John Milbank and Slavoj Žižek’s The Monstrosity of Christ

[1] You would think that Christians, whether Protestant or Catholic, might generally have more sympathy for one another’s cosmological views than either would for the cosmological views of an atheist. And in last year’s The Monstrosity of Christ, British Catholic theologian John Milbank does mount an elaborate defense of traditional beliefs against Slovenian critical theory superstar Slavoj Žižek’s decidedly heterodox views on the nature of God. And yet, a surprising point of agreement is that both writers characterize the psychoanalytic Marxist Žižek, who affirms his atheism in no uncertain terms, as holding the position closest to Protestantism. Indeed, this discussion of historic and modern challenges to Christian belief remains engaging throughout, despite its dense language.

[2] Dialectics, G.W.F. Hegel’s totalizing system of inversions and syntheses, provides the vocabulary Žižek uses to make a case for “death of God” theology — a materialist outlook, associated with Thomas Altizer, in which the very possibility of transcendence died on the cross with Christ, whereupon the Holy Spirit became fully immanent in the world. Žižek says at one point that “God is hiding,…to hide the fact that there is nothing to hide.” He denies (using the psychoanalytic language of Jacques Lacan) the existence of any “big Other,” a reference point outside of reality. The universe lacks fundamental essence or unity, but can be characterized instead as actively and continuously self-negating, as a “non-All.” In Hegelian language, he rejects as inadequate both the Objective Spirit, which exists universally, and the Subjective Spirit, a mere personal fantasy, in favor of an Absolute Spirit, given shape by a community. However, Žižek states that this community is now to be found in emancipatory politics rather than in churches.

[3] For Žižek, the Passion isn’t really a reconciliation. It ultimately symbolizes not the forgiveness of a debt of sin, but “the alienation of God from Himself” — a paraphrase of Hegel’s “monstrosity of Christ” concept, from which the book takes its title. Žižek speaks about another “Other” — something inhuman within that makes us human, an “ex-timate kernel” that bridges the gap between our internal and external reality, by embodying that very gap. This calls to mind Lacan’s “objet petit a,” an arbitrary item that the ego can attach itself to and use as a foundation for beginning to relate to the world. Entry into the world of language, and of other people, requires abandonment of this “objet.” This abandonment is, in Lacanian psychoanalysis, a moment of symbolic castration, a little death — and, on a spiritual level, this is the death of the big Other represented by the Crucifixion. Thus, the self-awareness of the Fall is synonymous with the freedom of the Redemption.

[4] For Milbank, it makes no sense to assert the “death of God,” as he sees God and humanity as belonging to two different registers of existence, the “ontological” (or essential) and the “ontic” (or actual) respectively. He rejects Žižek’s proclamations of “univocal” inevitability, in favor of the open “analogy”: a dynamic of multiplicity, difference, and play, informed by the contemporary theology of William Desmond and John Caputo. Milbank’s God is a God of endless giving, of mysterious plenitude, a Trinitarian relation rather than a stable identity. The doctrines of Augustine, Aquinas, and Nicolas of Cusa, among many other humanist Christians, are invoked by Milbank in lobbying for an atavistic utopia. Here the liberal/Hegelian/Marxist concept of civilization’s progressive evolution is replaced by an alternative historic scenario sans Reformation (and Counter-Reformation): a benign paternalistic collectivity where harmony and universal principles are favored over individual rights and social discord. This mirrors his joyful cosmos of emanating grace, represented by a Trinity of “the giver, the gift, and the renewal of the gift,” to which believers answer absolute generosity with absolute gratitude. Milbank founds his argument on Kierkegaard’s idea, against Hegel, of the Incarnation as an illustration of the incomprehensibly paradoxical incursion of the infinite, recurrent, and eternal into the temporal, finite world we know.

[5] Milbank portrays Žižek as a modern philistine advocating the dissipated social engineering Michel Foucault termed “biopower,” sounding a shrill trumpet for the significance of will and teleology, antagonism and evil, democracy and discourse, while walking the theological path first trod by Franciscan scholastics like Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. From these medieval writers all the way through Luther and Boehme to Hobbes and Darwin, the denial of divinity is central to Žižek’s essentially Protestant lineage. Arrogantly believing in his own self-creation, as Milbank would have it, Žižek ignores the embodied circumstance of consciousness itself. This condition of incompleteness is located by Žižek, however, not in our thinking but in all subjective being, a condition Martin Heidegger called being “thrown.” For his part, Žižek takes pleasure in deriding Milbank’s misty abstractions – the mistiest being Milbank’s grand metaphor, a romantically befogged English countryside intended as an image of unified multiplicity and aesthetic harmony, but easily caricatured as nostalgia-blurred idealism. Žižek laments that Milbank’s view, like other modern arguments for a divine dimension, rely upon the limitation of understanding by imagination.

[6] The book could be summarized as an attempt to discern what answer the Cross offers to the question of how existence arises from and returns to nothingness. As among the most profound Western statements on this matter, the mystic reflections of medieval German Dominican Meister Eckhart are hotly debated. Eckhart’s God, Žižek explains, can only be discovered in a null space that itself is God, a zero-ground potential that the individual can create within via absolute detachment. Our will grants us greater freedom than that enjoyed by God, who is bound to us as much as we are bound to him; “God himself can relate to himself only through man.” However, for Žižek, Eckhart, like Milbank, is too much of a Platonist to recognize Christ’s humanity. Milbank does not deny the negative aspects of Eckhart’s thought, but describes his cosmos as a progression, in which God emerges from static infinite nothingness to risk the dynamic possibilities of creation and Incarnation, evoking the Kierkegaardian “Moment.” All things constantly progress out of and return to God, as a dimension of utter simplicity and perfect justice.

[7] Other theories of irony and rupture are discussed: in particular those of F.W.J. Schelling, G.K. Chesterton, and Alain Badiou. But then there’s that old Protestant hobby-horse of actual Scripture. While Žižek references Paul’s abandonment of traditional customs and attachments, his preoccupation with sin and suffering, and his glorification of the selfless divine love of Agape subsuming the repressive Law (leading Milbank to reproach Žižek for his prudish pessimism in dismissing the earthly love of Eros), it seems that both authors could dig further into the Pauline epistles in order to flesh out the underpinnings of Christianity. The belittling of Caesar before the Kingdom of God, the promise of an approaching upheaval, the experience of collective trauma, the suspicion of idolatry, all could lend Žižek support with his revolutionary prophecies. Conversely, Paul’s depiction of a clear social order, his justifications by faith, and his humanist call for ecumenical reconciliation, all speak to Milbank’s aspirations for reintegrating the church with the world. And, to just take one more example, neither writer, in their struggle for moral and political high ground, takes any advantage of James’ epistle, which offers a thoroughly contemporary statement of egalitarianism and activism.

[8] In fact, other than Žižek’s scattered references to Paul, Job, and the Gospels, this is a theological philosophy book that’s fairly short on biblical citation. Perhaps this omission comes about because the Bible is an archive of beliefs relating individual experience to the larger universe, not a systematic logical treatise. Still, for a book centering on the importance of the Crucifixion, it’s startling how little ink in The Monstrosity of Christ is spilled to discuss the past and future Resurrection. On another note, there are very few comments on the historical fact of the Church, in a manner more tangible than the tidy Christological vector Žižek sketches from the dehumanized Christ of Orthodoxy, through the institutionally-mediated role-model Savior in Catholicism, arriving at the merely dead corpse of the Protestant Jesus, where both he and Milbank locate his position theologically. There’s barely any hint in the book that any Christians, Protestants especially, exist in the world as a huge and growing population.

[9] But one book cannot be held responsible for every open question in contemporary Christianity; its focus is on rigorous debates around faith. The “demythologizing” of theology by esteemed Protestant scholars like Albert Schweitzer and Rudolf Bultmann does have important implications, as both Žižek and Milbank suggest. At the same time, it’s wonderful to note the unsettling effect that concrete details and gaps of the historical Easter event ultimately have on any objective study of the Christian narrative, by Protestants or by anyone else. The Monstrosity of Christ also underscores the influence that “pagan” Hellenistic philosophy, in particular Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, has always had on Christianity, suggesting that a deep-rooted hybridity in Christian thought may sometimes be a resonance to appreciate rather than an irritant to purge. To that end, the “theological turn” in contemporary philosophy, to which this book contributes admirably, is forging an esoteric but inspiring vocabulary that allows people of varying interests and faiths to discuss the slippery, invisible aspects of Christianity in a new way.

Bert Stabler

Bert Stabler is a Chicago public high school art teacher and a critic, curator and artist.