God in Pain is a unique book. Not just another missive from famous (celebrity?) Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek, this collection of essays are deeply theological in nature. Zizek’s interlocutor is Boris Gunjevic – a professor of ethics at a biblical institute in Zagreb – and the these two characters contribute a radical and complex discussion of Christianity and theology in the modern world.
Zizek doesn’t just phone this one in. Zizek’s essays in this book are some of his most focused. Famous for wide-ranging critical insights it was refreshing to find a sense of “what Zizek really believes” in these pages. Zizek and Gunjevic do not argue from the clunky perspective of atheist versus believer; this is not a set piece for atheists to see their champion smash an “intelligent theist.” Zizek would never come out and directly say “I am an atheist” or “I am Christian,” in large part because his position is complex and nuanced. The answer to weather Zizek is a believer or not probably depends more on what your definition of God is. For Zizek there is no single clear answer and I think this is probably one of the more important implication of his essays here.
There is no opposition between Zizek and Gunjevic, rather a totally unique and often complimentary thought process. Neither represent typical or mainstream opinions or ideas on religion. In fact, I find it sad that we have to go to the Balkans to find such excellent thinking on the subject. Every essay is brilliant and unique.
Gunjevic is not your typical Christian – if I had to guess, I would say Eastern Orthodox, but that would only be a guess. There is no sectarian line here. Steeped in church history and early thinkers, Gunjevic is more at home with St. Augustine, Duns Scotus and the Apostles than with the pop-culture gambits that Zizek deploys to make his points. Yet Gunjevic is also steeped in high Marxist ideas and language: the result is rather disorienting shifts in tone and language: Aquinas abuts Lukacs and Gramsci. Gunjevic even charmingly and quaintly thinks and talks in the old sense of “the Revolution.” Theology is anti-Capitalist.
But these oddities really work to Gunjevic’s advantage: you never know what’s coming next and the result is that Gunjevic can take you into well worn territory and come out with a new and exciting interpretation, like reading the Gospel of Mark as a sort of revolutionary, Che Gueverra of the ancient world. The simple, honest thrill of reading a genuine Marxist Christian is something that just doesn’t happen in Trump’s America.
Gunjevic’s most intriguing idea is deploying St. Augustine as a guide to the modern world of global capitalism. Thus a direct parallel is drawn between the Roman Empire of late Antiquity and the American-led world of neoliberalism. For a theologian like Gunjevic, this is “Empire” in general: the base world that seeks after power, glory, money and fame. Augustine occupies a similar socio-political space as we, Gunjevic suggests; we have the same relationship to Empire. The Augustinian response then, is a sort of moral retreat from the world, held to gather by small, faithful communities. Gunjevic’s vision is highly acetic and perhaps even a little useless, but the idea of reading Augustine like a 1970’s critical theorist (like Erich Fromm) really appeals to me.
Zizek provides most of the real fireworks. Where Gunjevic will dwell for pages on exegesis, then switch abruptly to Hegelese, Zizek’s essays here remain accessible and disciplined by Zizek’s standards. One essay (I have found that you never really know what you are going to get based on the title) is essentially ‘Zizek on Islam.’ I would love to take you through every twist and turn and discover of Zizek’s thought, but I have found that the sheer amount of information and context needed is overwhelming. Zizek starts by reading Islam in the Freudian/psychological sense and detects that its underlying “sustaining” psychological drama is that of the orphan. Where Judaism has Abraham and the succession of generations and Christianity has the Holy Family, Islam seems to reject paternal or familial patterns in favour of a suppressed female (Hagar) origin where God intervenes directly where the paternal figure fails. Zizek locates Islamic terrorism as a product of the modern condition, but clearly outlines how the religion lends itself to extremism. Note how Zizek provides a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of radical Islam without resorting to cliches or “picking a side.”
In a whirlwind, Zizek moves on to the Muslim veil or burqa. Yes, Zizek says, the veil is used to control women and takes it to the next step to see in Islam an extreme, suppressed libido. This is due in part to suppress the psychological birth (Muhammad decended from) from a female slave. But Zizek goes even further; he demonstrates that the veil is used to hid what is not there. The burqa is used to suggest that there is a true and pure femininity, something worth hiding. Brilliant.
Perhaps the most important essay – Zizek’s “Only a Suffering God can Save Us” – is a powerful, comprehensive work on theodicy. You know: “If God is Good and Omnipotent, how can there be Evil?” Zizek does far more than offer his two cents here: he summarises ‘classic’ views of theodicy (like the legalistic sin-and-punishment conception, or the idea that disasters are an extreme test of our faith, or the “God moves in mysterious ways” notion), then launches into his own. For Zizek, the above question essentially misses the point (and perhaps obscuring his answer, in my reading, indicating that God is not omnipotent). For Zizek, God is totally embedded in our reality. Through the mystery of the Cross, our pain is his pain and vice versa; in other words, the Crucifixion was the only way for God to understand us.
Zizek points out that the humanistic response to disasters like the Holocaust is “insufficient” to explain or justify the event. A larger meaning is needed. It seems that Zizek does believe, but for what I can only describe as sociological reasons. God is that which is Sublime; a sort of essential mystery and meaning behind things. I think that Zizek thinks we cannot do without those things.
I have not done justice to the ideas and arguments in this book. Let me end by highly recommending it – this is critical thinking and reflective thinking at its best.