So I just finished reading The Monstrosity of Christ, a dialogue between Slavoj Žižek and “radical orthodox” theologian John Milbank. While the debate is ostensibly about what theologians call “christology” (the study of the nature of Jesus), in reality it ends up being of deeper metaphysical and philosophical significance. Indeed, Jesus doesn’t really come up much at all.
For the uninitiated, Žižek is a Hegelian Marxist who uses Lacanian psychoanalysis, known for his cultural critique, counterintuitive arguments, and personal eccentricities. I didn’t used to be a fan, but I’ve grown to like him more and more recently, especially as I’ve found myself more often having to defend a dialectical approach to philosophy as such against assaults by both outsiders (mostly scientistic “naturalists”) and crypto-liberals within the Marxist left. In recent years he has taken an Ernst Bloch like turn, taking Christian theology and “inverting” it in order to develop his complex atheism. For Žižek, “only an atheist can be a true believer.”
If Žižek ironically appropriates theology for communism and atheism, Milbank outdoes him in this arena of ironic intellectual borrowing. Radical othodoxy is essentially a hyper-reactionary movement which wants to return to a feudal-esque state of affairs, where the Church is supreme and theology is “queen of the sciences.” What sets Radical Orthodoxy apart from your typical idiotic troglodyte reactionary (such as the “New Natural Lawyers”) is that it uses radical, usually leftist (sometimes postmodern and sometimes post-postmodern/Marxist) critiques of contemporary civilization – liberal individualism, capitalism, the capitalist state – for the purposes of the other side of history. It attempts to hijack the critical arsenal of those who are pushing towards the future mode of production (socialism) in the interests of one that has since passed (feudalism).
What Milbank does is attempt to set up a dichotomy between dialectics, represented by Žižek, and his own analogical metaphysics, a theological co-opting of materialism in the form of a fairly Thomistic metaphysics. Milbank funnily enough what we’d call an orthodox Thomist (yet) inasmuch as he is a strong occasionalist, denying absolutely the ability of entities to interact at all without God. Žižek rightfully calls Milbank out for adopting this stance, defending it with what is essentially an elaborate version of the “God did it” argument, as the hypocritical occasionalists of old also did.
In Milbank’s eyes, the Hegelian dialectic, despite its mystical shell, is the apotheosis of reason if separated from the transcendent – in other words, of secular reason. It is thus crucial to Milbank’s project that he discredit it, and to do so, he funnily enough mobilizes Alain Badiou’s thought on multiplicity. For Milbank, the paradoxical existence of God is one of absolute relation – it is the “something more” in the multiplicty of multiplicities . Whether or not this is possible – whether a proper understanding of Badiou necessarily precludes God – is something I’ll deal with when I blog about Badiou at length. The point is that Milbank thinks that the paradox which Badiou presents in Being and Event is sufficient to allow him to both destroy Žižek’s dialectics and to make the “transcendental leap” himself.
It’s very important to note, however, that Badiou’s paradox does not logically ground Milbank’s transcendent, and Milbank admits as much. What Milbank does think, however, is that Badiou’s paradox doesn’t ground either his or Žižek’s position; it simply allows him to choose to believe in the transcendent. The choice to adopt one position or the other must bring in other areas, primarily politics, history, and morality. This is why Milbank usually argues for his position in these terms – because in his mind, neither atheism no God can be “demonstrated” purely ontologically. Unfortunately for Milbank, this puts him in trouble, because it is exactly in these domains that Christianity, particularly Radical Orthodoxy, fails miserably compared to Marxism. If Milbank is right about the choice between his position and Žižek’s ultimately being a matter of politics and history, then Milbank is doomed. It is at these moments that Žižek savages Milbank, correctly pointing out and criticizing his “soft fascism,” his awkward and misunderstanding reading of the history of philosophy, and the like. Milbank’s position just ends up degenerating into a theological imperialism, a disturbing, dogmatic, and ultimately near pseudo-intellectual dismissal of everyone who disagrees with him or the Catholic church. As John D. Caputo, a postmodernist hermeneutic theologian puts it:
Milbank and the authors who swim around him in the “school” of “Radical Orthodoxy” flatter themselves with the insufferable conceit that the entire world may be divided into either medieval Thomistic metaphysicians — or nihilists!
Even if we take Milbank at face value, I think he loses this one to Žižek. Suppose we accept his notion that Badiou’s paradox “grounds” neither God nor atheism (which I don’t agree with, in fact – I think Badiou’s position implies a radical post-theist/post-atheist nontheism, not indecision, by necessity, which I will discuss when I blog at length about Badiou), which is where most of his intellectual heavy lifting is done. Even if we accept this first stage of Milbank’s argument full-stop, we are then by his own admission forced to move to other considerations, areas where Milbank’s Catholicism just gets demolished. It’s really impressive to see a figure like Milbank, who earlier in the book had seemed so intimidating with his extensive knowledge of contemporary philosophy as well as obscure philosophy, flounder when Žižek grabs his (wrong, in my opinion) dilemma by the horns and stares Milbank in the eyes.