All about being (very) critical

28 April 2009

Two great thinkers taken to task here, says John Hughes

Heidegger: A (very) critical introduction
S. J. McGrath
Eerdmans £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

Zizek: A (very) critical introduction
Marcus Pound
Eerdmans £10.99
Church Times Bookshop £9.90

HEIDEGGER and Zizek are two of the most important thinkers of the past hundred years in the Contin­ental tradition, and both should be of interest to theologians.

Heidegger’s place in the philoso­phical canon as a critic of calculat­ive rationalistic thinking and as the great rehabilitator of ontology is well established. His work may be familiar to readers from the use made of it by existentialists.

The more recent work of the Slovenian Marxian cultural theorist Slavoj Zizek, on the other hand, has come to prominence only in literary and cultural studies in the past ten years or so. Despite his post-secular concerns, it has achieved only a limited theological reception as yet.

These two books belong to the exciting new Interventions series, which, according to its manifesto, seeks to avoid the nihilistic, reduc­tion­ist alternatives of scientism and deconstruction through interdisci­p­lin­ary theological interventions in familiar philosophical debates.

The series is linked to the Centre of Theology and Philosophy at Nottingham and its Radically Ortho­dox programme of refusing the distinction of theology and philosophy and constructing a “rich Catholic humanism”.

The books are described as “(very) critical introductions”, be­cause they aim to be both accessible introductions to the philosophers in question and original critiques of their positions. Both make their critiques by exploring the more or less repressed theological elements of Heidegger and Zizek’s thought and questioning the ethico-political consequences of their positions.

S. J. McGrath’s account of the notoriously difficult philosophy of Heidegger is one of the clearest and most elegantly written I have come across. He contextualises the philo­sophy in a brief account of

Heideg­ger’s life, including his relationship to Catholicism and Nazism. Cha­p­ters on Phenomeno­l­ogy and Ontol­ogy explore the early Heidegger of Being and Time and the more mystical and poetic later Heidegger.


From this introduction, which should be useful to those who have never read any Heidegger, McGrath moves on to his own critique in chapters on axiology (the implicit ethics of Heidegger’s philosophy), theology, and “Why I am not a Heideggerian”.

Despite the conclusion, this is a sympathetic reading of Heidegger, appreciating his achievement, and refusing simply to dismiss him for his politics. The critique is particu­larly sensitive to Heidegger’s rela­tionship with medieval philosophy, and argues that Heidegger’s insist­ence on keeping ontology separate from the “ontic” realms of religious and political practice is not sustain­able.

Zizek’s theological interests are not so repressed as Heidegger’s. Pound gives a good overview of his account of the core of Christianity in terms of Job, Christ’s cry of dere­liction on the cross, and St Paul’s revolutionary account of the Christ-event (following Badiou here). Pound enables us to see what these really mean for Zizek by drawing out his debts to Kierkegaard, Schelling, and Chesterton, and by giving a helpful account of Lacan’s psychoanalytical views, which are arguably Zizek’s real religion.

He then uses Girard, Milbank, and Conor Cunningham to argue that Zizek fails to grasp the full significance of Christ’s refusal of violence, and his resurrection, and so is unable to imagine the resources for any practical socialism beyond the revolution.

In a surprising twist at the end, he uses Tina Beattie to analyse the role of gender in Zizek’s thought and to suggest, tongue in cheek, that he is really a Catholic feminist. Zizek offers his own concluding response, although he does not so much engage with Pound’s critic­isms as restate the nature of his interest in Christianity.

The Revd Dr John Hughes is Chap­lain of Jesus College, Cambridge.

How to order this book through CT Bookshop

The Revd Dr John Hughes is Chap­lain of Jesus College, Cambridge.

How to order this book through CT Bookshop

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