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Scott R. Paeth

  • Scott R. Paeth is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, IL. He works in the fields of Christian Social Ethics and Public Theology.

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September 21, 2013

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Nathan Duffy

Hey Scott:

1 quick note. The Orthodox Church, of which I'm a member, has a robust (in my view, the far and away most robust of all major communions) tradition of apophatic theology. The via negativa is not foreign to my tradition at all. But we have this in the Church and don't need to go outside of it for it, and it isn't really a entirely separate 'dimension' of theology, but is always tied to the cataphatic dimension, without which it becomes heresy, blasphemy, unbelief etc.

Also, genuine Christian apophaticism isn't concerned with God's non-existence (which is an absurdity) but refers to what Dionysius the Areopagite calls the 'divine darkness'. That is it refers to God's dimensions that are always beyond us, and are opposed to what we are: ineffability, incomprehensibility, infinity, immutability etc. And it is precisely these not-X affirmations that are the most true statements we can make about God. Zizek's contributions are of 0 help on any of these counts. The Church already has the full revelation of God in Christ, and can get along perfectly well without the blasphemous lies (such as 'God does not exist') of a worldly philosopher.

Without belaboring the point, I would only say that even here, true theology is done exclusively done in and by the Church, and that illicit marrying of worldly conjectures and speculations with theology is clearly prohibited by apostolic, orthodox Christian teaching, and for good reason.

Scott Paeth

Nathan, thanks for your comment. You are of course correct that the Orthodox church has the most profound form of apophatic theology, but, to my mind at least, it's rooted in a very particular set of metaphysical assumptions (many of which, I should note, I share). I think that, with Žižek, the key question is what does Christianity have to offer those for whom the metaphysical assumptions of traditional Christian theology are no longer applicable or even slightly credible. The advantage of Žižek's approach is that he makes a case for the importance and relevance of Christianity in a post-metaphysical context.

Also, again, thinking of his audience: It is primarily those steeped in western theological and philosophical categories, for whom the idea of God is thoroughly cataphatic, and for whom the apophatic dimension of God's being is almost wholly absent (think American Protestant, particularly evangelical, Christianity). For them, Žižek's approach is a challenge to the easy assumptions that they bring to the possibility of knowing God or comprehending divine revelation.

On the other hand, I think that, for those for whom an orthodox form of apophatic theology is wholly adequate to answering the theological questions raised by Christianity, it may very well be that Žižek has little to offer. But I'm less confident than you are that true theology can only be done in and through the church. Or, let me rephrase that: Even if that is true, that doesn't mean that someone standing outside the church can't offer a prophetic word to which the church must be attentive. Even Ballam's ass had something to say worth listening to.

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