Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Jeffrey Robbins: Taking Zizek's theology seriously

Thank God that Jeffrey Robbins takes Zizek seriously. Robbins finds one of the problems with Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy is in their rather fanciful account of history by wishing modernity never happened because it opened the door to the disenchantment of the universe and thus nihilism. Unlike John Caputo, Jacques Derrida and Gianni Vattimo, who see the death of the death of God theology as something to be celebrated, Milbank sees this as capitulating to the enemy. Zizek argues against both groups but appreciates ideas in both; in Caputo/Vattimo, their use of the weakness of God and in Milbank, his imaginative spiritual commitments. Still, he thinks their problems theologically are that they try to cover up the void and meaninglessness that one sees in human history and best described in the book of Job.

I think that one of the things that makes Zizek as a sort of theologian is his taking of evil seriously especially because the biblical narrative seems to take it serious; Robbins writes: "Perhaps it is the case that Žižek can come to his conclusions just as easily by Lacan or Hitchcock as by Christ, but there is no denying that when it comes to his analysis of the meaning of Christ‘s death on the cross he has the power to evoke the original scandal of the gospel as well, if not better, than any other contemporary thinker. And further, this reminder of the scandal of the gospel is an important and timely corrective to the triumphalistic tendencies of Christianity, as well as to the facile, self-help, or fundamentalist tendencies of contemporary religion. As Žižek writes, 'Christ‘s death on the Cross thus means that we should immediately ditch the notion of God as a transcendent caretaker who guarantees the happy outcome of our acts, the guarantee of historical teleology—Christ‘s death on the Cross is the death of this God, it repeats Job‘s stance, it refuses any deeper meaning‘ that obfuscates the brutal reality of historical catastrophes'".

Robbins ends his review by writing the following: "Our history may very well be a misbegotten path, but there is a great distance between the notion that the modern world is the historical triumph of the necessary outworking of a material logic and the notion that we may reverse or repudiate our history at our whim. It is true that our history is full of latent possibilities and of roads not taken, but the way to build a different and better future does not come by way of denial. Beware of the return of the repressed."

This is exactly my problem with Radical Orthodoxy. Better to read history via Benjamin's more radical history of the missed opportunities and thus in the present try to jump start those events than fall into the trap of blaming Protestantism wholly for the so-called misdirection of history.


  1. I strongly disagree. I think you would have an impossible task making the case that there is a non-privative/radical notion of evil in the biblical narrative. The problem is that evil too is historical and cannot be abstracted (or located in the individual as Kant argues). The fall is not the advent of a primordial violence but a recognition that the material can never escape the violent movement and logics of material history without a re-turn to the God who is infinite difference peaceably reconciled. Milbank at his best (when he is not talking socialism or red tory shit) is when he locates the continuing historical and ontological salvation of the world in the sacraments. To argue that modernity can never be rejected is to assume exactly that providential notion of progressive history (with a sort of eschatological end of history always in sight) that you say you want to make meaningless. Zizek's account of the the death of Jesus is always a death and never a resurrection, and so the death of Jesus is just as meaningless as anything else. It is the ultimate moment when God forsakes Godself, refusing to save anything. To take our history seriously is not to accept the violence of historical dialectic, but to expose it's violence at every moment as a scarcity and lack. This is precisely the nature of Jewish and early Christian apocalyptic writing, a taking seriously that though the world seems to be a never ending return of the repressed...God enters into the most violent moments with us, not to engage in a greater violence, but to assume it and make possible a peace that is prior to power and does not require power to secure it.

  2. Tristin, thanks for the reply. I think I agree with you on evil if you mean like Barth and Augustine that evil is actually nothing (or at least maybe a parasite on the Good). Here I think even Badiou would disagree with Zizek. In Badiou, one proclaims life (resurrection) and seeks after the good, whereas Zizek is solely focused on the contradictions ( I have noticed Milbank "Christianizing" Badiou as of late). In short, I guess what your saying is that in order to do "Christian theology the incarnation has to provide meaning versus the evil that manifests itself, so Zizek is wrong.

    I am not well versed in Milbank. I know there is a Refomred movement toward RO (Jamie Smith) which was my first exposure. I guess the reason Milbank is suspicious of Barth is in Barth's acceptance of the turn of modernity (even thought being extremely critical) and his profanation of the sacraments (plus his rabid anti-natural theology). Does that sound about right? Barth too looked at even the Reformation as a mixed bag but still tried to remain faithful to it.

  3. BTW, I guess the language of enchantment is just very foreign to me (but that might be my Baptist upbringing).

    Tristin, it seems that the projects of Crockett, Robbins, etc. are off-based because they tend to read the death of God in the Hegelian/Nietzschean way?