Christian Materialism: Life, Interrupted

"Everything Happens For A Reason"

by Justin D. Klassen

Greetings, fellow fans and imbibers of Homebrewed Christianity! I am grateful to Tripp and Bo for giving me space here to pursue some reflections on the shattering implications of contemporary materialist or atheist uses of Christianity.

The question guiding these reflections could be stated as follows: What can believing Christians learn about their own tradition from that tradition’s most controversial fans, especially from those who don’t believe in God, for supposedly “Christian” reasons? In a future post, I’d like to direct this question toward popular conversations about environmental ethics. But today it makes sense to begin more generally, by identifying what a materialist use of Christianity might criticize in popular thinking about God.

Let’s begin, not with God as such, but with a contemporary American proverb that often stands in for God: “Everything Happens For A Reason.” The sentiment of this proverb has been deployed widely in response to the destructive storms that ripped through my neck of the woods this past weekend. I call it an American rather than a specifically Christian proverb because its expression is common to a range of meaning-seekers wide enough to include both John Piper and Marilyn Monroe. Indeed, if a quick Google image search is to be believed, people are having this phrase tattooed on their bodies with increasing regularity. Many others of us seem at least to have it tattooed on our hearts. What is so compelling about the idea captured in these words?

Perhaps some illumination can be found by reflecting on when we tend to pull these words out of our hats. My sense is that we don’t use them when life is going according to plan. Nor do we trot them out when we experience interruptions that are only minor. So my muffler fell out of the bottom of my rusted car recently, and it messed up my day. I had to throw my bike in the car and pedal-commute from the shop to work in the morning. I don’t think anyone would be inclined to say that this “happened for a reason,” unless they meant simply that the muffler failure had a proximate cause (the salt of too many northern winters acted as a catalyst of oxidation—but no one would get a tattoo about that “reason”). So when do we feel the need to write these words on our hearts, or to deliver them to the hearts of others?

It would seem that we need them in times of deep, shattering interruption—like when a relationship is broken, when we lose a job we thought defined us, or when someone dies. If this is the case, then we can conclude that we find these words most useful precisely when we cannot believe them to be true. I know my muffler failed “for a reason,” so I don’t have to point to my tattoo in that case. But in those moments when I am at a real loss to explain an event, for myself or for some fellow sufferer, then, oddly, I am inclined to insist that there is an explanation. The moment when I really don’t know any reasons is strangely the same moment when I must claim so strongly to know them that getting a tattoo to this effect begins to sound like a good idea.

Slavoj Žižek describes this desired recourse to reasons as the ideological function of religion. By this he means simply that religion (in which our “American proverb” can be included) allows us to deal with the trauma of experience by telling ourselves the lie that it’s not traumatic. We get to be close to suffering, we get to mention people experiencing trauma in our prayers and sermons (which I’m sure many of us heard this past Sunday), precisely by refusing to experience even these worst of events as traumatic. In other words, just when the trauma or shock of life is about to sink in, people like John Piper come along and explain it away, under the guise of dealing with it.

A key difference between Žižek’s critique of religion and other forms of atheism is that Žižek calls his atheism “Christian.” Homebrewed readers and listeners may recognize this tactic from their familiarity with the work of Peter Rollins and others. Žižek argues that the paradigmatically Christian experience is the experience of dereliction, not completion. It’s the experience of having that ink needle slapped out of your hand at the moment you think you most need its solace. And it’s the transformation of our anguish over the absence of reasons into a new kind of freedom. As Žižek puts it, the Spirit of Christianity heals the wound of experience, “not by directly healing it, but by getting rid of the very full and sane body into which the wound has been cut.”

A life in fidelity to the derelict one, then, would be a life lived with eyes open to the reasonlessness of experience, but where the absence of reasons is not felt as a lack in relation to some fantasy of “completion,” but as the gift of loose ends. Life as such, in Christian terms, is a superabundance of loose ends. And if Jesus is affirmed as divine, then it is divine not to tie life’s loose ends into a tidy knot but to celebrate them, and sometimes, to weep over them.

It is no secret that Žižek gets the substance of his approach to Christianity (not to mention his sense of the traumatic nature of experience) from the work of G. K. Chesterton. In the second chapter of Orthodoxy, Chesterton suggests that a “poetic” disposition is better suited to the infinite sea of reality than a “logical” one (one that needs everything to happen for a reason). The logician’s disposition may connect all the loose ends, but the resulting knot binds both the world and the person into shrunken forms of their true selves. Sometimes we attribute the failure to articulate clear explanations of life’s uncertainties to a “lack of imagination.” Žižek and Chesterton both would have us reverse this relationship, and say that it’s wherever life cannot be abided without being explicated, wherever suffering cannot be shared without being explained, that our imagination is failing the world, and we are failing our fellow travelers.

All this is to say that what Žižek’s Christian atheism shows believing Christians is that it is possible to imagine fidelity to the God affirmed in Jesus as militant against the God of “reasons,” the God who cannot stomach life as human beings really experience it— as the locus of inexplicable joys and sufferings that may be shared, and may even be expressed, poetically, but may never be “explained.”

 

Justin D. Klassen is Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. He is the
author of the recent book, The Paradox of Hope: Theology and the Problem of Nihilism (Cascade, 2011), and co-editor of a forthcoming volume on Charles Taylor’s account of modern secularity. He lives in Louisville with his wife, Melissa, their two daughters, Clara and Gracie, and their dog, Eloise.

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20 comments
Shawn Andrews
Shawn Andrews

This post is a tasty little tidbit for me and my untidy human experience!

K. Cook
K. Cook

Thanks for this post and for all of your responses Justin! Very thought provoking! Sincerely, Student from Austin College

Adam
Adam

Interesting post and great conversation! A question: Could this be a both/and situation considering a God's finger print in reality that has things that are predictable, formulaic, and legal (2+2=4, gravity, and cause and effect); and things that are chaotic, mysterious and filled with loose ends (fractals, weather patterns, grace)? In both the text of creation and the biblical text there is an interplay between these realities as humanity relates and morphs with its past-informed-present. Within the narrative of scripture we read a story of humanity relating to a God that has order and purpose, yet who is unpredictable, uncontrollable and other. Perhaps we need a more ecological/relational understanding of reality and of theology/philosophy to accept a God in and beyond our boxes of understanding but present and active relationally with us to love all creation and steward our home (reconciling) with Love at the foundation.

ryne beddard
ryne beddard

Justin, Thanks for the great post and that 1st response... Next time you might consider using that job example in the post. It certainly helped bring it to a point (at least for me). But again great work

Justin Klassen
Justin Klassen

Kelly, thanks for the comment! Garret, nice question, thanks. I don't think one would have to depart from the New Testament in order to maintain this reading. When Christians say Jesus' death saves humanity from sin, I don't think quite the same thing is going on here as when they also maintain that, for example, they lost their job "for a reason." Still, you raise the question of the necessity of Jesus' death, whether it was necessary in the sense of following some underlying 2+2=4 of the universe.... This "necessity" is like the kind deployed by some Christians when they justify not taking Jesus seriously as a model for their own social behavior ("he turned the other cheek and refused self-defense because he had to go get himself sacrificed, not because it's realistic for us to turn the other cheek too..."). But to say that Jesus died "for our sins" could mean various things: It could mean that he died to carry out some metaphysical equation, to "balance the accounts," as it were. Or it could mean that he died to reveal to us the self-destructiveness of our sin of only trusting God when the accounts are balanced (and so not really trusting), and consequently, our sin of worshipping a God of reasons. By exposing the emptiness of this game, the death of the derelict Jesus (who nonetheless even in the final moment doesn't sign up to the game of self-defense and self-justification) also deactivates the persuasiveness of the game. This second would be something like a Girardian reading of the crucifixion, but with "mimetic religion" understood in connection with the religion of reasons (see Girard's _The Scapegoat_ for more...). But Rowan Williams gives a similar reading when he says that Jesus' suffering saves us by revealing our ultimate fate as self-absorbed and self-protecting (and thus also self-destroying) sinners. Again here, if we can connect the desire for self-protection with the desire for a God of "reasons," I think the reference makes sense....Jesus died to save us from our sin (understood as trusting God/life only if we can make sense of it).

Jon
Jon

Justin, thank you for your thoughts.....I am a big Pete Rollins fan and have appreciated his introduction to some of the philosophy you outline above. I am very drawn to this idea/phrasing: "A life in fidelity to the derelict one, then, would be a life lived with eyes open to the reasonlessness of experience, but where the absence of reasons is not felt as a lack in relation to some fantasy of “completion,” but as the gift of loose ends." Wonderful post....here is one person hoping you are a frequent contributor on HBC!!!

Garret Menges
Garret Menges

Justin, thanks for these thoughts. Just have one question: would you say that in order to read the Jesus event as one that affirms the reasonlessness of human experience you would also need to depart from the New Testament interpretation of that event? I ask because it seems that the NT has, despite Jesus' cry of dereliction, tied all the loose ends of that event into a few tidy knots (i.e. Jesus died for our sins, Jesus died to defeat the powers, etc.--all "reasons" for Jesus' death). Indeed, by the time Hebrews is written Jesus is hardly a derelict but instead is one who "for the joy set before him endured the cross..." Thoughts?

Kelly
Kelly

Thank you, Justin. I found your post both refreshing and liberating. I have a feeling I will be pondering it all day!

dmf
dmf

Zizek has explicitly rejected poetic dwelling so no need to guess about that, and he wouldn't have to go back very far in the history of his homeland (and that of his European neighbors) to have historical examples of peoples suffering horrors without resolution/rescue so if there is a freedom/peace/grace to be found in the butcher's block of history it is not, that I can see, in a political/ethical solution, so "separate and set free" might be in line with being a knight of faith? If there is no real bite/cost to taking Zizek's account into consideration (as Westphal and Ricouer faced with the masters of suspicion) than I'm not sure of the purpose except to try and make a certain perspective seem logical/philosophically-rigorous/de-rigueur, is there something to Zizek for a christian that isn't in Chesterton? http://worker01.e-flux.com/pdf/article_8948848.pdf

Justin Klassen
Justin Klassen

Thanks to all for the comments. Nathan: great to hear from you! In some ways I think your question would require an entirely new post to answer, just to explore the connections and/or differences between "reasons" and "order(s)." But I might just say, in response to your question about what distinguishes a believer who gives up these things and an atheist: not much. Or at least less than we're used to thinking, which makes Zizek and others like him all the more provocative. But this proximity could go both ways, in that people in this position of abiding life's reasonlessness could be called atheists OR believers. Sticking with the context and characters I'm dealing with here, we could ask your question via Chesterton. Chesterton rejects an approach to life that uses the completion of logic (the necessity of 2+2 always equalling 4) to cover up the surprising contingency of material experience (when an apple grows on a tree, it's not necessary in the same way the result of the equation just mentioned is necessary). Chesterton thinks that if our religion or our "proverb" tells us that the results or occurrences of life simply articulate equations just as necessary as 2+2=4, then Christianity would want us to be "atheists" with respect to this "God." I think this makes sense of his claim that Christianity is a "sword that separates and sets free," whereas other philosophies are chains that connect and fetter. But Chesterton is not an atheist, and Zizek is, and they both like this thing about Christianity separating and setting free. In other words, they both favor a reading of Christianity which underlines its affirmation of reality without an a priori sense of reality being a collection of pieces that all fit together without any gaps. Zizek emphasizes this by declaring the "ontological incompleteness of reality" as such. So how can Chesterton be a theist for the same reasons that make Zizek an atheist? Maybe the difference between Zizek's atheism and Chesterton's theism comes down to this: they both affirm that Christianity is a sword which separates and sets free, that reality is "ontologically incomplete," but Zizek would probably not say, as Chesterton does, that "poetry is sane because it rests easily in an infinite sea." So the question is, what is it, if not "reasons," that can justify Chesterton's sense of being able to "rest easily" in an infinite sea? I don't have anything like a brief answer to that question, and brief is all I have time for at the moment... So let me offer a possible opening to a conversation between the two: Zizek might say "nothing justifies this confidence that, despite being incomplete, reality can be trusted enough to 'rest' in it. Chesterton just pulls a Milbank here and reverts to a Trinitarian ontology that ties up all the loose ends...in a sense, Jesus himself, as the derelict one, prohibits this Trinitarian confidence." And then Chesterton might say, "yes, Jesus prohibits THAT Trinitarian confidence (using the Trinity as an equation), but he does more than just smash our recourse to a 'big Other'; he also insist that his Father (and consequently, life) remains trustworthy even without it (using the Trinity as an imperative). This does not get us out of the trauma of life's incompleteness, but it does make it imperative upon us to stop imagining that we need to if God/life is to be trusted. And by the way, Zizek, nothing justifies YOUR confidence that the incompletion of reality necessarily equates with untrustworthiness." Don't know if that's clarifying or obfuscating. I know it's not a "complete" answer :), but at least it's a response... Cara, I like your question about whether God has to be a God of *either* uncertainty *or* reason... I would say that, ultimately for Chesterton at least, God is a God of love. the "separating and setting free" business (see above) follows from that.

dmf
dmf

I think that Cara is close to some of what Caputo wants us to wrestle with when it comes to the aporia of ethics, that we are called to make definite/limited choices in the midst of complexities that exceed our grasp and that we cannot evade these choices and their unknown consequences/judgements, the Kierkegaardian answer may well be that we must fully commit and so completely fail, in order be freed from our illusions of control (this is close to Lacanian analysis but that falls into the complications of Hegelian master/slave dialectics) and certainty by breathing in the deep waters undergoing a kind of surrender to the depths (Caputo of course would point out that as long as we actually continue to live that such moments are fleeting khoral traces) . But than this leaves us with Nathan's point (and my hint by invoking Yahweh) that we may be jettisoning the old testament God here for a more philosophically/existentially pleasing one.

Cara
Cara

Interesting things to think about, but I'm not sure I follow you all the way. I understand your first response better than the first post, and like this part, He thinks it would say that God could only love a world that underneath it all corresponded with some logic. It would say that the world is not really a creation, different from Godself, but a kind of puppet. Or in other words, as Williams also puts it, it would say that God wasn’t willing to take the “risk” involved in true love, the risk of genuine difference. '' However, I think God is bigger than the either-or choice we seem to give him- can he only be a God of reason OR uncertainty? Can't he be a God bigger than what our personalities prefer and contain an unlimited amount of both those things even as we contain a limited amount of both those things while at the same time maintaining our preference for one? We are more limited than God, so we therefore do not have a complete understanding of who he is without his Spirit and without his Teachings. Even then, what can we know that God doesn't already know? Through learning about God's limitlessness 'amounts' of his characteristics, our perspectives change and grow to understand more that we only know what he wants us to know. And if that is faith, then so be it. Great thought provoking post!

Charleen
Charleen

I am a friend of your parents and I receive daily devotions from richard rohr. I navigated my way very slowly through what you wrote and totally get where you're coming from. Wow. You are a very intellectual writer and keep up the thought provoking writing.

Nathan Colborne
Nathan Colborne

Great post Justin, It seems to me that the God of 'reasons' is also the God who gives 'order' and who gives 'orders.' So if believers ought to reject a God who justifies suffering and catastrophe for 'reasons' we don't understand, perhaps believers ought to also reject a God that creates and sustains an ordered, stable, predictable universe and who is the source of a stable moral order. And as humans we invent a God of 'order(s)' for the same reasons we invent a God of 'reasons,' because we are unable to stomach a life without these things. I'm not sure if you agree with me but, if you do, how does a believer who rejects the God of 'reasons' and of 'order(s)' differ from an atheist? What is left of a God who doesn't give reason, order, or orders?

dmf
dmf

thanks for the generous reply, I'm not sure that the line between poetry and prose is really one of attending to rules or not or that explanations need to be (or even can be) systemic/closed, but more importantly I don't see why poetry (or anything for that matter) forces us (or in and of itself leads us) to draw attention to our material experience (and how such attention would be free of grammar/predispositions) , but I look forward to hearing more about how this happens. http://www.english.unt.edu/~simpkins/Fish%20Acceptable.pdf

Tripp Fuller
Tripp Fuller

great post and response! excited to have you sharing this here.

Justin Klassen
Justin Klassen

@dmf, thanks for the questions, and for the recommendation of Santner's book, which I'm sorry to say I haven't read. You ask the big question... From Zizek's perspective, the God of reasons is the God who can't stomach life as we really experience it because the God of reasons is precisely an invention, a fantasy, that we have made up because WE can't stomach life as we experience it. So for example he would say, about the book of Job, that a conventional reading of that book concludes that even though Job himself "doesn't know" the reasons for his suffering, his resolute faith (despite his visceral reaction to his loss) basically affirms that "Oh well, at least 'God' knows the reasons," or in other words, even if I don't comprehend this mess of loose ends called life, at least "somewhere" they are tied up. But Zizek argues that the subversive thing about the book of Job is that God never actually gives his "reasons," and that what Job really discovers is God's impotence to explain. Zizek goes on to say that the New Testament affirms this "death" of the God who makes sense of everything up there in the sky when it identifies the derelict one, Jesus, the one forsaken by this false god, as the true God. So then the question is, what could a Christian, non-atheist perspective learn from this reading? I've given some suggestions of an answer vis-a-vis Chesterton, but perhaps we could also say something more broadly: a believing Christian could learn from Zizek's reading that it might not be necessary to equate God's love for creation with a notion that the world "must be," underneath it all, legible in terms of a logical explanation (even one we can't see but imagine that God knows). Rowan Williams gets at something like this idea in Tokens of Trust, where he asks if a world with a "perpetual safety net" would be a "better" world. Immediately we might answer, "yes, it would be better, for us, and that's why we assume there is the safety net of an explanation there somewhere beneath, or above, the world we experience as traumatic. God loves us, after all." But Williams wants to know not just, "would we like it better" if the world were this way, but also, "what would it say about God?" He thinks it would say that God could only love a world that underneath it all corresponded with some logic. It would say that the world is not really a creation, different from Godself, but a kind of puppet. Or in other words, as Williams also puts it, it would say that God wasn't willing to take the "risk" involved in true love, the risk of genuine difference. I think this makes sense to us in terms of human freedom, at least (even though turning away from God is self-defeating, if it were not possible to do so, God wouldn't be a very big-hearted lover)....but perhaps we can also think along these lines of a freedom of the created order as such.... What would sharing without explanation look like? It would look like something more poetic than the tidiness of Piper's explanation. Sometimes I tell my students that one difference between poetry and prose is that prose has to follow predetermined rules. If I write a prose sentence on the blackboard with a few words missing, we will know already what must be added for it to be a complete sentence. If I put a line of verse up there with a word or two missing, we will be less certain of how to complete it. Instead of attending to the "rules" of grammar/life in assessing or expressing a poetic utterance, we have to give a prior significance, and attention, to our material experience.

dmf
dmf

prof. Klassen why is the Yahweh of reasons necessarily "the God who cannot stomach life as human beings really experience it" , and what would sharing without explanation/description/expression look like? have you read Santner's Psychotheology of Everyday Life? http://slought.org/content/11085/

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