Slavoj Zizek and the Illusion of Religion

In the theological realm there has been much discussion over Slovenian philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek. What makes this a bit of an anomaly is that Zizek is a self described atheist. So the next logical question is, what can an atheist teach us about theology and the Christian walk? Well, first we must understand there are many varying forms of atheism. Just as there are many varying forms of Christianity, Judaism and so on. So before we dive in, understand that to lump Zizek in with the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens and so on, is to lump Tony in with Mark Driscoll. It’s irresponsible and we will ultimately miss what Zizek is saying.

Slavoj Zizek is a senior researcher at the Institute for Sociology and Philosophy, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities and a professor of philosophy and psychoanalysis at the European Graduate School. Now Zizek is a character, to say the least. His style is manic, ugly, and all over the map. Have you ever had so many thoughts going on in your brain that your mouth can’t keep up? I assume Zizek spends all of his waking moments in this state. He just talks and talks and talks and talks and talks [you get the point] and within that time he jumps from topic to topic to topic to topic. So needless to say, more times than not it’s difficult to keep up with his thoughts and antics. However, when he gets dialed in, there is no one person more brilliant, exciting, and passionate than Zizek.

I asked Tony if I could guest post here to discuss how this atheist madman can and should be implemented into modern theology and Christianity. My goal is to be as coherent as possible, but when discussing Zizek this sometimes becomes a bit difficult. So I am currently thinking maybe I bit of more than I can chew. Anyway, here is my best effort to explain Christian [atheism] as Zizek sees it.

Zizek states that religious belief is an objectively functional illusion. For an example, he sites Christmas and Santa Claus. We all realize that Santa doesn’t exist, it’s a mere illusion, and yet we haven’t discarded the belief. Why? Because it functions objectively as an illusion that signifies our worldview of the holiday. Another example is the ancient Greeks and mythology. Zizek claims the ancient Greeks were not idiots. They knew on top of Mt. Olympus they wouldn’t find Gods, yet it remained an illusion which functioned objectively in their worldview. Let’s look at it from this perspective, we can say that money doesn’t bring happiness, but we clearly function as though it does. In the same way the Christian idea of God as transcendent/omnipresent is an illusion. God is dead. He died on the cross, which has led to our freedom to live out the New Testament. Now Zizek says, and I agree, that only by willing the death of God [Christian atheism] can we live fully as Christians. So to break it down, Z is saying, when we believe in the illusion of the transcendent/omnipresent God who pulls the strings ‘deus ex machina’ we cannot function as true Christians because we’re too busy keeping the illusion of Santa real.

So here’s where things get a little complicated because if you’re not familiar with Hegelian dialectics it’s easy to get lost. So I will try and break down dialectics in its most elementary form. For every idea there is a contradiction that pushes back, which ultimately leads to another outcome. So let’s imagine there is a violent storm, afterwords we see the sun emerge from behind the clouds, which will then lead to a rainbow. It is a triadic dialectic and it plays a crucial role in the death of God. Most today use the terminology of thesis—antithesis—synthesis to describe dialectics. I prefer abstract—negative—concrete because it shows that the first initial ‘thing’ is inadequate and requires the push back. Call it what you like it’s all the same notion.

The idea is that God [abstract] engages the world in all it’s profanity through the Incarnation of Christ. We are the profane [negative] and stand in complete contradiction to the Spirit/Divine. At the cross we find the death of Christ which is also the death of God. Now through the death of God we find the end of transcendence. The God who was once [out there] is now [right here]. This is ultimately the [concrete] in the dialectic. So what we find is not a bodily resurrection back into transcendence, but instead the complete self emptying of this transcendence into immanence. There is nothing pulling the strings in our life, so now we as humans must face the responsibility of our actions/in actions. The immanence creates a forward movement into our modern world. Now theology is no longer a static discussion based on rituals and dogmas, but instead we find a religionless Christianity that engages our modern world.

This is crucial, because now Christianity isn’t about life after death, but about life before you die. For Zizek the message of Christ was apocalyptic at its core. For us to find meaning and live as fully human we must rupture the structures that shape and skew our ideologies. With that comes true freedom from not only the state, but from religion itself.

I hope this was clear and concise, but like I said its a difficult topic to explain in a short post. If you take anything away from this I hope it’s that there is a new and vibrant movement forming with ideas that shatter the old. If you are serious about dissecting your beliefs I highly recommend reading Zizek’s work with Christ. Below are some noteworthy reads.

The Fragile Absolute
The Monstrosity of Christ
The Puppet and the Dwarf
God in Pain
Parallax View [chapter 2]
Less Than Nothing [first 400 pages]


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