As book titles go, this one -“The reception of Paul the apostle in the works of Slavoj Žižek”- could be fairly surprising given the conflicting images of Paul the dogmatic Christian and Žižek the radical atheist. Not, on the face it, natural bedfellows.
The possibility that a British or American theologian who is not a complete crank writing this study is hard to believe and it comes as almost a relief to learn that the author, Ole Jakob Løland, is a minister in the Lutheran Church of Norway.
Løland starts by tracing Žižek’s thought through a biographical frame, linking his ideas about ideology, the law with his life in Slovenia.
This risks diluting the full force of a marrying of Lacanian psychoanalysis with Marxism and the author is on surer ground when dealing straightforwardly with Žižek’s radical and refreshing embrace of Hegel not as the philosopher of a totality that would deny subjectivity and human autonomy but the very opposite: Hegel as representing the power of difference and contingency.
Hegel’s infamous ‘absolute knowledge’ is not totalitarian but the recognition that every identity lacks any positive wholeness. There is no original self or authentic authority behind law and believing there is should come to an end with the acceptance of the futility of searching for such a chimera. In Lacanian parlance, the Big Other does not exist. It is properly virtual, insubstantial.
Žižek’s interest in Paul, Løland argues, is due to the influence of Badiou and the notion of a Truth-Event.
Both philosophers are hostile to post-modernist pieties that relativize truth and the related idea that no possibility exists for a metaphysical a priori.
Paul is seen by Žižek as a militant Leninist because of his unwavering fidelity to a universalism, a transcendent truth: everyone can be saved, there are no Jews or Christians, just believers.
Žižek is not concerned with biblical scholarship that aims to uncover what Paul might have meant. Instead, what is of interest is Paul as ‘a model, a formal structure’ with applications to revolutionary thought and practice.
Paul is less interested in what Christ said than in his death and resurrection. This is the Truth-Event for him.
In this respect, formalizing Paul means accepting that resurrection of a corpse is scientific nonsense, ontologically impossible, but at the same time lauding Paul’s insistence that something impossible did occur. Paul is unceasingly loyal to this declaration.
Paul the Apostle breaks with pagan notions of a cosmic wisdom, balanced and ordered, and inserts division. In a similar spirit, Žižek has no truck with New Age spiritualism and identity politics that work against the universalism of communism.
Paul also breaks with the ethnic fundamentalism of Judaism and the imperial legal order of Rome. Paul’s Christian love is violent in its unequivocal opposition to a pagan wisdom that accepts hierarchy in the world.
Readers with an interest in Žižek will enjoy this serious and critical exposition of his use of Paul the Apostle and there are close readings of Corinthians 1 and Romans 7.
“The reception of Paul the apostle in the works of Slavoj Žižek” by Ole Jakob Løland is published by Palgrave Macmillan.