I’m working on the Gospel chapter of the book I’m writing with Fitch, and it reminded me of this summary of “justification by faith” that I wrote up a bit ago, trying to relate it to Slavoj Zizek’s political theology. I’m reposting because, well, back when I wrote it Facebook and Twitter didn’t even exist, so how would you all know about?
A Revolutionary Community :: Repositioning Justification by Faith
In a way similar to the destruction that Pauline Christianity wrought on the Roman Empire, Zizek wants to use a reconfigured Christianity to ease the grip of liberal-capitalist hegemony. “What Christianity did with regard to the Roman Empire, this global ‘multiculturalist’ polity,” he confides, “we should do with regard to today’s Empire.” (George Mason)
Amidst the onslaught of New Age spirituality and a surfacing religious awareness within philosophic deconstructionism, what is a poor ‘dialectic materialist to do? When Capitalism is taken for granted as a force of nature, where might an ailing Marxism find support? For Slavoj Zizek, shelter is found under the wings of an unlikely source. Zizek sees the most important repositioning in these ‘postmodern times’ lying in a reconciliation of Christianity and Marxism. In The Fragile Absolute Zizek attempts to appropriate the subversive core of the Christian legacy as a means of breaking out of the logic of Capitalism: the desire of “unbridled productivity” and “unbridled consumption”. Given the historically apolitical (and/or apathetic) standpoint of the Western church, Zizek’s view of Christianity as a politically revolutionary approach is particularly surprising.
Zizek’s Revolutionary Community
According to Zizek, Marx was not radical enough in his break from capitalism because he assumed, along with capitalism, the goal of “unbridled productivity.” “Socialism failed because it was ultimately a subspecies of capitalism, an ideological attempt to ‘have one’s cake and eat it’, to break out of capitalism while retaining its key ingredient.” So the criticism that Marxian Communism is an impossible fantasy is correct. Zizek explains that Communism/Socialism is the utopian dream, or fantasy of Capitalism, the desire of limitless productivity, which is consumed by limitless desire. According to Zizek, Marx’s mistake was to think the object of desire (unbridled productivity) would remain even when its cause/obstacle (oppressive capitalist social relations) was abolished. However, as actual existing Socialisms reveals, this was not the case. Marx was merely extending Capitalism to its idealized form rather than escaping its logic.
Through many twists and turns, weaving together Marxism and Lacan psychoanalysis, Zizek points out how the Christian legacy “breaks out” of the vicious cycle of (symbolic) Law and Desire. As he notes, “There is always a gap between the object of desire and its cause, the mediating feature or element that makes this object desirable.” This cause/obstacle makes the object desirable, but not in or of itself. If you take away the obstacle then the desire dissipates. Capitalism thrives within the production and maintenance of this cause/obstacle. The Christian legacy escapes this logic not by denying/fulfilling Desire, a Desire caused by the Law, but by means of Love, which unites the object of Desire and its Cause. “In love, the object is not deprived of its cause; it is, rather, that the very distance between object and cause collapses.” Love is directed toward the object of desire in and for itself, even in spite of itself. Love desires the object, in a sense, in spite of its lack of desirability; Love loves in spite of what it loves, not because of it. This breaking out of the cycle of Law and Desire begets an alternative community, “un-coupled” from social hierarchy and oppressive relationships. This revolutionary community, not regulated by the Capitalist production of desire and difference, offers universal humanity to all. This “authentic psychoanalytic and revolutionary political collective” is Zizek’s redemption of Christianity.
What is to be done with this suggestion? Do we affirm this appropriation of Christianity as a politics of love beyond desire, or reject it as the hopeless task of joining religion and politics? By means of a detour through “justification by faith” we can evaluate Zizek’s proposal and reposition the real “break out” of Christianity.
Luther’s Desire and Justification’s Degeneration
In his short book, The Justice of God, James Dunn briefly outlines how part of our understanding of “justification by faith” was obscured during the Reformation, becoming overly individualistic, exceedingly introspective, and excessively judicial in imagery, thereby losing its communal and relational focus. While an Augustinian monk, situated within a Roman Catholicism of indulgences and purgatory, Martin Luther’s conscience ached with guilt over his sin before “the justice of God,” i.e. that God punishes all unrighteousness. God, for Luther, was to be feared, not loved. But under a prolonged reading of Romans, grappling with the strange manner in which Paul refers to “the justice of God” as a means of salvation, Luther made his critical ‘discovery.’ Luther realized the decisive (f)act of God is not that He is “Just” (condemning the wicked), but that He is also “Justifying” (acquitting the wicked). From this emerged his doctrine of “justification by faith” not by works, along with attendant theories of substitutionary atonement and imputed righteousness. However, it seems that Luther read much of his own Medieval Roman Catholic situation into Paul’s letters distorting what the Apostle was really saying. He held two faulty assumptions.
Luther assumed Paul had gone through the same agonies of conscience and guilt over sin before a blameless and just God. Luther also assumed that Judaism, like his own Catholic Church, was a legalistic religion of human striving, or works righteousness, from which he reasoned that the doctrine of “justification by faith” set him free from the system of earning God’s favor through receiving God’s righteousness, i.e. justified by faith.
The problem with this view, as Dunn and many others have recently pointed out, is Paul does not read as if he is plagued by a guilty conscience, and Judaism does not read much like a works based religion. Paul nowhere sounds like he has a guilty conscience before God because of his sins. Instead he says he was blameless in regards to righteousness within the law. Also, the Judaism of Paul’s day, and the one we can read about in the OT, was based in God’s gracious election of Israel, His giving of the Law as a means of a covenant relationship, and His continued dwelling with Israel even in the midst of their sin. The prophetic recalling of God’s continuing righteous actions toward an unworthy nation bear witness to this. So it seems Luther retrojected his context back into Paul’s situation distorting his understanding of “justification by faith,” and turned it into a doctrine concerning personal salvation which then marched toward Enlightenment individualism.
Israel’s Desire and Law’s Degeneration
Luther, however, was not the only one who misunderstood God’s purposes concerning salvation. Within Paul’s context, the doctrine of “justification by faith” is not meant to answer the question “how is one saved?” but rather “who is in the covenant community of God?” As N.T. Wright notes, “The purpose of the covenant was never simply that the creator wanted to have Israel as a special people, irrespective of the rest of the world. The covenant was there to deal with the sin, and bring about the salvation, of the world.” The point of the covenant was the restoration of God’s righteousness in the world, and the reconstitution of humanity to its radical potential. However, during Paul’s time, “while Gentiles are discovering covenant membership, characterized by faith, Israel, clinging to the Torah which defined covenant membership, did not attain to the Torah. She was determined to have her covenant membership demarcated by works of Torah, that is, by the things that kept that membership confined to Jews and Jews only, and, as a result, she did not submit to God’s covenant purposes, his righteousness.”
Therefore, back to Zizek’s point, Israel’s vicious cycle of Law and Desire did not deal with sin and guilt as Luther believed (and as many Protestants still think). The Law was certainly the cause/obstacle which sustained their Desire, but the object of this Desire was not for what the Law forbade. Rather their object of Desire was initially God, who gave them the Law. But the (covenant) Law degenerated into the (symbolic) Law when Israel allowed her Desire for God to collapse into the maintenance of a boundary distinguishing Israel from the Gentiles, becoming a justification of Jewish nationalism. The maintenance of Law became their object of desire, which led to their failure to attain the universal purposes of God. The logic of the Law was inverted from its universal intention, degenerating into a boundary delineating Jewish particularity.
Paul’s doctrine of justification
Now continuing again with Luther, for Paul the issue at stake in the doctrine of “justification by faith” is not one of soteriology (how one might be saved), but mainly of ecclesiology (how we define the covenant community). As Dunn states, “the Christian doctrine of justification by faith begins as Paul’s protest not as an individual sinner against Jewish legalism, but as a protest on behalf of Gentiles against Jewish exclusivism.” Paul’s Damascus road experience was a conversion from a ‘zealous’ attachment to Israel’s distinctiveness set up according to the Law (as a boundary marker b/w Jew and Gentile, particularly expressed through circumcision and food laws). Paul was a rigid nationalist who had forgotten that Israel’s election was meant for the benefit of the Gentiles also, not to their exclusion. But through his dramatic encounter with Jesus, Paul was converted from the particularity of Judaism (a nation), to the particularity of Jesus (a man) through whom universality was made available.
For Paul, justification by faith was therefore not merely the conviction that sinners cannot rely on their own merit to earn God’s favor (although Paul would certainly agree with this). Rather, it is the conviction that God’s grace is no longer limited to a particular people (defined as those who follow the Law), but that God’s goodness and mercy are made universal, to all peoples regardless of social hierarchies, through Faith. Through Christ, all are justified, because God’s grace is not locked into a certain people, but mediated through a certain person, our Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Messiah, Savior.
Christ’s Universal Community
This then is the “break out” of Christianity; this is the formation of an alternative community. Beyond the structural antagonisms, differences, and desires of consumer Capitalism which splinters race/class/gender, the universality of humankind is offered in the community gathered around the particular man, Jesus. It is through faith in this work of Jesus that we are un-coupled from social hierarchies, not merely through a Love beyond Desire. Israel affirmed the universality of God through the particularity of their human community according to Law. Zizek, denying God, affirms the universality of mankind beyond the Law through Love. But Christians affirm the universality of mankind through faith in the particularity of God, i.e. the particular identification of Jesus as divine. This community, uncoupled from social hierarchy and oppressive relationship, is based in Christ, through whom the law of sin and death (desire and difference) has been destroyed, through whom all antagonistic relationships have been subverted, and true humanity is offered universally.
Or to put it differently, only through an individual can individualism be subverted (that menace of modernity); only through the particular man can we enter a community beyond the particular differences of mankind. If Luther is a type of consumer individualism, and the Judaism of Paul’s day a type of global/tribal sectarianism, then the community of Christ breaks out of both, fusing the particularity of the man Jesus with the universality of God’s grace to all humanity. Christ is the only basis for a revolutionary politics beyond the Capitalist production of desire. He is the only basis of an alternative politic which can “ease the grip of the liberal-capitalist hegemony.”