Traversing the Christian Fantasy

Traversing the Christian Fantasy June 26, 2011

The Trinity Zizek Collective, a philosophy reading group dedicated to the works of Slavoj Zizek, has started up again.   This has got me thinking about his work, and so this is the first of what I suspect will be several posts related to Zizek’s ideas.  Let me begin with a disclaimer:  though I have been reading Zizek for several years, I do not claim to be an expert:   his writing is dense, convoluted and occasionally contradictory.  Corrections to my reading are welcome.

At the heart of Zizek’s political philosophy is his use of Lacanian psychoanalysis to explore social questions, in particular the role of ideology in upholding the existing social order.  He argues (cogently if not persuasively) that ideology functions not only at a rational level, but at a deeper, unconscious level.  An ideology is accepted because it satisfies deep seated psychological needs in the believer.  To Lacan, the human psyche is built around two dimensions.  (Actually, there are more than two, but here I want to concentrate on just two.)  First, there is  a recognition of a lack or gap in our identity:  there is something about us that we sense but cannot name.  We literally cannot put it into words, because there is no linguistic construction (symbolic order in Lacanian terms) that fully captures who we are.   However, given that we are verbal creatures, we constantly try to cover over this gap.  We are always looking for some symbolic construction that explains fully who we are.  From a Christian perspective, I see this as secular echo of Augustine’s famous aphorism that our hearts are restless until they rest in God.

Second, the human psyche is shaped by desire.  But beyond the fundamental physical urges—to eat, to sleep, to be warm, etc.—our desires are shaped by our social interactions.  What we desire is what others tell us is desirable.  And on a basic level, this gets transmuted into desiring that the other (parents, friends, society in general) desires us.  In other words, the root of our desires is that we want other people to like us, respect us, love us, and we believe that we can gain this by having, doing or being something that they want.   Much of modern advertising seems built on this premise:  I am told to buy a fast car, not because I need to drive fast when I commute to work, but because by doing so I will make myself desirable in some way to others.

To Zizek, these two dimensions explain how an ideology is successful.  An ideology will be held, even in the face of rational evidence to the contrary, if it provides its believers with a comprehensive explanation of who they are and what they have to do to win the approval of “the other.”    Zizek’s classic example is Nazism, but his argument is that this underlies every ideological system, including Christianity.   (To avoid a strawman argument:  he is not, thereby, equating all ideological systems with Nazism.)  Therefore, to understand an ideology, we must not look only at the rational superstructure, but at its unconscious component, at its role in the “libidinal economy.”

The purpose of this analysis is to help us see the constraints we are operating under and to help us expand our understanding of what is possible.  Zizek argues that our goal, as individuals and as a society, is to overcome ideology:  to find ground on which to stand to criticize it, to point out both its failure to explain who we really are and how it gets us to act against our own interests (in favor of the interests of the dominant power structure) by convincing us that we will be loved/respected/wanted if we do these things.  In Lacanian terms, our goal is to traverse the fantasy.

This is straightforward in the abstract, or when considering an ideological structure that we do not believe in.  It is easy to “analyze” Germans in the 1930’s and see how they were led astray by Nazism.  The real challenge is to traverse the fantasy and critique an ideological system in which we are embedded.  Indeed, one can be so immersed in an ideological system that one cannot perceive that it even exists.  Zizek’s favorite example of this is Fukuyama’s book “The End of History”, in which Fukuyama argued that with the demise of communism we had entered a post-ideological era:  global capitalism and liberal democracy were not ideologies but instead just the way things were meant to be.  When overcoming an ideology, it is not enough to criticize its rational component.  One can take a stance of cynical distance to capitalism and liberal democracy (or Soviet era communism) and still be thoroughly enmeshed in it, still seeking the unconscious satisfaction that it provides.  One must therefore expose the roots of the gratification it provides.

The purpose of this prolegomena is that I want to view Christianity through this critical lens.   One could argue naively that Christianity is just another ideological system that holds us in thrall, and that we need to traverse this fantasy (here using fantasy in both its technical and pejorative sense) and move beyond these superstitious beliefs.  While this argument might be attractive to the new athiests (Hitchens, Dawkins, et al.) Zizek does not make this argument, even though he is an atheist.  Rather, he criticizes Christianity for betraying itself, for rejecting the radical message that it superficially proclaims.  He concludes his book The Puppet and The Dwarf:  The Perverse Core of Christianity by writing:

“In what is perhaps the highest example of Hegelian Aufhebung, it is possible today to redeem this core of Christianity only in the gesture of abandoning the shell of institutional organization (and, even more so, its explicit religious experience).  The gap here is irreducible:  either one drops the religious form, or one maintains the form but loses the essence.  That is the ultimate heroic gesture that awaits Christianity:  in order to save its treasure, it has to sacrifice itself—like Christ, who had to die so that Christianity could emerge.” (p. 171)

I am not going to try to recount the entire argument Zizek makes to support this conclusion—in the end it rests on his materialist prejudices and a flawed reading of the Passion narratives.  Nevertheless, in reading this book it seemed to me that Zizek had hit upon a trenchant critique of Christianity, one which we would do well to take seriously.   If we look at the “ordinary” practice of Catholicism (or Christianity in general), we see that we are often caught up in externalities—the forms of being Catholic—and that the substance seems to be overlooked.  Indeed, the radical core of the Christian message is often actively discounted:  “Yes, scripture says X and the saints did Y, but what is really important for us is Z.”    Far too often Christianity is functioning not as a liberation from the world, but as an ideological system that keeps Catholics chained to the world—in Zizekian terms, true faith is replaced by a Christian fantasy.

The external forms that masquerade as “true Catholicism”  depend on whether one is “liberal” or “conservative”  (suggesting that there are at least two ideological fantasies in play in the Church today):  devotion to “traditional Catholicism” or “the spirit of Vatican II”, rubricism, inclusiveness, pro-life activism, social justice work, etc.  A commonality emerges if we examine them from a Zizekian perspective.  The psychological attractiveness lies in the reassurance that if I believe/do/act in these ways, then I will be a “real” Catholic (in the sense of a totalizing identity) and, perhaps even more importantly, the other—the Pope, the institutional Church, my pastor, the other members of my parish, the beloved community—will love me and accept me.

This interpretation, however, does not fully explain the power of these ideologies, since it ignores the transcendent dimension of the rational superstructure:  it does not include God.   The adherents of one of these Christian fantasies will claim  that they believe and act as they do because it is in conformity with God’s will.  In other words, the ultimate libidinal reward of all of these fantasies is this:  if I do/believe/act in these ways, then God will love me, and this love will be manifested in my acceptance by the Pope, the beloved community, etc.    God, in this fantasy, has been reduced to the “Big Other”:  a symbolic construct of who we (unconsciously) think God is or ought to be:  a powerful ruler, the distant, all knowing parent, someone whose approval we crave and whose love we must earn.

This fantasy (or more precisely, an older Jewish version of this fantasy) is clearly visible in the New Testament, beginning with the preaching of John the Baptist:

But when [John] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.  And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Luke 3:7-9)

The Pharisees saw their religious identity in terms of their descent from Abraham and adherence to the Law.  They would remain in the family, as it were, pleasing their Father (and thereby pleasing God) if they kept to the external forms of the law and the customs surrounding them.   John, and Jesus after him, challenges them to look beyond this (shallow) understanding of God.

I also think that this approach provides a useful perspective for understanding medieval Europe.  Viewed nostalgically it was the age of Christendom, when Catholic teaching permeated and shaped culture and society.  But at the same time, it was also a period of very weak faith.  Consider just the example of St. Francis of Assisi, whose biographers commend him for reawakening the faith in the hearts of many in whom it had grown cold.    One the one hand, they had no faith (as a saint such as Francis would understand it), yet they lived in the “age of Faith” and hewed willingly to their Catholic identity.  Why?  Because it provided the psychological reassurance of belonging, the illusion that by doing so they were securing God’s love and salvation.   Much of the “economy” of salvation—the indulgences, the bequests to the poor, the endless masses—becomes more understandable when we see it in these terms.

Continuing a Zizekian analysis, we must consider what it would  mean to traverse the Christian fantasy.  Zizek, as an atheist, would answer that it means accepting that there is no “big Other”, no God, who loves us and knows all the answers.  As Christians, however, we reject this:  faith tells us that there is a God.   Faith also tells that we cannot really understand God through our own reasoning:  we can only truly understand God as He reveals Himself  to us.  The heart of this revelation is that there is a God who loves us, and this love is both unconditional and prior to anything we do or believe.   The radical core  of Christian faith is that we believe that we cannot earn God’s love, that God’s love does not increase or decrease depending on our actions or beliefs.  I heard this best expressed on a live album by the Christian rock band Petra.  In the middle of the performance they had an altar call (a little weird to hear on an album) in which the lead singer cries out, “God loves you with an everlasting love; he always has and always will, whether you decide to serve him or not.”

This language is echoed throughout the New Testament.  Rather than the old covenant with its contractual aspect of mutual obligations (“You will be my people and I will be your God”) we have a new covenant in love.  And the first letter of John makes clear:  “Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that He loved us…” (1 John 4:10).  In his farewell discourse, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment:  “love one another as I have loved you”  (John 13:34).  Jesus is making it clear that God’s love is not contingent on this commandment:  “I have loved you” places God’s love first and attaches no strings.  Rather, our love for one another should be a consequence of accepting that God loves us.

If this is the heart of Christian faith, then why (in this reading) do so few people accept it fully?  Perhaps because it is hard to let go, to admit that we cannot know ourselves totally and make ourselves worthy of being loved by God.  We cannot move past our need to be wanted, respected, loved by the “other”,  in whatever form it takes in our lives.  We are told to model ourselves on the saints, but are terrified by them:  they live in the world but are not of it, and they do not care what the world (their friends, their neighbors and often the institutional Church) thinks of them.  And because of this they are marginalized or killed, rejected by the society we want to accept us.   Unless we abandon our desire to be desired,   our saints are  safe only if they are kept at a distance: remembered on their feast days but otherwise ignored.  Think of Dorothy Day’s acerbic comment:  “Don’t make me a saint:  I don’t want to be dismissed so easily!”

The importance of this Zizekian reading is that it reinforces for us the commandment of Jesus:  “love one another as I have loved you.”  To be a Christian is to love unconditionally.   If we are going to traverse the Christian fantasy (and I definitely include myself in this), then we must stop seeking the acceptance of others and stop trying to earn God’s love.  Instead, we have to help one another accept that we are already loved by God by modeling this love.   This is not an easy thing to do, but today, on the feast of Corpus Christi, we are strengthened by same God who loves us:  “remember that I am with you until the very end of the age” (Mt 28:20).





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  • A wonderful post!!!

    I have been mulling over for some time (I may write about it myself some day) the paradox of the Church as Mystical Sinless Bride, a community which is set in opposition to The World…which is then also incarnate in the visible Institutional Church which (while divinely established and necessary) is, being made up of mortal human sinners as it is, just as much a part of The World as any other polity.

    I felt something of this in your talk of Catholicism as “functioning not as a liberation from the world, but as an ideological system that keeps Catholics chained to the world” in the form of some sort of identity-craft.

    I would whole-heartedly agree: this is what needs to be transcended. I would also argue, however, that it never can be fully in this life. This is why the history of the Church is one of constant decay and then reform. The Saint will reject all sorts of identities only to feel a new one crystalizing around the identity of that reform or renunciation itself…and so then will need to “break out” AGAIN and again and again, constantly running from the self-alienation of objectifying in any identification with/in The World (as any identity is).

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you. I would call your attention to a great quote attributed to Dorothy Day: “The Church is a whore, but she is our Mother”. This captures much of the tensions you are describing.

      As for your last comment, I agree. Zizek has always been a bit vague about what happens once one traverses the fantasy, but I think it is fair to argue that due to our fallen nature new fantasies will arise.

      • brettsalkeld

        The story I heard has de Lubac saying that to Kung as they walk to a session at Vatican II.

      • The “casta meretrix” idea is certainly one worth pursuing. It is also, I think the true interpretation of the “Ecclesia/Synagoga” dichotomy that has, all too often, been used anti-semitically.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        “Casta Meretrix” = “chaste whore.” Knowing Dorothy Day, I don’t think she meant to include the “chaste” part. I believe it was an oblique reference to the travails of the prophet Hosea.

  • Glad to see you doing this, David.

    I am also a casual reader of Zizek and have often thought of writing about him, but haven’t done so. Maybe this will push me, I hope.


    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Please go for it. This is a very rich area for engagement.

  • Ronald King

    I love the start of this. There is much that is now known about interpersonal neurobiology which would reinforce what you are saying here. Why do people cling to ideologies? One’s foundation for the development of identity is formed with the unconscious functioning of the mirror neuron system in the brain which is fully wired for emotional reactions and set into motion depending on what happens within the mother’s environment. Since we are wired to seek nurturing we instinctively react with attraction to what is nurturing and are repulsed by what is not nurturing. Withhin this society of individualism where the developing child is placed in an environment where one or both parents may be narcissistic, it leaves within the child a sense of absence or a void, which analysts call the basic fault. The child has no way to verbalize this attachment problem and so it becomes internalized. then there is this constant unmet childhood need for inclusion and validation which she or he seeks in adulthood. This identity is solidified through a protein that inhances emotional learning. The problem is that this protein is greatly diminished in quantity by the age of 24. In order for one to break their bond with their particular ideology one would have to risk triggering an identity crisis which would result in a regression to the point where one experiences the isolation and fear that he or she was protected from consciously at a very vulnerable developmental stage. That is just a little of what occurs.
    In my opinion the rigid structures we see within the church are attempts to control t the awareness of the pain and emptiness which we experienced as children and gave us the impression that we are not real.

  • Excellent and fantastic post! I was aware of Žižek and had read part of his essays in the Philosphy and the Matrix books; but I started running into him more over at Arturo Vasquez’s “Reditus” blog. I’ve tentatively started reading some of Žižek’s books (and he certainly does need to be read very slowly and carefully) and I’m glad I ran across this essay, as it confirms the worth of the endeavor, even if I end up disagreeing with Žižek in profound ways. Thank you!

  • El gordo pelón

    I think Zizek would shake his head at this post. Sounds more like you are conjuring up the ghosts of Levinas and Martin Buber than really getting what Zizek is trying to do.

    For one thing, I am not so sure one could ever get “beyond ideology”. While Zizek is unusually prolific (which is to say, inconsistent), one of the shibboleths that comes up over and over again (I believe it is even repeated in the Puppet and the Dwarf) is that good people do good things, and bad people do bad things, but it takes religion (or ideology) for a good person to do a bad thing (and very bad things). The problem is not when religious people believe too little or believe hypocritically: it is those who claim to be true believers who are the ones who cause trouble. To take one example Zizek speaks of the Catholic Church, he says that it wasn’t that those who sexually abused children were really non-believers in disguise: in reality, they had to commit such a foul actions to prove to themselves (and the Big Other) that they were true believers. Another example is one of a cardinal in France during the ancien regime who would devise various horrible palace intrigues and assasinations by day and write treatises on Christian charity by night; for Zizek, these two actions go hand and hand. Or to take an example of his own Slovenian Communist Party, it was the people who believed in communism in the very fiber of their being who were considered the most dangerous. There is no purity of belief and action in Zizek where we can hide, no matter how sincere we try to be. Those who talk most about Christian love are the most likely to be preaching a bloody crusade against the infidels. If anything, it is the “lukewarm” believers who are the most likely to act the most humanely.

    Also, while Zizek may seem to be a sympathetic atheist, his Hegelian slant should alarm any true Christian. There is a talk he gave wherein he says that it takes an atheist to be a true Christian. Just as some modernists say that Jesus died as a man and rose as a Church, so Zizek would say that Christianity died as a religion and was resurrected as the Party (the Communist Party, the proletariat in struggle, etc.) In other words, the “Holy Spirit” has outgrown Christianity. Hegel’s ghost here should also be summoned since it is clear that he is making the same argument that the German philosopher makes in the Philosophy of History, albeit in a far less eloquent manner (though one should subsistute the State as the embodiment of the Absolute in history). Those Christians who fawn over Zizek thinking that he can help them be a better Christian are deluding themselves. He can help you be a better petit-bourgeois intellectual, or a lousy leftist.

    I have read many books by Zizek, and have listened to hours of lectures by him, and I think I am over him. I never really liked the Lacan part of it (though I find it intellectually titillating, which I think is the point), the Marxist element is not my flavor of Marxism, and the Hegelian element is made far clearer by actually reading Hegel (which is feat of obfuscation in and of itself). I have the Parallax View to read, and want to get my hands on his new book about Hegel, but a lot of the rest of it seems like a waste of time. I do have to attribute to him being a gateway drug back into serious Marxism and Hegel himself. But if you want to combine the two, try Raya Dunayevskaya or C.L.R. James. Or better yet, read some actual Marx and Hegel.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I would be quite happy to have Zizek shake his head over this post. I suspect that Aristotle would have had a similar reaction to Aquinas. One of my goals in this reading group (beyond the sheer intellectual joy of stretching my legs outside my home discipline of mathematics) is to discern whether Zizek can be “baptised” in the same way Aristotle was. I don’t know—you clearly think he cannot. But the fact that he (along with Badiou) is close to alone on the left in taking Christianity seriously makes me think that this is a worthwhile endeavor, even if in the end I decide that he cannot.

      • El gordo pelón

        One could also easily say that St. Therese of Lisieux could have read Marquis de Sade as a treatise in self-sacrifice and suffering love, and it would also be wishful thinking. If the whole point of the philosophy is atheistic, it would not be like Aquinas’ successful baptism of Aristotle. And Aristotle wasn’t still writing books when Aquinas hunched him over the font and poured the salvific water on the Peripatetic Prime Mover.

        If Zizek were to analyze this post, and indeed, all of Vox Nova in general, he would say it is part of the “coffee without caffeine” trend of postmodernity. The quip goes that we want the good of something without its noxious side effect, or we want enjoyment to go to a “good cause”, so to speak. We want tasty food without fat, authority without oppression, war without casualties (the drone war on Libya, for example), and so on. We want things without their necessary side effects. In this case, this post, as well as Vox Nova in general, wants Catholicism without all of that pesky violence, the angry god, interior auto da fes, and so on. You want a “hip Catholicism”, a “loving Catholicism”, but still a “firm Catholicism”, a Catholicism that fights its historic bigotries, and so on. You want religious tolerance without relativism, morality without judgment, Heaven without Hell (or a near empty hell), faith without absurdity, etc. And you want to score “hipness points” by reading Zizek. Not sure it’ll work, but good luck with that.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I am amused by your comparison of me and vox nova to “coffee without caffeine” since I find this to be one of the most devastating of Zizek’s attacks on post-modernism. I am, however, at a loss to see how we qualify for this epithet. Speaking for myself, I like my Catholicism straight with no chaser. I have no interest in being “hip”.

  • Ronald King

    El gordo pelon, I think you misinterpret what is wanted. I want a Catholicism that is mature in its understanding of humanity and is aware of the symptoms and harm of repressed institutionalized shame. I want a Catholicism that is not afraid to be open and honest with itself, to be vulnerable, to be totally sacrificial, to be Christlike. I want a Catholicism free of apologetics and open to criticism. I want a Catholicism that knows it always falls short of God’s Love and is in that sense spiritually relativistic and consequently harmful to others. I want a Catholicism that can be honest with itself.

  • mattbrebeuf

    Forgive me if this overlaps with other commenters, or is flatly wrong – it’s been a while since I read Zizek, I’ve only skimmed his explicitly Christianity-focused stuff, and I just have a few minutes to jot down some quick thoughts.

    I’m always interested to see other Catholics reading Zizek. He’s a pretty fashionable leftist thinker who finds Christianity interesting, and that alone should pique our interest; moreover there are interesting parallels between his analysis of ideology and the spiritual writings of some Catholic thinkers I’ve found personally compelling. The parallels I see are pretty different from what David C-U’s suggested, though. I’m not sure that you can read Zizek as encouraging us to escape the Christian fantasy. Or, rather, he doesn’t do it very convincingly. His insights into how Christianity is structured as an ideology are however similar to what some other Catholic thinkers have written about the relationship between the visible, institutional Church and the apparently contrasting freedom announced by the Gospel.

    Ivan Illich’s last book, The Rivers North of the Future, explores his belief that the history of Western Christianity can be understood as a progressive corruption of the Gospel (“the corruption of the best is the worst”). This corruption is not something external to the Church, but implicitly there from the start: the life announced by Jesus is as vulnerable as it is free. To use Illich’s example, the Samaritan CHOOSES his neighbour – it isn’t defined or enforced by ethnic boundaries, family structure or tradition. The lack of enforcement makes it easy to turn away. Trying to protect the Christian life by making it less vulnerable to betrayal necessarily transforms it, converts personal relationships into a network of contractual obligations, effectively criminalises sin.

    The long-term result is familiar to us all: a deeply compelling freedom announced by Jesus, visible in the lives of saints like Francis and Benoît-Joseph Labre, visible today in so many others, that is always shocking, always new, because it is proclaimed over the centuries by a horrific institutional apparatus. This has always been in some sense intolerable: Christianity’s need to sacrifice itself is nothing new. The possibility – the necessity – of that “ultimate heroic gesture” is maintained by its disturbing institutional shell.

    Illich (and Charles Taylor, and others with more-or-less parallel accounts) has helped me consider the historical development of this corruption; De Lubac’s Le Mystère de L’Église has helped me understand and come to terms with the intimate relationships between the institutional Church and my (/anyone’s) spiritual life. Zizek’s analysis of ideologies is less personally affecting, but is, I think, an interesting account of how the corruption and the best coexist and reinforce each other, even within the individual psyche. In short, Zizek’s not helping us be better Christians, but he might help some of us leftish Catholic weirdos understand how it is that we are/remain Christians.

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