ISSN: 1705-6411
Volume 7, Number 1 (January, 2010)

Toward An Intellectually Respectable and Historically Responsible Atheism

A review of Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank (2009). The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Edited by Creston Davis. New York: MIT Press.

Eric Repphun
(University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand)

The most important question when facing a book like The Monstrosity of Christ, which documents a debate between John Milbank andSlavoj Žižek, is the simplest one: so, who wins?  Answering this question is, of course, decidedly more difficult than asking it.  In terms of pithy one-liners, Žižek wins by a comfortable margin.  In terms of clarity, Milbank wins by a country mile.  In terms of sheer arrogance, the two are about evenly matched.  In terms of the real-world applicability of their ideas, both are again equally matched, in that these ideas are equally divorced from any real possibility of social action.  In the very important matter of the argument itself, things are even more complicated.  It is possible, indeed probable, that this isn’t really an argument at all.  If this is not an argument, then what, pray tell, is it?  In the end, this book is a document of two incandescently bright, highly influential, and undeniably fierce scholars who find themselves in the same room, talking about the same subject.  But at the same time, one fears that they may be simply talking past one another.  This being said, to lay this book aside or dismiss it would be simply foolish.  It is just too damned good, and too much fun, to ignore.

It seems on the surface to be a meeting of polar opposites.  On one side, we have the Catholic theologian John Milbank, one of the founders of the Radical Orthodoxy movement, which seeks to reclaim the ground lost by Christianity in the modern period not by exploring new ideas but by reaffirming traditional theological ideas, and doing so mainly by taking seriously the central tenets of the postmodern movement.  Milbank himself embodies the ethic of Radical Orthodoxy, which is one of a functional arrogance, in which learning and erudition are deployed very much like weapons in the battle to reclaim the intellectual and cultural primacy of Christian theology.  Very much on the other side, we have Slavoj Žižek, avowed atheist, philosopher, cultural critic, and the closest thing the contemporary world has to an intellectual superstar.  Where Milbank is focused and almost entirely sober, Žižek is profane, indeterminate and decidedly scattered.  As laid out by editor and facilitator Creston Davis, the debate is between Žižek’s rationalism, with its unapologetically Marxist and Lacanian bent, and Milbank’s unapologetically Catholic fideism.  Žižek, like so many Marxists before him, represents a hard-line atheism just as much as Milbank represents an unrepentant theism, in the most classically Trinitarian sense of the word.  One of the many surprises hidden in the pages of this book – and on an incidental note, the design of the book is simply gorgeous; if nothing else, this is one of the prettiest academic books to grace bookshelves in recent years – is the realisation that Žižek and Milbank have much more in common than they might seem to at first glance.
The introduction, by editor Creston Davis, does two things.  Firstly, it concisely and lucidly sets the scene of the debate.  Davis’ brief summary of the playing field for the Žižek-Milbank title card is an achievement in its own right, especially given the status of the two main authors, who would have doubtless overshadowed anyone who dared to introduce them.  Secondly, Davis defines the stakes of the debate.  Here he is less successful, guilty of simply setting the bar too high.  In a hyperbolic passage, Davis writes, ‘This encounter between Milbank and Žižek is the intellectual equivalent of Ultimate Fighting, because both partners in this debate are defining the terms of the very meaning of Christianity, the death of Christ, the Trinity, and the Church.  In other words, to restate this: the very heart of theology is at stake’ (19).  The introduction is peppered with almost millennial phrases – ‘a new way forward’ and ‘a new source of hope’ are good examples – and Davis stages the debate as one of epochal importance, a face-off between ‘two of the most significant thinkers of our time’ over a ‘revolutionary political problematic: How can the theological and the material unite to fund resistance to capitalist nihilism?’ (4). One could be forgiven, at the end of Davis’ introduction, for being aquiver with anticipation for what follows, which will, Davis seems to imply, solve once and for all the centuries-long debate between theism and atheism.  Davis clearly hopes that a new sort of balance will arise from the debate: ‘Thus, to hazard an admittedly premature conjecture (and this is my conjecture): the return to the theological in our time may be a call, once again, to strike a balance between reason and myth, between belief and faith, between political struggle and the secular state, and between the divine and the human’ (5).  Though I am forced to disagree with Davis’ implicit claim that the theological ever really disappeared during modernity – indeed, the theological as well as the magical have been remarkably resilient throughout the modern era, even if they are subsumed from time to time by ostensibly more empirical kinds of thinking – it is far more difficult to argue against the need for balance.

Davis acknowledges that the project is in itself a strange one, but one that has advantages over the sorts of populist ‘theism versus atheism’ debates engaged in by the likes of Alister McGrath and Richard Dawkins.  Davis, like so many other scholars of religion (the current author included), is almost entirely dismissive of the philosophical weight of that particular discussion:

But for all the pomp and circumstance of this ‘debate’, in the end, it only manages to recapitulate the same premises with which each side begins.  Consequently, the debate over the truth of either stance can never be resolved through the arbitration of speculative reason – and this because each side appears to be different, but, on a deeper level, they share the exact same version of that which underlies their very thinking, viz. secular reason.  Reason functions in this atheistic/theistic debate in a very limited, even reductionist way as it becomes the final arbiter of all truth forced into propositional form and thus sundered from everyday life … In short, although this Dawkins/McGrath debate looks genuine, and is certainly successful in terms of selling a great many books, it nevertheless is only a limited and not very intellectually significant debate.  It is more an exercise in ideological (mis)interpretation of the same premises than a real debate, because is fails to risk forgoing the very existence of what both sides presuppose (8-10).

This is a very bold move on Davis’ part; in quite rightly diagnosing the potential weaknesses of the kind of debate he is presenting, he lays bare the limitations of the current dialogue if it fails to live up to the considerable standards that he sets.  Žižek and Milbank indeed face a task of considerable difficulty if they want to transcend such limitations.  That the book succeeds in largely avoiding these classical pitfalls is a testament to the skills of all of the people involved, but if it does truly manage to move beyond this impasse, the credit must largely go to Žižek.  That he is able do this from such a classical Marxist standpoint is doubly to his credit, given that so many Marxists fail to take religion seriously – as Marx himself notably failed to do. 

In the end, for all of Davis’ grandiose proclamations, he also admits that what Žižek’s and Milbank’s debate is really about is Hegel: ‘For both Milbank and Žižek, it is Hegel who both brings modernity to an apex and, in that very movement, opens up a way beyond’ (13).  Davis anticipates some of Žižek’s and Milbank’s conclusions for the reader who may not be prepared for what comes next:

So, to hazard a thesis: For Milbank, God’s act of Incarnation saves the world from itself by opening up a way beyond the material realm into the beyond of the infinite life of God, whereas, for Žižek the same event signals the reality of a radical, even Kierkegaardian, leap of faith without guarantees – the abyss opens up, allowing for the coordinates of a life of real yet terrifying freedom for both God and human beings.  The debate then orbits around these two irreconcilable versions of Christianity – between Milbank’s orthodox Trinitarianism and Žižek heterodox negativity.  And despite these two different voices, one thing remains common: the terms of the debate are established not by the strict circulation of language, or by some abstract rule of reason, but by a new universal logic that connects us to each other once again (18).

What comes next will be daunting, even for the most erudite and well-informed reader.  Žižek opens the debate with a substantial essay titled ‘The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity’.  Even by the considerable standards that one must adopt for Žižek, this section – based on a series of lectures – is loosely structured, even disorganized, seeming to flit more or less at random between discussions of G. K. Chesterton, the medieval Christian mystic Meister Eckhart, and the films of Alfred Hitchcock.  Žižek starts with Chesterton’s assertion from the Father Brown stories that ‘It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are’ (25) and returns to this again and again as he goes along.  Chesterton’s oft-quoted assertion boils down to something like this: when one stops believing in God, one does not really believe in nothing, but is rather willing and able to believe in anything, no matter how ridiculous.  This is true, Chesterton and Žižek both imply, of societies as well as individuals.  Žižek derives his title from Chesterton’s words as he further works through the logic of his most famous aphorism; people are willing to believe the strangest things, even believe in the scariest old gods, Chesterton argues, ‘all because you are frightened of four words: He was made Man’ (25).  Žižek formulates his own thesis against this background, the collision of theism, atheism, and rationality: ‘The axiom of this essay is that there is only one philosophy which thought the implications of the four words through to the end: Hegel’s idealism – which is why almost all philosophers are also no less frightened of Hegel’s idealism’ (26).

It is here, early in Žižek’s opening essay, that we first encounter Hegel’s language of the ‘monstrosity of Christ’ in relation to the fundamental logic on the Incarnation, God’s willing assumption of human form in Jesus of Nazareth.  Here Žižek takes on

the core question of Hegelian Christology: why the idea of Reconciliation between God and man (the fundamental content of Christianity) has to appear in a single individual, in the guise of an external, contingent, flesh-and-blood person (Christ, the man-God)? … Here we reach Hegel’s key insight: Reconciliation cannot be direct, it has first to generate (appear in) a monster – twice on the same page Hegel uses this unexpectedly strong word, ‘monstrosity’, to designate the first figure of Reconciliation, the appearance of God in the finite flesh of a human individual (73-74).

This reconciliation between God and humanity, for Žižek, ‘can be mediated only through Christ’s monstrous singularity’ (76).  Žižek uses this as a starting point to re-imagine the whole substance of the Trinity: ‘What, then, is “sublated” in the case of Christianity?  It is not the finite reality which is sublated (negated-maintained-elevated) into a moment of ideal totality; it is, on the contrary, the divine Substance itself (God as a Thing-in-itself) which is sublated:negated (what dies on the Cross is the substantial figure of the transcendent God), but simultaneously maintained in the transubstantiated form of the Holy Spirit, the community of believers which exists only as the virtual presupposition of the activity of finite individuals’ (61).  For Žižek, everything boils down to Hegel’s dialectic; indeed, fidelity to the dialectical process becomes the standard by which everything and everyone is judged, as when he writes that the main limitation of Chesterton is that he is ‘not being Hegelian enough: what he doesn’t get is that universal(ized) crime is no longer a crime – it sublates (negates/overcomes) itself and turns from transgression into a new order’ (44).  For Žižek, Hegel’s vision of Christianity – and the only proper vision of Christianity – is a materialist one rooted in the dialectical figure of the not-quite-human and thus monstrous Christ as mediator.
What Žižek is arguing here seems on the surface to be counterintuitive or simply nonsensical: he is making an atheistic plea for the absolute singularity and necessity of the monstrous figure of Jesus – though Žižek regularly uses the theological title of ‘Christ’, his argument is still thoroughly materialistic and thus at least formally atheistic.  He makes this point in no uncertain terms, in itself a rarity in Žižek’s work:

It is only in this monstrosity of Christ that human freedom is grounded; and, at its most fundamental, it is neither as payment for our sins nor as legalistic ransom, but by enacting this openness that Christ’s sacrifice sets us free … This is the way Christ brings freedom: confronting him, we become aware of our own freedom.  The ultimate question is thus: in what kind of universe is freedom possible?  What ontology does freedom imply? (82) 

There is in all of this an unresolved and very troubling tension between Žižek’s evident hopes for liberation from the excesses of contemporary capitalism and what appears to be - and this is not putting it too strongly - a reconfigured Christian universalism.  In all of this, when he uses the word ‘religion’, what Žižek is talking about is Christianity, the only religion he really considers in these essays; even when he addresses Judaism, he does so obliquely and only as it pertains to Christianity.  In doing this, Žižek is (oddly enough, given his track record) repeating a mistake made by a great many theologians, one arguably rooted in a long history of anti-Semitism in European intellectual history, and in Christian theology in particular.  There is something odd, even disturbing, in Žižek’s reaffirmation of Christian universalism in an atheist guise.  Is this really a step away from the harm that such universalism has wrought in history, or merely a restatement of this central tenet of European superiority?  Though he makes a compelling argument later in the book that seems to address this precise point head-on, one can’t help but be beset by a nagging sense of doubt about this tactic. 

We will have to return to this matter in more detail later.  In this we take our lead from Žižek, who concludes his first essay in a paragraph that moves smoothly, as perhaps only Žižek could, from atheism to Kant to the undead:

What, then, is the proper atheist stance?  Not a continuous desperate struggle against theism, of course – but not a simple indifference to belief either.  That is to say: what if, in a kind of negation, true atheism were to return to belief (faith?), asserting it without reference to God – only atheists can truly believe; the only true belief is belief without any support in the authority of some presupposed figure of the ‘big Other’.  We can also conceive these three positions (theism, negative atheism, and positive atheism) along the lines of the Kantian triad of positive, negative, and infinite judgement: while the positive statement ‘I believe in God’ can be negated as ‘I don’t believe in God’, we can also imagine a kind of ‘infinite’ negation, not so much ‘I believe in un-God’ (which would be closer to negative theology) but, rather, something like ‘unbelief’, the pure form of belief deprived of its substantialization – ‘unbelief’ is still the form of belief, like the undead who, as the living dead, remain dead (101).

Milbank’s essay, ‘The Double Glory, or Paradox versus Dialectics: On Not Quite Agreeing with Slavoj Žižek’, is a direct response to Žižek’s ‘Modest Plea’.  What perhaps first strikes the reader about Milbank’s essay is just how much substance he is able to gather from Žižek’s convoluted arguments and how just clearly he is able to articulate his opponent’s ideas.  Indeed, though their disagreements are profound, Milbank approaches Žižek with respect and something very like affection:

No one is more rawly exposed than Slavoj Žižek.  Somewhat like the tragicomic, clown-like Christ he sometimes invokes, he stands before us without the least vestige of pretense, revealing every last symptom of his quirky subjectivity, while always allowing this to witness to the universal.  His seemingly constant descent into trivia and obscenity, his frequent metaphysical deviations, consistently perform a vision that is far more serious than that of most of his contemporaries (111).

This aside, Milbank shows no interest, with that arrogance that is an integral part of the Radical Orthodoxy project, in pulling any punches, particularly when it comes to the work of his fellow theologians:

What is ironic in Žižek’s project is that he insists that Christianity alone articulated a universal logic, but does so in an atheistic mode.  This renders him, of course, far nearer to ‘orthodoxy’ (as he acknowledges) than all those craven, weak, sentimental theologians, doused in multiple tinctures of mauvaise foi, who claim to believe in some sort of remote, abstract, transcendent deity and who yet compromise the universal claims of Christianity in favour of mystical relativism, glorification of hypostasized uncertainty, and practical indulgence in the malignly infinite air-shuttle of mindless ‘dialogue’ … What matters is not so much that Žižek is endorsing a demythologized, disenchanted Christianity without transcendence, as that he is offering in the end (despite what he sometimes claims) a heterodox version of Christian belief (111).

He is also unapologetic – in contrast, we must assume, to those theologians he writes about, who would hesitate to make such claims – about the plausibility and indeed superiority of a Catholic theological view of the world: ‘Must we be confined within this Protestant, Jansenist, and totalitarian gloom?  Or can an alternative Catholic metanarrative be sustained by both the metaphysical plausibility of the Catholic outlook and its fidelity to the core of Christian doctrine?’ (131).  Oddly enough, Milbank does not argue explicitly with Žižek’s atheism, being more interested in his heterodoxy; indeed, Milbank denies that Žižek is really an atheist at all: ‘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 fully able to endorse a transcendent God, in whom creatures analogically participate’ (113).  In the course of his essay, Milbank revisits many of the same texts that Žižek relies on, at times critiquing his use and interpretation of these texts, especially Eckhart, who, Milbank argues, was more like Milbank and less like Žižek than Žižek is willing to admit; Eckhart was, in Milbank’s reading, ‘radically orthodox’, a purveyor of a ‘radicalism engendered by a defence of orthodoxy’ (114). 

Despite all of this, the disagreement between the two thinkers is not by any means absolute.  Like Žižek, and in some agreement with thinkers as diverse as John Gray and Mark C. Taylor, Milbank underlines the definitively Christian roots of modernity itself, thus implicitly undermining any narrative of the modern that relies on a strict separation between Christianity and the ‘secular’ world.  Summing up this position, if a little grudgingly, Milbank writes, ‘modern subjectivity is full of authentically Christian developments which have occurred outside a proper Catholic aegis, even if the lack of such supervision has led to horrendous distortions’ (117).  He goes further than this – here explicitly in agreement with Taylor’s argument in After God (2007)– to argue that modernity is a particularly Protestant phenomenon:

I wish to raise the question of how far all the usual ‘left’ historical narratives are in fact biased toward Protestantism, thereby disguising from themselves the way in which a secular ‘progressivist’ approach to history is in reality secretly committed to a Protestant reading of Christianity – rather than it being the case, as the left often assumes, that Protestantism is a more ‘progressivist’ rendering of the latter.  Indeed, even to think in terms of the categories of ‘traditionalist’ versus ‘progressivist’ may be to be held captive by a Protestant religious perspective, which has no real meaning either in purely secular terms, or in genuinely Catholic ones (126).

He also attacks, and not without very good reason, any account of modern history – Žižek’s included – that treats the Protestant Reformation as inevitable, a natural and necessary step in the march of human progress.  There is nothing inevitable, Milbank argues, about the shape of modernity.  Couching this argument in the clearest terms, Milbank argues that what he have is ‘the modernity which we happen to have’ (205).  If this particular point, which has been getting a good deal of attention in recent years, perhaps most notably in Charles Taylor’s magisterial 2007 book A Secular Age, has ever been made more effectively, and with so few words, I cannot think where.  Through all of this, Milbank, like Žižek, remains blind to the debts that Europe, and thus modernity, owe to both Judaism and Islam.  As a theologian working in an explicitly apologetic mode, this oversight is perhaps more understandable in Milbank’s case than it is in Žižek’s.  In the end, however, it is no more forgivable.

Milbank’s Catholicism provides him with a consistent point of difference with Žižek:

So the crucial thing at issue between myself and Žižek is the question of the interpretation of Christianity.  I wish to argue that he concludes that atheist Christianity is true Christianity  only because he accepts a dialectical (Lutheran, Behmenist, Kantian, Hegelian) version of Christian doctrine as the most coherent.   By contrast, I claim that there is a radically Catholic humanist alternative to this, which sustains genuine transcendence only because of its commitment to incarnational paradox.  Such a humanism is diversely found in Eckhart, Kierkegaard, Chesterton, and Henri de Lubac (117).

Trinitarian theology provides not only a point of difference, but forms the baseline for everything that Milbank encounters in his response to Žižek.  Hegel, for example, is guilty of the greatest of all possible crimes; his ideas are deeply indebted to William of Ockham and to Nominalist theology, two of the particular bugbears of the Radical Orthodoxy movement.  In a parallel gesture to Žižek’s criticism of Chesterton, Milbank criticises Hegel for not grappling seriously enough with the Catholic/Thomist perspective.  Finally, for Milbank, quite against Žižek’s materialism, one inspired perhaps equally by Lacan, Marx, and Hegel, Catholic Christianity remains the only way forward from our current historical impasse, caught as we are between the ‘secular’ and the theological in a nether-region somewhere at the intersection of the premodern, the modern, and the postmodern.  The Catholic perspective – and for Milbank, there is only one properly Catholic perspective – is one of an almost Romantic balance ‘between the democracy of reason on the one hand and the esoteric hierarchy of the poetic on the other.  Without this balance one gets instead the hidden complicity of the apparent openness of reason with the much more hidden and impenetrable (because senseless) secrecy of willful power’ (217-218). 

Against Žižek’s Hegel-inspired championing of the dialectical structure of all things, and the Incarnation in particular, Milbank places a Catholic-inspired paradox, one which sounds a note that would not seem out of place in Žižek’s own book The Parallax View (2006): ‘I am trying to suggest how Christian Trinitarian logic has a mediating structure which is not dialectical.  The key point here … is that that which lies “between” two poles is paradoxically “extra” to those two poles, an irreducibly hypostatic third’ (145).  Milbank’s central point is thus a fairly simple one: ‘Both narratology and the Trinitarian paradigm therefore suggest how difference exceeds dialectics’ (146).  For Milbank, the essential truth of the world is the ‘misty conceit’ of the paradox, which ‘gives a true account of mediation’ in contrast to Hegel, who offers only ‘a kind of counterfeit mediation’ (159).  Milbank illustrates his Catholic paradox with a strangely affecting extended metaphor of driving a car along a foggy morning road and watching objects appear and disappear into the misty air:

If to be hidden is to be shown (against the background of ‘mist’ as including a misty density proper to the thing itself), and therefore to be shown is to be hidden, then this implies not an impossible contradiction that must be overcome (dialectics) but rather an outright impossible coincidence of opposites than can (somehow, but we know not how) be persisted with.  This is Catholic logic of paradox – of an ‘overwhelming glory’ (para-doxa) which nonetheless saturates our everyday reality … The overwhelming double glory, the paradoxical character of the scene through which I am driving, is also its beauty.  This beauty resides in the belonging together of the mist with the trees and the river, the church spires and the rooftops (163-164).

For Milbank, the stakes of the paradox are more or less total: ‘our ordinary experience is paradoxical, and … this can be denied only at the cost of denying its reality’ (176).  The basic structure of the Trinity is not dialectical, as both Hegel and Žižek claim, but paradoxical: ‘The logic of the Trinity does not then favor a solemn, serious, and tragic Teutonic shadowing of real history.  Instead, it frivolously invokes a lost or hidden realm of fantastic pure play – which interrupts history only at one point, when somehow this light of the fantastic, as the light of the Nativity Star, manages to break through the natural-historical darkness that has demonically concealed it from our view … Yet this levity is more serious than seriousness’ (186).  Given his radical orthodoxy, this is a crucial matter for Milbank; moreover, this paradox is a solution that allows for no other: ‘Paradox alone sustains both God and the reality of the world, so permitting us to search and hope for a meaningful world’ (193). 

Though he makes these points as part of detailed, elaborate argumentation, for this reader at least there was no getting around the feeling that for Milbank the superiority of this paradox is an assertion more than it is a proper argument.  His logic is suspiciously circular, arguing for the superiority of any point of view that embraces the theological and paradoxical because the paradoxical more comfortably exists within Catholic theology, which is (of course) superior.  Milbank makes a far more compelling argument for the fact that the paradoxical more comfortably fits the theological/analogical worldview than he does for the basic plausibility of the Trinity itself.  As is true of far too much of contemporary systematic theology, Milbank seems to mistake dissecting Christian theological ideas, relating them to the contemporary world, and demonstrating their marked superiority with arguing convincingly for their validity in the first place.
Returning to the matter of the debate, Davis gives Žižek the last word and in a second, much shorter essay, Žižek is able to respond directly to Milbank’s ‘Double Glory’.  In this final section, Žižek benefits greatly from the structure that Milbank’s essay imposes on him.  Especially in light of the previous selection, which is as loaded with excurses and long, seemingly random asides as anything he has written in recent years, Žižek’s closing chapter demonstrates a quite remarkable coherence, one which allows him to make most of the salient points that he makes in the book.  He answers Milbank’s counterintuitive boldness with some very strong claims of his own, arguing, for one, that ‘it is Milbank who is in effect guilty of heterodoxy, ultimately of a regression to paganism: in my atheism, I am more Christian than Milbank’ (248).  Žižek accuses Milbank of a number of things, most seriously, as I’ve just noted, of simply holding to his Catholic position rather than reasoning towards it: ‘However, the gap that separates us is most clearly discernible in the opposite cases: when Milbank criticizes me simply for what I claim, as if my position is self-evidently untenable’ (235).  Here Žižek acknowledges that, for the simple reason that he does not believe in a traditional theistic God, he and Milbank may in fact simply be talking at or past rather than to each other in any meaningful sense, not unlike McGrath and Dawkins. 

Though he does make some very good points while clarifying and defending his earlier position, what is perhaps most interesting in this final section occurs when Žižek turns to what is the most important aspect of his agreement with Milbank; that naïve, de-historicized atheism is of little value.  Bringing us back to my earlier unease with Žižek’s restatement of Christian universalism, this is a position that is fiercely relevant to the contemporary study of religion, but one that no one has managed to convincingly lay out the reasons for, until now:

The incompleteness of reality also provides an answer to the question I am often asked by materialists: is it even worth spending time on religion, flogging a dead horse?  Why this eternal replaying of the death of God?  Why not simply start from the positive materialist premise and develop it?  The only appropriate answer to this is the Hegelian one – but not in the sense of the cheap ‘dialectics’ according to which a thesis can deploy itself only through overcoming its opposite.  The necessity of religion is an inner one – again not in the sense of a kind of Kantian ‘transcendental illusion’, an eternal temptation of the human mind, but more radically.  A truly logical materialism accepts the basic insight of religion, its premise that our commonsense reality is not the true one: what it rejects is the conclusion that, therefore, there must be another, ‘higher’, supra-sensible reality.  Commonsense realism, positive religion, and materialism thus form a Hegelian triad (240).

Žižek argues that our position is thus a precarious one that our religious inheritance can help us to understand, regardless of whether or not we are willing or able to make the leap to theistic belief: ‘we created our world, but it overwhelms us, we cannot grasp and control it.  This position is like that of God when he confronts Job toward the end of the book of Job: a God who is himself overwhelmed by his own creation.  This is what dialectics is about: what eludes the subject’s grasp is not the complexity of transcendent reality, but the way the subject’s own activity is inscribed into reality’ (244). He repeats this all-important gesture a few pages later in answering the slightly different question ‘but why God at all?’: ‘The true formula of atheism is not “I don’t believe”, but “I no longer have to rely on a big Other who believes for me” – the true formula of atheism is, “there is no big Other”’ (297).  We cannot ignore Christianity as a whole and the problematic of the Incarnation in particular, Žižek claims, because these things from an essential part of the intellectual world of modernity.  Here he also offers at least a partial answer to my own charge of universalism, despite the fact that he never bothers to articulate this explicitly.  Christianity achieves its unique position in history because it is an essential element of modernity itself, an essential piece of the dominant logic of a globalizing capitalist modernity.  Given this, Žižek is quite correct when he argues that he is moving into new territory with this particular argument: ‘A new field is emerging to which the well-known designations “poststructuralism”, “postmodernism”, or “deconstructionism” no longer apply; even more radically, this field renders problematic the very feature shared by Derrida and his great opponent, Habermas: that of respect for Otherness’ (254).  This is a hybrid (or, to use Hegelian language, synthesis) of  modern and postmodern (to use two very loaded, very inadequate terms) territory that many others – Terry Eagleton, for one, in his After Theory (2003) – are also trying with varying degrees of success to define and understand. 

So, what is the reader to make of all of this?  There are of course any number of answers to this question, but a few comments should suffice.  Firstly, and taking our cue from Davis’ introduction, there is something altogether refreshing about the fact that Milbank and Žižek are indeed arguing about something real, something fundamentally satisfying about which they both stake definitive positions.  This is not another interpretive argument, but is instead an argument about the base layer of our ontology.  Or is it?  Both thinkers spend the vast majority of their time debating interpretation, offering different readings of Hegel, of Eckhart, of Lacan, and it is easy enough for the reader to lose sight of the argument about the nature of Christianity, not least because the authors themselves both seem to lose their way from time to time in the minutiae and the labyrinth of their reasoning.  In the end, the heart of this argument is revealed in the title of the book itself; their fundamental debate here is about how to read Hegel’s reading of Christianity.  Secondly, there is in the labyrinthine structure of this book an arrogance that is in many ways as delightful as it is frustrating.  To understand Žižek, for instance, the reader is expected to have read and digested Hegel (all of Hegel’s writings), Kant, Freud, and Lacan, and this is just for starters.  Having read and understood Jean Laplanche, Alain Badiou, Walter Benjamin, and Henry Corbin would also be immensely helpful.  However, to penetrate fully into the depths of Žižek’s essays, one would also have to have more than a passing familiarity with Hitchcock’s Psycho, with Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and its unique place in detective fiction, with Percy Shelley’s poetry, and with the film V for Vendetta.  Much the same is true of Milbank, who in addition to all of this demands a certain familiarity with the work of Renè Girard, with the basics of Thomist and Nominalist theologies, with the work of William Desmond, and with Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights.  The question might be raised as to exactly who Žižek and Milbank are writing for - what percentage of the population, including working academics, has done the requisite background reading to keep up with everything in this book?  This arrogance may seem short-sighted and even self-defeating; however, taking a broader view, it is refreshing that both Žižek and Milbank refuse utterly to make any concessions to their audience’s likely limitations.  Indeed, it is even possible, in an era of reality television, the Left Behind books, and Dan Brown novels, to view this kind of scholarship as a kind of protest against the relentless infantilism of contemporary culture.  Not that this makes it any easier to read or to imagine implementing in any practical way.  This leads me to my final point: regardless of whether one agrees in the final analysis with Žižek or with Milbank (or indeed if one thinks they are both barking), how any of this is going to lead to the anti-capitalist revolution that Davis hopes for is anyone’s guess, particularly as none of the people involved deign to tell us where we are to go from this point.

So, after all of this, who wins?  The short answer is Žižek, if for no other reason than he seems to be genuinely searching for answers, not new ways to find the same old answers.  What Žižek does here is to make atheism respectable again, after the onslaught of what Eagleton quite rightly calls ‘school-yard’ atheists, reactionaries like Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Richard Dawkins.  What none of these authors seem to realize is that atheism in the European context must necessarily pay attention to religion, though atheism itself is not necessarily a religious position.  In Žižek’s arguments, we find a deeper meaning to Milbank’s assertion that ‘the supposition of naive atheists that the West can leave behind either Christology or ecclesiology is worthy to be greeted only with ironic laughter’ (181).  One cannot blithely ignore the centuries of theological thinking that lie in the background of any assertion of atheism, philosophically justifiable as such an assertion may be.  This might not be an argument that will ever be resolved, and this book may not document a proper argument in the strictest sense of the word; however, in The Monstrosity of Christ, Slavoj Žižek, crucially in dialogue with John Milbank, finally gives us a way to argue – or to at least to begin to argue – for an intellectually respectable and historically responsible atheism that both avoids the abuses of ‘secular’ rationalization and transcends this ironic laughter by delving into the real cultural depths of matters of belief and unbelief. As with all good books – the reader also wins.

© International Journal of Baudrillard Studies (2010)

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