Žižek a faux ami of Christianity is, of course, the question”one addressed in this fascinating dialogue with the Anglican theologian John Milbank, founder of the Radical Orthodoxy movement. Milbank, too, is not afraid to write dense prose, which makes this book heavy going. Plus, the book is not really a dialogue, the record of real back-and-forth debate.

After an introduction by the editor, Creston Davis, it starts with an opening salvo of just under one hundred pages from Žižek, followed by a rejoinder from Milbank of over one hundred pages, with Žižek getting the last word in about sixty pages. The result, as Žižek himself admits, is that the “dialogue between Milbank and me, . . . like every true philosophical dialogue, is an interaction of two monologues.”

The way to understand the differences between the two men is with the book’s subtitle: Paradox or Dialectic? Those familiar with Milbank’s work already know of his enthusiasm for the Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac, who sought the solution to the nature“grace dialectic in the paradox that creation is a free gift of God and thus is itself a kind of grace”which paradoxically means that grace, strictly defined, is “a gift to the gift.”

Hegel, however, saw creation not as a free gift but as the inevitable and necessary positing of Absolute Spirit”necessary because Spirit needs the world for its realization. Žižek, as a true Hegelian/Marxist, sees necessity and negativity where Milbank sees grace and freedom. It is not so much that Žižek is anti-Christian.

Quite the contrary: Like Hegel, he sees Christianity as itself a necessary step in Absolute Spirit’s dialectic of self-realization.

But unlike Hegel, he values Christianity more for its negative role in thwarting the claims of totalizing Enlightened reason, which is heading toward a doom it cannot foresee because of its narcissistic habit of self-congratulation.

Here Milbank agrees. In his introduction, Davis nicely captures what Milbank and Žižek share: “Reason’s stance against myth, superstition, and the theological in order to access reason, pure and autonomous reason, has proved at least wanting, if not downright irrational. If the Middle Ages failed to employ enough reason (which is debatable, if not a flat-out stereotype, in itself), then secular modernity has employed too much of it (even to the point of ­contradiction).”

Žižek rightly sees the recent enthusiasm for New Age spiritualities as part of reason’s totalizing project: “The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that [a retreat to private meditation] is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.” Again, Milbank agrees”up to a point. They both stress the pathologies of late capitalism, and both are dubious of the alleged novelties of postmodernity. Thus Milbank rightly sees that postmodernity’s alleged postmetaphysical scorn for totalizing reason offers only “a tragic, not a superficially joyous prospect.”

Their differences, then, are not all that sharp regarding Hegel, whom both see as the first Christian nihilist and atheist. Where the debate sharpens can best be seen in their different interpretations of the late-medieval Dominican preacher Meister Eckhart. Eckhart’s ambivalent theism intrigues atheist Žižek much in the way Nietzsche’s ambivalent atheism intrigues so many Christians. Here is an example of one of Eckhart’s more outré proclamations: “That God is God: of this I am cause. If I were not, God would not be God.” Taken in Hegelian terms, Eckhart is certainly heterodox here, for he implies that God must create the world and other selves if God is to be God. But under the rubric of paradox, Eckhart passes muster, at least for Milbank: After all, if I had never been conceived, then obviously God would not be God for me .

If Milbank is right here, then he can directly refute Žižek’s interpretation of both Eckhart and Hegel using openly Thomistic concepts: “So for me it is the dialectical perspective itself which engenders the nihilistic version of Christian universalism. This is not to say that there is not a lot of truth in the dialectical perspective which is closely linked to the tragic perspective . . . . However, I would propose that both dialectics and the reign of difference remain closely bound up with the same set of modern assumptions. The alternative to both is paradox ”which one can name ‘analogy,’ ‘real relation,’ ‘realism.’”

Given the title of the book, one might ask what all this talk of paradox and dialectics has to do with “the monstrosity of Christ.” Actually, everything. Consider this quotation from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy : “When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross, the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay, . . . but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation, only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”

Žižek, for understandable reasons, places great stress on this passage”God too gets to be an atheist. But as Milbank rightly points out, he misses its import, as becomes apparent when Žižek says that “the limitation of Chesterton [stems from] his not being Hegelian enough.” Žižek’s fascination with Chesterton, though, is for Milbank a perfect vista to espy hope for the Slovenian’s eventual conversion to a Catholic worldview: “My case is that there is a different, latent Žižek: a Žižek who does not see Chesterton as sub-Hegel, but Hegel as sub-Chesterton. A Žižek therefore who has remained with paradox, or rather moved back into paradox from dialectic. And this remaining would be sufficient to engender a Catholic Žižek, a Žižek able fully to endorse a transcendent God, in whom creatures analogously participate.”

I would never presume to guess the likelihood of Žižek ever converting to Catholicism (although a Catholic Žižek would certainly disconcert his many fans). But this much is open to objective judgment: Atheism is far more ideologically unstable than many people think. Nietzsche was hardly a contented atheist, and I doubt many contemporary atheists are contented either; otherwise Žižek’s popularity would make no sense. Indeed, his writings remind us that intellectually serious atheism cannot merrily trash religion. Whether paradox or dialectic, Christ is still monstrous in the original sense of the word”a source of fear and wonder for Christian and atheist alike.

Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary of the Archdiocese of Chicago.