Micro-Reviews #4: Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank’s “The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?”

Overall Rating: 8/10

I must begin this review by noting that The Monstrosity of Christ is not for the faint-of-heart. This dense tome expects considerable prior experience across the spectrum of both philosophy and theology, specifically: German Idealism (Kant, Schelling, and Hegel), Lacanian psychoanalysis, Christian mysticism (Eckhart and Cusa), Catholic orthodoxy (Chesterton), neo-realism (Badiou and Deleuze), and deconstruction (Caputo); not to mention comfort with a wide variety of cultural references derived from literature, film, and theater. Nonetheless, for those who traverse this difficult way, the rewards are valuable.

This book is formatted as a philosophically/theologically literate counter to “the popularized atheist/theist point/counterpoint of books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others” (from book jacket). Here Žižek, proposing a dialectical-materialist/radically-protestant/Hegelian/Atheist reading of Christianity, contends with Milbank, representing Catholic orthodoxy. Yet, these simple designations pale in comparison to the rich conceptions of Christianity which emerge from these two thinkers. Unfortunately, the density of this text, partnered with both Žižek and Milbank’s tendency toward the tangential, makes a systematic analysis exceptionally difficult. Instead, I will merely attempt to discuss the fundamental disagreement at the core of this dialogue, the nature of contradiction: dialectic or paradox.

Žižek, through his proposal of a Hegelian reading of Christianity, attempts to overcome its internal tensions (God/Christ, God/world, infinite/finite, concrete/universal) through the use of the Hegelian dialectic. In the Hegelian perspective, the question of Christ is posited in the terms of negation and overcoming; God (universal) is overcome by Christ (concrete), who himself is overcome on the cross and succeeded by the Spirit (Synthesis). In this sense, the tensions of Christianity may be understood simply as temporal/perspectival tensions. In true Hegelian fashion, this dialectical model of Christianity can be seen as operative on multiple levels of existence, not simply the theological, but also the historical. Here, Žižek attempts to model a dialectical motion, analogous to the prior, within Christian ecclesiological structures, specifically: Orthodoxy-Catholicism-Protestantism. This model is highly problematic, as Milbank is sure to point out, for the simple reason that it does not accurately fit the historical stage: simply put, both orthodoxy and Catholicism are still alive and kicking. Instead, this pro-protestant bias (i.e. the positing of protestantism as the end/goal of both orthodoxy and Catholicism) simply reveals Žižek’s own protestant influences, which, to his credit, he does not deny.

In response to Žižek’s perspective, Milbank offers a resolution of Christianity’s tensions through the concept of paradox. Drawing heavily upon Nicholas of Cusa’s “coincidence of opposites” or “coincidence of contradictories,” Milbank argues that the Christological/trinitarian difficulties of Christianity cannot be overcome by dialectical negation, but instead that these contradictory realities must be held in tension, in paradox. Driving towards a notion of “Christian love” which unites contradictions without destroying or negating either, Milbank writes, “the authentic love between two is never an exclusive love, but an encountering or generating ecstasy beyond duality and beyond what is dialectically at play between two poles,” or more directly, “I am trying to suggest how Christian Trinitarian logic has a mediating structure which is not dialectical” (p.145). Furthermore, Milbank argues that this paradoxical union of contradictory material is not relegated to the spiritual or supernatural, but instead, that paradox frames even the most banal of human experiences. In this sense, Milbank reformulates the “spiritualized” Catholic world-view within the language of paradox, placing himself in start distinction to the modern positivistic conceptions of reality.

For those who are seeking a transparent analysis, a clearly demarcated field, or well-defined conclusions, this work may appear as a schizophrenic nightmare. But for those who are interested in an interdisciplinary engagement with the principal questions of Christianity, theism, and atheism, this work provides an opportunity to view two masters of continental philosophy/theology debate the issues respectfully, but with no punches withheld.

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About jleavittpearl

Philosopher and Theologian out of Pittsburgh PA.

Posted on June 23, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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