Monday, May 04, 2009

Milbank vs. Zizek: The Monstrosity of Christ

I guess there should be a spoiler warning here, at least for me this book had what can be best describe as a surprise ending: I threw it away in disgust. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

A lot has happened since this infamous (in my universe anyway) post, where I went my frustration over Milbank's Theology and Social Theory. I have to admit that I am at the moment compeltely fascinated by Being reconciled, although there are large chunks of it I do not agree with, either regarding method (the chapter on forgiveness) or substance (violence, of course). However, the chapter on Church, Politics and Culture are about the best I have read in a long time.

I also enjoy(ed) Zizek a lot. His way of reading texts (in a very broad sense) is incredibly creative, and I will never see The Sound of Music the same way again.

This book leaves a lot of shattered dreams behind, I'm sure. A lot of attempts to do theology in dialogue with Zizek that will now have to be rethought, or abandoned. Because at least as far as I know, In his past discussion of Christian theology, he has always remained somewhat ambigous, always left things a bit open for interpretation. Not this time.

But no one can possibly be more disappointed than Milbank. I do not know where that blurb on the back of Being Reconciled comes from (does anyone know if there is an actual review of it out there somewhere?) where Zizek basically says that this is finally the real shit. Milbank must have been so proud of that. What theologian would not be when hearing praise like that from one of the worlds most famous intellectuals? And then this.

The first part, where Zizek presents his reading of Christianity adds little to The Puppet and the Dwarf. The most striking thing here is that it is really apparent that Zizek's knowledge is of theology is really patchy. He makes som really far fetched claims about Eastern Orthodoxy based on Lossky alone, and makes some rather obvious mistakes that Milbank rather kindly points out later on.

Milbanks part of the book, is not that revealing either. Lots of discussion on Hegel and more interestingly, Meister Eckhart. Milbank accuses Zizek of being protestant, basically. And for me this was the most interesting aspect of Milbank's text, his criticism of Lutheranism is fleshed out a lot more than what I have read so far. His attempt to make Kierkegaard an "Catholic honoris causa" is a bit awkward though.

So obvious it is Zizeks response to Milbank's criticism that is what ultimately makes this book worth its prize. After som niceties about the "authentic spirituality" of Milbank's position, he bluntsly states: "Of course i fail to see this ... because to me, there is no transcendent God-Father. " What that basically says is: "Nice120 pages, but did do miss the part about me being an atheist?" But it gets worse, much worse. For then he goes on to show Milbank that his Catholicism is basically a form of paganism, that is protestantism that is the kind of Christianity he finds interesting, with the focus on the Cross, and especially, get this, radical death-of-God theology in the vain of Thomas Altizer. Poor Milbank.

So that is the one big point of this book. Now a completely different kind of theology is endorsed by the great Zizek. However. The other point is that I am not sure if any theologian actually want tha endorsement anymore. Because the dialogue form of this book makes Zizek come clear on several areas at least I was not aware of his stance on. Maybe it is just me, but I kind of felt all this talk about being stalinist and so on was ironic posturing. Not so. Not only does Zizek's atheism in the end be like any other atheist's, only slightly more educated. But his ethics are described in a way that made me, as a christian, loose al my interest in whatever else he has to say.

At one points he discusses the situation where he would encounter one of thos doctors that aid in torture, helping the torturers decide how much the victim can take.

I must admit that if I were to encounter such a person, knowing that there was little chance of bringing him to legal justice, and be given the opportunity to murder him discreetly, I would simply do it, without a vestige of remorse about "taking the law into my own hands."
In another instance he seems to endorse a "violent totalitarian regime", but here there is some ambiguity. But no matter, for his final definition of his moral ideal in itself is enough, and that was where to book flew out of my hands in disgust.
This is where I stand - how I would love to be: an ethical monster without empathy, doing what is done in a weird coincidence of blind spontaneity and reflexive distance, helping others while avoiding their disgusting proximity. With more people like this, the world would be a pleasant place which sentimentality would be replaced by cold and cruel passion.
Surely, after this any theological engagement with this kind of philosophy will be nothing but a waste of time, a way of keep missing the point about Christianity?


Jon said...

Hey - thanks for the taster. I'm looking forwards to reading this one (particularly because it's morbidly fascinating watching Milbank being dismissed by a non-theologian as 'pagan').

In response to your qualms:

Firstly, I think it is interesting how much overlap there is between Zizek and Protestant theology (albeit via a stringent Hegelianism) - I say this because, primarily, those interacting with contemporary postmoderns tend to be Catholic/pseudo-Catholic and, furthermore, those who are writing as postmodern philosophers tend to equate themselves with Catholic thought. So the very fact that Zizek is happy enough to claim his interests lie in protestant thought are worthy of exploration.

Secondly, as to the usefulness of Zizek for wider theological discourse, there is an intriguing desire to adopt Zizek qua theologian opposed to a desire to adopt Zizek as a philosopher. That is to say, the majority of theological responses to Zizek buy heavily into his theological excess (excrement?) without really ever coming to terms (as he does in this book) with his atheism. What is more interesting, to me, than his theological worth qua theology is his theological worth qua philosphy.

Patrik said...

Well at the moment, I feel he is merely a distraction - I can't emphasize enough how much those last pages changed my view of this man. I now think ultimately he is useful for his jokes and his oneliners only, really.

Troy Polidori said...

Jon, I completely agree with your sentiments regarding Zizek. I'm troubled by the often uncritical acceptance of his "theology" (which is why I'm glad that this new work seemingly sets things straight), as he doesn't seem, as Patrik notes, to know his theology very well. His work as a philosopher, on the other hand, seems to me to have much more promise for prospective philosophical theologians. Anti-postmodernism, subjective destitution, the return of metaphysics and concepts of 'truth' and 'subjectivity' (just to name a few) are all good things, as far as I'm concerned, for theologians to consider.

Anonymous said...

Jon, for what it is work, I posted a review that I wrote on this book:

A Lacanian Reading of The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? by Slavoj Zizek and John Milbank, edited by Creston Davis (Cambridge, MA. & London: The MIT Press, 2009) with the Television Series, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles


Anonymous said...

I am currently collecting papers for a volume that is critical of both Milbank and Zizek. For further info please contact me at

Dave said...

"Surely, after this any theological engagement with this kind of philosophy will be nothing but a waste of time, a way of keep missing the point about Christianity?"

I really appreciate your article and sympathize mostly with what you say. You have to forgive me however because as soon as I read this I felt like -Hah! you must have at least suspected?

I have always seen Zizek's formulations of various Christianities, Judaism, Paganism etc as a purely ontological game Zizek plays to illustrate the finer points of other subjects ie. identity, ethics etc. His "creative" misreading of Protestantism and Catholicism would undoubtedly seem ungenuine. However I would not dismiss him simply as there are christians who fully identify with his formulation of Protestant faith and his kind of weird formulation of protestant "death of god" ethics

However two thing I am uncomfortable with and here I will stick my neck out and present an absolute claim.

Your ethical position "as a Christian" and what you believe is the sole "point of Christianity" troubles me because I cannot totally discredit the idea that christianity entirely cannot be read far more radically.

I would thus too accuse you of formulating an ethics here-"as a Christian, loose all my interest in whatever else he has to say"- less from a christian ethics than from a liberal humanist politics.

The core of my position comes from my total identification with Zizek/Badiou's conception of faith (and of course in particular protestant faith), which in my view is the single genuine contribution Zizek makes to any discussion of theology. (To creatively missread Zizek and to read his conception of faith literally into religion would not be totally be unfair- "the peverse core of radical politics"- is the obfusication of the of the site of God by another master figure (revolution, marx, etc) - haha)

Now any zizekians please rip on me if I am wrong here. I do believe in a playful sense paganism to Zizek means direct knowlege, literal direct knowledge of god or whatever and that Zizek's definition of Faith is kind of like the gambit of belief or wager, and in this he places Protestantism. so in this sense, Milbank is totally "pagan" but of course not literally.

I think i'm somewhere in the ballpark...