What is Materialist Theology?

‘Materialist Theology’ – meaning that there is more than just analogical value in theology to describe human society, though it seeks no grounding in a presupposed divine figure. In other words the legacy of specifically Judeo-Christianity has meant that the world has been shaped by a philosophically materialist enhancement of Matthew 18:20 “For where two or three come together in my name, there am I in the midst of them”. But can a materialistic theology take this passage literally?

It seems it can by Žižek who elaborates on a materialistic rearticulating of the Holy Spirit, which features in his latest offering The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? co-written in debate form with the Radical Orthodox theologian John Milbank. The book is the brainchild of Creston Davis, who studied under both Žižek and Milbank, and is premised on the notion that “modern Christianity has finally met its doom”. Žižek, arguing his corner with Hegelian dialectics (thesis + antithesis = synthesis), cites Jesus as the ‘monstrous exception’, that is to say the figure who cannot be grounded in rational terms due to his part in the Trinity, but who all the same grounds the rational itself. This takes some thinking, but what Žižek is suggesting here is that the conception of the other world which Jesus is said to occupy given his Godly status, is the foundation with which reality (on Earth) has been based, in contradistinction to the beyond.

In an anti-Fregeian twist (Frege, who noted that a concept must presuppose its material referent) for a grounding of this material reality in an other world, such an other world need not actually exist, for even the concept of it, without a material referent, is enough to guide what is the real rational world and what is not. This is further backed up by Lacan’s notion of ‘non-all’, which suggests that given our ontological position,our perception of the world is partial, therefore it is not difficult for us to suppose that there is more to which we can possibly know. Zizek therefore doesn’t take the line of atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens or Grayling, who have a kind of faith in the stance that science can reach a given criteria of truth. For Zizek, as for Lacan, such truth is untenable given our ontological constitution, but he is an atheist nonetheless because to posit a God in the absence of scientific proof, would be to take the knowledge problematic to its alterior extreme (theistic certainty).


2 Responses to What is Materialist Theology?

  1. Carl Gardner says:

    Thanks, Carl. I don’t really understand how Zizek’s atheism differs from that of Dawkins, though, who also believes it’s unreasonable to believe in god in the absence of proof. I don’t recognise in his writing the sort of “scientism” you imply he believes in.

    • Well it seems to me that the link between science and atheism is as unreasonable because its absurd to pretend that one can prove something to not exist. An old atheist quip to this is to say, well fine but it is the burden of the believer to prove God is true, not the burden of the non-believer to prove God false. The difference between Zizek and Dawkins is inasmuch as Dawkins views science as the pursuit of truth, whereas Zizek, utilising Lacan’s non-all, considers the shortfall of seeing science as this. Its clear to see Zizek’s point when one considers the difference between Real, Symbolic and Imaginary. That which is Real (the substance that science allows one insight into) is often obscured by the Symbolic (the obstructive element, rendered by our ontological constitution and limit in knowledge).

      Further, the difference is in scholarship. Zizek is far more willing to deal with theological studies, and how the christian legacy might influence culture and politics (indeed, for Zizek, the marxist struggle has parallels with the christian struggle for political grace/salvation etc), whereas Dawkins limits his remit to caricaturing theology and describing fundamentalists as true heirs of their religious doctrines.

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