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If we Speak for God, then Everything is Permitted

Žižek takes Dostoyevsky’s dictum “If God doessn’t exist, then everything is permitted” to task, claming, in true Žižek fashion, that the opposite is in fact true: if God does exist everything is permitted to those who speak for God:

“[Dostoyevsky] couldn’t have been more wrong: the lesson of today’s terrorism is that if there is a God, then everything, even blowing up hundreds of innocent bystanders, is permitted to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, as the instruments of his will, since clearly a direct link to God justifies our violation of any ‘merely human’ constraints and considerations. The ‘godless’ Stalinist communists are the ultimate proof of it: everything was permitted to them since the perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress towards Communism.” (Violence, 136)

Žižek makes a very good point, but one that needs two responses. The first response comes (at least to me) through Herbert McCabe. The only god we could ever “act directly on behalf of” is precisely that, “a god,” an inhabitant of the universe, a “top person” who legitimated our activities. The God of the Christian confession is not a top-person, a mere existent whom we could claim to represent directly. Rather God is the reason there is anything at all, the source of all being, and as such lies beyond our ability to directly mediate or claim. McCabe notes that most atheists think of the question of God as though religious people “claim to have discovered what the answer is, that there is some grand architect of the universe who designed it, just like Basil Spence only bigger and less visible, that there is a Top Person in the universe who issues arbitrary decrees for the rest of the persons and enforces them because he is the most powerful being around. Now if denying this claim makes you an atheist, then I and Thomas Aquinas and a whole Christian tradition are atheist too” (God Matters, 7). Only if God is some sort of existent, a “top person” who issues arbitrary decrees could we conceptualize God as the justification for acts of violence. And this is not the God of the Christian faith.

Secondly, a response via Rowan Williams, whose new book on Dostoevsky sheds quite a bit of light on the fragment the Žižek seeks to invert. Williams notes that

“[Dostoevsky] is not really interested in arguing the question–in general terms–of whether God exists. This does not mean that the reality of God is a matter of indifference to him or that he can be claimed from some for of contemporary nonrealism. But the different between the self-aware believer, the self-aware sinner and the conscious and deliberate atheist is not a disagreement over whether or not to add on item to the total sum of really existing things. It is a conflict about policies and possibilities for a human life: between someone who accepts the dependence of everything on divine gratuity and attempts to respond with some image of that gratuity, someone who accepts this dependence but fails to act appropriately in response, and someone who denies the dependence and is consequently faced with the unanswerable question of why any one policy for living is preferable to another.” (Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction, 227)

Further to this point, Rowan Williams’ theology offers a helpful response to Žižek’s critique in that for Williams it is completely impossible for the church to ever make a strict identification between their work and the will of God. The only possible “direct link” we have to the Christian God is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ which forbids us from gingerly locating ourselves on the side of God and God’s cause. Rather, according to the Christian gospel we are addressed by God precisely as those whose agenda is at cross-purposes with God. Any attempt on the part of the people called by God to equate their will and action with that of God is always to exchange the true God for some miserable godlet, an idol. Moreover, the God whose power is manifest precisely as cross and resurrection does not allow those who would follow God recourse to any other mode of power:

“God’s power ‘tells us who we are’ only in the risk and reciprocity of God’s life with us in Christ, as God displays his identity in the terms of human freedom and human vulnerability. That is the power by which the whole world is given newness of life, humanity itself is given new definition. And because it is that kind of power, refusing to functionalize and enslave what it works with, the process of preaching a transfiguring gospel must take place in a community that resists the idea that one human group can ever have license to define another in terms of its own needs or goals or fantasies. All must be free to find that ultimate self-definition in the encounter with a God who does not use us as tools for his gratification but shares a world of risk and contingency with us to bring us to our fullest liberty in relation with him and each other.” (On Christian Theology, 288-89)

Precisely because our only “direct link” to God is that of the cross and resurrection, Christians can never assume any posture of power than that displayed by God with us. As such, just as God enters into our lives on the path of cruciform vulnerability, so Christians are forbidden to deal with others, including religious others from any standpoint that would instrumentalize them in terms of our own needs, agendas, or fantasies. The cross forbids us any optic that would allow us to see other persons as obstacles to be overcome or destroyed for the sake of our own ends. Rather we are called to kenotically allow the other to be the other, trusting their transformation to the God of the resurrection. Christians, far from having their ambitions legitimated, are called to rest in the contingency and risk of not securing what they perceive the proper place of the other. For the acts of violence and domination that Žižek analyzes are ultimately reducible to a perverse attempt to narrate the other in a particular way, to circumscribe the other as a particular sort of other whose place must be determined by my ideology.

As such, I submit that only the Word of God in Christ, which calls us to this life of kenotic defferal-in-trust is able to actualize events of true peace in this world. For it establishes that we do not speak for God, God speaks for God in Christ. The proper mode of Christian action is always first silence before that speech which calls us out of our delusions and fantasies and into a life of vulnerability and contingency. Only such a mode of living, participating in the kenosis of Christ can be a true event of peace in a world of violences.


  1. BenS wrote:

    Halden, as always thanks for more good thoughts. Great to hear from McCabe and Williams on this issue. However, I wonder if it is not quite correct to say, at least for Christianity, that acts of violence and domination against the other are “ultimately reducible to a perverse attempt to narrate the other in a particular way.” This makes it sound like one is coming from a Levinasian perspective (which, of course, I’m sure ultimately Zizek or you are not doing) and its pre-linguistic positivism and immediacy of the other that demands not to be thematized in any way. But shouldn’t it be, for a Christian, that to relate to the other in a truer way with a kenotic love means reading the other as a gift circumscribed within God’s infinite love, and not as a bare given or merely “other”? This would then mean renarrating our social relations with others as participating in the creational and incarnational drama of the Godhead so that our desire can be properly directed in this practice of gift-giving—where we not merely “allow the other to be the other” but rather also receive the other as a singular gift, which requires cultivating ways to continue to celebrate all of creation as non-instrumentalized gifts. Otherwise without such a script it seems we still subtly accept some other liberal or positivistic script about negative liberty and making space for the other through self-sacrifice while pretending we aren’t guided by any over-arching narratives (as if they all are ideological).

    Also, didn’t Zizek make the comment somewhere that modern liberalism’s script of negative liberty seems to lead to a social reality at the other end of the extreme, where a superficial permissibility covers over a reality more thoroughly policed and prohibitive, were nothing is really permitted? Not that this has any bearing on my comment above but I was wondering if you knew where he made this claim.

    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 2:07 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I’d agree with that Ben. I wasn’t altogether pleased with how that particular sentence was formulated, but I had hoped to leave the emphasis on the word “particular.” In the sense that violence, especially of the terrorist type that Žižek describes here, is a way of forcefully “narrating” other persons as a particular kind of subject, one that can be justifiably slaughtered.

    The alternative is not one “anarration,” obviously we are all telling such “over-arching narratives”, but the Christian mode of such narration of others (including religious others, or heretics) is, as Rowan Williams exemplifies, a sort of narration that refuses possession or closure–what he calls the “tidy drama.” Our way of narrating others and our social relations with them is inherently vulnerable to being altered by the reality of the other in the process of relational, communicative encounter. This is what Yoder helpfully called dialogical vulnerability.

    So yes, our purpose is not merely to let the other be other, but to receive them as a gift. But the crucial caveat is that we cannot say in advance exactly what sort of gift the other will be.

    Also I’m afraid I can’t recollect the location of that Žižek statement, but it sounds right to me.

    Thanks for the comment.

    Monday, September 15, 2008 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

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