John Milbank, Slavoj Žižek, and Creston Davis, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (Brazos Press, 2010).
Reviewed by Maxwell Kennel
Maxwell Kennel is a student in Philosophy and Rhetoric & Professional Writing at the University of Waterloo Ontario, Canada. His research interests include the continental philosophy of religion, speculative realism, deconstruction-and-religion, and critical theory. He is beginning is second term covering a pastoral sabbatical leave at Steinmann Mennonite Church, and can be found at http://maxwellkennel.wordpress.com/.
There is one particular paragraph that I would like to draw out of Paul’s New Moment which I believe contributes greatly to the book being worthy of its title. Not far into the essay entitled “Paul and Subtraction” Creston Davis writes briefly on the topic of love:
In this way, love is better understood as taking the ultimate risk as paradox: in death there is life, in life there is death. Love then is that stance that arises in the most unlikely of places, namely, in the very grip of death. But, of course, this basic approach to love cannot be comprehended directly, as if its very disclosure violently empties out its core content without reservation: neither propositions (universal axioms and other bare-bones “truths”) nor any subgroup of people can capture the truth of love. Love does not, if you will, display its heart on its sleeve; rather, love is like the unconscious, which operates on a deeper, more indirect level that takes time, patience, and a relationship to know it; and yet its appearance is never predictable (104).
This exposition on love, specifically in its being paradoxical, is deserving of a generous reading. To begin with, we can see that a loose paradoxical treatment of love is also present in the contributions of both John Milbank and Slavoj Žižek. In his essay “Paul Against Biopoloitics” John Milbank addresses the problematic ‘doubling of the religious’ (in the worship of commodities by capitalism in both the economic and political spheres) and its mitigation in Paul’s writings by a paradoxical overcoming and cancellation of the dichotomies between law and life, and life and death. Milbank writes of a Neo-Weberian moment in which capitalism takes a turn for the religious in its “worship of the spectacle of idealized qualities”. While reading Agamben and Foucault against Saint Paul, Milbank suggests an overcoming of death by life through the overcoming of the law by trust, a point which I take to be compatible with Davis’ chiasmus between life and death. In Davis’ view, life overcomes death through love (which is as hidden as the unconscious), and in the same way Milbank suggests that in order to be loving disciples of Christ we must trust in others despite the fact that trust shows itself to be weaker than the law.
Along these paradoxical lines, Žižek appears to provide a theological counterweight to his often irreverent Stalinist/Leninist attitudes in his contribution entitled “A Meditation on Michelangelo’s Christ on the Cross”. In his essay Žižek criticizes the treatment of the idea of evil as a blemish or stain that is somehow necessary in the greater context of a harmonious universe. He states instead that through kenosis God rejected any human temptation to find transcendent meaning, not only in incommensurable events such as the holocaust, but in reality itself. Near the end of his meditation Žižek rejects any construal of theology as secular humanism, and explains that for him “there must be a moment of thinking that it is not we who are acting, but a higher force that is acting through us”. Žižek explains this idea in his usual way, through popular culture, in this case referring to the standard horror movie scene where the parasitic alien, previously thought to be dead, ominously reconstitutes itself. This image of Žižek’s ‘divine element’ constitutes, for him, negative theology and the apophatic view. Taken further, this Žižekian view of the divine is found in Paul’s new moment as it is embodied in the Church which acts like the alien parasite that is resurrected after its supposed death.
The view of love-as-paradox is also evident in the greater venture of continental philosophy and its connection with Christian Theology. One example among many can be seen in the relationship between John D. Caputo and Jacques Derrida, which serves as testament to the paradox of love in both content and form. Where content is concerned, Caputo points to Derrida’s view of love as arising in the paradoxical relationship between possibility and impossibility. In What Would Jesus Deconstruct? Caputo quotes Derrida’s On the Name, where Derrida states that, among other things, love means surrendering to the impossible.[i] Where form is concerned, the very fact that Derrida the continental philosopher is being read in such a profound way by Caputo the Christian theologian, means that there is a relationship between the two disciplines that manages to overcome the tension that exists between them. Furthermore, and in closing, if we are to return to the treatment of love as being inherently paradoxical (by Davis, Milbank, and Žižek), we will find that this aspect of the sublime nature of love lends itself well to any interdisciplinary dialogue.
[i] John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct? (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 80.