Karl Barth in Conversation with Slavoj Žižek & John Milbank
By Paul Dafydd Jones
For a while, I hoped to frame this conversation in terms of a dramatic interchange – something along the lines of “A Slovenian philosopher, a British theologian, and a Swiss dogmatician walk into a bar…” Alongside an eye-wateringly hip assemblage of cinematic references, literary allusions, and comedic scenes – my early favorites being when Barth imagines a young adult novel, entitled Are you there God? It’s me, Žižek, and when Milbank waxes poetic about the Twilight movies – I wanted to engage some topics that would likely receive attention, were the authors to meet for drinks. Primarily, I envisioned an intense discussion of the logos asarkos and the logos ensarkos, with Milbank talking up the former category, Barth emphasizing the latter, and Žižek asking whether recent debates are but symptoms of secret puzzle, embedded in the Church Dogmatics – a puzzle that later generations were tasked to solve, with only Barth knowing that it is by definition unsolvable, a symptom of the Real. There would then follow remarks on the orthodoxy/heresy binary as it relates to theology and contemporary Marxism; comments on materialism, new forms of transnational religious militancy, and globalization; a discussion of the church, in which Barth and Žižek would speak up for a politicized ecclesiology, and Milbank and Žižek would ask Barth some difficult questions about the Eucharist; and, finally, a cameo for a discerning bartender, who, having challenged each thinker to speak frankly about sexism and heterosexism, finds herself appalled by their awkward responses. Of course, this interchange would not provoke much laughter. While Žižek’s and Barth’s prose has genuinely humorous moments, and while Milbank’s hyper-seriousness would provide an amusing contrast, there is little chance of this writer viably impersonating the thinkers, and no prospect of his penning a winsome script. Still, a contribution of this sort – that is, one that resembles an actual conversation – could in principle show what a profitable exchange between authors should look like: a frank exchange of ideas, with each thinker refining his or her best insights, appreciating the legitimacy and cogency of others’ views, and recognizing that the truth can only be approximated, by the grace of God, in provisional and halting ways.
However, given my inferior skills as a dramatist, a relative unfamiliarity with Žižek, and an inability to inhabit a “radically orthodox” outlook, I am reduced to offering a more prosaic, and rather less evenhanded, contribution to this conference. Using The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? as a point of departure, my goal is to imagine what Barth might say about a conversation that is already underway. My principal suggestion is this: Barth would urge both Milbank and Žižek to take the monstrosity of Christ rather more seriously than they do. In Barth’s judgment, as I understand it, neither contemporary author proffers a sufficiently robust Christology; further, both promote viewpoints in which Christ is fitted into a preexisting theological or philosophical scheme, as opposed to being treated as determinative for thought as such. Barth’s coordination of Christology, the doctrine of God, and the doctrine of election, on the other hand, is more theologically viable – that is, more intellectually compelling, more attuned to the scriptural witness, and more pertinent to the political moment in which we find ourselves – than either Žižek’s brand of neo-Marxism or Milbank’s celebration of plenitude, paradox, and participation.
Before elucidating this partisan thesis, three caveats are needed. First, I would ask readers’ indulgence for neglecting an number of important issues – for instance, Milbank’s assessment of medieval theology and its legacy in the modern West; Žižek’s synthesis of Lacanian and Hegelian insights, as well as his forays into popular culture; both authors’ treatment of Chesterton, Kant, Schelling, Kierkegaard, and others; and both authors’ views on scripture, tradition, faith, reason, and providence. A short essay cannot provide anything close to a comprehensive analysis; I only hope that my commentary is not too superficial. Second, in what follows I do my best to avoid polemics, even granted the contemporary authors’ fondness for brash overstatements, dubious generalizations, and idiosyncratic modes of argumentation. For sure, Milbank (to some degree) and Žižek (to an impressive degree) would defend their employment of hyperbole, just as Barth would defend the rhetoric of Der Römerbrief. In fact, hyperbole is probably unavoidable when two authors engage in “the intellectual equivalent of Ultimate Fighting” (p. 19) – although I’ll refrain from wondering overlong as to why Creston Davis, who edited The Monstrosity of Christ, believes that this academic exchange is comparable to testosterone-fuelled displays of violence, staged to entertain teenage boys. Still, in this context there is no need for me to rehash critics’ concerns about unchecked exaggeration. My goal is otherwise: to take both authors as seriously as possible, and to imagine how Barth might respond to them. Third, I would note that this essay is hampered by the absence of a counter-counter-response: constraints of space mean that I cannot turn the tables, and imagine what Žižek and Milbank would make of Barth’s sed contra. And this is a serious failing. It forestalls any critical consideration of Barth’s Christological concentration (is it a live option for Žižek or Milbank?); it risks supporting uncritical and fawning readings of Barth, reflective of a worrying nostalgia for “neo-orthodoxy”; it deflects attention away from the benefits that accrue when Barth is criticized from diverse theological, philosophical, and political positions. Still, I expect that others are better able to indicate how Žižek and Milbank might respond to a “Barthian” perspective, so as to correct, refine, and perhaps improve it. I leave this task for them.
While Žižek claims to tender a “modest plea for the Hegelian reading of Christianity” in The Monstrosity of Christ, readers will be unsurprised to learn that there is nothing remotely modest about his petition. What he offers, for starters, is a thoroughly materialist interpretation of Hegel: a perspective that twists Hegel from side-to-side, turns him upside-down and downside-up, until all references to “transcendence” are utterly dialecticized and utterly de-substantialized. Any construal of Geist “as a kind of meta-Subject, a Mind,” then, is deemed a bad faith attempt to make Hegel “a ridiculous spiritualist obscurantist” (p. 60). It erroneously supposes that finitude can be treated as a passing stage in the career of Geist; it fails to think about Spirit, mind, and matter in terms of their elemental co-implication. Obscurantism of this kind, moreover, proves existentially and politically debilitating. Only as we inhabit a fully materialist perspective, which accepts finitude in all of its agonistic and negative complexity, do we become vehicles of Spirit and catch sight of a new kind of politics. Why so? Well, when we reckon seriously with nullity, when we stare into the “abyss of the Spirit’s self-relating,” we no longer aspire to “regain the lost innocence of Origins” (p. 72). We abandon reliance on either a theological “big Other” (a transcendent deity who controls our destinies) or a political “big Other” (the Party which, dependent upon a conveniently self-accrediting philosophy of history, presumes to occupy the vanguard and represent the proletariat). Instead, we consider truly emancipatory courses of action. Dispossessed of a false totality and invigorated by a belief in “the ontological incompleteness of reality” (p. 240 [emphasis removed]), we move towards subject positions that recognize and, still more importantly, hold open the “void” that gapes before us. We discover new ways to contest global capitalism.
What does this curious brand of neo-Marxism have to do with Christianity? More than one might think. Žižek’s philosophy of history – which, in good Hegelian fashion, is also a philosophy of human subjectivity – identifies Christ’s life and death as a decisive occasion for individual and collective maturation. Žižek believes, specifically, that the incarnation of the Son, understood in terms of the Father’s exhaustive kenotic finitization, negates the possibility of thinking about a transcendent deity who governs the course of history and controls our destinies. Because of Christ, we need no longer suppose that our relationship to God qua Father defines what we are (alienated) and what we may do (not much). We are emboldened to consider a future of our own devising. Concomitant with the negation of the Father, the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ gives birth to the community of Spirit. Our alienation from ourselves is negated; we are afforded the opportunity to seize the power that we had mistakenly ascribed to the Father. Thus it is that the “universal God returns as a Spirit of the community of believers” (p. 61 [my emphasis]) – a community that recognizes materiality as irreducible, but knows also that this totality is neither deterministically defined nor insusceptible to revolutionary change. Political action, in short, takes its bearings from Christ’s life and death. The incarnation of the Son means the death of the Father; the death of the Son means the advent of the Spirit; the advent of the Spirit means an existential and political condition oriented towards a post-capitalist future.
One finds here, then, a bold reworking of the old adage, O felix culpa! The fall is no longer construed in terms of Adam and Eve sinning against God; it is conceived in terms of the Father translating himself, without remainder, into the concrete life of the Son, whose death – the negation of negation – inaugurates the community of the Spirit. And redemption is no longer something done to and for us; it is, rather, a possibility that must be humanly realized. Still more audaciously, Žižek is proposing that the Christian tradition become an integral part of the left’s theoretical world. A radically historicized construal of the Trinity and an appeal to the basal fact of the incarnation is an invaluable provocation for thought. It reveals, in a unique way, a revolutionary freedom that lies beyond belief in the “big Other,” whether that “big Other” be construed as a hyper-transcendent Nobodaddy, faith in the inexorable march of history, or the disgraceful beauty of hyper-capitalism.
So what would Barth make of this? He would accept, first of all, that Žižek operates with some entrenched convictions, the likes of which cannot be broken down by frontal assault. That is to say, Barth would probably not open proceedings with an attack on Žižek’s supposition that human beings shape the course of history, denouncing this as “works righteousness” and a symptom of sinful pride (so CD IV/1, §60); nor would he spend time bemoaning Žižek’s willful heterodoxy or his creative handling of the scriptural witness. He would also grant, I think, that Žižek’s avant-garde materialism has a prima facie cogency. Materialism of this sort may not be theologically desirable, but it is not logically impossible, intellectually incoherent, ethically insufferable, etc., and cannot be summarily dismissed. (It might even be deemed a “secular parable of the kingdom”: it seems more philosophically interesting, and more politically vital, than anything that the “new atheists” have conjured up.) Should Barth wish to be critical, then, he would perhaps begin with an immanent critique. He would pose a simple question, consonant with his own style of thought. Is Žižek sufficiently dialectical in his thinking?
The answer, to my mind, is: probably not. As Milbank points out, Žižek’s frequent recourse to the category of “nullity” is reminiscent of a flatfooted natural theology: it ends up “deriving all subsequent rationality in an ordered series from pure nullity—as from pure divine simplicity—in such a way that all reality can be logically situated with respect to this nihil” (p. 158). For sure, this is not quite correct. Milbank draws a too-hasty parallel between God qua “first cause” and a nullity that, for Žižek, is by definition not simple (or, for that matter, complex). But he is on to something, and Barth would press the point. Nullity does function as an irreducible “given” for Žižek; it marks the point beyond which an anti-reductionistic materialism may not go. But have we really avoided reductionism, then? Is Žižek able to imagine what it might mean to continue the dialectical process, and to negate the “negation of the negation” that is the (unclosed) materialism of the spiritual community? The query is a bit cute, but it’s not unfair. While Žižek claims to propound a new kind of materialism, and while his appeals to Christ’s life and death as that which holds open the possibility of the “void” are intriguing, the dialectical negation that he does not truly consider is one brought about by an unforeseeable act of God – that is, the intrusive working of a divine love that cannot be preemptively thought, that happens outside of the stifling binary of negativity-versus-positivity, and that confronts, judges, and redeems humankind. In fact, this subtle constriction of the dialectical process raises the prospect of setting Feuerbach to work. Barth would ask: is Žižek promoting religiosity or doing theology here? Certainly, it might be the latter (a theologian should beware of absolute denunciations; she does not speak sub specie aeternitatis). But it might also be the former. Such religiosity may not be akin to that of the cultured Prussian, quick to support military ventures and eager to extol the glories of nation, blood, and soil. It may be a religiosity of a new kind: one that objectifies an internally felt hollowness, nurtured by frustrated revolutionary aspirations, the uncanny ebbs and flows of desire, and the baffling transience of life in the first world. And might such religiosity be most vividly expressed when Christ is figured as a clown – an image that surely tames the monstrosity that Žižek otherwise acclaims? Could this figure, in fact, reflect nothing other than Žižek’s own professional identity – one that, to some degree, has been foisted upon him by an academy that hankers after an alternative to mainstream liberalism, but lacks the stomach for genuinely disruptive politics? Indeed, what else can we imagine but the moderately subversive amusements of the circus, when the Real is consistently trapped in the interstices of an ascendant capitalist regime?
Milbank’s response to Žižek is characteristically uncompromising. He detects here a style of thought that gained currency in the late middle ages, and which continues to afflict theology today: a “univocalist, voluntarist, nominalistically equivocal, and arcanely Gnostic” (p. 218) vision that distorts Christianity’s best insights. As an alternative, Milbank commends a participatory metaphysics, anchored in the abundance of the Holy Trinity. Against dialectical conflict, he favors an acclamation of paradoxical harmony; against the givenness of materiality, an order saturated with transcendence; against Christ as a “vanishing mediator,” a living Word who enlivens the sacramental life of the church; against Protestant atheism, an “authentic Middle Epoch” (p. 218) in which faith and reason unite, and “catholic” societies anticipate God’s peaceable kingdom.
The way Milbank elaborates this position is intriguing. On one level, he appeals to a “transgeneric vision” (p. 172) that delights in the underlying harmony of creation. He argues, specifically, that since our common experience is not a matter of “random and aporetic contingent finitude” (p. 115 [emphasis removed]), there is no warrant for Hegel’s ontologization of contradiction. Žižek’s identification of the “Real,” by extension, is wrongheaded (and, to repeat, a misplaced endorsement of a mode of reflection inaugurated by Duns Scotus et al., sustained by the reformers, and ingredient to much German idealism). The world in which we live, while complex and dialectical in certain respects, invites a different assessment; its “pleasing harmony” (p. 164) adverts to a “framing transcendent reality” (p. 166). One finds here, in other words, a reading of experience keyed to God’s creative work: an updating of the opening of the Summa and a philosophical commentary on Ps. 19 and Rom. 1:20. On another level – and at this point Milbank indicates that while reason and faith are congruent, their relationship is of an asymmetrical sort: the former being suggestive, but insufficient; the latter being authoritative and abundant – Milbank argues that God’s revealed, triune identity enables us to know who sustains creation and moves it toward a glorious end. Indeed, since the Christian knows that the Father, Son, and Spirit enjoy a paradoxical relationship of unity-and-difference (“paradoxical” in the sense that this relationship gloriously exceeds anything that kenotic and/or dialectical rationality can conceive), she can avoid Hegel’s mistakes and engage the world as it truly is: an “embodied plentitude” (p. 138) that awaits our fitting responses.
The incarnation of the Son makes such engagement with the world a live option. Although sin disorders desire and warps perception, Christ graciously reveals the God who precedes and defines all things. Christ’s work, more particularly, has both cosmic and moral dimensions, for “the entry of the infinite into the finite and the paradoxical identification of the infinite with the finite” (p. 212) enables clarity of sight and heals wills for the purpose of forgiveness and peacemaking. What about the cross? Against Žižek, it neither discloses divine self-emptying nor provides a point of departure for a materialistically bounded political community. No, the cross is the glorious conclusion of Christ’s revelation of harmony; it is the crowning moment in the life of one who orients finitude towards the triune God. Yet it should not be fetishized. It is because of the whole of Christ’s life – “one specific finite moment…of absolute infinite significance, beyond all human imaginings” (p. 215) – that we know that God has committed himself to us and will bring about our salvation. We know, too, that a community’s political labors are coextensive with that community’s participation in God’s work, the principal mediation of which is the Eucharist. For when the Christus praesens is truly acclaimed, the divine order is made manifest, the giving of gifts has no end, and the church anticipates an eschatological joy that the prophets of nihilism cannot possibly foresee.
Without doubt, Barth could respond vigorously to this proposal. Should he be inclined to criticism, he would dispute some of Milbank’s historical judgments, offer a strong defense of the magisterial reformers, ask probing questions about scripture and the analogia entis, and (I hope) worry greatly about Milbank’s remarks about paternalism. However, I want to keep touch with the criticisms directed at Žižek, and pose only one question at this point. Is Milbank’s statement in The Monstrosity of Christ also susceptible to Feuerbachian critique?
I think it is. Although Barth would grant that a “catholic” attempt to correlate faith and reason is, in principle, defensible, he would deem Milbank’s account of the “paradoxes” of experience a dubious resource for theological reflection. At certain moments, in fact, Milbank’s remarks seem ready-made for ideology critique. It all seems a bit too intoxicating. A Hopkins-esque description of a car journey by the River Trent, undertaken alone, in which “[e]verything is univocally bathed in a beautiful, faintly luminous vagueness, tinged at its heart with silver” (p. 160), in which the mysterious interplay of a river, roofs, spires, and a winding road delight author and reader alike… Do we really want experiences of this kind to inform dogmatic inquiry? Do we not find here a rhapsodical universalization of a particular standpoint – a quintessentially “Anglo-Saxon” one, to boot, albeit of a romantic and decidedly middle-class sort – that distracts attention from the scriptural record that ought to direct theological inquiry?
Barth’s concerns would compound, were he to consider how Milbank’s experiential reflections dovetail with his treatment of the incarnation and God’s triunity. On one level, Barth would note, perhaps somewhat mischievously, several points of connection between Milbank and the early Schleiermacher. Certainly the “founder” of modern Protestant theology, at least in his early writings, did not see “Christ’s human existence [as] entirely derived from the divine person of the Logos by which he is enhypostasized” (p. 210). But he, like Milbank, supposed Jesus to be the one who reveals to us, and thereby makes thinkable and experience-able, the coincidence of finitude and infinity. He, too, was reluctant to construe Christ’s death-in-abandonment as the all-important culmination of his identity, the decisive pivot around which salvation turns, preferring to view “the ‘perfect suffering’ of the Cross” as “but one aspect of an entire action whereby the finite is restored to full existence in time through its paradoxical conjunction with the infinite” (p. 212 [my emphasis]). And he, too, thought primarily in terms of the exemplary life of Christ transforming our religious consciousness, invigorating our sense of creation’s harmony, prompting the formation of intensely relational church communities, and spurring progressive political activity. (I am much, much fonder of Schleiermacher than these sentences suggest, but the point holds).
On another level, Barth would ask: what vision of the Trinity is invoked here? Milbank’s account of the divine life – a “realm of fantastic pure play” (p. 186) in which love circulates and dialectical agonism has no place – definitely has its moments, and cannot be dismissed lightly. It is a brilliant reworking of insights drawn from Gregory of Nyssa, Augustine of Hippo, Thomas Aquinas, and (to a lesser extent) Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa; a doctrine of God that fits snugly with an understanding of creation organized around the categories of harmony, relationality, plenitude, and gift. Could it be, however, that just as Žižek cannot look beyond nullity, Milbank is stuck with an understanding of God that is controlled by all-too-human presumptions about impassibility and transcendence? Is it not possible that Milbank writes so lyrically about God’s “infinite relating” because he projects the (apparent) harmony of creation onto a theological screen, as opposed to thinking about God in light of God’s self-revelation? Further, could it be that this very projection leads Milbank to dissociate, in a rather crude way, God’s “immanent” relating from the hard realities of Christ’s life, suffering, and death? This last question is particularly important. While Milbank’s God participates in the world to a glorious degree, this God does not really open himself to the ambiguity of the creation of which he is Lord. At every point, God remains serene and untroubled: the infinite is “in” the finite, but at no point does any portion of finitude affect the time and space of God’s infinite relating. Consequently, God’s solidarity with us, realized through the life and death of Jesus Christ, is downplayed to a worrying degree. Milbank will not allow even the slightest “particula veri in the teaching of the early Patripassians” (IV/2, p. 357). He does not imagine a doctrine of the Trinity that, in a radical way, takes it bearings from the incarnation (and therefore the particulars of the gospel narratives). He does not think in terms of God freely determining himself, as Son, as one who suffers with us and on our behalf. As such, he cannot conceive of what Barth would adjudge to be truly monstrous: the divine Son becoming and being flesh, submitting himself to the rejection that sinners deserve, electing himself to be Christ crucified.
Thus far, Barth’s imagined contribution to the Žižek/Milbank debate has been fairly critical. With respect to Žižek, I’ve suggested that Barth might develop an immanent critique and ask whether “today’s forms of radical scientific materialism” really “keep the spirit of infinity alive” (p. 242). Žižek’s own materialism, it seems, is only open to a modest degree: a fascination with nullity effectively rules out a dialectical negation of materialism, and blocks any thought of the intrusive, liberative work of God as the “One who loves in freedom” (see here, especially, II/1, §28). And this, in turn, raises a crucial question: Is Žižek’s materialist Christology less a way to think novelly about the Real, more the projection of a subject allured and frustrated by the unassailable ascendancy of global capitalism? With respect to Milbank, Barth would dispute the appeal to experience and worry about the metaphysical vision that accompanies it. Moreover, if Žižek fails to think beyond nullity, Milbank fails to imagine a theology that avoids an unhelpful binary: either an immanent Trinity of “pure play,” wholly untouched by the world, or a completely historicized and materialized economic Trinity. He therefore never considers the possibility that God establishes some kind of “real relationship” between God and creation; he never explores the idea, more specifically, that God sovereignly intends that the economic history of the Son be constitutive of the Son’s eternal being. And, perhaps not coincidentally, given his reluctance to dwell on the unlovely reality of Christ crucified, Milbank ends up with a fairly “modern” account of the atonement. He focuses less on what P. T. Forsyth memorably styled the “cruciality of the cross,” more on Christ’s restorative exhibition of the (paradoxical) relationship of creature and Creator.
Put bluntly: neither Žižek nor Milbank offers statements that describe Christ in especially monstrous terms. Both fit their Christologies into preexisting schemes of thought (a neo-Marxist reading of Hegel, on the one hand; a “radically orthodox” metaphysics, on the other). And these schemes of thought, beyond being susceptible to Feuerbachian critique, effectively limit what might be said about God, Christ, and radical politics.
What would it mean, then, to take the monstrosity of Christ seriously? Since Barth does not pose this question, we do now enter the realm of conjecture. It is also important to note straightaway that my account of Barth’s theology – which, as will become clear, focuses on Church Dogmatics II/2 and following – depends on some interpretative judgments that require a lengthier defense than can be provided in this context. However, since neither Žižek nor Milbank want shrinking violets for conversation partners, and since I have offered a fuller statement about Barth’s theology elsewhere, there is little need for reticence. Barth’s positive account of Christ’s monstrosity, I want to suggest, would likely involve three moves: (a) a postmetaphysical account of the Trinity, developed in light of Christ’s concrete history, that supports a flexible theological materialism; (b) a political theology that focuses on human “being in becoming”; and (c) an understanding of atonement that presents Christ’s death as central to our salvation, and symptomatic of that which we often want to deny – the tragedy of sin and the victory of grace.
To consider the Trinity in light of Christ’s concrete history, so far as Barth is concerned, requires that the theologian do more than draw connections between discrete dogmatic loci, so as to signal compatibility between her account of God and her description of Christ’s person and work. At issue here is the belief that the actual history of Jesus Christ – that is, the life, death, and resurrection of the rabbi from Nazareth, narrated in the canonical gospels – should have a direct bearing on one’s understanding of the being of God qua Son. This is what it means, in fact, to say that Jesus Christ is the “electing God” and the “elected human” (so II/2, §33). God has sovereignly decided upon an identity, as Son, that is irrevocably bound to, and in some way constituted by, the lived history of Jesus. This, I hurry to add, is not a decision that God is required to make. It is also not a decision that, à la Hegel and Žižek, “collapses” the immanent Trinity into the economic Trinity, with the result that God’s being is controlled by historical events. The point is rather that God assigns himself an utterly specific identity. God is Lord over God’s being to the point at which God’s freely deciding to become the enfleshed Word coincides with the Word of God being enfleshed, for all eternity. To think along these lines might be metaphysically dizzying, but that’s no reason for undue caution (think what would have happened if the early church had been circumspect when thinking about Christology and the Trinity!). There is here a starting point for a highly actualistic, postmetaphysical doctrine of God: an attempt to think Exod. 3:14, Jn 1:1-18, and Acts 2:33 simultaneously.
Think now what this means for the Žižek/Milbank debate. Generally, one need no longer treat the immanent Trinity/economic Trinity distinction as an unyielding binary. For sure, the distinction has value. It identifies the priority of God’s being; it signals that God’s life is (infinitely) more than God’s relating to humankind; it underscores that the incarnation has as its condition of possibility God’s unlimited sovereignty. But the distinction ought not to be reified to the point at which God’s freedom to define Godself is underrated or obscured. In fact, if one disavows a crude disjunction between the immanent and economic Trinity, one is freed up to posit an ontologically significant connection between the history enacted by the incarnate Son and the being of the Son. To draw on Jüngel’s phraseology: for all eternity, God determines to become and be, as Son, the concrete person of Jesus Christ, vere deus vere homo. The logos asarkos is always becoming and being the logos ensarkos.
More particularly, one hereby gains the foundation upon which a christologically defined theological materialism can be built. Because of a sovereign decision, made “before the foundation of the world” (Eph. 1:4), the embodied history of the man Jesus is now a permanent feature of the divine life. The fullness of divinity and the fullness of human physicality coincide in time and in eternity; by the grace of God, these opposites, separated by an infinite qualitative difference, are held together (although not confused!). By extension, materiality as such, and more particularly the life of each human, receives a new kind of dignity. Given that the “obedience of Jesus Christ as such, fulfilled in that astonishing form…is a matter of the mystery of the inner being of God as the being of the Son in relation to the Father” (IV/1, p. 177), we are able to “correct our notions of the being of God,” even “reconstitute them” (IV/1, p. 186). We think beyond the “pure play” of the divine persons; we discover a divine perfection defined by God’s opening Godself to the lived history of the Word. And because the “atonement is history” (IV/1, p. 157), we know that the openness of God to the concrete person of Christ is paired with Christ’s openness to humanity. Christ accepts us as we are; he, the “firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15) envelops the people whose head he is. Consequently, humanity as such – that is, humanity in all of its wondrous and awkward embodiment – is now set before God the Father as a sanctified and redeemed creation. And Christ’s intercession carries in its wake an affirmation of materiality, an unsublatable dimension of the creation that God wills to save.
When one begins to think in this way, some interesting political possibilities also arise. Our point of departure, unsurprisingly, is the fact that each human being is determined by way of his or her relation to Jesus Christ. On a general level, because Christ is God’s definitive statement about the value of human life, and because we are charged to live as responsible members of his body, it follows that Christian ethics includes a forthright affirmation of human rights. The rhetorical forms used by a theologian will perhaps differ from those employed by some of her “secular” peers, but the content of her position will be welcomed: since God has affirmed the preciousness of human beings, we must do likewise. On a more particular level, because God reveals Godself as a “being in becoming” who is open to ontological difference (that is, the difference of the human Jesus), the Christian is emboldened to affirm various forms of human “being in becoming.” Situated in and defined by a Word who becomes, the Christian is given a new kind of liberty, and begins to recognize and delight in difference and transformation – even in certain forms of individual and collective experimentation. The theologian, moreover, discerns a key element of what Milbank rightly identifies as fundamental for radical politics today: a theological ontology, supportive of anti-capitalist theory and praxis. Admittedly, a loose analogy is at work here. There is a huge difference between the self-constitution of the divine Son and the “opened” horizons that accommodate diverse forms of human flourishing. Yet there is no need for a strong analogy (and, incidentally, no reason to suppose that a progressive political theology requires the support of a neo-medieval metaphysical scheme). My contention is simply that the obvious plasticity of human life, productive of an ever-expanding array of individual and collective identities, is comprehensible – or, better, affirmable – when one accepts that we are made in the image of the God who, as Son, freely transforms himself, becoming and being what he need not be. More: while Barth sometimes fails to think radically about what it means to say that the human being is “set in motion from its very center by the act of the Subject who exists here” (IV/2, p. 29), we have an opportunity to correct his mistakes. We can update the indirect but insistent democratic socialism of the Church Dogmatics with a fuller understanding of oppression – one that, among other things, complements Marx’s insights about economic injustice with an analysis of sexism and heterosexism and brings Barth into conversation with those who struggle for women’s rights and the rights of the queer community. Žižek’s worries notwithstanding, the “politics of identity” – that is, mostly laudable attempts to expose and overturn discriminatory conventions – can and should go hand-in-hand with critiques of economic injustice.
Does this exhaust what might be said about the monstrosity of Christ? Not yet. Thus far, we have only what is “monstrous” for the doctrine of God (a God who determines himself, as Son, in terms of Christ’s concrete history) and what is “monstrous” for a politically charged theological anthropology (an understanding of the human that recognizes that we, too, are “beings in becoming”). Barth presses us to take one more step, and to recognize Christ’s monstrosity in terms of his burdening himself with the atrocity of human sin.
God’s love for humankind, Barth believes, means more than the Son becoming human. It means the Word becoming flesh, disposing himself as one who will undergo judgment. It means, even more dramatically, that Christ freely takes upon himself the wrongdoing of others, even as his own conduct proves utterly irreproachable. As Christ sets his face towards Jerusalem, as his disciples forsake him and the elites of the day conspire against him, his solidarity with sinners becomes ever more intensive, ever more thoroughgoing – so much so that his being made “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3) culminates in his being the one who “bore our sins in his body on the cross” (1 Pet. 2:24). His life is therefore both kenotic (as Žižek wishes it to be) and glorious (as Milbank wishes it to be). It is kenotic because Christ does not maintain his distance from his enemies, holding on to an identity that stands aloof from their sinful machinations. Instead, he opens himself to the hateful schemes of those arrayed against him. He allows himself to be defined by others; he accepts their wrongdoing; he exposes our sinfulness for what it is – an attack on God as such. (He “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself…and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross” [Phil. 2:6 and 2:8]). Christ’s life is glorious because, in the same moment that he is subjected, without reserve, to the wickedness of his enemies, he endorses God’s judgment upon sin and releases anew God’s boundless love. Because he disposes himself as the true representative of sinful humankind (one who takes our wrongdoing upon himself) and the sole substitute for sinful humankind (one who endures the punishment that we deserve), that which obstructs God’s love is now finished. Because he “made our sin His own” (IV/1, p. 241), because he offers what must not be to God, God is able to do “that which is ‘satisfactory’ or sufficient in the victorious fighting of sin.” God brings about a “victory” that is both “radical and total” (IV/1, p. 254); God kills off the sin that we commit, in order to raise us to new life. As God says no to sin, accepting the awful sacrifice of God’s only-begotten Son, God’s yes to humankind is spoken with unparalleled force and clarity.
The monstrosity of Christ crucified, then, cannot be thought apart from the monstrosity of sin. Our unfailing faithlessness, our petty and not so petty falseness, our abiding cruelty, our intolerable sloth and boundless stupidity: this is what we behold when Christ dies. And this, alongside a refashioned doctrine of God and an invigorated theological ethics, forms a crucial element in any “Barthian” response to the proposals advanced by Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank. As we look upon the figure of the crucified rabbi, we are brought face-to-face with sin. We learn about its deathly wage; we discover it to be that which God does not tolerate. Or, to frame the point in a way that Barth would surely approve: the outstretched finger of John the Baptist, powerfully depicted in Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, accuses me, just as it accuses you; it reveals God’s rejection of our hate-filled efforts to impede a love that makes all things well. Yet this disclosure of wrath is complemented by the mournful praise offered by Jesus’ mother, by Mary Magdalene, and by John the Evangelist. These figures, positioned by Grünewald on the other side of the cross, bear witness to a grace that cancels sin, acquits us of guilt, and assures us of a joyous redemption. Christ has “borne the consequence of [our] separation” from God in order “to bear it away” (IV/1, p. 247). It seems unbelievable, but it is a truth that Barth will not and cannot repress: monstrosity does not have the last word.
Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics, trans. G. W. Bromiley. London: T&T Clark, 2009.
Žižek, Slavoj and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic, ed. Creston Davis. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2009.
Forsyth, P. T. The Cruciality of Christ. Eugene, Oreg.: Wipf & Stock, 1997.
Jones, Paul Dafydd. The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. London: T&T Clark, 2008.
Jüngel, Eberhard. God’s Being is in Becoming: The Trinitarian Being of God in the Theology of Karl Barth, trans. John Webster. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001.
Kotsko, Adam. Žižek and Theology. London: T&T Clark, 2008.
McCormack, Bruce L. Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
Milbank, John. Being Reconciled: Ontology and Pardon. London: Routledge, 2003.
O’Regan, Cyril. “Žižek and Milbank and the Hegelian Death of God.” Modern Theology, vol. 26, no. 2 (2010): pp. 278-86.
Pound, Marcus. Žižek: A (very) Critical Introduction. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008.
Schleiermacher, Friedrich. On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers, ed. Richard Crouter. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.
Response - A Modest Plea for One-Sidedness
By Adam Kotsko
I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to Paul Dafydd Jones’s engaging and witty Barthian intervention into the debate between Žižek and Milbank as represented by The Monstrosity of Christ. (The hypothetical young adult novel, Are You There, God? It’s Me, Žižek, was alone worth the price of admission.) In his final response in Monstrosity, Žižek puts forward a kind of tongue-in-cheek account of the possible responses when a dialogue runs into an irreducible impasse at the level of fundamental presuppositions—of course preferring the “truly Hegelian approach” of denying that one’s opponent even has a position to put forward (235)—but Jones enacts another option, somewhat akin to the early church’s decision to solve the problem of the relationship between the Father and the Son by throwing in the further complication of the Holy Spirit: when the dialogue reaches an impasse, introduce a third option.
For Jones, the choice of Barth as the third party is far from arbitrary—just as the introduction of the Spirit into the trinitarian debate helped to clarify the stakes in an unexpected way, so also does Barth provide a special insight into the stakes of the Žižek-Milbank debate and the ways that both fail to meet the challenge they have implicitly set themselves. This is because, as Jones argues, Žižek and Milbank are each too one-sided, Žižek on the side of the negative and Milbank on the side of divine plenitude. Barth is able to unite these two moments in a productive way, and while Jones is not a “Barth fundamentalist,” he believes that Barth is pointing us in the right direction.
The reason for Žižek and Milbak’s one-sidedness is that “both promote viewpoints in which Christ is fitted into a preexisting theological or philosophical scheme, as opposed to being treated as determinative for thought as such”—the latter being characteristic of Barth’s thought, above all because it is “attuned to the scriptural witness” and particularly “the life, death, and resurrection of the rabbi from Nazareth, narrated in the canonical gospels.” In sum, a Barthian perspective allows one “to take the monstrosity of Christ rather more seriously than they do,” and ultimately to recognize that “monstrosity does not have the last word.”
Where I would begin my challenge of this view is with the question of who is operating within “a preexisting theological or philosophical scheme” rather than allowing Christ to be “determinative for thought as such.” I could obviously go in the direction of arguing that Barth was just as susceptible to “preexisting theological or philosophical schemes” as any other thinker, as indeed the contemporary scholarship continues to demonstrate, particularly as regards his debt precisely to Hegel. I want here to make a more radical claim, however: what we should take seriously is the possibility that the Hegelian reading of Christianity is our best picture of what it means to allow Christ to be “determinative for thought as such,” while the warmed-over Neo-Platonism put forward by Radical Orthodoxy represents the ultimate “preexisting theological or philosophical scheme” from which Christian theology at its best has always been trying to escape.
Jones is right to point out that the incarnation and death of Christ often feel tacked-on in Radical Orthodoxy and that the machinery of divine plentitude and creaturely participation could proceed just as well without any need for the Cross. What I would ask, though, is how in Jones’s reading Barth escapes this very same accusation, insofar as the divine plenitude—the famous “yes” that always ultimately overpowers the “no”—always has the last word. Jones insists throughout on the identity of the immanent and economic trinity, the logos asarkos and the logos ensarkos, but it is unclear to me how the incarnation can be a real and decisive event in the divine life if divine sovereignty remains always intact, if divine victory is always guaranteed.
For instance, Jones says that if a Barthian position is taken seriously: “one need no longer treat the immanent Trinity/economic Trinity distinction as an unyielding binary. For sure, the distinction has value. It identifies the priority of God’s being; it signals that God’s life is (infinitely) more than God’s relating to humankind; it underscores that the incarnation has as its condition of possibility God’s unlimited sovereignty.” To my mind, though, this misses one of the deepest levels of the motivation behind the patristic insistence on what would come to be called the “immanent trinity” alongside the economic trinity: the insistence that God reveals God, that the persons we experience in revelation really are Godself and not some mediator that ultimately underscores our separation from God.
The upshot of this position is that God really puts Godself at stake in the Incarnation, that God holds nothing of Godself in reserve—a point that the doctrine of the Trinity, insofar as it has often winked and nudged so as to imply that only the Father is really God, has historically obscured, as Žižek rightly points out. Even so, its logic has led, fitfully but inexorably, to the Hegelian position that the divine kenosis is real and irreversible, affecting everything that God was and is, which means that unlimited divine sovereignty and plenitude simply cannot be maintained in light of the cross.
In this perspective, one can see that Barth’s position is the last-ditch effort to save divine impassibility, to save divine transcendence—just as Barth’s doctrine of election is a last-ditch effort to save double predestination and his theology as a whole is a last-ditch effort to figure out some way to read the disjointed and mutually contradictory set of documents we have collected as the Bible as a unified whole.
It is a worthy ambition, to be sure, a task demanding enough to be worth the labor of a lifetime—and the fascination it continues to exert is entirely understandable and deserved. (I myself feel that fascination!) And yet one could wish that Barth had more fully exercised the freedom with regard to the tradition that he claims for the Protestant theologian and—rather than providing the most rigorous and impressive epicycles ever introduced into the tradition’s attempt to squeeze the gospel into the cultural common sense of the Hellenistic world as represented above all in Neo-Platonism—had given up on the Hellenistic concept of God once and for all. Indeed, one could wish that Barth had finally given up on the Protestant principle of sola scriptura and—rather than forcing coherence on a body of documents developed by a variety of individuals and communities who were scrambling in the wake of disaster after disaster, from the Babylonian exile, the death of Christ, and the destruction of the Temple all the way to the rolling disaster of the Roman principate, and rather than granting an exaggerated historical authority to a set of narratives that are more about negotiating the boundary between Christianity and Judaism than about providing a coherent or historically plausible picture of Jesus of Nazareth, much less the incarnate God—had once again dared to know “only Christ and him crucified,” to know a God who truly puts himself at risk and only thereby empowers humanity finally to come of age, to put off its bondage to futility and learn to live finally.
This is what the Hegelian reading of Christianity, now advanced by Žižek, gives us access to. Barth represents perhaps the greatest attempt to take seriously the divine No within the terms of the divine Yes of sovereignty of plenitude. Where Hegel and the stream of modern theology that follows in his wake goes further is by recognizing that in Christ God says No to God, God says No to holding a Yes in reserve. The Cross is the No that becomes its own Yes only insofar as it remains an irrevocable No—and thereby sets us free.
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