Slavoj Žižek and Religion
KeywordsIntellectual History Continental Philosophy True Religion Religious Choice Strange Beast
Slovenian Marxist-Lacanian philosopher Slavoj Žižek’s parents were both atheists, and Žižek witnessed firsthand the bloody aftermath of the failed Soviet-backed Yugoslavian government. As an atheist, Žižek holds a unique place in contemporary Christian theological discourse. Instead of ignoring, downplaying, or demeaning theological strands of intellectual history, Žižek instead engages them head on with the same intellectual and philosophical rigor with which he engages continental philosophy, Marxism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Žižek’s take on religion and theology therefore presents another way in which he challenges expectations and, more importantly, demonstrates the relevance of religious discourse in an era during which the divide between the religious and the nonreligious has only grown greater.
Beginning with his first major work, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), Žižek has extensively critiqued religion, specifically Christianity, leading up to the publication of three postmillennium books specifically focused on theology: The Fragile Absolute, or Why Is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (2000); On Belief (2001); and The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (2003). Adam Kotsko’s Žižek and Theology (2008) addresses Žižek’s take on religion and theology in the first full-length treatment on the subject. Žižek has also coauthored books with theologians. Appearing after Kotsko’s book, the collections The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox and Dialectic? (2009) and Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (2010) both contain essays by Žižek, Anglican theologian John Milbank, and philosopher Creston Davis. God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse (2012) contains essays by Žižek and Croatian Evangelical Lutheran Boris Gunjević. Žižek, Davis, and Milbank also edited the collection, Theology and the Political: The New Debate (2005). Žižek has thus gone to great lengths to incorporate an important component of Western intellectual history into his critique of politics and culture and has resisted the dismissal of religion perpetrated by many contemporary philosophers.
Žižek frequently uses Lacan’s famous inversion of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s statement apocryphally taken from The Brothers Karamazov (according to Žižek (2012b, p. 43), it actually originated in Sartre’s Being and Nothingness) that “If God is dead, then everything is permitted.” For Lacan (1991), “analysts know full well that if God doesn’t exist, then nothing at all is permitted” (p. 128), i.e., the ethical dimension predicated by the existence of and collective belief in God dissolves. Žižek (2012c) argues that this post-secular atheist unconsciously still believes in God because the atheist makes himself into a “tolerant hedonist” who dedicates himself to the “pursuit of happiness”; he does this paradoxically while keeping prohibitions situated in his own unconscious, meaning that instead of repressing “illicit desires,” he ultimately represses the “prohibitions themselves” (2012; p. 28). Žižek (2012c) labels the Judeo-Christian God as “the ultimate harasser, the intruder who is brutally disturbing the harmony of our lives” (p. 34, Žižek’s emphasis). Žižek frequently likens the Judeo-Christian God to the superego in this manner.
Žižek has referred to Lacan as an “atheist Catholic,” and indeed Lacan (2013) believed that the only “true religion is the Roman one” and also that the “one true religion” is Christianity (p. 66, Lacan’s emphasis). As the dominant religion in Western society, Christianity poses a complication to the simultaneous rise in dominance of capitalism. Matthew 19:23–24 reads, “Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven” (KJV). Examples such as this abound in both the Old and New Testaments, and commentator Ian Parker (2004) has characterized Žižek’s take on Christianity as a “defense” and a “gushing” endorsement (pp. 6, 56). Judas’s betrayal of Christ for thirty pieces of silver eerily portends the rise of the capitalist state, as this betrayal was necessary for the inception of Christianity as the religion of the sacrificed Son of God that nevertheless came about only through material greed and avarice. The invasive power of capitalistic greed onto the Subject’s unconscious appears via ideological manipulation unbeknownst to the Subject. Kotsko (2008) explicates Žižek’s incorporation of Althusserian ideology through Lacan by noting that Althusser makes day-to-day pedestrian activities the cause of ideological change and manipulation and not institutional super-structures (pp. 24–5). In other words, by the time the Subject has the power to choose a means of subsistence, he will choose to work for a corporation in spite of that corporation’s ill-gotten gains or its rise to power. Žižek (2012d) points out Luther’s formulation of man as “divine shit” that “fell out of God’s anus” (p. 162). This means that only by equating man with excrement, the most quotidian and pedestrian aspect of corporeal reality, can Luther confront God in a Protestant context, that is, without the mediation of the clergy. Žižek (2012d) calls Christ God’s “partial object,” which amounts to an “autonomized organ without a body,” which suggests “God has plucked his eye out of his head and turned it to look at himself from the outside” (p. 165). God does this through the Holy Spirit, which Žižek connects to love as an “immediate consequence” of the crucifixion of Christ and its demonstration of the “impotence of the big Other” (Kotsko, p. 97).
Žižek (2012a) differentiates Judaism and Christianity by labeling Judaism as the “religion of genealogy,” because Christianity’s killing of both Son and Father introduces a “post-paternal community” and therefore an incompatibility with familial lineage (p. 104). Žižek (2012a) claims that Judaism’s “paradox” lies in its remaining faithful to the “violent founding Event” because it does not confess or symbolize the Event, as the “repressed” nature of the Event provides Judaism “unprecedented vitality” (p. 104). According to Žižek, because of its long-standing connection to the law, Judaism shares similarities with the superego (Kotsko, 2008, p. 91). Žižek (2012e) also calls for Christianity to “extraneate” itself and view Judaism as “Christianity-in-becoming” by focusing on “what a strange beast, what a scandalous monstrosity, Christ must have appeared to be in the eyes of the Jewish ideological establishment” (p. 240).
Although it shares many foundational elements with both Christianity and Judaism, Islam poses many problems for the postmodern theologian. According to Žižek (2012a), Islam disallows God from entrance into the “domain of the paternal logic” because Islam does not consider Allah a father, symbolic or otherwise because Allah is “one” and therefore “is neither born” nor “give[s] birth to creatures”; this means “There is no place for Holy Family in Islam” (p. 104, Žižek’s emphasis). Žižek (2012a) reminds us that this is reflected in Islam’s emphasis on Mohammad being an orphan and Islam’s ability to attract young men without a “family safety network” (pp. 104, 105). In the context Lacan’s tripartite model of subjectivity (Symbolic, Imaginary, and Real), Žižek (2012) labels Allah as an “impossible-Real” that operates in two sacrificial modes because Allah works “against sacrifice” without any “symbolic economy of exchange between the believers and God [because] God is the pure One of Beyond,” while on the other hand it supports sacrifice because the “divine Real” becomes the “superego figure of obscure gods” that continually demands blood (p. 107). For Žižek (2012a), Judaism chose Abraham, the “symbolic father,” thereby adopting a “phallic solution of the paternal authority” and the “official symbolic lineage,” while Islam selects Hagar’s lineage and relegates Abraham to being the “biological father” (p. 108). Before Hagar’s appearance, Sarah was a “phallic-patriarchal woman” who remained “barren” and “infertile” because of her phallic power, such that opposing Sarah, who is “fully submitted to phallic-patriarchal order” leads to favoring Hagar, who is “independent and subversive” (2012a; p. 115). Žižek calls Mohammad the “true God of Reason” because of his complete transcendence as the “Supreme Creator” with the knowledge and ability to direct everything such that he does not need to pay heed to “earthly accidents with partial passion” (2009b, p. 85).
Žižek thus has focused his critique of religion on the largest religious traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) and has only made passing mention of other Eastern beliefs such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Although his preference for Christianity typically dominates his writing on the subject, he has made many attempts to create a conversation among the three primary religions and has done so not only as an atheist but also in an attempt to legitimize their lengthy intellectual traditions. The fact that he is an atheist paradoxically gives him an ethos as a commentator on religion as it suggests that he truly engages in critique and not merely in reasserting a preference for a certain personal religious choice. Like his use of popular culture to explain the complicated landscape of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Žižek’s engagement with religion performs a considerably inclusive gesture that should serve as a model to initiate similar conversations among believers and world leaders alike.
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