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The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?

Slavoj Zizek, John Milbank, and Creston Davis
Published by MIT Press in 2011

The most recent installment of Slavoj Zizek’s “Short Circuits” series presents a thought-experiment that “cross[es] wires that do not usually touch” (vii). Editor Creston Davis introduces the electricians who dare to cross wires: on one side, the “militant Marxist” (4) and cultural theorist Zizek grasps the wire of secular atheism, while on the other side Radical Orthodox theologian John Milbank holds the wire of religious theism. Davis informs us that both thinkers have come together to provide a “materialist theology” that grounds Christian religious thought firmly in the political, economic, and social realities of our day. Such a theology should serve as a remedy to the underlying problem of our times: “capitalist nihilism,” a world-order submitted to the dictates of the “fiend of mindless material consumption” (3).

The wires of Zizek and Milbank cross precisely at the point where they affirm the “absolute truth” (131) of Christianity in “The Monstrosity of Christ,” a title which may occasion revulsion among Christians and delight among atheists. Etymology helps explain this bizarre appellation. The Latin word monstrum signifies a divine omen, wonder, or miracle, as well as a horrible sight, object of dread, or awful deed. Only one monstrous event satisfies both definitions: the wonder of the God of the universe’s incarnation in the man Jesus Christ, which ends with the horror of the Crucifixion, when God was made a curse for the redemption of man mankind (Galatians 3:13).

Over the span of three lengthy and theoretically dense essays written more for the academic than the layperson, Zizek and Milbank discuss the event when “[God] was made Man” (25). Zizek’s pair of essays, which act as bookends to Milbank’s single contribution, affirm his prerogative as series editor to have the first and last word in the discussion. However, the asymmetry is pardonable, as Zizek’s prose is considerably more accessible than Milbank’s. What is more, he does greater justice to the notion of the Incarnation than histheist counterpart, despite the fact that for him this event is more idea than historical reality.

In his first salvo, entitled “A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity,” Zizek upholds the image of “a God who abandons [his] transcendent position and throws himself into his own creation, fully engaging himself in it up to dying” (25). By way of contrast, both contemporary Orthodox theologian Vladimir Lossky and medieval Dominican mystic Meister Eckhart refuse to “endorse Christ’s full humanity; they both reduce Christ to an ethereal being foreign to earthly reality” (33). For Zizek, only Protestantism consistently upholds the centrality of the tortured and crucified Christ to the Christian faith.

Zizek’s reading of Christianity through the lenses of the Hegelian dialectic proclaims the Protestant Reformation as historically inevitable, a product of the mediation of contingent (accidental) and necessary events. Contingent events could have happened otherwise, while necessary events had to happen precisely the way they did. To use an example from aunit I taught on Martin Luther, I asked my students to debate which event in Luther ’s life served as the greatest catalyst for the Ninety-Five Theses: the near miss of a thunderbolt which prompted him to abandon the study of the law and enter a monastery, the visit to Rome where he witnessed the Church’s corruption, or the professorship at Wittenberg where he realized that the Book of Romans was the linchpin to understanding the Gospel. Viewedin isolation from each other, the events are purely accidental and could have happened otherwise; Luther may not have ventured into the rainstorm or decided to go to Rome, for example. However, in truth every one of these events, as well as the millions of events before that made Luther’s very existence even possible, had to happen in just such a way to create the conditions for the writing of the Wittenberg Theses. This cardinal event of the Protestant Reformation thus appears to the historian as both absolutely contingent (each event could have happened otherwise) and absolutely necessary (each event had to happen precisely as it did to make the present conditions possible). As in the classic optical illusion of the cup and opposed faces, which oscillates between seeing the alternating images against their respective backgrounds, human categories of thinking can only perceive this dialectic between contingency and necessity as a continuous mediation in one moment contingent, in the next necessary. This interminable shift in perspectives becomes a mutually-antagonistic conflict, or dialectic, that generates the next step in the development of history.

Of course, the Hegelian movement of history does not stop with the Protestant Reformation, but marches relentlessly on to its “necessary” outcome, the eventual triumph of atheism. The same logic of “contingently necessary” events ensures that what has always been known implicitly since the religion of “Christ crucified” seized man’s imagination now becomes an explicit realization in the present, that “…what dies on the Cross is not only the earthly-finite representative of God, but God himself, the very transcendent God of Beyond,” whose existence passes over into the Holy Spirit, “the community of believers which exists only as the virtual presupposition of the activity of finite individuals” (60-61, Zizek’s emphases). As Davis suggests in his introduction, Zizek’s calendar is fixed interminably on “Holy Saturday” (21), where Jesus’ “tortured dead body remains forever as its material remainder” (287). The idea and reality of God (both are the same for the atheist) has died, and is now present only within the Body of Christ or community of believers who deny the fact of this death at the same time as they must, at least unconsciously, acknowledge it in thought and ritual. In Zizek’s psychoanalytic view, a reading of religious history through the lenses of dialectics most faithfully reproduces the psychology of the postmodern capitalist condition, in which man has long ago abandoned belief in a transcendent God for the “intimacy of spiritual experience…[,] the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism” (28).

The best way to defeat this alliance between religion and capitalism ideology is to admit the fact of God’s death, which releases us to “become aware of our own freedom” (82) to state emphatically that “the only true belief is belief without any support in the authority of some presupposed figure of the ‘big Other ’” (101). Borrowing terms from Friedrich Schiller ’scategories of poetry, Zizek argues that the “sentimental” ethics most commonly followed today dictate that one acts good towards oneself and others in order to appease the Law of the “big Other.” Since the big Other is in actuality dead, following such a Law ultimately consists of obeying the State that has taken His place. “Naïve” ethics, on the other hand, acts “beyond good and evil,” to borrow Friedrich Nietzsche’s phrase, in “[doing] what I have to do because it needs to be done, not because of my goodness” (301). Like any theorist, Zizek offers no practical solution to the problem of global capitalism, but rather supplies a stance that would no doubt embrace the tenets of a Marxism of the collective that would do what “needs to be done;” namely, dismantle government systems that allow the capitalist enterprise to flourish unchecked.

John Milbank’s reading of history avows there is nothing inevitable about the Protestant Reformation. He would return the historian’s gaze to a point along the church’s timeline that predates Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, namely “a more humanist [Catholic] reformation…such that…the specifics of Reformation and Counter-Reformation dogmatics would not have dominated the European future” (115). Milbank wishes to revive Christian theology with the support of a Catholic metaphysics influenced by Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Duns Scotus, and Meister Eckhart (among others) that would act as the “guardian of the most ordinary, which includes the most poetic, experience” (176). To Milbank, Zizek’s Protestant-atheist stance removes from the world man’s status as an “eroto-linguistic animal,” a creature who constructs narratives because he is infused with unquenchable desire. Such desire is only possible, Milbank claims, if an infinite and vital Presence lies at the core of Being, a Thomistic God whose absolutely sovereign will breathes life into and sustains everything in the universe (125).

For Milbank, not dialectics but “paradox” constitutes reality. Paradox consists not of “an impossible contradiction that must be overcome (dialectics) but rather an outright impossible coincidence of opposites that can … be persisted with,” an “‘overwhelming glory’(paradoxa) which nonetheless saturates our everyday reality” (163). Using the marvelously poetic example of a drive in the mist, Milbank describes how the mist both conceals and reveals the features of the landscape around the car, holding them together in a kaleidoscopic harmony greater than the sum of its succeeding features. In like fashion, Milbank asserts, the fundamental structure of reality is not dialectical antagonism, but a peaceful harmony emerging from the infinite fullness of the Trinity, among the members of which “the tensional play…is rather that of the dance—perichoresis, as the Greek Fathers said—and not of the sports field” (186). If in Zizek’s view the optical illusion of cups and faces never truly resolves itself, unceasingly passing from one to the other, Milbank’s “paradox” assumes a view that can permanently hold both images simultaneously.

Milbank’s Catholic alternative to Reformation and post-Reformation theology suggests the possibility of a restoration of patriarchal order and a recognition of the dignity of labor that has been eroded and dissolved by what he sees, following Max Weber, as the inextricable alliance of Protestantism and capitalism. The assumption that these two structures are inevitable historical developments in the service of “progress” must be dismantled, allowing previous modes of economic and political existence prior to the Reformation to be studied for their potential contributions to our present-day circumstances. As with Zizek, Milbank’s politics do not seem to provide noticeable steps towards a solution to the problem of global capitalism, but merely hearken back to an assumed organic unity between community and individual.

In his second essay, Zizek baldly states, “…[Milbank’s] basic position does not really allow for … the traumatic skandalon of the Christian experience … in my atheism, I am more Christian than Milbank” (248). Though a perilously bold statement that calls into question Milbank’s faith commitment, Zizek’s statement raises a valid point: in adopting the Protestant centrality of Christ’s cross for his own, he is perhaps more faithful to the true “monstrosity” of the Christian narrative than his theist opponent.

Milbank’s vision of paradox, after all, posits that a state of peaceful harmony evocative of Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the “wolf and the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6) exists beyond antagonism and conflict as a present, rather than eschatological, reality. Where in this formulation is that Fallen creation mentioned in Paul’s Letter to the Romans, ensnared in the “bondage of corruption” (Romans 8:20), groaning and laboring with birth pangs to be delivered from her agonizing state? Milbank’s view instead seems informed by an over-realized eschatology that overlooks the actual state of man as a rebel who does not seek God (Romans 3:11) and routinely produces alienation, exploitation, and violence. Milbank diverts our gaze from the image of the crucified Christ whose memorial provides atonement for our fallen condition. Indeed, Milbank admits that, in the Catholic version of theology he espouses, “the ‘perfect suffering’ of the Cross is but one aspect of an entire action whereby the finite is restored to full existence in time through its paradoxical conjunction with the infinite” (212). In otherwords, what the Orthodox describe as theosis or “deification” (in Protestant terms, “sanctification”) provides the weightier supplement to a Reformed theology of the cross.

Though the conflict and antagonism of dialectics may best represent our current reality as “exiles on this earth,” to borrow John Calvin’s phrase from the Institutes, the telos of Zizek’s interpretation of Christian history remains in the end just as unsatisfactory. His interminable “Holy Saturday” would ultimately deprive man of the hope of Easter Sunday. Believers today still experience their faith beyond any “virtual presupposition”: for them, existence indeed emerges from the full vitality of a transcendent God and Resurrected Son. Although Zizek and Milbank’s wire-crossing contributes little to a potential disruption of the global capitalist system, both contributions point towards the necessity of a theology which, to survive, must hold within itself the paradoxical tension between Christ’s monstrous sacrifice and glorious return.

Cite this article
David J. Rosenberg, “The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 39:1 , 146-149

David J. Rosenberg

David J. Rosenberg, Germanic, Slavic, and Semitic Studies, Universityof California, Santa Barbara