Christ in Postmodern Philosophy: Gianni Vattimo, Rene Girard, and Slavoj Zizek By Frederiek Depoortere

Zizek & Vattimo are interesting sparring partners with Girard, but I don't see much more in either of Zizek or Vattimo than a rehash of Altizer's death of God theology. I think it comes from their going back to Altizer's sources, Nietzsche & Hegel & coming up with the same thing. 0567033325 A survey of three contemporary philosophers and how their philosophies relate or diverge from traditional Christianity. Thought provoking. 0567033325

In the wake of Heidegger's announcement of the end of onto-theology and inspired by both Levinas and Derrida, many contemporary continental philosophers of religion search for a post-metaphysical God, a God who is often characterized as tout autre , wholly other. Christ in Postmodern Philosophy investigates the Christological ideas of three contemporary thinkers, Gianni Vattimo, Rene Girard and Slavoj Žižek. In doing so, Frederiek Depoortere focuses on the relation between transcendence and the event of the Incarnation on the one hand, and the uniqueness of Christianity on the other. Christ in Postmodern Philosophy: Gianni Vattimo, Rene Girard, and Slavoj Zizek

Interesting but weird. Probably something that is up my street and few other's. I like what the author is trying to do here and the styles he is blending appeal to me. I might search out other works by him. 0567033325 Wow! What a treat this little book was for me. It is just perfect in length: Detailed enough to get a good grip on where the three different thinkers are coming from and what their contributions are to this specific discussion, and, on the other hand, still concise enough so that you can get through the book in the matter of a couple hours. Of course, in the best case, Depoortere should by then have managed to awaken the reader's interest for at least one of the philosophers and the reader should be motivated to dive right into the primary sources of which the author makes heavy use in his book.

Now to the three Philosopher whose perspectives on Christianity Depoortere accomplishes to illuminate in this work. They are Gianni Vattimo, René Girard and Slavoj Žižek. I was quite familiar with Girard's perspective and had some rather vague ideas about Žižek Christian Atheism. Vattimo, on the other hand, was completely new to me.

As all of these thinkers have quite extensive bodies of work, Depoortere limited the scope of this book to their Christologies, their answers to the question about the uniqueness of Christianity and their interpretation of the incarnation.


The first and shortest chapter is about Vattimo's understanding of Christianity. There are several ideas in his perspective I liked a lot, for example the 'productive interpretation' which is not only an attempt to grasp the original meaning of the text (for example, the authorial intention) and to reproduce it as literally as possible but also to add something essential to the text, and his adaption of the 'theory of the three ages', which divides history in three ages corresponding to the three persons in the Trinity: the age of the Father (characterized by slavery under the law), the age of the Son (in which faith plays the central role but humans remain subjected to God in filial slavery) and finally, the age of the Spirit (in which humans become friends of God and which is characterized by charity). In Vattimo's view, what also changes is the role of the Scriptures. There is an increasing spiritualization of their meaning and, for example, biblical literalism is ruled out in the age of the Spirit.

Even more central to Vattimo's though are his identification of metaphysics with violence. The sacred, as thought of orthodoxically, is thus inherently violent. He further on identifies the incarnation as the point at which a weakening or debasement of the metaphysical (à la Heidegger) begins. This movement, for which he uses the term 'secularization', finds its culmination in the 'end of metaphysics' (Nietzsche?). In this way secularization can be understood, not as the enemy of Christianity, but contrarily, as the realization of its essence. Furthermore, Western history, with its struggle between classical metaphysics and the newness introduced by Christianity, becomes the exodus from the sacred into the secular.

Of all of the three thinkers Depoortere seems most critical of Vattimo. Some of the criticism and questions he raises are quite legitimate. He posits for example that a nonviolent metaphysics must not per se be unthinkable and asks if Vattimo's 'weak thought' is itself truly free from metaphysics. Especially his holding on to 'caritas' as some sort of categorical imperative which directs the process of secularization seems to indicate otherwise.

Another, in my opinion rather unjustified, criticism Vattimo receives here, is that his interpretation of Christianity makes it in a sense self-abolishing by not leaving room for a transcendental, personal God, and religious traditional practices. The author associates him, probably rightly, with the 'God-is-dead'-theology movement (e.g. Thomas J.J. Altizer). I can see that from a personal perspective the author might see this as a reason to dislike his approach and see it as unpractical for the church, but still I don't think that this makes this specific criticism relevant in a larger context.


In the second Chapter Depoortere tackles Girard. To be able to present Girard's Christology he of course has to first introduce his ideas about 'the imitative character of human desire' and about 'the scapegoating mechanism'.

He states that human desire is always based on imitating a model. It is aroused by an other who directs our attention to a particular object. As long as this mediation is external and the distance between the subject and the model is big enough (e.g. clearly defined class boundaries), there is little danger of competition. As this distance grows smaller, the subject and the model become competitors for the same object. At this stage, which can be designated as a stage of 'internal mediation', the model appears to become an obstacle preventing the obtainment of the desired object. But actually, the desired object is only of secondary importance: the desire is actually aimed at absorbing the mediator's being. This can be understood only in light of Girard's description of the human animal as a creature that is characterized by a lack of being, a being that she or he desires in the other who serves as his or her model. That model seems to possess the secret of being and directs the desire of the subject to an object that appears as being capable to give that supreme plenitude of being.

What of course happens when the subject obtains the desired object, is that its metaphysical aura immediately vanishes and nothing but an ordinary object remains. Though disillusioned, the subject will not easily realize and admit the 'absurdity of triangular desire'. He or she will seek a new object or even a new mediator. The alternative to endlessly repeating this is to eventually direct desire toward an object that is completely inaccessible and absolutely forbidden by a mediator. Thus the subject can save his or her desire and in the same time protect him or herself from yet another disillusion.

The scapegoating mechanism and its birth is explained by Girard in light of the origins of human culture. Actually the human culture as we know it is possible only because of the scapegoating mechanism. Mimetic desire, as discussed before, will invariably lead to conflict when there are multiple competitors for a limited number of desired objects. A 'mimetic crisis' appeared when an entire group became involved in a spiral of violence of all against all. Girard speculates that at one time, during such a crisis, one hominin killed another by accident. Up to this point such fights were determined by instinctive rules, but now, one of them does not fight back anymore and does not surrender either: he is just dead. The other hominins stand in silence around the deceased. The fight is over, and one by one the apes return to their daily pursuits. This repeats time after time: There is total disorder, a lot of aggression and violence; and suddenly, suddenly someone is killed. Violence stops, and everybody comes to take a look at the deceased. They form a circle. Suddenly, disorder disappears and an ordered structure comes into being... Rest has come back in the group. In this way the scapegoat mechanism was born, and it is the basis of human civilization as it brings order and prevents the constant setbacks brought by uncontrollable outbursts of violence.
Additionally the scapegoat serves as the very first metaphysical phenomenon. She is highly ambivalent: with her death the violence comes to an end, which indicates that she was in a sense responsible for it, but on the other hand, she is the one who delivers the community from violence through her death. In this way the scapegoat becomes a supernatural being deciding on peace and violence, order and disorder. She should be feared as the source of violence but also worshipped as the source of peace.
As hominins learn to anticipate the mimetic crisis, they learn to simulate such a crisis and kill a victim in order to prevent violence. From here it is only a small step to religious rituals and feasts, including all kinds of sacrifices (which become increasingly symbolical).

Girard traces back to the Old Testament, and especially to the prophets, a desacralization of violence, which runs counter to all religions of the time and which manifests in a subversion of the sacrificial order and of the obsession with divinely ordained rules. The undermining of mythology by choosing the side of the victim can also be found in many of the stories. But it is important to note that, according to Girard, the desacralization of violence finds it completion only in the Gospels. In Girard's specific reading of them, he sees a God purged from all violence, which at this point is unmasked as merely human phenomenon. Of course this also necessitates a non-sacrificial interpretation of Jesus death: Because he was without violence, it is clear that he cannot be guilty and that his death is a huge injustice. In this way, the Crucifxion reveals... that each human community is based on the killing or expulsion of innocent victims... In this way, Jesus showed humankind its true destiny, its true vocation: to rid itself from captivity by violence.
In the eyes of Girard, the truth about violence can only be revealed by someone not held captive by it. Such a person cannot be generated by a world completely dominated by violence. This is what leads him to believe in the divinity of Christ. True divinity or transcendence is, for Girard, the transcendence of love, which makes Christianity unique and which is far beyond the humanly created transcendence of violence.

After a longish discussion of Girard's theories to scientific theories such as mirror neurons and memetics, which is not without its value, Depoortere closes the chapter discussing some critique of Girard's approach. The one that I find most powerful is the one regarding his definition of desire which seems to exclude any kind of objective desire that is not mediated and leads almost to an arbitrariness of desire.


Okay, now to Žižek. I'm going to try to keep this section short because 1) it has gotten really late and 2) Žižek's ideas are the most abstract and complicated and I'm probably not doing a good job at summing them up.

For Žižek the Crucifixion is of utmost importance for his understanding of Christianity. He strongly rejects the traditional sacrificial interpretation of it, as it turns God, if we want to hold on to his omnipotence, into a perverse subject who plays obscene games with humanity and His own son: He creates suffering, sin and imperfection, so that He can intervene and resolve the mess He created, thereby securing for Himself the eternal gratitude of the human race. Another important question he raises in this regard is, if Christianity is not, by explaining Christ's death as an 'inexplicable act of mercy, of paying our debt', burdening humanity with even more guilt and thus establishing himself as the supreme superego agency (I paid the highest price for your sins, and you are thus indebted to me forever...).

But what role did Jesus then play? Žižek states that Christ had to appear not to reveal God to humankind, but to reveal God to himself: On the cross the gap between mankind and God is transposed into God Himself. On the cross, God abandons Himself totally and in this way the absolute identity of God and humankind is realized. In a way, God discovers the limits of His omnipotence and thus His imperfection. For Žižek, imperfection is a necessity for true Christian love, as love is always love for the Other in so far as he is lacking [and] we love the Other because of his limitations. In his understanding Christianity ultimately turns out to be the 'religion of atheism', as on the cross even God does not believe in himself anymore and becomes an atheist.

There is much more going on in this chapter. Especially Žižek's employment of Lacanian concepts such as 'object petit a', 'the Thing', and others such as 'drive', 'desire', 'excess' etc. is at times hard to fully comprehend because of the high level of abstraction, but nonetheless very interesting.

As I already stated in the beginning: I really enjoyed this book and I think Depoortere did a good job at summarizing important points in each of these philosophers thinking in regards to Christianity. The critiques he offered were also helpful to provoke some own thoughts, and his comparisons helped to see points of similarity between the presented ideas. 0567033325 For those unfamiliar with these three thinkers'/philsophers' turn towards Christianity, this is a great introduction. The author is obviously biased towards Rene Girard, and he has a reasonable basis for doing so. He is interested in arriving at Christianity through contemporary philosophy, in a way which possibly makes it more relevant for the contemporary intellectual at least. However, he is unwilling, and reasonably so, to compromise a full Christianity. Both Vattimo and Zizek return to, in some sense, an impoverished Christianity, a Christianity that almost can be abandoned as soon as it is understood. 0567033325 A decent introduction to each of these thinkers, although Depoortere is clearly intent on convincing the reader that Girard's Christology is the most viable. Would have liked to see a more thorough treatment of Vattimo in the book. 0567033325 The resurrection of christ as an object (the word is used in the Lacanian sense) reached its viral high a few years ago. It seems on its way out now that Paul has become the new Lenin for the Marxists who hope to revive the dead corpse of old ideology. Vattimo is good here, and Girard is back to life from his violence and the sacred days. Worth a look. 0567033325


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