Žižek at Rollins

Last night, I heard Slavoj Žižek speak at Rollins College (where I got my BA), as part of the Winter Park Institute‘s speaker series. I didn’t take notes (my pen was dry!), so I can’t give anything approaching a full recount or analysis–but I can briefly discuss some lingering impressions. (Is “lingering impressions” a cliche? Not sure.)

I think his talk was ominously titled, “Is There an Ethics of Psychoanalysis?”–a title that I admit almost kept me from coming. I’ve read excerpts of his work in literary theory class, with a generally favorable, “I should read more sometime!” impression, but I’m not an expert by any means in psychoanalytic criticism, Lacan, etc.  But I was happily surprised: he spoke meanderingly on porn, obscenity, neighbors, international politics, and God, only really leaning on his title in a strong way toward the end.

Here’s how I would summarize his main points. (Again, keep in mind that this is all from memory, and I’m surely missing many crucial bits.)

  1. Westerners increasingly feel the need to keep a sadly polite distance between themselves and others. The idea of surface-level tolerance has become problematic.
    • One piece of evidence for this: cultural portrayals of sex, which either (in popular movies) tell a complex story of romance but don’t show the details of sex, or (in porn) tell a stupid, surface-level story of romance but show all the details of sex.
    • Another example: all the surface-level talk we do when we meet people–“I’m so glad to meet you!”–which actually keeps people at a distance, as opposed to opening relationships by sharing obscenities with each other, which suddenly lowers boundaries and creates friends.
    • This touches on the idea of political correctness, which he says has the effect of actually supporting racism, sexism, etc. Making sure we say the “right” words carries the cultural implication that doing so erases inequality, which hides the deeper structural problems that need addressing to create real change.
    • Breaking down these kinds of polite boundaries is a way to be true neighbors.
  2. And discussing what makes us true neighbors brings us to God. (Žižek, an atheist who nonetheless theorizes about what he thinks Christianity should be, recently coauthored a debate-style book called The Monstrosity of Christ.) In short, he calls for a vision of God that is weak, which inspires humanity to take radical responsibility for themselves and their neighbors.

In this section, he cites G. K. Chesterton‘s reading of Job: Chesterton (a devout Christian) reads God’s final speech as supporting the idea of a God who is baffled by all the craziness he has created. (I’ve never read Chesterton, but I’d love to; a good friend sees Orthodoxy as the best thing since Desktop Tower Defense.) Here’s a snippet of Chesterton’s thoughts:

God will make Job see a startling universe if He can only do it by making Job see an idiotic universe. To startle man God becomes for an instant a blasphemer; one might almost say that God becomes for an instant an atheist. He unrolls before Job a long panorama of created things, the horse, the eagle, the raven, the wild ass, the peacock, the ostrich, the crocodile. He so describes each of them that it sounds like a monster walking in the sun. The whole is a sort of psalm or rhapsody of the sense of wonder. The maker of all things is astonished at the things He has Himself made. (Source)

At this point, this post could get away from me; I could go on about the different arguments theologians have made about the absolute sovereignty of God and the exact amount of responsibility left to humans; I could dive into the ending of Job and decide just where I stand on it (right now: undecided); I could bring in personal stories about God in my life and read them with or against Žižek’s reading of sovereignty, bringing in the question of just how much a devout atheist can really comprehend divine mysteries. Instead, I want to move briefly into another direction:

When Žižek brought up horrors that people have done to each other in the 20th century, I was reminded of Gary Haugen’s The Good News About Injustice, a pointedly evangelical Christian perspective on evil. (Haugen was director of the U.N. genocide investigation in Rwanda; he’s seen human nastiness up close.) And in some ways, these two very different authors from very different theological perspectives come to a similar conclusion: that humans have a lot more responsibility to stop evil than we tend to imagine.

Seeing the Bible as far more authoritative than would Žižek, Haugen sees God as making four affirmations about injustice in it: 1) that he stands on the side of the suffering and hates injustice, 2) that he feels (yes, actually feels) a real compassion for the suffering, 3) that he is prepared to punish the perpetrators, and 4) that he seeks active rescue. That obviously leaves a huge question: where is this active rescue? As Žižek pointed out, 4 and half million people have died unnatural deaths in the Congo in the last 8 years.  Here’s Haugen’s answer:

If you think about it, two truths apply to everything that God wants accomplished on earth: (1) he could accomplish it on his own through supernatural power; but instead, (2) he chooses for the most part to limit himself to accomplishing that which he can achieve through the obedience of his people. . . . By some great mystery and enormous privilege, he has chosen to use his people, empowered by his Spirit, to complete this task. He simply does not have another plan. (96-97)

Zing! To me, that’s a game-changing perspective: evil in the world continues in such horrifying, heart-crunching ways because Christians refuse to get off their butts and do the work that God has called them to. It’s a terrifying, humanity-honoring sort of responsibility. I think I’ll let that idea sink for a while….


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