This post is part of a series of posts from my doctoral seminar on Žižek’s religion and politics. Previous posts:
... and lots of Žižek audio is available on my Resources page
I sat in on Fuller’s atonement symposium this week. I could only stay for the morning sessions with Scot McKnight and Daniel Kirk, but I enjoyed what I could be in attendance for. Oddly enough, I left Fuller’s symposium to get to my class where we discussed atonement in Žižek, so the gods were goading me into a post on the matter. I’ve received a surprising amount of positive feedback on this series, so thanks to all who have linked over and/or otherwise encouraged this series of course readings.
Atonement in Theology
The atonement debate used to be really important to me. Stressful really. It’s the hinge that Christian theology pivots on, and it can’t function without a robust theory to rule them all. Scot (and I suspect most of the presenters too) would disagree with that last sentence, arguing we need a “golf bag of theories” to access atonement from multiple perspectives. I've really appreciated Scot's work, but I simply think that the golf bag analogy breaks down in one of two ways: either 1) all theories are non-substantive metaphors, or 2) if they include the popular substitution theory along with others, then the mechanistic simplicity of the bully theory makes the others irrelevant.
Atonement in Politics
How about that Presidential election? As a moderate leftist, I’m glad the moderate won, but the question liberalism always struggles with is a question about how to save (ourselves, society, the climate, etc.). The conservative doesn’t have to think; he knows how to save (e.g. Constitutional originalism, substitutionary theology, etc.)- the simplistic clarity is the brilliance of the position. But liberalism is always metaphorical in language, careful not to make a strong, universalizing claim or a show of force; liberalism is open but weak. Politically and theologically, (when we cut the crap and get down to “what do you actually mean?!”) atonement is always boxed into two categories: 1) metaphor (exemplar, governance, christus victor) or 2) mechanism (substitutionary, ransom). The neurotic former cannot make strong claims, and the psychotic latter is perpetually caught up in its own inconsistencies.
I think the solution is to think in terms of atonement-as-fetish (can’t figure out if fetish or ideology would be the proper Frankfurt word, but fetish is more inflammatory!). All good social theory teaches us to recognize the operative power of the ideology, the persistence-without-substance idea that operates whether true or a complete farce. Jack Caputo's line "god does not exist; god insists." As the academy digs into nuance and minutia, the average believer never needs to, preferring instead to say things like “at the foot of the Cross” or “shed his blood for us” or even the basic “I believe.” All of these are vague and empty enough to mean nearly anything to anyone but have operative power even if they refer to nothing in particular. The metaphor/mechanism debate is secondary to the ideological fetishistic aspect.
Atonement in Žižek
Žižek’s atonement is about the clearest of any I’ve ever seen, and I think it can be so clear only because his Christianity is so thoroughly materialistic and dialectic. In Monstrosity of Christ, he even claims his atheism is more orthodox than Milbank’s Catholicism because Milbank maintains the role of paradox. Žižek hates paradoxes. They imply some cosmic unity balancing the unknowability of existence, the need for humility in the face of mystery, and similarly self-righteous bullshit such as this. It’s updated paganism. This is where I think emergents (who like paradox but who also like the Žižekian theology of Pete Rollins) perhaps don't realize how strong the dialectic claim has to be in order to take seriously what Rollins, Žižek, and I am saying. Žizek says Christianity contains irreducible contradictions to dialectically kill off its own belief in God. You can’t sustain them in paradoxical mystery forever. Christ’s death and the coming of the Spirit is almost exactly (in primitive language) the psychoanalytic process of therapy. The forsaken god-man looses faith in God, and then instead of rediscovering God (repression), the god-man dies. There is no big Other coming to save him. You take responsibility for yourself or you have a psychotic breakdown. So it goes.
“The whole point of the gospel’s good news is the subordination of this cosmic law of impersonal justice. In other words, with the traditional view of the meaning of Christ dying on the cross, the entire point of the irruptive logic of the gospel would be domesticated under the banner of a pagan notion of ‘justice’” - Žižek, Paul’s New Moment, 170
So to revert to a primitive notion of justice that the gods must obey- this would be a step back into paganism. Calvin and Anselm. And of course, fascism makes an appearance further down the page:
“The ethics of cosmic justice is- if I may be obscenely blunt- in a sense, protofascist. The definition of fascism is an obsession with organic unity. This is why fascists hate liberalism. What fascists hate about liberalism is the idea- the fundamental idea of political liberalism- that you, as an individual, independently of who you are- black, white, man, woman- have right to direct contact with the universal.” PNM, 170
So Christianity’s atonement- if it can resist the lurch toward paganism- says there is no justice. No debt a god must pay to a god. Pure personal responsibility in the aftermath on the Event.
“I think this is the legacy of Christianity- this legacy of God not as a big Other or guarantee but God as the ultimate ethical agency who puts the burden on us to organize ourselves.” PNM, 180
And at last, the progressive political movement needs this theology every bit as much as this theology needs to be rescued from the fundamentalism that ruins it:
“This link between Christian community and the Progressive movement is crucial. And here I’m not playing a cheap game of identifying radical political movements as a kind of religious community; what I’m referring to is the idea of a radical community of believers. The ideal is that of neither blind liberal individuals collaborating with one another nor the old organic conservative community. It is a community along the lines of the original Christian community: a community of outcasts. We need this today, this idea of an egalitarian community of believers that is neither the traditional heretical community nor the liberal multiplicity... I claim that if we lose this key moment- the moment of realizing the Holy Spirit as a community of believers- we will live in a very sad society, where the only choice will be between vulgar egoist liberalism or the fundamentalism that counterattacks it. This is why I- precisely as a radical leftist- think that Christianity is far too precious a thing to leave to conservative fundamentalists. We should fight for it. Our message should not be, “You can have it,” but “No, it’s ours. You are kidnapping it.” PNM, 180-1 [emphasis mine]