Slavoj Žižek on Materialism and Theology

I watched this lecture by atheist philosopher Slavoj Žižek a while back and I remember enjoying it a lot. It’s an 8 parter. I have linked to video 1. Videos 1-6 are the core of the lecture. Žižek’s way of approaching the topic is fascinating. He thinks very little of the ‘new atheists’ Dawkins, Dennett, Harris etc. dubbing them “vulgar materialists”. This underlines something, Žižek is clued into theology (having co-authored books on Christology), psycho-analysis and so on. Basically he’s a thoughtful atheist truly worth listening to. Additionally, while also, obviously, having issues with religious belief, Žižek spends time in this lecture integrating G.K. Chesterton’s observations on the book of Job (which he thinks is “the founding text of materialism”) into his wider argument – it is really very interesting. Žižek additionally admires “Pauline universalism”, believing it has a radical power for the formation of solidarity and community in light of (how he understands) the Christ event (which is the moment that underlines there is no “Big Other”, in Žižek’s words – vid. 6 5:00/6:00ish).
What do I like about this lecture? Well, it’s all to do with the materialism he puts forward (and the way he says “blah, blah, blah.).

“Nature is already sick and confused.” (vid. 5, 9:45)

We operate thinking nature was complete, perfect and balanced; Christians often think this, even secularists operate with some sort of version of it in mind. Žižek would have us understand that the earth is not complete, it is not balanced, it is catastrophic and dangerous.

“We have to drop this idea that there is this ultimate point of reference, nature like Mother, nature like balanced universe, which we disturbed and to the balance of which we should return.” (vid. 5, 9:10)

Classic materialism operates under the axiom that “material reality is all there is”. When negated by idealists (Christians, environmentalists etc.) the response might be “material reality isn’t all there is”. What Žižek proposes in response is that “material reality is non-all” – life is fundamentally incomplete and troubled. “We have no where to return to” (vid. 6, 0:50).  I think there is a lot to work with here. How we understand the universe and our place in it theologically and within a theological anthropology, especially in light of on-going discoveries in physics and biology etc., demands a rendering of these issues in a consistent manner. I’m pretty sure science is providing us with important information, which must affect how we interpret scripture and how we understand it’s impact upon us. As such the implications of science on how we understand material reality should, in some way, be something we let the Scriptures speak to as we interpret them. A meandering, catastrophic, process in the context of universal expansion in which the Earth formed via meteor bombardment leading to near-total life annihilation, out of which life developed further; all this over the course of 13 billion years – none of that was pretty but that is how we got here, and, for example, this then is the context in which we can understand ourselves as declared the imago dei. The world we are discovering our place in is the world in which we need God – and the Scriptures would have us know that is where we find him.

“I have no God in heaven, the angels have him there. I will pray down here, this is where I have to have God.” Christoph Blumhardt

This is not at all to deny the significance of heaven as a place where God is. If anything heaven in the biblical and Jewish thought world is a place not to be thought of as “spiritual”, “ethereal” or “disembodied” etc. If anything heaven is to be thought of as somewhere comprised of a different kind of matter, a different kind of space but one that bodies (specifically Jesus’) are capable of inhabiting. Yet this all serves to cloud the issue – heaven is God’s space, not ours, our space is here – affirmed in the incarnation and resurrection. This is where we need God, this is why materialism is absolutely worth exploring. Additionally, in the midst of that we also find the right sort of place for getting our heads around what Žižek calls “void”. That place where we find life futile and meaningless, where there isn’t a point and it just hurts. In this materialism “void” is affirmed when we understand reality as incomplete and lacking deeper meaning (vid. 2, 8:40). We shouldn’t pre-determine what we’re willing to find acceptable. We have to be open to the information we receive and the experiences we have. We must be willing to let them speak for themselves. How we then synthesize all of that, in co-ordination with Scripture, should create the lens by which we name things; doing it in reverse is, I think, questionable at best.

“There is freedom only in an ontologically unfinished reality.” (vid. 6, 7:00)

This version of materialism I think gives a way of seeing the God who pushes back the pre-existent chaotic waters of ANE thought (Gen. 1). It allows us to approach our role and experience as humans and the dynamic, open interaction we have with God. We can see were God, in the resurrection, takes up this material non-all and enters the void, enters this space and affirms it, and brings life ex nihilo (out of nothing) yet also ex vetere (out of old). That, I think, is what we have always had; that I think is what God has been working with; that I think is what God has been rescuing; that I think is what the kingdom of God, which Jesus instigated and invites us into, is working for and in; and this I think is what reality awaits, eschatologically, as all that is “unfinished” experiences the words “I am making all things new!” There’s some really fascinating stuff here and this is what I liked about Žižek, here anyway.