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Metz, Žižek, and the Politics of Apocalyptic History

One of the interesting elements of Johann Baptist Metz’s political theology are the multiple interstices between it and the theological-philosophical expostulations of Slavoj Žižek.  One of the essential points of continuity is the way in which both of the, drawing on Frankfurt School Marxist critical theorists, try to take seriously the realities of how modern capitalism has shaped history.  Both attempt to work out a form of critical social theory (and, at least for Metz, a praxis) that takes the situation of modern suffering and nihilism seriously.  A key convergence between these two thinkers on this point lies in how both reject theoretical strategies to fashion conceptual systems that provide guarantees of meaning and existential closure in light of the modern history of human suffering and death.  Žižek and Metz both insist in their distinctive ways that a theological reading of the modern age does not provide a seamless integration or sublimation of the history of human suffering into a divine history of salvation, but rather requires our reading of historical human suffering to become more radically historical and open-ended. 

God, for Žižek is not a guarantor of meaning, rather history emphatically manifests the absence of God.  For Žižek Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross manifests precisely the way in which humanity endures the complete annihilation of divine transcendence.  For Žižek God is not a guarantor of historical meaning beyond the absence of God in history, rather God is the event of that absence within which humans must labor and strive, in the face of the death of transcendence to realize the future of hope.  For Žižek it will not do for us to hope in God, rather we must realize that God hopes in us

Metz’s reading of the history of modernity ensconces a similarly stark frame of reference.  Like Žižek, Metz is against any tidy narrative of salvation history which renders intelligible and understandable the history of human suffering.  The history of human suffering is precisely a nonidentity for which no “explanation” can be given without betraying the distinctive character of that history of suffering.  Metz resists any theodicy which proffers simple closure in the face of the reality of radical evil.  Rather, for Metz it is precisely within the context of the inexplicable reality of radical evil that theology, prayer, and hope in the apocalyptic future of God in Christ must take shape.  For Metz, the Christian theologian must point to the radical openness of the future in light of God’s past of interrupting the world in Christ.  For the Christian theologian, the agenda is not to find a way to give the world’s history of suffering some sort of “meaning”, but rather to point to the radically new transformation that is hoped for in Christ’s apocalyptic invasion of the world.  By construing history apocalyptically, the theologian testifies to the world as a history which is held open for the redemption of the hopes of those who have died stripped of any hope whatsoever.

Both Žižek and Metz struggle to come to grips with the reality of the history of human suffering and the demonstrable absence of God in that history.  However, in Žižek’s “theology”, we are thrust ever and always onto the plane of immanence in which the being of God is identified with God’s absence into which we must radiate presence, grasping and fashioning for ourselves any redemptive future that may be.  We are left stumbling about in an ontology of the void.  For Metz, however, while not falling into a scholasticism which would seek to dissolve the ambiguity and dissonance of history, calls attention to the apocalyptic hope of God’s interruption of the world in Christ which functions as the church’s “dangerous memory.”  Metz constructs no fictive guarantees of meaning or closure, but points instead to the radical possibility of transformation in Christ which is rendered imaginable through the remembrance of Christ.  In contrast to Žižek, Metz, while fully recognizing the godforsakenness of the world, provides us with a way in which to go on living in the world of godforsakenness in hope.  For Metz, it is the apocalypse of God in Christ that alone promises a future in which we can hope for a resumption of life beyond the rupture of history, even as we stare the maw of that history directly in the face.

8 Comments

  1. Freder1ck wrote:

    God hopes in the sinner is from Charles Peguy…

    Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 8:07 pm | Permalink
  2. Call me weird, but I get so giddy reading Metz. This is a good one.

    Wednesday, February 20, 2008 at 8:16 pm | Permalink
  3. Troy Polidori wrote:

    Do you really think Zizek doesn’t have a place for ‘apocalyptic hope’ in his theology (or whatever it is)? In an essay on Lenin, he describes it this way: “…It is rather as if, in a unique suspension of temporality, in the short circuit between the present and future, we are – as if by Grace – briefly allowed to act as if the utopian future is (not yet fully here but) already at hand, there to be seized.” That sounds very apocalyptic to me (and quite similar to Metz, as well).

    Thursday, February 21, 2008 at 12:13 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Troy, Zizek’s corpus is utterly complex and variegated, so perhaps I’m out of my depth in trying to say definitively what “he thinks”. However, from what I have read there is a strong sense of inevitability (he talks often of the indestructibility of global capitalism) coupled with a deep immanentism. If there is some sort of apocalyptic hope in his thought, it seems to be thoroughly anthropocentric, rather than transcendent. There may be room in Zizek’s thought for apocalyptic hope, but it seems to only be a hope in humanity, rather than a hope in God. Here, I think is where he and Metz have a good bit of difference.

    Thursday, February 21, 2008 at 12:23 am | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    Every time I read Zizek I get this overwhelming since that he is a hairs breadth from conversion.

    Thursday, February 21, 2008 at 1:21 am | Permalink
  6. Troy Polidori wrote:

    Halden,
    I see where you’re coming from. What I think Zizek is doing however, is very similar to what you’re saying. As far as I can tell, Zizek sees in the Christ event a collapsing of the immanence/transcendence divide (an incarnation ,if you will, where the transcendent becomes immanent). Christ’s death proves that there is no “Big Other”, no way of eventually sublating the scope of human suffering. Christ’s resurrection and the founding of the church then signify the inauguration of the real kingdom, wherein we are to act, by Grace, as if the “utopian future is already at hand”. There was recently an article in Modern Theology on “Zizek and Transcendence” – Have you heard of it? It explained this issue very well.

    Thursday, February 21, 2008 at 10:13 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Troy, you may indeed be right. I’ll have to look at that article from Modern Theology. The question I still have for Zizek is whether or not a God who acts can really be an object of hope. But maybe that’s really just asking him to become a Christian!

    Friday, February 22, 2008 at 1:43 pm | Permalink
  8. Beth King wrote:

    This is REALLY a long shot, but while looking on the Internet for a man named Chris Ashley (Joseph Christopher Ashley McConnell) who is/was a philosopher, after studying to become a Catholic priest in his youth (but did not), I came across this article under the name of Chris Ashley. So is this you Chris, or do any of you know out there know of him? I was once his step daughter, and want to reconnect.

    Beth

    Wednesday, April 1, 2009 at 5:47 pm | Permalink

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