Theologians ♥ Zizek
Buddha-killer Becky and I have been in a bit of a back-and-forth lately about a peculiar phenomenon we’ve been observing: the preponderance lately of hip young Christians (and even Quakers) getting worked up about the atheist, materialist, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek. (May the bodhisattvas of multiculturalism forgive my leaving out the diacritical marks.) Last year, at the American Academy of Religion meeting, I remember being amazed to discover that an enthusiastic paper on Zizek began with a prayer. What followed was a young, optimistic, good-looking evangelical pastor explaining why Zizek points the way toward a genuine “postmodern” Christian theology. And at this year’s AAR, the man himself was present. He called himself “unconditionally a Christian”—insofar as being a Christian means being an atheist. (Adam Kotsko’s significant Zizek and Theology points to Zizek’s resonance with the “death of God” theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Thomas J.J. Altizer, so it was fitting that he shared the stage that day with Alitzer. Not that identification with one of theology’s greatest has-beens is any advertisement for his relevance.)
It’s like they—the theologians—don’t believe him. Pretty straight out, Zizek’s books attack pretty much all the cherished convictions of traditional Christian thought and culture: love of neighbor, social hierarchy, mercy, meekness, and even basic theism. Let there be no mistake, there has truly been a move toward Christianity in his recent books—a celebration of Christianity, indeed, with a muscular exclusivism, at the expense of other religions (following Hegel’s reasoning), that would make most polite Christians today blush. Zizek’s “theological turn,” like that of Terry Eagleton, amounts to no less than an attack on how theology is normally done. Like Terry Eagleton (and even Antony Flew), however, people with more conventional theological predilections have flocked to him as an ostensible bridge that their Christianity might cross into secular culture.
If they cherish their convictions, however, I’d warn them against doing so. What this contingent represents is a desire to do something quite different with theology—to replace church with a bureaucracy (Zizek) or a revolution (Eagleton) or a minimalist positivism (Flew). My advice for theologians concerning Zizek: fight him! That’s what he wants. And that’s what his thinking—so rich, so surprising, and so irreverent to necessary reverences—deserves. (See, e.g., my discussion of Adam Kirsch’s attack on Zizek last year at the New Republic.)
Returning to Zizek’s books again lately, I find in them more and more an attitude that can only be called theological—an analysis of living gods. But these are not the gods any respectable Christian theology should want. These are the gods of Christianity’s ruins, its graveyard, and accepting them means accepting the basic premise that the whole religion is a joke that its adherents are too dense to get.
But if that’s not a problem for you, then by all means, help yourself to this brilliant, alluring figure.
Nathan Schneider is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about religion, reason, and violence for a variety of publications. He is also a founding editor of Waging Nonviolence. His first two books, published by University of California Press in 2013, are God in Proof: The Story of a Search from the Ancients to the Internet and Thank You, Anarchy: Notes from the Occupy Apocalypse. Visit his website at The Row Boat.