Slavoj Žižek: Pastiche or Parody?
I was intrigued by Slavoj Žižek’s essay, ‘The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity,’ a chapter that appears in the book, ‘The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?’ I’d like to talk about it, but there’s a slight fear that my casual readers’ eyes will glaze over if I do not first:
1) explain which specific ‘fear of the four words’ Žižek is referring to,
2) provide a brief explanation of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s philosophy, which is impossible,
3) briefly explain why Žižek is making a plea for a reading Christianity through the lens of the great German Idealist, which may strike some people as strange since Žižek claims to subscribe to a postmetaphysical Christian Atheism (a philosophical expression we will get to later),
4) offer a reason why the title of the book refers to the figure of “Christ” as a “monstrosity,”
5) and why the two only ways to consider this “monstrosity” is through either “paradox” or “dialectic.” Maybe.
Then again, all of this may produce the same sleepy reaction, especially since I haven’t even begun to talk about the primary point of this blog post: my growing disappointment and suspicion with postmodernism. Don’t get me wrong, anyone interested in dealing with philosophy in the techno-fabulous media culture has to take a look at postmodern theory, because it is a reflection of the media society, and after the New York Times infamous “God Is Dead” headline shocked the First World, the similar fate of philosophy’s relevance was sure to follow, more so with the development of television and video games replacing the fables and Myths of the Gods with digitized metaphysics of man’s own making. Postmodernism is important because it has the balls to be self-conscious of its own specious design. Postmodernism is skeptically wonders if Philosophy has ever said anything of value at all.
As a person who has gotten a lot out of postmodernism, it now apparent to me that there is a wall of irony that surrounds this philosophy that prevents meaningful action. It’s like a colossal wind of “So What” gusting from the minds of guys like Žižek when they talk of the Prague ’68 riots or take on philosophical and religious topics such as this. There’s an intellectual dissonance that occurs when connections, concepts and meanings – living only in the consciousness of these writers who are always referring to other texts, which effectively secludes and separates from events here in the physical world. I resent (though appreciate) the irony of having to employ the same methodology of writing and referring to another text just to point out a big problem I have with this one point of Žižek’s, but I must push through.
Oh, and if you do want to read Slavoj Žižek or any other of his equally opinionated, totalizing screeds, you probably need to have a frickin’ college degree just to understand the densely compressed philosophical linguistic jargon that is used. There aren’t that many people in the world who read Žižek or will know what I am talking about when I mention ‘totalizing,’ ‘semiotics,’ ‘signifiers’ or ‘truth-claims.’ It’s truly another elitist language game that separates a segment of the educated class from all other classes. Does Žižek, the good Communist, see this divide of this intellectual inequality as well?
1) The Fear of Four Words
Žižek begins his essay with a reference of a Father Brown murder mystery, The Oracle of the Dog, by the English writer G.K. Chesterton’s.
The conclusion to Chesterton’s story provides Žižek’s starting point is partially quoted here. Father Brown speaks:
“People readily swallow the untested claims of this, that, or the other. It’s drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it’s coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.” He stood up abruptly, his face heavy with a sort of frown, and went on talking almost as if he were alone. “It’s the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense and can’t see things as they are. Anything that anybody talks about, and says there’s a good deal in it, extends itself indefinitely like a vista in a nightmare. And a dog is an omen, and a cat is a mystery, and a pig is a mascot and a beetle is a scarab, calling up all the menagerie of polytheism from Egypt and old India; Dog Anubis and great green-eyed Pasht and all the holy howling Bulls of Bashan; reeling back to the bestial gods of the beginning, escaping into elephants and snakes and crocodiles; and all because you are frightened of four words: ‘He was made Man’.” (Emphasis mine)
“He was made man,” does not appear in the Gospels verbatim, but it is implicit within the axiom of Jesus as God Incarnate: “For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit, he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”  This is one of the basic planks in the profession of faith as the official catechism of Catholicism, and was vitally important to Chesterton’s literary, religious and philosophical perspective. What Chesterton is saying is superstition arises when men lose “common sense” of disbelieving in God because of the fear of the phrase, “He was made Man.”
I can only speak for myself and for the experiences I’ve had within the Christian religious tradition of the meaning and purpose of life, but I cannot say I have seen people fall away from the Christian faith to take up superstition because they objected to the “fearful idea” that God was made Man. For me, it was because the whole scheme of sacrifice did not make sense to me. How could God ‘die’ if He was God? How was salvation activated with the destructive sacrifice of a human body and after the body has been in the ground for three days, flies back up to Heaven ? What was really accomplished, except the manifestation of a new form of social control through mass hypnosis? The cross, as Paul warned, was a stumbling block to me.
Žižek makes a good point when he says Chesterton’s rationale for what he saw as the validity of Christianity was because there was no mystery in the world except the mystery of Christ revealed as Son of God, and by this cosmic exception, belief is justified.
Žižek takes this point further and suggests that the “fear” is existential: a transcendent God who descends to Earth means there’s nobody minding the store, produces an existential catastrophe, which informs his postmetaphysical philosophy that underlines his Christian Atheism, as we shall see later. But is this ‘fear’ real and palpable, or just more of Žižek’s empty, theorizing babble?
2) Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s Philosophy
Žižek then explains that only Hegel has taken this perspective of the meaning of the Death of God (as Christ) to its logical conclusion. Hegel may have been the most formidable intellect since Aristotle that the West has seen. Hegel’s philosophy is highly complex and I am certainly not prepared to try and unravel it within the confines of this blog post.
I can say that part of Hegel’s Theory of Everything was his attempt to reconcile what he believed was the insufficiency of Immanuel Kant’s skeptical philosophy which claimed ultimate knowledge (that is, “God”) was unattainable due to the limitation of thought. We cannot see the transcendent and we don’t really want to anyway, because if the transcendent and unknown nature of God is not maintained, moral life (and free will, presumably) would be destroyed as humans would only act out of fear of displeasing the Almighty. We will be as puppets on a string.
Hegel wasn’t having any of that. His idea was that history was the story of the evolution of consciousness and the unfolding and development of different dimensions of concepts and ideas. Where Kant seems to separate everything into separate points as polarities, Hegel, following Heraclitus, claimed that every idea partially contains its opposite, and actually there is no separation as everything exists as parts of an interconnected whole. Our problem is that we cannot see the totality of existence, which is why polarity, difference and opposites seem to exist. This evolutionary progression of consciousness was couched in metaphysical terms by Hegel, and can be seen as an ascension towards Absolute Knowledge. Hegel also claimed thought created reality.
3) What is the ‘Hegelian Reading of Christianity,’ and why does Žižek modestly plead for it?
Using Hegel’s mode of logic where opposites exist within each idea, God is both the savior of man and by his death leaves man to stand as God. Žižek overlooks the dictum of Protagoras that ”man is the measure of all things,’ which makes Žižek’s thesis rather prosaic. Hegel’s students, Feuerbach and Marx rejected Hegel’s theories and took the direct route, explaining God as an illusion created by human consciousness. Nietzsche made the claim that the Death of God liberates the man who dares to apply his will. I don’t understand the need for Christian Atheism if the point is that no God exists, anyway. It seems to unnecessarily add another mythic layer as a discredited passion play.
Lost within the debris of pop culture and deep philosophical references typical of Žižek’s works, we find the reason why he thinks it is important (or maybe ‘interesting’) that one applies the Hegelian Triad of thesis, antithesis and synthesis when considering Christianity. Žižek says Christianity is the synthesis of the opposing monotheisms of Judaism and Islam. Why is Christianity a ‘synthesis of monotheism?’ Because, according to Žižek, Christianity made compromises with polytheism by having three gods, yet insisting they were one. There you have it.
4) The Monstrosity of Christ
In Flannery O’Connor’s Southern Gothic fable, ‘Wise Blood,’ her protagonist, Hazel Motes preaches The Church Without Christ, where “the deaf don’t hear, the blind don’t see, the lame don’t walk, the dumb don’t talk, and the dead stay that way.” (Italics mine). For Hegel and Žižek, the Monstrosity of Christ is that his death of the cross is a real death. The formerly transcendent God dies a physical death which means there is no longer any agency directing the Divine Plan of existence. For Žižek, this opinion provides the foundation of his Christian Atheism, which he considers more in tune with the spirit of Christ than any Christian believer. We can’t really know if Žižek actually ‘believes’ Jesus Christ came from Heaven to literally die on the cross as the Son of God, or if he is merely “making a point.” It seems disingenuous and unnecessarily arch to pretend to make such a big deal about being a Christian Atheist just because it pays some kind of homage to one of your heroes. I am not saying he’s doing this, but that’s how it strikes me.
5) Dialectic or Paradox?
Come on, it can’t really matter, can it? We need a common sense postmetaphysical framework that frees us from the enslavement of the religion, because it is plain to see that religion and spirituality, philosophy, the arts and sciences, technology and money has not brought about the world we should be living in – by virtue of our common state of being alive. If Žižek has an atheism for that, I’d be all over it. The postmetaphysic has to be connected to an overarching, practical application for what is missing in this world – the equality for all in every way possible; economic, political, educational – with the equal access to money to provide a dignified life for all. I don’t atheism, Christian or otherwise, providing anything along those lines.
“The whole of philosophy resembles a circle of circles”
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
Could it be that the postmetaphysical began on the date of May 28, 585 BCE in Miletus, when the pre-Socratic scientist Thales accurately predicted a solar eclipse? That was the date when Natural Philosophy as we know it in the West, was born, and every philosopher who has come after Thales has in one way or another has made a reference to his legacy.
After wading in this swamp of philosophical word salad and critical theory trainspotting, I am experiencing my own ‘Hegelian contradiction.’ While I have no use for arch, ultra-hip pop philosophy, there is something to be said about starting a conversation along postmetaphysical lines, where we can dispense with beliefs about gods and deities sitting up in the sky watching our every move and moving away from discredited, failed and meaningless spirituality, and finally coming together as a totality where the All is treated of being worthy of Life.
The Monstrosity of Philosophy is that it’s all thought, no action. Žižek has said many times that he would rather just sit around and think. Did Lenin or Napoleon just sit around and think? The world might be a nice place for the chic, pop philosopher, going to parties, giving interviews and speeches all over the world in true rock star fashion while watching people everywhere fall over each and every word – but the question that remains unasked (until now) is: does Žižek live the words of his Christian atheism to the extent that he is acting within the principle of Equality made by Jesus himself, in order to bring forth a change in the world which values life equally for all, or for all his super-hip bluster, or is he just paying lip service? If he is in it for himself, why is anybody listening?
The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? By Slavoj Žižek, John Milbank, Creston Davis
 1 Jn 4:10; 4:14; 3:5.