Thursday, November 17, 2005

West and Zizek

Count Slavoj Zizek among those putting postmodernity on endless trial. In him we have yet another high profile intellectual performing public pomo-mutiny, perhaps accounting for his popularity. He certainly filled an auditorium tonight for a dialogue with Cornel West.

But unlike the T.D. Jakes event, this time it was more of a one way conversation. Zizek spoke for so long that West didn't have much of a chance to. In a very long and meandering way "Brother Slavoj" (West's designation) groped toward what I discerned to be the following point: Belief can be good, granted you don't actually believe.

Zizek recommended the kind of Christianity that has the benefit of liturgy and ritual without taking the faith part entirely seriously. This he called having a proper "distance" (hasn't he read millinerd? That just won't do). But still, Zizek the Marxist just couldn't get away from belief. Perhaps because Christianity is a fresh blast from the past for his secularized Slovenia, Zizek is quite eager to buy the sexy newcomer a drink. While still calling himself an atheist, he's heavily flirting with the Christian faith. And though he's hesitant to go all the way, things were getting kinda steamy.

Zizek passionately described his fascination with the fact that Christianity has no parallels. If Jesus was just another messenger of God the religion he claimed would be a bore. But in this particular faith God himself dies on the cross. He loves G.K. Chesterton's assertion that one can only find a pure atheism in Christianity, that is, in the cry of derelection on the cross and the mystery of Holy Saturday.

Zizek then claims then that only an atheist can be properly Christian, when in fact the opposite may be true - only a Christian (who buys the mystery of Holy Saturday) can be a "proper" atheist - for at least on that day, God in the person of Jesus Christ, was indeed dead. After the standard adulations, Cornel West picked up on this, explaining that Psalm 22 is not the same thing as Psalm 14 - a very nice distinction indeed. There is room, West seemed to be claiming, for the Jacobian struggle with and even absence of God within the framework of genuine belief in God.

Other Christians however have expressed even more serious concerns about Zizek's casual fling with faith:
"Does Christianity need saving, or does Marxism? Is Zizek a Bob Dylan, turning to Christianity because socialism is in decline, or is he a sincere convert to the rabbi from Galilee? I do not think that Christians need to be anxious about whether celebrity philosophers respect their faith, but I do think it is important to evaluate the future of this new alliance between post-modern European philosophy and the church. Zizek assumes that the church and Marxism can be allies because they have a common enemy in the corrosive consequences of consumerism. The question is whether they have a common hope. Given the present disarray of socialism, Zizek's ideal of absolute justice is very fragile indeed. It makes sense that he would reach out to the church to fill the vacuum left by a proletariat that has lost its voice. It would make a lot less sense for the church to try to salvage an economic ideal that has ruined many countries and countless lives" (from Christian Century).
And though I entirely agree, I'm less concerned for the church appropriating Zizek's ideas (because it's unlikely) than for the church actually appropriating Zizek, which strikes me as if not likely, at least a live possibiltiy.

Zizek said that in talking to fundamentalists he has ascertained that their faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ has no element of existential angst - it is for them a fact as true as any other commonplace fact. And though of course that is true for some Christians, it is far from true for even the most mildly sophisticated expression Christianity (again, if he had only read millinerd). The fact that anyone has faith in the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is in fact part of the miracle of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That such faith needs divine initiation is a basic tenet of Christianity that Zizek seems unaware of (and least it didn't come out tonight).

But it is a miracle that perhaps Zizek is on the way to experiencing. That is, the miracle of believing (as Christians do) that the reality of God is true independent of our belief in it, and it remains true independent of any benefit that such belief imparts. In fact, persistence of faith despite its impartation of benefit may be exactly what the "My God my God why have you forsaken me" that Zizek finds so fascinating is all about.

John Henry Newman once said that liberalism [in religion mind you, not politics] is a half-way house to atheism. Similarly Zizek's brand of Marxism may be a half-way house to actual Christianity.

Should he keep up his fascination, then "brother Slavoj" he actually might one day become.