Friday, 10 December 2010

Liberal versus Conservative Postmodern Theology

According to Slavoj Žižek, the Solvenian sometimes theological philosopher, Christian postmodernists are too keen to follow the death of the death of God. In particular he focuses on his sparring partner John Milbank (Milbank, Žižek, 2009), Milbank being next door theologically to Rowan Williams.

To understand this, the starting point is Max Weber and secularisation. When charismatic authority turned traditional, that was a form of enchanted sacred society. However, with modernity came secularisation and tradition as authority turned into bureaucracy. People now were selected to fill an office for which they were trained and capable, the decision about such promotion being rational. But this came at a cost: the tedious, repetitive, authoritarian nature of top-down bureaucracy. It was disenchanted. So, whereas Marx was ultimately an optimist, because the new communist time of plenty would come, Weber was a pessimist.

Now let's be clear that Weber today is not the end game, as there is dispersed expertise in corporations, being the specialisation of knowledge that competes with top-down bureaucracy. And there are organisations that use human relations authority. Nevertheless, the general point remains that secularisation means a stark, absence of sacred canopy, and the world works by scientific solutions using technology, or understanding natural processes.

This bleakness Slavoj Žižek uses is the sense of the death of God. It is, after all, a form of suffering. The crap nature that this is all there is has to be worked through. To the extent that we are postmoderns, then the modernity we have endured and still endure is important.

This is why he accuses John Milbank and his weird postmodern Radical Orthodox construction as pagan and too easily the death of the death of God. Being pagan means carrying on as if everything is harmonious, when the death of God is shattering in its implications (Milbank, Žižek, 2009, 249). In a postmodern space Milbank has generated a premodern platonist fantasy of Church as possessor of peace. It becomes the window to judge all else as comparatively false, such as sociology being secular theology. Nevertheless, Milbank's scheme is re-enchantment, even producing for him a joyful materialism (2009, 125).

This is junk, of course, given that sociology involves research and such research, whether regular (quantitative) or valid (qualitative), supports or undermines hypotheses. In contrast, I suggest, theology is based on nothing except invented premises and logical follow-throughs: theology steals from ethics, from anthropology and from social sciences. All too easily those in the theology world rewrite science and social science and don't realise that this is what they have done. A big God does not nudge evolution, which is always local and specific, and virgins do not give birth, and even salvation figures grow up making mistakes and have a limited cultural even tribal outlook.

Žižek attacks Milbank via his theologised philosophy. In turn Milbank, who regards Luther as a mistake, accuses Žižek of indulging in Protestantism as in a Hegelian dialectic. This Hegelian process ends up producing a Christianity-stripped universalism (a sort of Unitarianism, I might suggest) - a high but stark theism that is a paradox of Christianity. Yet this is also a point of transcendence, which is, for Milbank, a route to Catholicism - and Milbank wants to convert Žižek from his Whiggish Protestantism to the true (but, er, Anglican) Catholic realm. For Milbank, atheism is just a sub-plot of Protestantism (114). Perhaps they would agree that Žižek has a more gnostic view of evil, whereas Milbank declares that evil has no ontological status at all (196).

But Slavoj Žižek is being postmodern. He does not need to use any theology to get this point across. He could stick to philosophy and use social science. His postmodernism here is to use the Christian narrative. Of course this is a problem with liberal postmodernism - it is thin and optional. It is why I tend to drop it in favour of those higher Hegelian conclusions that actually stop at paradox (for which Buddhism offers a better model). For the sake of his dialogue with a Christian, Žižek uses a liberal postmodern theology to tackle a conservative postmodernism. For me, the former has authenticity because it is rooted in what research shows us to be whereas the latter is a fantasy, like a Mediaeval castle built on the Rhine in the later nineteenth century.

Milbank invents his own apparent trinitarian modernity (192, 209), and this involves dodging around the Reformation. For Žižek, there is no transcendent caretaker (55) and, given that Christ is a weak God (55) there is nothing to lead on to the happy outcome of all things. Tough then - that God, as such, died on its own cross. Indeed it means more than this: that there was never a transcendent God (80). History is also tough, although not a process; however, surprise-surprise, Milbank thinks history is distorted too (like sociology) because it happened outside a proper Catholic aegis.

Milbank's scheme is like having Copernicus setting astronomy free, and it going on to develop the Hubble space telescope, only to have some theologian come along and say he is entitled to follow Ptolemy again and will rewrite science and social science in ignorance to suit.

In as far as Rowan Williams deals in the same closed narrative theological world, and gets lost in the detail as he goes back and forth, the same can be said of his scheme too, though usually Williams makes excursions into the actual economy for his pronouncements. Williams also makes great efforts in preserving and advancing his model of the Church, especially internationally, but he does it following modernist bureaucratic methods (discussion, rationality, process of people in their rightful position) rather than a reinvented platonic traditionalism, which would really become hierarchical statements of premodern repression (there is, after all, no basis by which to judge Milbank's Church of peace other than according to the Church).

Slavoj Žižek says you have to run with disenchantment (247) because it is the honest approach. It is the absence of the Real transcendent, and is the acceptance of the void; these two sides of the same coin let us examine ourselves - however painful this may be. Clearly people will use religion - whether elements of Milbank's, or Buddhism, or the New Age - to soften the blow.

Milbank, J., Žižek, S. (2009), Davis, C. (ed.), The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.


Anonymous said...

Someone should give this man a box of Kleenex.
And tell him to put on a clean shirt.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

You should see the original.