Giles Fraser: On a white-water ride of old atheism

24 June 2009

Spending a little time with the celebrated Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek made me long for the clear and still waters of analytic philosophy. With Professor Zizek, philosophy is a white-water ride, tearing from one thing to another at 100 miles an hour.

Sure, the ride is a delight for intellectual thrill-seekers. But I am not sure how many people really know what is going on. Perhaps the reason his boat stays above the water-line may have less to do with the intrinsic seaworthiness of his philo­sophical hull, and more to do with the sheer velocity of his thought, which skims over the surface, jump­ing from wave to wave. Bring back Bertrand Russell, all is forgiven (actually, no). Professor Zizek is something of a philosophical rock-star. There is a film called Zizek. His picture is all over the walls of the Institute of Contemporary Art. And the debate I chaired there last week between Professor Zizek and the theologian Professor John Milbank was a sell-out well before the event.

What is interesting is that this was, unashamedly, a discussion about theology. Since when, I wondered, has God ever seemed so avant-garde to the metropolitan élite? Despite the fact that Professor Zizek is an atheist, he waves away any mention of Richard Dawkins as if he had just smelt the bins in the fish shop.

His is a brand of materialism that welcomes the return of ideology and metaphysics, and cannot be doing with the flat-footed empiricism of the new atheists. Instead, he delights in inventive readings of St Paul, Kierke­gaard, and G. K. Chesterton.

Professor Zizek’s contribution to theology sounds like a Marxist version of Thomas Altizer’s The Gospel of Christian Atheism (Collins, 1967). In the ’60s, Altizer suggested that in God becoming man, the divine dissolves itself fully into the human, without remainder. In an act of total kenosis, God effectively abolishes himself in the person of Jesus Christ.

Professor Zizek repeats this move, adding a place for the Holy Spirit: “After [Christ’s] death, there is no place for any God of Beyond: all that remains is the Holy Spirit, the com­munity of believers on to which the unfathomable aura of Christ passes once it is deprived of its bodily incarnation.”

For Professor Zizek, Paul is Chris­tianity’s Stalin, whose main contribu­tion was to give this otherworldly community of the Spirit a bit of this-worldly political metal.

For me, these are the outworkings of a fundamentally mistaken assump­tion that God is some sort of thing that may or may not exist, in the same way as a table may or may not exist. But I suspect that, despite the fire­works, there is not much new going on here. Still, if he gets more people talking about God, then so much the better. He deserves a small cheer for making theology trendy.

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