When Christianity isn’t real (enough)

Last month I read The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity by Slavoj Zizek. Zizek, an atheist postmodern philosopher, has some truly fascinating (albeit at times deeply unorthodox) things to say about Christianity (though of course it would be wrong to expect anything “orthodox” really). Christians would be wise to, at the very least, listen to perspectives such as this, which wish to engage and embrace Christianity for particular purposes (e.g. for Zizek it boils down to something like “Only an Atheist can be a Christian”, while no doubt for him “Only the Christian can be an Atheist”). This strikes me as important because perspectives such as this help Christians to identify, consider and understand aspects of what they profess to believe that may have long been forgotten, suppressed or allowed to lay dormant.Another wonderful part of Zizek’s writing is his ability to critique and identify shifts and currents in culture, particularly in regards the use and (at times, lack of) influence of religion.

Early on Zizek writes in regards culture and Christian religion,

“What is cultural lifestyle, if not the fact that, although we don’t believe in Santa Claus, there is a Christmas tree in every house, and even in public places, every December? Perhaps, then, the “nonfundamentalist” notion of “culture” as distinguished from “real” religion, art, and so on, is in its very core the name for the field of disowned/impersonal beliefs – “culture” is the name for all those things we practice without really believing them, without “taking them seriously.” Is this not also why science is not part of this notion of culture – it is all too real? And is this also why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as “barbarians,” as anticultural, as a threat to culture – they dare to take their beliefs seriously? Today, we ultimately perceive as a threat to culture those who lives their culture immediately, those who lack a distance toward it.” (p. 7)

This sparked some reflections on my part that I have been trying to work out since.

  • If culture is the place we project our beliefs, and so mediates beliefs we do not wish to believe directly – or with some sense of immediacy – might this say something about Christianity in the 21st century? What if Christianity functions in some way similar to how people in Western society (do not) “believe” in Santa?

Supposing that Christianity is no longer experienced as ‘”real” religion’ but as a cultural feature, this might mean many practice Christianity in a “disowned” sense. “I don’t really believe, or I am not fully convinced but the church structure believes for me, or is therapeutic, and therefore I believe.”

  • However, what if, in fact, in a much more extreme sense, it is the case that Christian beliefs are something that, unlike Santa, many don’t even make the attempt toward “taking them seriously?” Perhaps Christianity is past the outsourced, projected, Santa-esque cultural stage.

“Why do we need religion at all in our modern times? The standard answer is: rational philosophy or science is esoteric, confined to a small circle; it cannot replace religion in its function of capturing the imagination of the masses, and thus serving the purposes of moral and political order. But this solution is problematic… religion can no longer fulfil this function of the organic binding force of social substance – today, religion has irretrievably lost this power not only for scientists and philosophers, but also for the wider circle of “ordinary” people.” (p. 5)

  • If science can be described as “all too real”, what reasons do we have (and I do not hesitate to think that there are many) for not saying the same thing about Christian belief?

1. To elaborate out of the last bullet point, I do not think Christian belief in its popularized and most commonly encountered and publicized forms is “real” enough. I feel acutely aware that Christianity could be, more often that not, experienced as intellectually vacuous, anti-scientific and un-stimulating, requiring that one turn off one’s mind with a view to embracing pre-modern metaphysics, with an additional undesirable emphasis on accepting unverifiable fideistic claims about a whole host of things, including the Bible.

This is not compelling, if it is true of Christianity.

2. Perhaps we also see something of how Christianity is popularly viewed in recent Government statements that “Christianity is the ‘state religion’ of the UK” – mostly because it offers the possibility of behavior modification: “Believe whatever you like, just make sure we don’t have anymore riots in London.” It is “respectable” (that brilliant word used by politicians about religious beliefs) because it provides some sort of politically expedient function – it is this that the second Zizek quote suggests is now redundant.

3. Maybe another part of the problem with Christianity and its apparent “unrealness” is its overtly therapeutic nature. Maybe Christianity has so devolved into personal sentimentalities such as: “God has a plan for your life”, “Jesus loves you”, “God is in control” etc.. Perhaps people, quite rightly(!), cannot take this seriously. (I know I don’t.) Christianity here becomes another prescription among many others (medicine, therapists etc.) for making you feel more hopeful and happy. Has Christianity become another product, albeit one that comes as a really terrible package deal?

4. Finally, as I was trying to express to a friend recently, an issue (linked rather expressly to point 1) may be that (particularly in Protestant Christian belief) the individuals personal perspective dictates so much of what is deemed acceptable (e.g. “My personal reading of the Bible tells me this. My reason is more than capable of discerning something sensible and true. Therefore I am correct in holding this belief against anyone else’s”). There is a limited sense of communally held beliefs (and unbeliefs), or humble deference to those who may just know better (and even then those who should know better often don’t). In fact, often the problem with many in this strand of Christian thought is that they believe too much – this is the issue at hand with much “fundamentalist” belief (Kester Brewin has a wonderful piece on this very issue).

[There is an obvious extent to which a lot of what is said above is rather abstract, general and unspecific – Christianity will mean “Christianity as I have experienced it in conservative, evangelical NI” (though I’m sure there is not a lot general difference between this Christianity in NI to elsewhere in the “West”).]