Slovak Zizek asks the simple theological question: “what dies on the cross?” It’s a question asked by many millions over the last two thousand years. The standard, traditional answer is to say that Jesus Christ died on the cross to atone for our sins, so that sinners who stand in a precarious relationship to God — condemned and estranged — can be made clean and be “justified” hence restoring our relationship to God. But perhaps there’s a deeper sense here, deeper and wider, something that has been hidden in plain sight.
The traditional answer has provided comfort and solace for millions over the millenia — and the point of this post is not to debunk people’s faith, because faith is faith and it’s none of my business what it is that provides a person with comfort and solace — however speaking for myself and many others, atonement theology has more than a few fatal flaws, chief among them, in my view, is the fact that justice just doesn’t work that way. Legally, an innocent person can’t stand in for a guilty one.
Imagine that a serial sexual predator were to be tried and convicted but instead of having to serve his sentence, we killed an innocent child. Would we say “justice has been done”? Or would we call that a monstrosity, a perversion of justice?
“What dies on the cross?” Zizek asks. “God as the transcendent power who secretly pulls the strings.”
Traditional Christian theology worked hard to preserve God as the transcendent power player, the top dog in the cosmic hierarchy of power. God as “father” is that top dog. Much theological ink — as well as blood — was spilled to define and protect this power of God the father, and much of the hierarchies of violence in place today — the domination, colonialization, and imperialism of the last few thousand years — has been justified in reference to God the father.
But God as spirit? The genderless “ghost,” the God who must be worshiped “in spirit,” who is neither here nor there, yet everywhere? Whose presence is preeminent in the spaces wherein we collaborate and commune with brotherly love?
Zizek himself is an atheist, but not in the same way that many think of atheism, in terms of a militant denial of all religious truth and meaning. Zizek greatly admires G. K. Chesterton and cites Chesterton as saying that on the cross, for a moment, God himself becomes an atheist. Authentic atheism, Zizek says, must go through Christianity to “reach the abyss of atheism.”
On the cross, for a moment, God himself becomes an atheist
I’ve always identified with the overal project of Zizek and others like him. I find myself inhabiting an abyss, of sorts, an awkward and somewhat isolating spiritual terrain, where I am neither a a believer nor much of an unbeliever.
Perhaps there’s a sense in which I’ve inherited the worst of all worlds. I lack the faith of the true believer, that ability of the faithful to relgate as irrelevant all threatening doubts and challenging questions, and as a consequence, I have no steadfast assurance, no concrete place upon which to stand, no “faith of our fathers.” Similarly, were I to be able to commit myself wholesale to the cause of the kind of militant, self-assured atheism espoused by Richard Dawkins, the deep blush of optimistic naturalism, then there would be a foundation for faith, even if that faith is anti-faith; but I can’t pull this off either.
For Job, there is only suffering. For Christ on the cross, there is only suffering.
For Zizek, what dies on the cross is God as the transcendent power who secretly pulls the strings. The biblical Job is an example. His friends try to reassure him that there is some logic to his suffering, some greater purpose — but we know that it’s simply a random occurance: God and the devil are placing a bet to see if Job will be faithful. Job’s suffering, we the readers know, is completely pointless. It’s as pointless and random as a game of dice, and God even confirms as much when he confronts Job: he dismisses the logic and answers provided by Job’s friends and refuses to give Job the answer as to the purpose of his suffering.
“What dies on the cross?” Perhaps for some of us, it’s everything. Our faith itself.
For Job, there is only suffering. For Christ on the cross, there is only suffering. For both there is the awful realization that when they stare up into the heavens, it is as into a dark void.
I have never experienced this level of suffering, although many have. For me, though, I have to bring it down a few notches, so as not to speak from ignorance. What I can say, though, from my own sufferings and from my own pain is that these times opened the possibility and opportunity for wisdom and for compassion. These are moments when the pretensions of ego begin to be stripped away, and in this sense the self dies. Without recourse to divine assurance, in the absence of the logic of theology, lacking the consolation of others, one is led back to the suffering itself.
What dies on the cross?
For Zizek, authentic atheism must go through Christianity to reach “the abyss of atheism.” So, perhaps for some of us, then, what dies is everything. Our faith itself, our confidence in God as the Big Other who takes care of everything, the transcendent father who secretly pulls the strings and makes sense of it all.
What remains, when our faith itself is crucified? What’s left when the very self is crucified, when it is no longer I who live? At that point, I believe, we are led back to life itself, in the moment to moment beautiful randomness and impermanence, unpredictable, and even as impersonal — and perhaps this is the point at which all things are made new.
(Images courtesy of Tamie Parker Song.)