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.