Volume 7, Number 2 (July, 2010)
The Monstrosity of Synthesis
A Review of Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank. The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Creston Davis (Editor). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2009.
(Doctoral Student, Laurentian University, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada)
This collection of four essays is quite simply a whirlwind of philosophical and theological reflections brimming with rapid fire references that can be at times perplexing, but ultimately enlightening and rewarding. In a general way, what we have here is a philosophico-theological meeting of the minds between the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the British theologian John Milbank. Over the course of the book these two authors are essentially advocating two different versions of Christianity. Žižek’s position can be classified as protestant atheism whereas Milbank’s is safely labeled as orthodox catholic. Though this book is an engagement of differing views, the gulf between these two positions becomes fairly obvious throughout the course of the book. What is so fascinating about this exchange of ideas is not the possibility of synthesizing these two opposing positions, but the way everything gets stood on its head only to be flipped over once again. What initially appears as black turns into white, what is up becomes down, and what is light turns to dark. For example, Žižek as an atheist claims to be more Christian than Milbank whereas Milbank as a theist claims to be more of a materialist than Žižek. These are not minor points either, as much of what is discussed throughout is of substantial importance. In fact, according to the editor, Creston Davis, at stake in this exchange, which he likens to “Ultimate Fighting,” is “the very heart of theology itself” (19).
In the introductory essay ‘Holy Saturday or Resurrection Sunday? Staging an Unlikely Debate’ Davis sets the stage by locating the debate within the larger context of each authors’ respective works as well as within the context of recent theological debates. Davis instructs readers that despite the popularity of the recent works by such uncompromising atheists as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, there is much to be discussed in the realm of theology. While Dawkins and his two aforementioned atheistic bedfellows would like to throw the baby out with the bathwater, Žižek’s atheism is much more nuanced, refined and willing to engage with matters of faith. Such a position offers a unique alternative to the strict division of fideism on one side and rationalism on the other with no bridge between. The subtitle of the book poses the question of paradox or dialectic, which are two methods for providing the necessary bridge between rationalism and fideism. It is evident that Milbank would like to remain on the level of paradox. Žižek, on the contrary, would like to proceed with the dialectic beyond paradox. What the dialectic is or what constitutes a paradox is ultimately questioned throughout the text making the entire voyage difficult to grasp at times. Accusations of misreadings abound, but that is half of the fun when reading two seemingly irreconcilable viewpoints.
First to throw their jabs is Žižek who begins the debate by outlining his version of protestant atheism with his essay ‘The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity’. Though known for his rapid deployment of pop culture references in many of his previous works, this first essay by Žižek has a much more somber tone and thus tames his penchant for pop culture references in exchange for serious theory. Hollywood films, canned laughter and Kinder Surprise eggs take a backseat to the theories of G.K. Chesterton, Jacques Lacan and Hegel. Žižek’s argument is essentially that what dies on the cross is what in turn is born. Christ dies on the cross and is simultaneously resurrected as the community of believers. The political aspect to Žižek’s argument is clear in this reading especially when he invokes the concept of the Holy Spirit as embodying what needs to be done without the help of any omnipotent Being. Effectively, there is no “transcendent caretaker” (55) for Žižek. This can be contrasted with Milbank’s Trinitarian position that sees no death of God and nothing but love from the creator above.
Although Milbank is the resident theologian in this engagement, he is doing battle in Žižek’s territory. Since Žižek is the editor of the Short Circuit series for the book’s publisher (The MIT Press) to which this book is one of the volumes, this conveniently allows him the choice position of writing the opening and concluding essays. With this the question arises: What if instead of the current layout, Milbank were allowed to have the first and last words and Žižek was relegated to writing one essay which was sandwiched in the middle between them? Regardless, Milbank’s reply titled ‘The Double Glory, or Paradox Versus Dialectics: On Not Quite Agreeing with Slavoj Žižek’ works within its limited space (comparatively speaking, of course, though it is the longest of all the essays) with a well argued piece of theological scholarship that ultimately rests on a deliberately misty foundation that cannot ultimately be explained since such secrets of the world/universe are for God’s eyes only. The ‘not quite agreeing’ part of his essay title is a kind way for Milbank to say that he thinks Žižek’s brand of demythologized Christianity is just plain wrong. It is somewhat odd whenever a proponent of faith attempts to get the upper hand in an argument based on reason, but this is sidestepped with Milbank’s use of the concept of paradox. Specifically, for his conception of paradox Milbank borrows from William Desmond’s conceptual toolbox and advocates a ‘metaxological’ approach to theology. Though a major part of Milbank’s argument, this is a fuzzy and somewhat ill-defined term that pops up now and again without being given adequate attention.
What also appears from time to time is Milbank’s wit. Milbank can be quite the provocateur making such parenthetical claims as Marxism being no more than a trifling offshoot of liberalism (249), which would be enough to make anyone with Marxist sympathies raise an eyebrow. Another gem is the claim of theological materialism being more materialist than materialist materialism (206). However, despite the occasional flashes of levity, in his attempt to formulate what he calls ‘radical orthodoxy’ Milbank’s position often becomes bogged down. This happens much more so than with Žižek, as Milbank’s prose are a touch denser and slightly less engaging than his Slovenian counterpart. This is somewhat unfortunate, yet entirely understandable, considering Milbank is arguing for theology as the ultimate base for all other realms of knowledge. Such a position is clearly taken by the author to be no laughing matter.
Overall, this book, though littered with dense prose and filled with technical jargon, is great fun to read regardless if one starts at the beginning, middle, or end. In an apt recapitulation of the preceding two essays between himself and Milbank, Žižek begins the final essay noting how it is typical of philosophical debates which often masquerade as dialogue but are in actuality two monologues. With this it is unlikely that readers who are drawn to this book from their admiration of one of the two authors will abandon them only to side with the opposing viewpoint. Regardless, the journey through these essays is largely an enjoyable and enlightening one bound to entertain those who have been steeped in theological tracts for years or those who are looking for a fast-track to the cutting edge arguments of contemporary religious philosophizing. Žižek and Milbank have injected excitement into the ongoing debate regarding Christianity and have cemented a signpost for the current intellectual terrain of theology as well as directions for its future. Though each author lays all of their respective cards on the table, there is the lingering sense that this debate is far from over. What begins when one reaches the end of this book are the numerous intellectual threads that will undoubtedly be mulled over, reinforced, torn apart and critiqued for years to come.
The fourth and final essay of the collection called ‘Dialectical Clarity Versus the Misty Conceit of Paradox’ features Žižek’s rebuttal to Milbank. However, it would be an insult to Žižek’s intellectual prowess to characterize this essay as solely a response to Milbank since it is so much more. Not only do the pop culture references surface more frequently in this essay than the first, there are also countless arresting ideas scattered throughout. For example, the last few pages that conclude this essay, as well as the entire book, are a glimpse at Žižek’s intriguing ethical stance. Like the Hollywood movies he often references, this short burst of ethical monstrosity leaves a cliffhanger for the reader who will most likely be left wanting more. Žižek’s position is neatly summarized as “ethics without morality” (300) and is argued as being the archetypal engagement of Christian love. Without going into too many details, there is an explanation of why it is important to urinate on the face of a priest when he asks for it. Whether one finds this to be a vulgar, obscene image or whether one finds it to be obvious and banal, Žižek can be called nothing short of thought provoking.