“If there is a God, everything is permitted:” Zizek, Job, and Christine Hayes in Dialogue

Slavoj Zizek likes to make use of the Lacanian reversal of the famous quote of Dostoyevsky’s (that is, in actual fact, never actual stated in any of Dostoyevsky’s work),

“If there is no God, everything is permitted.”

The inversion, however, reads like this,

“If there is a God, everything is permitted.”

The former is, of course, a common religious claim. If God does not exist, a person could do whatever they very well wanted to do – there would be no possibility of justice for the wronged, no grounding moral and ethical norms to appeal, not to mention the acts themselves – incest, gay marriage, genocide and so on. Zizek observes,

Without such transcendental limits – so the story goes – there is nothing ultimately to prevent us from ruthlessly exploiting our neighbours, using them as tools for profit and pleasure, or enslaving, humiliating and killing them in their millions. All that stands between us and this moral vacuum, in the absence of a transcendental limit, are those self-imposed limitations and arbitrary “pacts among wolves” made in the interest of one’s survival and temporary well-being, but which can be violated at any moment.

Jacques Lacan’s inversion is interesting, not because it is some masturbatory thought experiment denying the reality of things, but because it maps to our very lived experience, short-circuiting what we commonly take to be as/is and taking a longer, harder, look and telling us reality is not what it seems.

The existence of God (or some other quite secular transcendentals, i.e. Liberal progress, or the Communist Logic of History) is the very belief necessary for people to act in some of the most horrendous ways imaginable toward other human beings. Torture, (drone) bombings, violent abuse, and oppression of all kinds, are given sanction under and in “the name of God.” God functions in such a way that people do not need to fully assume the horror of such acts – until cracks begin to show in the absolute itself – the absolute functions as a legitimisation, that keeps full comprehension of a person’s actions ever and always a step removed. Zizek, again, observes,

Most people today are spontaneously moral: the idea of torturing or killing another human being is deeply traumatic for them. So, in order to make them do it, a larger “sacred” Cause is needed, something that makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial. Religion or ethnic belonging fit this role perfectly. There are, of course, cases of pathological atheists who are able to commit mass murder just for pleasure, just for the sake of it, but they are rare exceptions. The majority needs to be anaesthetized against their elementary sensitivity to another’s suffering. For this, a sacred Cause is needed: without this Cause, we would have to feel all the burden of what we did, with no Absolute on whom to put the ultimate responsibility.

I find this a fascinating reading and critique of religious (and irreligious) belief. It tells us much about the uses our most cherished appeals to, and practices in light of, transcendentals and absolutes so often propagate and are a legitimation of.

In this sense, God (or any other absolute), so often, actually operate to mystify our consideration of the actual material acts of ethical and moral decision-making – they are not quite the point.

What then is the point? Perhaps, it is the disavowal of appeals to the transcendental and the absolute.

One should note… the ultimate irony: although many of those who deplore the disintegration of transcendental limits present themselves as Christians, the longing for a new external/transcendent limit, for a divine agent positing such a limit, is profoundly non-Christian. The Christian God is not a transcendent God of limitations, but the God of immanent love: God, after all, is love; he is present when there is love between his followers.

No wonder, then, that Lacan’s reversal – “If there is a God, then everything is permitted!” – is openly asserted by some Christians, as a consequence of the Christian notion of the overcoming of the prohibitive Law in love: if you dwell in divine love, then you do not need prohibitions; you can do whatever you want, since, if you really dwell in divine love, you would never want to do something evil…

However, the ambiguity persists, since there is no guarantee, external to your belief, of what God really wants you to do – in the absence of any ethical standards external to your belief in and love for God, the danger is always lurking that you will use your love of God as the legitimization of the most horrible deeds.

Thus we may, rightly, insist upon the full assumption of the feelings and awareness of moral and ethical responsibility and freedom inherent to, and connecting, us all. This is the assumption of, in Zizek’s words,

“a radically egalitarian responsibility of each for all and for each.”

Of note, at this point, are the reflections of Christine Hayes (Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University and one of the foremost American academics in talmudic-midrashic studies and Classical Judaica), from lecture 20, “Responses to Suffering and Evil: Lamentations and Wisdom Literature,” of her Open Yale Course – Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible).

Hayes observes, regarding the character of Job, that upon the dissolution of the coherence of Job’s conception of moral order, Job fiercely asserts fully his freedom and responsibility to act morally. It is this fundamental act of affirmation, over against the unrelenting meaninglessness and arbitrariness of the events that have befallen him, and the ever increasing threat of non-being, Job is compelled, tragically, rebelliously, and powerfully, to assert and inscribe freedom, meaning, and being into his life. Hayes
states that,

Even in the depths of his anguish, and even though he is now convinced that God does not enforce a moral law in the universe, Job clings to one value: righteousness is a virtue in and of itself, and even if it brings no reward Job will not give up his righteousness. Face to face with the shocking insight that good and evil are met with indifference by God, that righteousness brings no reward and wickedness no punishment, Job although bitter, refuses to succumb to a moral nihilism…

So in his darkest, most bitter hour with all hope of reward gone, Job clings to the one thing he has — his own righteousness. In fact, when all hope of just reward is gone then righteousness becomes an intrinsic value.

Or in the words of another scholar, Moshe Greenberg, we see here

..the sheer heroism of a naked man, forsaken by his God and his friends and bereft of a clue to understand his suffering, still maintaining faith in the value of his virtue and in the absolute duty of man to be virtuous. The universe has turned its back on him. We may add he believes God has turned his back on him — yet Job persists in the affirmation of his own worth and the transcendent worth of unrewarded good [Greenberg 1987, 285].

It is with Hayes, Job, and Zizek that we may find a way through the moral conundrums that these two claims – “If there is no God, everything is permitted” and “If there is a God, everything is permitted” – raise. Specifically, transcendental moral and ethical limitation or permission are not the issue at hand, we must wrestle with assuming responsibility for the act itself – and we shall do that in whichever and whatever moral context and thought-world we find ourselves in at any given time.

It is the nihilistic threat that forces us to inscribe its opposite. Which is to say that, it is the threat of arbitariness and meaninglessness that, in turn, creates the conditions to assert meaning and intent. God (regardless of such a being’s existence) may be thought of as having no meta-moral significance – and given these conditions it is in just this way that humans can become fully responsible for themselves; clinging to the righteousness deed itself, as an affirmation of who we are, precisely because the possibility of reward lies in tatters.

With Job, might we disavow the desire to make an appeal to God, out of a need for transcendental prohibitions (Dostoyevsky) or transcendental legitimations of our fear and aggression toward the other (Lacan), and instead fully assume – and cling to – our, ultimately, material and embodied moral and ethical freedom and responsibility – “for each and each for all?”