Only a Suffering God Can Save Us

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Articles by Slavoj Žižek

Section I: Hegel

The key question about religion today is: can all religious experiences and practices effectively be contained within this dimension of the conjunction of truth and meaning? The best starting point for such a line of inquiry is the point at which religion itself faces a trauma, a shock which dissolves the link between truth and meaning, a truth so traumatic that it resists being integrated into the universe of meaning. Every theologian sooner or later faces the problem of how to reconcile the existence of God with the fact of shoah or similar excessive evil: how are we to reconcile the existence of an omnipotent and good God with the terrifying suffering of millions of innocents, like children killed in the gas chambers? Surprisingly (or not), the theological answers build a strange succession of Hegelian triads. First, those who want to leave divine sovereignty unimpaired and thus have to attribute to God full responsibility for shoah, first offer (1) the "legalistic" sin-and-punishment theory (shoah has to be a punishment for the past sins of humanity – or Jews themselves); then, they pass to(2) the "moralistic" character-education theory (shoah is to be understood along the lines of the story of Job, as the most radical test of our faith in God – if we survive this ordeal, our character will stand firm…); and, finally, they take refuge in a kind of "infinite judgement" which should save the day after all common measure between shoah and its meaning breaks down, (3) the divine mystery theory (facts like shoah bear witness to the unfathomable abyss of divine will). In accordance with the Hegelian motto of a redoubled mystery (the mystery God is for us has to be also a mystery for God Himself), the truth of this "infinite judgement" can only be to deny God’s full sovereignty and omnipotence. The next triad is thus composed of those who, unable to combine shoah with God’s omnipotence (how could He have allowed it to happen?), opt for some form of divine limitation: (1) first, God is directly posited as finite or, at least, contained, not omnipotent, not all-encompassing: he finds himself overwhelmed by the dense inertia of his own creation; (2) then, this limitation is reflected back into God himself as his free act: God is self-limited, He voluntarily constrained his power in order to leave the space open for human freedom, so it is us, humans, who are fully responsible for the evil in the world – in short, phenomena like shoah are the ultimate price we have to pay for the divine gift of freedom; (3) finally, self-limitation is externalized, the two moments are posited as autonomous - God is embattled, there is a counter-force or principle of demoniac Evil active in the world (the dualistic solution).

This brings us to the third position above and beyond the first two (the sovereign God, the finite God), that of a suffering God: not a triumphalist God who always wins at the end, although "his ways are mysterious," since he secretly pulls all the strings; not a God who exerts cold justice, since he is by definition always right; but a God who – like the suffering Christ on the Cross - is agonized, assumes the burden of suffering, in solidarity with the human misery. [1] It was already Schelling who wrote: "God is a life, not merely a being. But all life has a fate and is subject to suffering and becoming. /.../ Without the concept of a humanly suffering God /.../ all of history remains incomprehensible." [2] Why? Because God’s suffering implies that He is involved in history, affected by it, not just a transcendent Master pulling the strings from above: God’s suffering means that human history is not just a theater of shadows, but the place of the real struggle, the struggle in which the Absolute itself is involved and its fate is decided. This is the philosophical background of Dietrich Bonhoffer’s deep insight that, after shoah, "only a suffering God can help us now" [3] – a proper supplement to Heidegger’s "Only a God can still save us!" from his last interview. [4] One should therefore take the statement that "the unspeakable suffering of the six millions is also the voice of the suffering of God" [5] quite literally: the very excess of this suffering over any "normal" human measure makes it divine. Recently, this paradox was succinctly formulated by Juergen Habermas:

Secular languages which only eliminate the substance once intended leave irritations. When sin was converted to culpability, and the breaking of divine commands to an offense against human laws, something was lost. [6]

Which is why the secular-humanist reactions to phenomena like shoah or gulag (AND others) is experienced as insufficient: in order to be at the level of such phenomena, something much stronger is needed, something akin to the old religious topic of a cosmic perversion or catastrophy in which the world itself is "out of joint" - when one confronts a phenomenon like shoah, the only appropriate reaction is the perplexed question "Why did the heavens not darken?" (the title of Arno Mayor's book). Therein resides the paradox of the theological significance of shoah: although it is usually conceived as the ultimate challenge to theology (if there is a God and if he is good, how could he have allowed such a horror to take place?), it is at the same time only theology which can provide the frame enabling us to somehow approach the scope of this catastrophy – the fiasco of god is still the fiasco of GOD.

Recall the second of Benjamin’s "Theses on the Philosophy of History": "The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one." [7] Can this "weak messianic power" still be asserted in the face of shoah? How does shoah point towards redemption-to-come? Is not the suffering of the victims of shoah a kind of absolute expenditure which cannot ever be retroactively accounted for, redeemed, rendered meaningful? It is as this very point that God’s suffering enters: what it signals is the failure of any Aufhebung of the raw fact of suffering. What echoes here is, more than the Jewish tradition, the basic Protestant lesson: there is no direct access to freedom/autonomy; between the master/slave exchange-relationship of man and god and the full assertion of human freedom, an intermediary stage of absolute humiliation has to intervene in which man is reduced to a pure object of the unfathomable divine caprice. Do the three main versions of Christianity not form a kind of Hegelian triad? In the succession of Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism, each new term is a subdivision, split off of a previous unity. This triad of Universal-Particular-Singular can be designated by three representative founding figures (John, Peter, Paul) as well as by three races (Slavic, Latin, German). In the Eastern Orthodoxy, we have the substantial unity of the text and the corpus of believers, which is why the believers are allowed to interpret the sacred Text, the Text goes on and lives in them, it is not outside the living history as its exempted standard and model - the substance of religious life is the Christian community itself. Catholicism stands for radical alienation: the entity which mediates between the founding sacred Text and the corpus of believers, the Church, the religious Institution, regains its full autonomy. The highest authority resides in the Church, which is why the Church has the right to interpret the Text; the Text is read during the Mass in Latin, a language which is not understood by ordinary believers, and it is even considered a sin for an ordinary believer to read the Text directly, by-passing the priest’s guidance. For Protestantism, finally, the only authority is the Text itself, and the wager is on every believer’s direct contact with Word of God as it was delivered in the Text; the mediator (the Particular) thus disappears, withdraws into insignificance, enabling the believer to adopt the position of a "universal Singular," the individual in a direct contact with the divine Universality, by-passing the mediating role of the particular Institution. These three Christian attitudes also involve three different modes of God’s presence in the world. We start with the created universe directly reflecting the glory of its Creator: all the wealth and beauty of our world bears witness to the divine creative power, and creatures, when they are not corrupted, naturally turn their eyes towards Him… Catholicism shifts to a more delicate logic of the "figure in the carpet": the Creator is not which directly present in the world, His traces are rather to be discerned in details which escape the first superficial glance, i.e., God is like a painter who withdraws from his finished product, signaling his authorship merely by a barely discerning signature at the picture’s edge. Finally, Protestantism asserts God’s radical absence from the created universe, from this gray world which runs as a blind mechanism and where God’s presence only becomes discernible in direct interventions of his Grace which disturbs the normal course of things.

This reconciliation, however, only becomes possible after alienation is brought to the extreme: in contrast to the Catholic notion of a caring and loving God with whom one can communicate, negotiate even, Protestantism starts with the notion of God deprived of any "common measure" shared with man, of God as an impenetrable Beyond who distributes grace in a totally contingent way. One can discern the traces of this full acceptance of God’s unconditional and capricious authority in the last song Johnny Cash recorded just before his death, The Man Comes Around, an exemplary articulation of the anxieties contained in the Southern Baptist Christianity:

There's a man going around taking names and he decides
Who to free and who to blame every body won't be treated
Quite the same there will be a golden ladder reaching down
When the man comes around

The hairs on your arm will stand up at the terror in each
Sip and each sup will you partake of that last offered cup
Or disappear into the potter's ground
When the man comes around

Hear the trumpets hear the pipers one hundred million angels singing
Multitudes are marching to a big kettledrum
Voices calling and voices crying

Some are born and some are dying
Its alpha and omegas kingdom come
And the whirlwind is in the thorn trees
The virgins are all trimming their wicks
The whirlwind is in the thorn trees
It's hard for thee to kick against the pricks
Till Armageddon no shalam no shalom

Then the father hen will call his chicken's home

The wise man will bow down before the thorn and at his feet
They will cast the golden crowns
When the man comes around

Whoever is unjust let him be unjust still
Whoever is righteous let him be righteous still
Whoever is filthy let him be filthy still

The song is about Armageddon, the end of days when God will appear and perform the Last Judgment, and this event is presented as pure and arbitrary terror: God is presented almost as Evil personified, as a kind of political informer, a man who "comes around" and provokes consternation by "taking names," by deciding who is saved and who lost. If anything, Cash’s description evokes the well-known scene of people lined up for a brutal interrogation, and the informer pointing out those selected for torture: there is no mercy, no pardon of sins, no jubilation, we are all fixed in our roles, the just remain just and the filthy remain filthy. In this divine proclamation, we are not simply judged in a just way; we are informed from outside, as if learning about an arbitrary decision, if we were righteous or sinners, if we are saved or condemned - this decision has nothing to do with our inner qualities. And, again, this dark excess of the ruthless divine sadism – excess over the image of a severe, but nonetheless just, God – is a necessary negative, an underside, of the excess of Christian love over the Jewish Law: love which suspends the Law is necessarily accompanied by the arbitrary cruelty which also suspends the Law.

Martin Luther directly proposed an excremental identity of man: man is like a divine shit, he fell out of God’s anus. One can, of course, pursue the question into how the deep crises that pushed Luther towards his new theology, he was caught in a violent debilitating superego cycle: the more he acted, repented, punished and tortured himself, did good deeds, etc., the more he felt guilty. This made him convinced that good deeds are calculated, dirty, selfish: far from pleasing God, they provoke God’s wrath and lead to damnation. Salvation comes from faith: it is our faith alone, faith into Jesus as saviour, which allows us to break out of the superego impasse. However, his "anal" definition of man cannot be reduced to a result of this superego pressure which pushed him towards self-abasement – there is more in it: it is only within this Protestant logic of man’s excremental identity that the true meaning of Incarnation can be formulated. In Orthodoxy, Christ ultimately loses his exceptional status: his very idealization, elevation to a noble model, reduces him to an ideal image, a figure to be imitated (all men should strive to become God) - imitatio Christi is more an Orthodox than a Catholic formula. In Catholicism, the predominant logic is that of a symbolic exchange: Catholic theologists enjoy dwelling in scholastic juridical arguments about how Christ paid the price for our sins, etc. – no wonder that Luther reacted to the lowest outcome of this logic, the reduction of redemption to something that can be bought from the Church. Protestantism, finally, posits the relationship as real, conceiving Christ as a God who, in his act of Incarnation, freely identified Himself with His own shit, with the excremental real that is man – and it is only at this level that the properly Christian notion of divine love can be apprehended, as the love for the miserable excremental entity called "man."

It is in this sense that, with regard to Christ, Hegel points forward to some key Kierkegaardian motifs (the difference between genius and apostle, the singular evental character of Christ) with his emphasis on the difference between Socrates and Christ. Christ is NOT like the Greek "plastic individual" through whose particular features the universal/substantial content directly transpires (as is exemplarily the case with Alexander). What this means is that although Christ is Man-God, the direct identity of the two, this identity also implies absolute contradiction: there is NOTHING "divine" about Christ, even nothing exceptional – if we observe his features, he is indistinguishable from any other human individual:

If we consider Christ only in reference to his talents, his character and his morality, as a teacher, etc., we are putting him on the same plane as Socrates and others, even if we place him higher from the moral point of view. /…/ If Christ is only taken as an exceptionally fine individual, even as one without sin, then we are ignoring the representation of the speculative idea, its absolute truth. [8]

These lines rely on a very precise conceptual background. It is not that Christ is "more" than other model figures of religious or philosophical or ethical wisdom, real or mythical (Buddha, Socrates, Moses, Mohammad), "divine" in the sense of the absence of any human failures. With Christ, the very relationship between the substantial divine content and its representation changes: Christ does not represent this substantial divine content, God, he directly IS God, which is why he no longer has to resemble God, to strive to be perfect and "like God." Recall the classic Marx brothers joke: "You resemble Emmanuel Ravelli." "But I am Emmanuel Ravelli." "No wonder, then, that you resemble yourself!" The underlying premise of this joke is that such an overlapping of being and resembling is impossible, there is always a gap between the two. Buddha, Socrates, etc., resemble Gods, while Christ IS God. So when the Christian God "manifests himself to other men as an individual man, exclusive and single /…/ like a man excluding all others," [9] we are dealing with the singularity of a pure event, with contingency brought to extreme – only in this mode, excluding all effort to approach universal perfection, God can incarnate itself. This absence of any positive characteristics, this full identity of God and man at the level of properties, can only occur because another, more radical, difference makes any positive differential features irrelevant. This change can be nicely rendered as the shift from the upwards-movement of the becoming-essential of the accident to the downwards-movement of the becoming-accidental of the essence (119): the Greek hero, this "exemplary individual," elevates his accidental personal features into a paradigmatic case of the essential universality, while in the Christian logic of Incarnation, the universal Essence embodies itself in an accidental individual.

Another way to make this point is to say that the Greek Gods appear to humans in human form, while the Christian God appears as human TO HIMSELF. This is the crucial point: Incarnation is for Hegel not a move by means of which God makes himself accessible/visible to humans, but a move by means of which Gods looks at himself from the (distorting) human perspective: "As God manifests himself to his own gaze, the specular presentation divides the divine self from itself, offering the divine the perspectival vision of its own self-presence."(118) Or, to put in Freudian-Lacanian terms: Christ is God’s "partial object," an autonomized organ without a body, as if God picked his eye out of his head and turned it at himself from the outside. We can guess, now, why Hegel insisted on the monstrosity of Christ.

Kino-Eye /Kino-glaz/, Dziga Vertov's Soviet silent classic from 1924 (one of the highpoints of revolutionary cinema) takes as its emblem the eye (of the camera) as an "autonomous organ" which wanders around in the early 1920s, giving us snippets of the NEP ("new economic politics") reality of the Soviet Union. Recall the common expression "to cast an eye over something," with its literal implication of picking the eye out of its socket and throwing it around. Martin, the legendary idiot from French fairy tales, did exactly this when his mother, worried that he will never find a wife, told him to go to church and cast an eye over the girls there. What he does is go to the butcher first, purchase a pig eye, and then, in the church, throw this eye around over the girls at prayer – no wonder he later reports to his mother that the girls were not too impressed by his behavior. This, precisely, is what revolutionary cinema should be doing: using the camera as a partial object, as an "eye" torn from the subject and freely thrown around – or, to quote Vertov himself:

The film camera drags the eyes of the audience from the hands to the feet, from the feet to the eyes and so on in the most profitable order, and it organises the details into a regular montage exercise. [10]

We all know the uncanny moments in our everyday lives when we catch sight of our own image and this image is not looking back at us. I remember once trying to inspect a strange growth on the side of my head using a double mirror, when, all of a sudden, I caught a glimpse of my face from the profile. The image replicated all my gestures, but in a weird uncoordinated way. In such a situation, "our specular image is torn away from us and, crucially, our look is no longer looking at ourselves." [11] It is in such weird experiences that one catches what Lacan called gaze as objet petit a, the part of our image which eludes the mirror-like symmetrical relationship. When we see ourselves "from outside," from this impossible point, the traumatic feature is not that I am objectivized, reduced to an external object for the gaze, but, rather, that it is my gaze itself which is objectivized, which observes me from the outside, which, precisely, means that my gaze is no longer mine, that it is stolen from me. There is a relatively simple and painless eye-operation which, nonetheless, involves a very unpleasant experience: under local anesthesia, i.e., with the patient’s full awareness, the eye is taken out of the socket and turned a little bit around in the air (in order to correct the way the eye-ball is attached to the brain) – at this moment, the patient can for a brief moment see (parts of) himself from outside, from an "objective" viewpoint, as a strange object, the way he "really is" as an object in the world, not the way one usually experiences oneself as fully embedded "in" one’s body. There is something divine in this (very unpleasant) experience: one sees oneself as if from a divine viewpoint, somehow realizing the mystical motto according to which, the eye through which I see God is the eye through which God sees himself. Something homologous to this weird experience, applied to God himself, occurs in the Incarnation.

In the Strugatsky brothers' novel The Roadside Picnic, on which Andrei Tarkovsky’s masterpiece Stalker is based, the "Zones" - there are six of these secluded areas - are the debris of a "roadside picnic," i.e. of a short stay on our planet by some alien visitors who quickly left it, finding us uninteresting. In the novel, Stalkers are more adventurous and down-to-earth than in the film, not individuals on a tormenting spiritual search, but deft scavengers organizing robbing expeditions, somehow like the proverbial Arabs organizing raiding expeditions into the Pyramids (another Zone) for wealthy Westerners - and, effectively, are Pyramids not, according to popular science literature, traces of an alien wisdom? The Zone is thus not a purely mental fantasmatic space in which one encounters (or onto which one projects) the truth about oneself, but (like the planet Solaris in Stanislav Lem's novel of the same name, the base of another Tarkovsky’s sci-fi masterpiece) the material presence, the Real of an absolute Otherness incompatible with the rules and laws of our universe. Because of this, at the novel's end, Stalker, when confronted with the "Golden Sphere" - as the Room in which desires are realized is called in the novel -, does undergo a kind of spiritual conversion, but this experience is much closer to what Lacan called "subjective destitution": an abrupt awareness of the utter meaningless of our social links, the dissolution of our attachment to reality itself - all of a sudden, other people are derealized, reality itself is experienced as a confused whirlpool of shapes and sounds, so that we are no longer able to formulate our desire.

It is to this incompatibility between our own and the Alien universe that the novel's title (The Roadside Picnic) refers: the strange objects found in the Zone which fascinate humans are in all probability simply the debris, the garbage, left behind after aliens have briefly stayed on our planet, comparable to the rubbish a group of humans leaves behind after a picnic in a forest near a main road. The typical Tarkovskian landscape (of decaying human debris half reclaimed by nature) is in the novel precisely what characterizes the Zone itself from the (impossible) standpoint of the visiting aliens: what is to us a Miracle, an encounter with a wondrous universe beyond our grasp, is just everyday debris to the Aliens. Is it then, perhaps, possible to draw the Brechtian conclusion that the typical Tarkovskian landscape (the human environment in decay reclaimed by nature) involves the view of our universe from an imagined Alien standpoint? And, again, the same goes for the Incarnation: in it, the divine object coincides with human debris (a common destitute preacher socializing with beggars, whores, and other social losers).

It is therefore crucial to note how the Christian modality of "God seeing Himself" has nothing whatsoever to do with the harmonious closed loop of "seeing myself seeing," of an Eye seeing itself and enjoying the sight in this perfect self-mirroring: the turn of the eye towards "its" body presupposes the separation of the eye from the body, and what I see through my externalized/autonomized eye is a perspectival, anamorphically distorted image of myself: Christ is an anamorphosis of God.

Another indication of this externality of God with regard to Himself is pointed out by G.K. Chesterton in his "The Meaning of the Crusade," where he quotes with approval the description he got from a child in Jerusalem of the Mount of Olive: "A child from one of the villages said to me, in broken English, that it was the place where God said his prayers. I for one could not ask for a finer or more defiant statement of all that separates the Christian from the Moslem or the Jew." If, in other religions, we pray to God, only in Christianity God himself prays, that is to say, addresses an external unfathomable authority.

The crucial problem is: how to think the link between the two "alienations," the one of the modern man from God (who is reduced to an unknowable In-itself, absent from the world subjected to mechanical laws), the other of God from Himself (in Christ, incarnation) – they are THE SAME, although not symmetrically, but as subject and object. In order for (human) subjectivity to emerge out of the substantial personality of the human animal, cutting links with it and positing itself as the I=I dispossessed of all substantial content, as the self-relating negativity of an empty singularity, God himself, the universal Substance, has to "humiliate" himself, to fall into its own creation, to "objectivize" himself, to appear as a singular miserable human individual in all its abjection, i.e., abandoned by God. The distance of man from God is thus the distance of God from Himself:

The suffering of God and the suffering of human subjectivity deprived of God must be analysed as the recto and verso of the same event. There is a fundamental relationship between divine kenosis and the tendency of modern reason to posit a beyond which remains inaccessible. The Encyclopaedia makes this relation visible by presenting the Death of God at once as the Passion of the Son who ‘dies in the pain of negativity’ and the human feeling that we can know nothing of God. [12]

This double kenosis is what the standard Marxist critique of religion as the self-alienation of humanity misses: "modern philosophy would not have its own subject if God’s sacrifice had not occurred." [13] For the subjectivity to emerge – not as a mere epiphenomenon of the global substantial ontological order, but as essential to Substance itself -, the split, negativity, particularization, self-alienation, must be posited as something that takes place in the very heart of the divine Substance, i.e., the move from Substance to Subject must occur within God himself. In short, man’s alienation from God (the fact that God appears to him as an inaccessible In-itself, as a pure transcendent Beyond) must coincide with the alienation of God from himself (whose most poignant expression is, of course, Christ’s "Father, father, why have you forsaken me?" on the cross): finite human "consciousness only represents God because God re-presents itself; consciousness is only at a distance from God because God distances himself from himself. [14]

This is why the standard Marxist philosophy oscillates between the ontology of "dialectical materialism" which reduces human subjectivity to a particular ontological sphere (no wonder that Georgi Plekhanov, the creator of the term "dialectical materialism," also designated Marxism as "dynamized Spinozism"), and the philosophy of praxis which, from young Georg Lukacs onwards, takes as its starting point and horizon collective subjectivity which posits/mediates every objectivity, and is thus unable to think its genesis from the substantial order, the ontological explosion, "Big Bang," which gives rise to it.

So when Catherine Malabou writes that Christ’s death is "at once the death of the God-man and the Death of the initial and immediate abstraction of the divine being which is not yet posited as a Self," [15] this means that, at Hegel pointed out, what dies on the Cross is not only the terrestrial-finite representative of God, but God himself, the very transcendent God of beyond. Both terms of the opposition, Father and Son, the substantial God as the Absolute In-itself and the God-for-us, revealed to us, die, are sublated in the Holy Spirit.

The standard reading of this sublation – Christ "dies" (is sublated) as the immediate representation of God, as God in the guise of a finite human person, in order to be reborn as the universal/atemporal Spirit – remains all too short. The point this reading misses is the ultimate lesson to be learned from the divine Incarnation: the finite existence of mortal humans is the only site of the Spirit, the site where Spirit achieves its actuality. What this means is that, in spite of all its grounding power, Spirit is a virtual entity in the sense that its status is that of a subjective presupposition: it exists only insofar as subjects act as if it exists. Its status is similar to that of an ideological cause like Communism or Nation: it is the substance of the individuals who recognize themselves in it, the ground of their entire existence, the point of reference which provides the ultimate horizon of meaning to their lives, something for which these individuals are ready to give their lives, yet the only thing that really exists are these individuals and their activity, so this substance is actual only insofar as individuals believe in it and act accordingly. The crucial mistake to be avoided is therefore to grasp the Hegelian Spirit as a kind of meta-Subject, a Mind, much larger than an individual human mind, aware of itself: once we do this, Hegel has to appear as a ridiculous spiritualist obscurantist, claiming that there is a kind of mega-Spirit controlling our history. Against this cliché about the "Hegelian Spirit," one should emphasize how Hegel is fully aware that "it is in the finite consciousness that the process of knowing spirit’s essence takes place and that the divine self-consciousness thus arises. Out of the foaming ferment of finitude, spirit rises up fragrantly." [16] This holds especially for the Holy Spirit: our awareness, the (self)consciousness of finite humans, is its only actual site, i.e., the Holy Spirit also rises up "out of the foaming ferment of finitude."

We can see apropos this case how sublation is not directly the sublation of the otherness, its return into the same, its recuperation by the One (so that, in this case, finite/mortal individuals are reunited with God, return to his embrace). With Christ’s incarnation, the externalization/self-alienation of divinity, the passage from the transcendent God to finite/mortal individuals is a fait accompli, there is no way back, all there is, all that "really exists" are from now on individuals, there are no Platonic Ideas or Substances whose existence is somehow "more real." What is "sublated" in the move from the Son to Holy Spirit is thus God himself: after Crucifixion, the dead of the incarnated God, the universal God returns as a Spirit of the community of believers, i.e., HE is the one who passes from being a transcendent substantial Reality to a virtual/ideal entity which exists only as the "presupposition" of acting individuals. The standard perception of Hegel as an organicist holist who thinks that really-existing individuals are just "predicates" of some "higher" substantial Whole, epiphenomena of the Spirit as a mega-Subject who effectively runs the show, totally misses this crucial point.

For Hegel, this co-dependence of the two aspects of kenosis – God’s self-alienation and the alienation from God of the human individual who experiences himself as alone in a godless world, abandoned by God who dwells in some inaccessible transcendent Beyond – reaches its highest tension in Protestantism. Protestantism and the Enlightenment critique of religious superstitions are the front and the obverse of the same coin. The starting point of this entire movement is the medieval Catholic thought of someone like Thomas Acquinas, for whom philosophy should be a handmaiden of faith: faith and knowledge, theology and philosophy, supplement each other as a harmonious, non-conflictual, distinction within (under the predominance of) theology. Although God in itself remains an unfathomable mystery for our limited cognitive capacities, reason can also guide us towards Him by way of enabling us to recognize the traces of God in created reality – therein resides the premise of Acquinas’s five versions of the proof of God (the rational observation of material reality as a texture of causes and effects leads us to the necessary insight into how there must be a primal Cause to it all; etc.). With Protestantism, this unity breaks apart: we have on the one side the godless universe, the proper object of our reason, and the unfathomable divine Beyond separated by a hiatus from it. When confronted with this break, we can do two things: either we deny any meaning to an otherworldly Beyond, dismissing it as a superstitious illusion, or we remain religious and exempt our faith from the domain of reason, conceiving it as an act of, precisely, pure faith (authentic inner feeling, etc.). What interests Hegel here is how this tension between philosophy (enlightened rational thought) and religion ends up in their "mutual debasement and bastardization"(109). In a first move, Reason seems to be on the offensive and religion on the defensive, desperately trying to cut out a place for itself outside the domain under the control of Reason: under the pressure of the Enlightenment critique and the advances of sciences, religion humbly retreats into the inner space of authentic feelings. However, the ultimate price is paid by the enlightened Reason itself: its defeat of religion ends up in its self-defeat, in its self-limitation, so that, at the conclusion of this entire movement, the gap between faith and knowledge reappears, but transposed into the field of knowledge (Reason) itself:

After its battle with religion the best reason could manage was to take a look at itself and come to self-awareness. Reason, having in this way become mere intellect, acknowledges its own nothingness by placing that which is better than it in a faith outside and above itself, as a Beyond to be believed in. This is what has happened in the philosophies of Kant, Jacobi and Fichte. Philosophy has made itself the handmaiden of a faith once more. [17]

Both poles are thus debased: Reason becomes a mere "intellect," a tool for manipulating empirical objects, a mere pragmatic instrument of the human animal, and religion becomes an impotent inner feeling which cannot ever be fully actualized, since the moment one tries to transpose it into external reality, one regresses to Catholic idolatry which fetishizes contingent natural objects. The epitome of this development is Kant’s philosophy: Kant started as the great destroyer, with his ruthless critique of theology, and ended up with – as he himself put it –constraining the scope of Reason to create a space for faith. What he displays in a model way is how the Enlightenment’s ruthless denigration and limitation of its external enemy (faith, which is denied any cognitive status – religion is a feeling with no cognitive truth value) inverts into Reason’s self-denigration and self-limitation (Reason can only legitimately deal with the objects of phenomenal experience, true Reality is inaccessible to it). The Protestant insistence on faith alone, on how the true temples and altars to God should be built in the heart of the individual, not in external reality is an indication of how the Enlightenment anti-religious attitude cannot resolve "its own problem, the problem of subjectivity gripped by absolute solitude." [18] The ultimate result of the Enlightenment is thus the absolute singularity of the subject dispossessed of all substantial content, reduced to the empty point of self-relating negativity, a subject totally alienated from the substantial content, including of ITS OWN content. And, for Hegel, the passage through this zero-point is necessary, since the solution is not provided by any kind of renewed synthesis or reconciliation between Faith and Reason: with the advent of modernity, the magic of the enchanted universe is forever lost, reality is here to stay grey. The only solution is, as we have already seen, the very redoubling of alienation, the insight into how my alienation FROM the Absolute overlaps with the Absolute’s self-alienation: I am "in" God in my very distance from him.

Section II: Kierkegaard

It was without any doubt Kierkegaard who pushed to extreme this divine parallax tension, best encapsulated in his notion of the "teleological suspension of the ethical." In "The Ancient Tragical Motif as Reflected in the Modern," a chapter of the Volume I of Either/Or, [19] Kierkegaard proposed his fantasy of what a modern Antigone would have been. The conflict is now entirely internalized: there is no longer a need for Creon. While Antigone admires and loves her father Oedipus, the public hero and savior of Thebes, she knows the truth about him (murder of the father, incestuous marriage). Her deadlock is that she is prevented from sharing this accursed knowledge (like Abraham who also could not communicate to others the divine injunction to sacrifice his son): she cannot complain, share her pain and sorrow with others. In contrast to Sophocles’s Antigone who acts (buries her brother and thus actively assumes her fate), she is unable to act, condemned forever to impassive suffering. This unbearable burden of her secret, of her destructive agalma, finally drives her to death in which only she can find peace otherwise provided by symbolizing/sharing one’s pain and sorrow. And Kierkegaard’s point is that this situation is no longer properly tragic (again, in a similar way that Abraham is also not a tragic figure). - Furthermore, insofar as Kierkegaard’s Antigone is a paradigmatically modernist one, one should go on with his mental experiment and imagine a postmodern Antigone with, of course, a Stalinist twist to her image: in contrast to the modernist one, she should find herself in a position in which, to quote Kierkegaard himself, the ethical itself would be the temptation. One version would undoubtedly be for Antigone to publicly renounce, denounce and accuse her father (or, in a different version, her brother Polynices) of his terrible sins OUT OF HER UNCONDITIONAL LOVE FOR HIM. The Kierkegaardian catch is that such a PUBLIC act would render Antigone even more ISOLATED, absolutely alone: no one – with the exception of Oedipus himself, if he were still alive – would understand that her act of betrayal is the supreme act of love… Antigone would thus be entirely deprived of her sublime beauty – all that would signal the fact that she is not a pure and simple traitor to her father, but that she did it out of love for him, would be some barely perceptible repulsive tic, like the hysteric twitch of lips of Claudel’s Sygne de Coufontaine. This tic on Sygne de Coufontaine’s face no longer belongs to the face: it is a grimace whose insistence disintegrates the unity of a face.

It is precisely on account of the parallax nature of Kierkegaard’s thought that, apropos his "triad" of the Aesthetic, Ethical, and Religious, one should bear in mind how the choice, the "either-or," is always between the two. The true problem is not the choice between aesthetical and ethical level (pleasure versus duty), but between ethical and its religious suspension: it is easy to do one's duty against one's pleasures or egotistic interests; it is much more difficult to obey the unconditional ethico-religious call against one's very ethical substance. (This is the dilemma faced by Signe de Coufontaine in Claudel's The Hostage, this is the extreme paradox of Christianity as THE religion of modernity: how – as with Julia in Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited - to remain faithful to one's unconditional Duty, one should indulge in what may appear aesthetic regression, opportunistic betrayal.) In Either/Or, Kierkegaard gives no clear priority to the Ethical, he merely confronts the two choices, that of the Aesthetic and of the Ethical, in a purely parallax way, emphasizing the "jump" that separates them, the lack of any mediation between them. The Religious is by no means the mediating "synthesis" of the two, but, on the opposite, the radical assertion of the parallax gap ("paradox," the lack of common measure, the insurmountable abyss between the Finite and the Infinite). That is to say, what makes the Aesthetic or Ethical problematic are not their respective positive characteristic, but their very formal nature: the fact that, in both cases, the subject wants to live a consistent mode of existence and thus disavows the radical antagonism of human situation. This is why Julia’s choice at the end of Brideshead Revisited is properly religious, although it is, in its immediate appearance, a choice of the Aesthetic (passing love affairs) against the Ethical (marriage): what matters is that she confronted and assumed fully the paradox of human existence. What this means is that her act involves a "leap of faith": there is no guarantee that her retreat to passing love affairs is not just that – a retreat from the Ethical to the Aesthetic (in the same way there is no guarantee that Abraham’s decision to kill Isaac is not his private madness). We are never safely within the Religious, doubt forever remains, the same act can be seen as religious or as aesthetic, in a parallax split which cannot ever be abolished, since the "minimal difference" which transubstantiates (what appears to be) an aesthetic act religious cannot ever be specified, located in a determinate property.

However, this very parallax split is itself caught into a parallax: it can be viewed as condemning us to permanent anxiety, but also as something inherently comical. This is why Kierkegaard insisted on a comical character of Christianity: is there anything more comical than Incarnation, this ridiculous overlapping of the Highest and the Lowest, the coincidence of God, creator of the universe, and a miserable man? [20] Recall the elementary comical scene from a film: after the trumpets announce the entry of the King into the royal hall, the surprised public sees a miserable crippled clown who enters staggering… this is the logic of Incarnation. The only proper Christian comment on Christ’s death is thus: La commedia è finita... And, again, the point is that the gap that separates God from man in Christ is purely that of parallax: Christ is not a person with two substances, immortal and mortal. Perhaps, this would also be one way to distinguish between pagan Gnosticism and Christianity: the problem with Gnosticism is that it is all too serious in developing its narrative of ascent towards Wisdom, that it misses the humorous side of religious experience – Gnostics are Christians who miss the joke of Christianity... (And, incidentally, this is why Mel Gibson’s Passion is ultimately an anti-Christian film: it totally lacks this comic aspect.)

As is often the case, Kierkegaard is here unexpectedly close to his official big opponent, Hegel, for whom the passage from tragedy to comedy concerns overcoming the limits of representation: while, in a tragedy, the individual actor represents the universal character he plays, in a comedy, he immediately IS this character. The gap of representation is thus closed, exactly as in the case of Christ who, in contrast to previous pagan divinities, does not "represent" some universal power or principle (as in Hinduism in which Krishna, Vishnu, Shiva, etc., all "stand for" certain spiritual principles or powers – love, hatred, reason): as this miserable human, Christ directly IS god. Christ is not also human, apart from being a god; he is a man precisely insofar as he is god, i.e., the ecce homo IS the highest mark of his divinity. There is thus an objective irony in Pontius Pilatus’ Ecce homo!, when he presents Christ to the enraged mob: its meaning is not "Look at this miserable tortured creature? Do you not see in it a simple vulnerable man? Have you not any compassion for it?", but, rather, "Here is God himself!"

However, in a comedy, the actor does not coincide with the person he plays in the way that he plays himself on the stage, that he just "is what he really is" there. It is rather that, in a properly Hegelian way, the gap which separates the actor from his stage persona in a tragedy is transposed into the stage persona itself: a comic character is never fully identified with his role, he always retains the ability to observe himself from outside, "making fun of himself." (Recall the immortal Lucy from I Love Lucy whose trademark gesture, when something surprised her, was to bent slightly her neck and cast a direct fixed gaze of surprise into the camera – this was not Lucille Ball, the actress, mockingly addressing the public, but an attitude of self-estrangement that was part of "Lucy" (as a screen persona) herself.) This is how the Hegelian "reconciliation" works: not as an immediate synthesis or reconciliation of the opposites, but as the redoubling of the gap or antagonism - the two opposed moments are "reconciled" when the gap that separates them is posited as inherent to one of the terms. In Christianity, the gap that separates god from man is not effectively "sublated" directly in the figure of Christ as god-man, but only in the most tense moment of crucifixion when Christ himself despairs ("Father, why have you forsaken me?"): in this moment, the gap that separates god from man is transposed into god himself, as the gap that separates Christ from God-Father; the properly dialectical trick is here that the very feature which appeared to separate me from God turns out to unite me with God.

For Hegel, what happens in comedy is that, in it, the Universal directly appears, it appears "as such," in direct contrast to the mere "abstract" universal which is the "mute" universality of the passive link (common feature) between particular moments. In other words, in a comedy, universality directly ACTS – how? Comedy does not rely on the undermining of our dignity with reminders of the ridiculous contingencies of our terrestrial existence; comedy is, on the contrary, the full assertion of universality, the immediate coincidence of universality with the character’s/actor’s singularity. That is to say, what effectively happens when, in a comedy, all universal features of dignity are mocked and subverted? The negative force that undermines them is that of the individual, of the hero with his attitude of disrespect towards all elevated universal values, and this negativity itself is the only true remaining universal force. And does the same not hold for Christ? All stable-substantial universal features are undermined, relativized, by his scandalous acts, so that the only remaining universality is the one embodied in Him, in his very singularity. The universals undermined by Christ are "abstract" substantial universals (presented in the guise of the Jewish Law), while the "concrete" universality is the very negativity of undermining abstract universals.

According to an anecdote from the May ’68 period, there was a graffiti on a Paris wall: "God is dead. Nietzsche" Next day, another graffiti appeared below it: "Nietzsche is dead. God" What is wrong with this joke? Why is it so obviously reactionary? It is not only that the reversed statement relies on a moralistic platitude with no inherent truth; its failure is deeper, it concerns the form of reversal itself: what makes the joke a bad joke is the pure symmetry of the reversal – the underlying claim of the first graffiti ("God is dead. Signed by (obviously living) Nietzsche") is turned around into a statement which implies "Nietzsche is dead, while I am still alive. God". Crucial for the proper comical effect is not difference where we expect sameness, but, rather, sameness where we expect difference, which is why, as Alenka Zupancic [21] pointed out, the properly comic version of the above joke would have been something like: "God is dead. And, as a matter of fact, I also do not feel too well…" – is this not a comic version of Christ’s complaint on the cross? Christ will die on the cross not to get rid of his mortal envelope and rejoin the divine; he will die because he is god. No wonder, then, that, in the last years of his intellectual activity, Nietzsche used to sign his texts and letters also as "Christ": the proper comical supplement to Nietzsche’s "God is dead" would have been to make Nietzsche himself add to it: "And, as a matter of fact, I also do not feel too well..."

From here, we can also elaborate a critique of the philosophy of finitude which predominates today. The idea is that, against the big metaphysical constructs, one should humbly accept our finitude as our ultimate horizon: there is no absolute Truth, all we can do is accept the contingency of our existence, the unsurpassable character of our being-thrown into a situation, the basic lack of any absolute point of reference, the playfulness of our predicament... However, the first thing that strikes the eye is here the utmost seriousness of this philosophy of finitude, its all-pervasive pathos which runs against the expected playfulness: the ultimate tone of the philosophy of finitude is that of ultra-serious heroic confrontation of one’s destiny – no wonder that the philosopher of finitude par excellence, Heidegger, is also the philosopher who utterly lacks any sense of humor. Significantly, the ONLY joke – or, if not joke then, at least, moment of irony – in Heidegger occurs in his rather bad taste quip about Lacan as "that psychiatrist who is himself in the need of a psychiatrist"(in a letter to Medard Boss). (There is, unfortunately, also a Lacanian version of the philosophy of finitude: when, in a tragic tone, one is informed that one has to renounce the impossible striving for full jouissance and accept "symbolic castration," the ultimate constraint of our existence: as soon as we enter symbolic order, all jouissance has to pass through the mortification of the symbolic medium, every attainable object is already a displacement of the impossible-real object of desire which is constitutively lost...) Arguably, Kierkeggard relied so much on humor precisely because he insisted on the relationship to the Absolute and rejected the limitation to finitude.

So what is it that this emphasis on finitude as the ultimate horizon of our existence misses? How can we assert it in a materialist way, without any resort to spiritual transcendence? The answer is, precisely, objet petit a as the "undead" ("non-castrated") remainder which persists in its obscene immortality. No wonder the Wagnerian heroes want so desperately to die: they want to get rid of this obscene immortal supplement which stands for libido as an organ, for drive at its most radical, i.e., death drive. In other words, the properly Freudian paradox is that what explodes the constraints of our finitude is death drive itself. So when Badiou, in his disparaging dismissal of the philosophy of finitude, talks about the "positive infinity," and, in a Platonic way, celebrates the infinity of the generic productivity opened up by the fidelity to an Event, what he fails to take into account from the Freudian standpoint is the obscene insistence of the death drive as the true material(ist) support of the "positive infinity."

Of course, according to the standard view of the philosophy of finitude, the Greek tragedy, tragic experience of life, signals the acceptance of gap, failure, defeat, non-closure, as the ultimate horizon of human existence, while the Christian comedy relies on the certainty that a transcendent God guarantees the happy final outcome, the "sublation" of the gap, the reversal of failure into final triumph. The excess of the divine rage as the obverse of the Christian love allows us to perceive what this standard view misses; the Christian comedy of love can only occur against the background of the radical loss of human dignity, of a degradation which, precisely, undermines the tragic experience: to experience a situation as "tragic" is only possible when a victim retains a minimum of dignity. This is why it is not only wrong, but also ethically obscene, to designate a Musulmann in the concentration camp or a victim of a Stalinist show trial as tragic – their predicament is all too terrible to deserve this designation. "Comical" also stands for a domain which emerges when the horror of a situation outgrows the confines of the tragic. And it is at this point that the properly Christian love enters: it is not the love for man as a tragic hero, but the love for the miserable abject to a man or woman is reduced after being exposed to the outburst of the arbitrary divine rage.

This comical dimension is what is missing today, in the fashionable Oriental spirituality - our present predicament finds its perfect expression in Sandcastles. Buddhism and Global Finance, a documentary by Alexander Oey (2005), a wonderfully-ambiguous work which combines commentaries from economist Arnoud Boot, sociologist Saskia Sassen, and the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche. Sassen and Boot discuss the gigantic scope, power, as well as social and economic effects of global finance: capital markets, now valued at an estimated $83 trillion, exist within a system based purely on self-interest, in which herd behavior, often based on rumors, can inflate or destroy the value of companies - or whole economies - in a matter of hours. Khyentse Rinpoche counters them with ruminations about the nature of human perception, illusion, and enlightenment; his philosophico-ethical statement "Release your attachment to something that is not there in reality, but is a perception," is supposed to throw a new light on the mad dance of billion-dollars-speculations. Echoing the Buddhist notion that there is no Self, only a stream of continuous perceptions, Sassen comments about global capital: "It's not that there are $83 trillion. It is essentially a continuous set of movements. It disappears and it reappears..."

The problem here is, of course, how are we to read this parallel between the Buddhist ontology and the structure of virtual capitalism’s universe? The film tends towards the humanist reading: seen through a Buddhist lens, the exuberance of global financial wealth is illusory, divorced from the objective reality - the very real human suffering created by deals made on trading floors and in boardrooms invisible to most of us. If, however, one accepts the premise that the value of material wealth, and one's experience of reality, is subjective, and that desire plays a decisive role in both daily life and neo-liberal economics, is it not possible to draw from it the exact opposite conclusion? Is it not that our traditional life world was based on the naïve-realist substantialist notions of external reality composed of fixed objects, while the unheard-of dynamics of "virtual capitalism" confronts us with the illusory nature of reality? What better proof of the non-substantial character of reality than a gigantic fortune which can dissolve into nothing in a couple of hours, due to a sudden false rumor? Consequently, why complain that financial speculations with futures are "divorced from the objective reality," when the basic premise of the Buddhist ontology IS that there is no "objective reality"? The only "critical" lesson to be drawn from the Buddhist perspective about today’s virtual capitalism is thus that one should be aware that we are dealing with a mere theatre of shadows, with non-substantial virtual entities, and, consequently, that we should not fully engage ourselves in the capitalist game, that we should play the game with an inner distance. Virtual capitalism could thus act as a first step towards liberation: it confronts us with the fact that the cause of our suffering and enslavement is not objective reality itself (there is no such thing), but our Desire, our craving for material things, our excessive attachment to them; all one has to do, after one gets rid of the false notion of substantialist reality, is thus to renounce one’s desire itself, to adopt the attitude of inner peace and distance... no wonder such Buddhism can function as the perfect ideological supplement of today’s virtual capitalism: it allows us to participate in it with an inner distance, with our fingers crossed as it were.

Already for decades, a classic joke is circulating among Lacanians to exemplify the key role of the Other’s knowledge: a man who believes himself to be a grain of seed is taken to the mental institution where the doctors do their best to finally convince him that he is not a grain but a man; however, when he is cured (convinced that he is not a grain of seed but a man) and allowed to leave the hospital, he immediately comes back very trembling of scare - there is a chicken outside the door and that he is afraid that it would eat him. "Dear fellow," says his doctor, "you know very well that you are not a grain of seed but a man". "Of course I know that," replies the patient, "but does the chicken know it?" Therein resides the true stake of psychoanalytic treatment: it is not enough to convince the patient about the unconscious truth of his symptoms, the Unconscious itself must be brought to assume this truth. It is here that Hannibal Lecter himself, this proto-Lacanian, was wrong: not the silence of the lambs, the ignorance of chickens is the subject’s true traumatic core... Does exactly the same not hold for the Marxian commodity fetishism? Here is the very beginning of the famous subdivision 4 of the Chapter 1 of Capital, on "The Fetishism of the Commodity and its Secret":

A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. [22]

These lines should surprise us, since they turn around the standard procedure of demystifying a theological myth, of reducing it to its terrestrial base: Marx does not claim, in the usual way of Enlightenment critique, that the critical analysis should demonstrate how what appears a mysterious theological entity emerged out of the "ordinary" real-life process; he claims, on the contrary, that the task of the critical analysis is to unearth the "metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties" in what appears at first sight just an ordinary object. In other words, when a critical Marxist encounters a bourgeois subject immersed in commodity fetishism, the Marxist's reproach to him is not "The commodity may seem to you to be a magical object endowed with special powers, but it really is just a reified expression of relations between people." The actual Marxist's reproach is, rather, "You may think that the commodity appears to you as a simple embodiment of social relations (that, for example, money is just a kind of voucher entitling you to a part of the social product), but this is not how things really seem to you - in your social reality, by means of your participation in social exchange, you bear witness to the uncanny fact that a commodity really appears to you as a magical object endowed with special powers." In other words, we can imagine a bourgeois subject visiting a course of Marxism where he is taught about commodity fetishism; however, after the finished course, he comes back to his teacher, complaining that he is still the victim of commodity fetishism. The teacher tells him "But you know now how things stand, that commodities are only expressions of social relations, that there is nothing magic about them!", to what the pupil replies: "Of course I know all that, but the commodities I am dealing with seem not to know it!" This situation is literally evoked by Marx in his famous fiction of commodities that start to speak to each other:

If commodities could speak, they would say this: our use-value may interest men, but it does not belong to us as objects. What does belong to us as objects, however, is our value. Our own intercourse as commodities proves it. We relate to each other merely as exchange-values. [23]

So, again, the true task is not to convince the subject, but the chicken-commodities: not to change the way we speak about commodities, but to change the way commodities speak among themselves… Alenka Zupancic goes here to the end and imagines a brilliant example that refers to God himself:

In the enlightened society of, say, revolutionary terror, a man is put in prison because he believes in God. With different measures, but above by means of an enlightened explanation, he is brought to the knowledge that God does not exist. When dismissed, the man comes running back, and explains how scared he is of being punished by God. Of course he knows that God does not exist, but does God also know that? [24]

And, of course, this, exactly, is what happened (only) in Christianity, when, dying at the Cross, Christ utters his "Father, father, why did you forsake me?" – here, for a brief moment, God Himself does not believe in himself – or, as G.K. Chesterton put it in emphatic terms:

When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God. And now let the revolutionists choose a creed from all the creeds and a god from all the gods of the world, carefully weighing all the gods of inevitable recurrence and of unalterable power. They will not find another god who has himself been in revolt. Nay (the matter grows too difficult for human speech), but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist. [25]

It is in this precise sense that today's era is perhaps less atheist than any prior one: we are all ready to indulge in utter scepticism, cynical distance, exploitation of others "without any illusions," violations of all ethical constraints, extreme sexual practices, etc.etc. – protected by the silent awareness that the big Other is ignorant about it: "the subject is ready to do quite a lot, change radically, if only she can remain unchanged in the Other (in the symbolic as the external world in which, to put it in Hegel’s terms, the subject’s consciousness of himself is embodied, materialized as something that sill does not now itself as consciousness). In this case, the belief in the Other (in the modern form of believing that the Other does not know) is precisely what helps to maintain the same state of things, regardless of all subjective mutations and permutations. The subject’s universe would really change only at the moment when she were to arrive at the knowledge that the Other knows (that it doesn’t exist)." [26]

Niels Bohr, who gave the right answer to Einstein’s "God doesn’t play dice" ("Don’t tell God what to do!"), also provided the perfect example of how a fetishist disavowal of belief works in ideology: seeing a horse-shoe on his door, the surprised visitor said that he doesn’t believe in the superstition that it brings luck, to what Bohr snapped back: "I also do not believe in it; I have it there because I was told that it works also if one does not believe in it!" What this paradox renders clear is the way a belief is a reflexive attitude: it is never a case of simply believing – one has to believe in belief itself. Which is why Kierkegaard was right to claim that we do not really believe (in Christ), we just believe to believe – and Bohr just confronts us with the logical negative of this reflexivity (one can also NOT believe one’s beliefs...).

At some point, Alcoholics Anonymous meet Pascal: "Fake it until you make it." However, this causality of the habit is more complex than it may appear: far from offering an explanation of how beliefs emerge, it itself calls for an explanation. The first thing to specify is that Pascal’s "Kneel down and you will believe!" has to be understood as involving a kind of self-referential causality: "Kneel down and you will believe that you knelt down because you believed!" The second thing is that, in the „normal" cynical functioning of ideology, belief is displaced onto another, onto a "subject supposed to believe," so that the true logic is: "Kneel down and you will thereby MAKE SOMEONE ELSE BELIEVE!" One has to take this literally and even risk a kind of inversion of Pascal’s formula: "You believe too much, too directly? You find your belief too oppressing in its raw immediacy? Then kneel down, act as if you believe, and YOU WILL GET RID OF YOUR BELIEF – you will no longer have to believe yourself, your belief will already ex-sist objectified in your act of praying!" That is to say, what if one kneels down and prays not so much to regain one’s own belief but, on the opposite, to GET RID of one’s belief, of its over-proximity, to acquire a breathing space of a minimal distance towards it? To believe – to believe "directly," without the externalizing mediation of a ritual - is a heavy, oppressing, traumatic burden, which, through exerting a ritual, one has a chance of transferring it onto an Other… If there is a Freudian ethical injunction, it is that one should have the courage of one’s own convictions: one should dare to fully assume one’s identifications. And exactly the same goes for marriage: the implicit presupposition (or, rather, injunction) of the standard ideology of marriage is that, precisely, there should be no love in it. The Pascalean formula of marriage is therefore not "You don’t love your partner? Then marry him or her, go through the ritual of shared life, and love will emerge by itself!", but, on the contrary: "Are you too much in love with somebody? Then get married, ritualize your love relationship, in order to cure yourself of the excessive passionate attachment, to replace it with the boring daily custom - and if you cannot resist the passion's temptation, there are extra-marital affairs..."

This brings us to so-called "fundamentalism," the opposite of the "tolerant" attitude of displaced beliefs: here, the "normal" functioning of ideology in which the ideological belief is transposed onto the Other is disturbed by the violent return of the immediate belief – they "really believe it." Or do they? What if the neo-obscurantist faith in all its versions, from conspiracy theories to irrational mysticism, emerges when faith itself, the basic reliance on the big Other, the symbolic order, fails? Is this not the case today?

This brings us to the formula of fundamentalism: what is foreclosed from the symbolic (belief), returns in the real (of a direct knowledge). A fundamentalist does not believe, he KNOWS it directly. To put it in another way, both liberal-sceptical cynicism and fundamentalism thus SHARE a basic underlying feature: the loss of the ability to believe in the proper sense of the term. For both of them, religious statements are quasi-empirical statements of direct knowledge: fundamentalists accept them as such, while skeptical cynics mock them. What is unthinkable for them is the "absurd" act of DECISION which installs every authentic belief, a decision which cannot be grounded in the chain of "reasons," in positive knowledge: the "sincere hypocrisy" of somebody like Anna Frank who, in the face of the terrifying depravity of the Nazis, in a true act of credo qua absurdum asserted her belief in the fundamental goodness of all humans. No wonder than religious fundamentalists are among the most passionate digital hackers, and always prone to combine their religion with the latest results of sciences: for them, religious statements and scientific statements belong to the same modality of positive knowledge. (In this sense, the status of "universal human rights" is also that of a pure belief: they cannot be grounded in our knowledge of human nature, they are an axiom posited by our decision.) One is thus compelled to draw the paradoxical conclusion: in the opposition between traditional secular humanists and religious fundamentalists, it is the humanists who stand for belief, while fundamentalists stand for knowledge – in short, the true danger of fundamentalism does not reside in the fact that it poses a threat to secular scientific knowledge, but in the fact that it poses a threat to authentic belief itself.


  1. Franklin Sherman, "Speaking of God after Auschwitz," in A Holocaust Reader, ed. By Michael L. Morgan, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2001.
  2. F.W.J. Schelling, "Philosophical Investigations into the Essence of Human Freedom," in Philosophy of German Idealism, ed. by Ernst Behler, New York: Continuum 1987, p. 274.
  3. Quoted in A Holocaust Reader, p. 237.
  4. Martin Heidegger, "Only a God Can Save Us," in The Heidegger Controversy, ed. By Richard Wolin, Cambridge: MIT Press 1993.
  5. David Tracy, "Religious Values after the Holocaust," in A Holocaust Reader, p. 237.
  6. Juergen Habermas, The Future of Human Nature, Cambridge: Polity Press 2003, p. 110.
  7. Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books 1969, p. 254.
  8. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History, New York: Dover Publications 1956, p. 325.
  9. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, vol. III, Berkeley: University of California Press 1985, p. 142.
  10. Quoted from Richard Taylor and Ian Christie, eds., The Film Factory, London: Routledge 1988, p. 92.
  11. Darian Leader, Stealing the Mona Lisa: What Art Stops Us from Seeing, London: Faber and Faber 2002, p. 142.
  12. Catherine Malabou, The Future of Hegel, New York: Routledge 2005, p. 103.
  13. Malabou, op.cit., p. 111.
  14. Malabou, op.cit., p. 112.
  15. Malabou, op.cit., p. 107.
  16. G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion, vol. III, p. 233.
  17. G.W.F. Hegel. Theologian of the Spirit, Peter C. Hodgson, editor, Minneapolis: Fortress Press 1997, p. 55-56.
  18. Malabou, op.cit., p. 114.
  19. Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Volume I (New York: Anchor Books, 1959), 137-162.
  20. See The Humor of Kierkegaard. An Anthology, edited and introduced by Thomas C. Oden, Princeton: Princeton University Press 2004.
  21. On whose "Concrete Universal’ And What Comedy Can Tell Us About It" (in Lacan: The Silent Partners, ed. by Slavoj Zizek, London: Verso Books 2005) I rely here.
  22. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books 1990, p. 163.
  23. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, p. 176-7.
  24. Alenka Zupancic, op.cit.
  25. G.K.Chesterton, Orthodoxy, San Francisco: Ignatius Press 1995, p. 145.
  26. Alenka Zupancic, op.cit.