Slavoj Žižek and the Absurdity of Some Kinds of ‘Faith’ (Including Atheism)
I am a firm believer in the value of reading widely and considering an array of perspectives in the process of theology. While Slavoj Žižek might not be the first person to come to mind when one thinks of influential thinkers in the realm of Christian theology or spirituality, I have found the insights of the Slovenian Marxist philosopher to provide a great deal for reflection. One example comes from his most recent book Living in the End Times (Verso, 2010). The book presents — in the provocative, brilliant, illustrative and at-times humorous way Žižek is known for writing — commentary about a variety of subjects of timely import. This one passage offers believers and non-believers alike a substantive critique of (what I’ll call) “faith.” On the continuum of belief (or lack thereof) stand positions more absurd than others and reflection on these views offers us a way to examine our own position on who God is. Consider this passage:
Recently, in the UK, an atheist group displayed posters with the message: “There is no God, so don’t worry and enjoy life!” In response, representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church started a counter-campaign with posters saying: “There is a God, so don’t worry and enjoy life!” The interesting feature is how both propositions seem to be in some way convincing: if there is no God, we are free to do what we want, so let us enjoy life; if there is a God, he will take care of things in his benevolent omnipotence, so we don’t have to worry and can enjoy life. This complementarity demonstrates that there is something wrong with both statements: they both share the same secret premise: “We can act as if there is no God and be happy; because we can trust the good God (or fate, or…) to watch over us and protect us!” The obvious counter-proposition to both statements and their underlying premise is: “Whether there is a God or not, life is shit, so one cannot really enjoy it!” This is why we can easily imagine the following (no less convincing) alternative propositions: “There is no God, so everything depends on us and we should worry all the time!” and “There is a God who watches what we are doing all the time, so we should be anxious and worry continuously!”
From this point Žižek offers a constructive reflection on religious violence, which is very well-done. But I would like to take a moment to pause and consider what is proposed in this introductory example of the proposition/counter-proposition presented by the atheists and orthodoxy in England. For me, it raises a very valid theological and spiritual question about belief in God. Who is God for you? What sort of God do you believe in?
The atheists above seem to be protesting against an image of God that suggests a watch-dog, judicial God who is most concerned about tallying sins and the exercise of virtues. One might consider this the CPA God — God with “Quickbooks,” calculating your actions and behavior in balanced columns on a spreadsheet.
The orthodox above seem to be responding with an image of a God whose primary modus operandi is mercy, to the point that — inasmuch as we can discern from a single poster slogan — all things are permitted or forgiven, simply live, do what you please and enjoy life. This is the laissez-faire God of libertarian dreams.
Both propositions, Žižek keenly notes, are inadequate. I would suggest that the former neglects God’s mercy, while the latter neglects God’s justice. Which raises the question: is the “correct” image of God something in between? Is it quite that simple? How does God manifest God’s self in human history and in the expanse of the entirety each human life?
I don’t have a simple answer, but I do think that Žižek has provided us with a great question to consider. What do you think?