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The Radical Theology Lectionary: Fourth Sunday in Lent

TEXT: Psalm 23

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff—
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
my whole life long.


“One can even develop into a Hegelian triad the lines from Psalm 23:4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” It’s first negation would have been a radical reversal of the subjective position, as in the ghetto-rapper-version: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for I am the meanest motherfucker in the whole valley!” Then comes the negation of negation that changes the entire field by way of “deconstructing” the opposition of Good and Evil: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for I know that Good and Evil are just metaphysical binary opposites!”

-Slavoj Žižek, Žižek’s Jokes: (Did You Hear the One about Hegel and Negation?), 18

Žižek and Sacrifice

I’m currently reading Slavoj Žižek and Boris Gunjevic’s God in Pain and I came across this passage in one of Žižek’s chapters:

The radical break introduced by Christianity consists in the fact that it is the first religion without the sacred, a religion whose unique achievement is precisely to demystify the Sacred.[1]
I really loved this quote so I decided to share it with some friends of mine here at school and most of them were either indifferent or flat-out disagreed with it (at least by itself). Of course it was a lesson in hermeneutics in itself. “What a blasphemous thing,” some might say, “to claim that Christianity considers nothing sacred!”
I hadn’t anticipated that sort of interpretation, probably because I was so excited about it. Žižek’s analysis of the Sacred is a bit different than the common idea of “something worthy of worship” or something like that. “The sacred is,” for Žižek, “a limitation of ‘ordinary’ evil…[and] nothing but the violence of humans, but ‘expulsed, externalized, hypostazied’. The sacred sacrifice to the gods is the same as an act of murder–what makes it sacred is the fact that is limits/contains violence, including murder, in ordinary life” [2]. Furthermore, sacrifice is always done with “the collective” in mind–that is, those who stage the sacrifice, the people sacrificing and typically those who the sacrifice is for. Žižek refers to the collective as a singular agent, though. “The collective” might be a hivemind or a tradition of religious narrative, saying “this is why we sacrifice, this is why we need it. Praise God.” Evil can have “enough qualifications to make sure it can be done whenever one really wants to do it” [3]. Such is the essence of sacrifice; it is the exception to the rule “do not kill.”
Christianity, thus, was/is faced with the problem of “[containing] violence without sacrificial exception, without an external limit” [4]. This is effectively solved by allowing the victim to tell their own story. Sacrifices are only sacrifices insofar as the victim is “a part” but never “a voice.” (Here, we have an interesting intersection with Derrida in that the victim is an event contained within the story.) Through the victim’s story–their narrative that is an anti-narrative–the Sacred is demystified.
All this is to say that Žižek does not simply mean sacrifice in the sense of the quasi-archaic practice of “requiring the blood of a virgin” or something like that. Sacrifice is an ideological practice, one that is found in many systems and societies today–including America. Demystification is the realization that “my social status depends on objective social processes, not on my merits” [5]. The poor and the proletariat are the bourgeoisie’s sacrifice in capitalism, for instance. Or, as another example, civilians (American or otherwise) are among those being “sacrificed” for our country’s “safety.”
At this, one might say that “sacrifice” (and thus all that is “sacred”) is a rationalization, or rather, a justification of an atrocious thing for a higher cause which involves the incorporation of abstract or delusional elements, such as “national safety” or “for the sins of the people.” Since Žižek’s conception of the “Sacred” is always told by “the collective,” Christianity effectively denounces the value of “Sacredness” by silencing the collective and allowing there to be space (whether it is the collective making room for the victim, or the victim breaking through as an event) for the victim to speak.
The “Good News” of the Gospel, then, is not some narrative justifying or explaining sacrifice or why such a sacrifice was needed, but rather that we get the opportunity to learn from the victim–that is, without overpowering them physically or narrativistically, without subduing them and insisting that they somehow conform. Nonconformity is thus never “them believing a lie,” but instead the victim’s indignation and insubordination, for they have heard the collective narrative for centuries.
[1] Slavoj Žižek, “Christianity Against the Sacred” in God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse, 68.
[2] Ibid., 63.
[3] Ibid., 69.
[4] Ibid., 63.
[5] Ibid., 66.

The “Structure and Event” of the Death of God

In The Fragile Absolute (Chapter 9 The Structure and Its Event), Žižek writes:

Is not the status of this Event itself (the mythical narrative of the primordial violent founding gesture) ultimately fantasmatic; is it not a fantasy-construction destined to account for the unaccountable (the origins of the Order) by concealing, rendering invisible, the Real of the structural antagonism (deadlock, impossibility) that prevents the structural synchronous Order from achieving its balance? In short, is not the Event of the primordial crime secondary, a retroactive ‘projection’ destined to translate/transpose the synchronous antagonism/deadlock into the diachronous narrative succession? (92-93)

I wonder if this analysis of the projection of structural dissonance into a primordial diachronic narrative might be transposed onto radical theology of the Altizer-ian vein. For, is this not precisely how the transition from “Revealed Religion” to “Absolute Knowing” in Hegel’s phenomenology plays out? What appears, under the guise of revealed religion, as a mere mythical temporal sequence (the incarnation and death of God), becomes recognized, within Absolute knowing, as mere “picture-thinking” (Verstellung). This picture-think or diachronous narrative is revealed, at the end of the day, to be a transposition of the deep, one might even say “structural,” truth of Absolute Knowing; revealed religion becomes recognized as a narrative construction built upon the more essential truth of philosophical science–certainly valuable in its own right, but nonetheless derivative or secondary.

Should the more literal-minded interpretations of radical theology, therefore, be situated within the broader context of a structural death of God? Rather than constituting a historical/narrative account, should the movement of the death of God be understood as the diachronous presentation of a primordially synchronous reality, viz. the paradox of the transcendence/immanence of God, the paradox of the presence/absence of God? Perhaps, this account could be taken even further, for John Caputo’s critique of Altizer amounts, substantially, to an accusation that Altizer is too “modern” (insufficiently postmodern), that Altizer has merely substituted one metanarrative with yet another metanarrative, rather than challenging metanarrativity as such. It is possible that such an accusation might be framed in this Žižekian language. Perhaps, even, although Žižek firmly places himself in the Altizer-ian camp and against the postmodernism of Caputo (in The Monstrosity of Christ), that the two thinkers are more closely aligned on this question than either might wish to admit.

13 Books from 2013

My top 13 favorite reads of 2013…

13.) Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions
12.) David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous
11.) Slavoj Žižek, Parallax View
10.) Richard BauckaumJesus and the Eyewitnesses
09.) Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being
08.) Christina Gschwandtner, Postmodern Apologetics
07.) Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity
06.) Emmanuel Falque, The Metamorphosis of Finitute
05.) Slavoj Žižek, God in Pain
04.) Jacques Derrida, Given Time
03.) Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition
02.) Edmund Husserl, Ideas I

And the grand finale…

01.) Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption

Sauf Le Nom – “Christian”

The designation “Christian” maintains both positive and negative resonances. This is news to no one. Yet, postmodernism’s acute consciousness of language and its value has lead to an odd predicament and tension within the last few years. On the one hand, there are those Jesus-followers of a quite conventional variety, by no means “radical theologians,” who have sought to strip themselves of the label “Christian.” This label, it is contended, is weighed down by both present political and moral connotations and a violent past of such severity, or (from the opposite end of the traditional theology paradigm) the term is not attested to scripturally with the requisite vigor to justify its use. Either way, “Christian” is no longer understood to be a recoverable term [see. e.g. here or here]. Yet, on precisely the opposite end of the philosophical spectrum, we have a wide array of Neo-Marxist materialists (e.g. Badiou and Zizek) clamoring for the title of “Christian” (see: Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, The Monstrosity of Christ, or Paul’s New Moment). This leaves us with an unprecedented paradox. The name “Christian” is becoming the domain of the radical theologian and continental philosopher, at the same time that it is being slowly abandoned by the traditional theist. What does this mean for the future of the “Christian”? Are these perspectives relegated to the fringes of their respective positions, or is “Christian” destined to become the name of the radical theologian and philosopher, abandoned by traditional religiosity?

Johannine Politics – Part 1: Introduction

Influenced by the recent surge of interest in the political ramifications of Paul’s thought (see: Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism; Zizek, Milbank, & Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology; etc.) as well as the work of Raymond E. Brown I have decided to put together a short series of posts examining an alternate biblical source of political thought, imagining the possible shape of a Johannine politics

In The Churches the Apostles Left Us, Brown writes, “Johannine ecclesiology is the most attractive and exciting in the NT. Alas, it is also the least stable” (pg. 123). In the vein of this thought, and following the Paul-enthusiasts tendency to adapt ecclesiological insights as political ideas, these investigations will begin with a consideration of some of the enticing and powerful characteristics of a Johannine politics, before moving into some of the instabilities and risks inherent to such a philosophy. Although by no means firm, the tentative outline of the subjects of these posts will be as follows:

  1. Introduction
  2. Egalitarianism
  3. The Spirit
  4. Subversion
  5. Eschatology
  6. Schism
  7. Violence
  8. Conclusion

As always, some deep resonances between this philosophy and the work of prominent continental philosophers can be expected. So far, I anticipate engagement with my standard cast-of-characters–Derrida, Caputo, Henry, Marx, Zizek–as well as some Deleuzian insights as I have recently begun my foray into Difference and Repetition in conjunction with some of Caputo’s lectures on Deleuze. 


Irony, Masochism, and Hipsters

hipster2The philosophic value of irony has been a topic of investigation from Kierkegaard’s On the Concept of Irony With Continual Reference to Socrates, if not all the way back to Plato’s dialogues themselves.  Yet, seemingly unaware of the long philosophical tradition of practiced irony, Christy Wampole’s recent article “How to Live Without Irony,” through an irredeemably surface reading of so-called “hipster” culture, advocates a total rejection of irony, a self-conscious cleansing of the inauthenticity of ironic self-reference.  Yet, is such a radical position vis-a-vis irony necessary?  Is there no possible value to be gained from the use of irony in discourse or even life?

In Slavoj Zizek’s Are We Allowed to Enjoy Daphnée du Maurier?, he offers the seemingly paradoxical assertion that, not only does feminine masochism fail to support patriarchy and its most heinous manifestation in sexual violence, but that feminine masochism is subversive of this patriarchy itself.

“What this means is that, paradoxically, the staging of what appears to be a masochist scenario is the first act of liberation: by means of it, the servant’s masochistic libidinal attachment to his[sic] master is brought into the light of day, and the servant thus achieves a minimal distance towards it. In his essay on Sacher-Masoch, Gilles Deleuze elaborated this aspect in detail: far from bringing any satisfaction to the sadistic witness, the masochist’s self-torture frustrates the sadist, depriving him of his power over the masochist. Sadism involves a relationship of domination, while masochism is necessarily the first step towards liberation.”

In essence, through the overt enactment of patriarchal power relations, the frailty and fiction of this power structure is made manifest.   The apparent acting out of this problematic structure, in reality functions as its very undermining.  By playing out the structure as fiction, it is revealed to already be fiction.*

hipster_fucksCould not irony, even “hipster” irony, provide such a necessary acting out.  Does ironic fashion not reveal the vacuous nature of fashion?  Does ironic language not reveal the artificiality of language?  Rather than reject irony, perhaps it is the role of the philosopher to live out irony, to live it out as radically as Kierkegaard or Socrates.  Perhaps it is the destiny of philosophers to become hipsters.

EDIT 12/06/12: [Check out THIS response to Wampole by The Atlantic‘s Jonathan D. Fitzgerald]


*Special thanks to Noelle Vahanian’s “Theology ‘after’ Lacan”.  Presented at SPEP 2012

“The fundamental gesture of post-structuralism”

Grumpy Pants.

This is Slavoj Zizek.  I will never like a picture more than this one.

I’m Back!

Following a short hiatus (while moving across the country), I am back online and Philosophy & Theology will be returning to regular posts this week!

Here’s a present!