Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism – Chapter 2, Religion

In the second chapter of their book Religion, Politics and the Earth: The New Materialism, Clayton Crockett and Jeffery Robbins tackle the history of the relationship between religion and its materialist critique and the differences between the critique of the classic materialists (Feuerbach, et. al.) and the new materialist critique of Slavoj Žižek before offering what they see as the constructive implications of the latter for Christianity specifically. What I want to do here is talk a bit about Crockett and Robbins’ approach to the materialist critique of religion and add to the practical implications that they outline with an eye to Evangelical Christianity specifically. This chapter is conceptually difficult without any background in Žižek or Lacan, so I’m going to do a lot of summarizing and explaining before getting to the extension of the practical implications. My hope is that this can serve as a primer for those who are interested in the book but are intimidated by the approach Crockett and Robbins employ while highlighting some additional things to think about.

In essence, the difference between classical and new materialism resides in the consequences of the critique. Feuerbach and Freud saw religion as a debilitating crutch, something that had to be overcome so that the ultimate truth that science and empirical evidence provide could shine through and humans would no longer be dependent on anything but their own reason: the epitome of secular humanism. Religion, in other words, is a false consciousness–a way of thinking that helps us escape the reality of our situation. Žižek and other [Lacanian] materialists point out, however, that all consciousness is false consciousness. Following Lacan, Žižek argues that our symbolic and imaginary orders (how we imagine ourselves to be and the social-judicial order that governs that) are our reality; they keep us from experiencing the terrifying Real (what we really are, which shatters our imaginary selves.) So even if religion were to be erased, it would immediately be replaced by some other false consciousness, and there’s no telling if that would have better or worse results.

Žižek is willing to bet we’d be worse off since he thinks that religion, at its core, really has a lot to offer. What is metaphysically or ontologically real is of no consequence for Žižek since no “system,” whether that be a purely empiricist epistemology or any other way of being in the world, is the Real itself. The choice between a world in which there is religion and one where there is not is a false dichotomy because one cannot not choose false consciousness. Religion has the potential to be politically mobilizing, to be the driving force in moving humanity toward a better political reality. In this way, New Materialism moves beyond critique to a reconceptualization and radicalization of religion.

This way of thinking about religion–or reality itself for that matter–may strike some as extremely problematic. But instead of attempting to make a counter-case for why this isn’t how things really are (i.e. false consciousness, etc.), I would encourage readers to understand this Žižekian-Lacanian move as the implementation of a theoretical method. That is, one need not accept Lacanian psychoanalytic categorization of reality as really true in order to understand that, as theory, it can help us think about something familiar in a radically new way. Crockett and Robbins are reading religion. This is how literary theory (which “popularized” Lacan among humanities disciplines outside of philosophy) typically works. What is important in this method is that it helps highlight the implications of a non-reductive materialist approach to religion which validates religion as a way of seeing the world that is compatible with science and can also provide the resources for more robust political action. That is where we now turn.

The implications for this in Christianity should be pretty obvious: Take the Incarnation seriously, tracing out its implications as far as they go. For Žižek and Radical Theology, that means the death of God. That is the inevitable conclusion of a truly materialist Christianity. Some might call this “Christian atheism,” but there’s a very important difference between not knowing if there is a God and claiming that there definitely is no God. The latter is what “atheism” implies, and that doesn’t seem to be what is going on in this move. This conclusion allows us to believe the efficacy of belief itself. That is, when we claim the fundamental truth of God, we are not believing, but claiming direct knowledge instead. The classical materialist critique works the same way: what is repudiated is not a leap of faith, but a fundementalist empirical claim to know God directly. Belief has no efficacy in either case. By continuing on as if we believe, it is not that we come to a more authentic faith; rather, we  come to see our belief as externalized (it is not I who believes, but my prayer believes for me) and can finally see and understand the structure of our [false] religious consciousness. No more transcendental guarantees. No assurances. Just a dangerous leap of faith. This is how Christianity truly reclaims the fundamental risk with which it was established in the first place. Christianity is re-radicalized.

The importance of this move is to reconfigure Christianity in such a way that it can be a viable mobilized political force. If we are aware of the structure of our false consciousness, then we will be able to finally unmask and root out the commodities that appear to us as “a magical object endowed with special powers” (C&R quoting Marx) within that structure. Put differently, we can come to see much more clearly that religion in America is ultimately about money. The solution is not to sever the connection between religion and money but to read the Gospel through the lens of this problematic. We suddenly see that stories like Jesus feeding the 5,000 really are about the redistribution of wealth and not primarily about a supernatural miracle. When Jesus says, in the Lord’s Prayer, “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors,” it’s a mistake to read sin into debt. This is an economic claim. (C&R follow John Dominic Crossan on both of those examples.) We are then poised to organize political action against systemic oppressive structures.

Now that we have a good sense of what Crockett and Robbins are gesturing toward, we can ask: Why would this be difficult for a Christian to grasp, but particularly an Evangelical? The Bible says it right there, doesn’t it? There are many passages and verses that instruct us to always plead the case of the widow and the orphan, to make sure that our religious practice always results in mercy and justice. Why does that not lead to organized political action against systemic oppression? One obvious answer is that using words like systemic and political sounds a little too socialist for some Evangelicals. That may be reductive, but I think we can generally agree that most Evangelicals are part of the religious Right, which sadly means they hear the gospel and discourse about contemporary social justice on a systemic level in two different registers. But there is another, more complex issue that I think is actually more problematic than right wing political rhetoric.

Evangelical Christianity is too spiritualized.

Evangelicalism has a long history of personal spirituality going back to Lutheran Pietists in the 18th century (and probably earlier than that.) What follows should be so familiar to Evangelicals, that it might hardly sound like a problem at all–it will just sound like what Christianity is. Becoming a Christian means having faith in Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection. It is a personal intellectual assent to a set of beliefs. Once one is a Christian, there’s a lot of talk about one’s relationship with God and Jesus, God’s personal love for us and plan for our individual lives, “being Christlike” in our actions (which usually means abstaining from “bad stuff”). We also want to feel something from our faith. We can do that if we “go deeper.” How one goes deeper in one’s faith usually involves adding more prayer, memorizing more scripture, thinking more about the sermons we hear, “being obedient to God’s will,” emulating Christ’s humility, worshipping harder, being in the light of Christ…

Am I being vague enough?

What the hell do any of these things actually mean?

Many Evangelicals complain about feeling like they’re “in a rut” spiritually. They remember feeling God strongly at some previous time, but now everything seems so mundane. That’s because most of what Evangelical Christianity requires of believers are abstract, personal, intellectual activities (meaning in one’s mind, nothing academic necessarily). We have to read the Bible. We have to pray more. We have to contemplate… stuff. Engaging in service activities is one way of achieving a closer relationship with God. But the purpose is always our own spiritual health and development. Serving becomes an intellectual exercise–a way for us to feel closer to God. Our orientation is always toward our own personal spirituality.

And it’s important to note that “service” among Evangelicals rarely if ever requires any sort of political action let alone in the radical way Crockett and Robbins suggest.

We just have to “love on people.”

I cannot tell you how much I hate that phrase. Jesus didn’t just love people; he actively sought their liberation from an oppressive hierarchical social system. He actively sought their liberation from an oppressive hierarchical social system. And for that, he was crucified. If all we are doing is trying to be friends with some homeless people, with some inmates, with some refugees, we are not part of the solution. We’re part of the problem. We’re not doing anything to help them.

We have a mental block. Evangelicals don’t really know what Christianity is all about. Saying it’s about Jesus, it’s about forgiveness of sins, it’s about freedom for ourselves, seems to me (and to Crockett, Robbins, Žižek, Crossan, etc.) completely wrong. Christianity must become the political force that it has the potential to be, one motivated by justice from systemic oppression; the problem is that, at least for Evangelicals, we are going to have a really hard time laying down our own feel-good personal spirituality in order to do so.

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8 thoughts on “Religion, Politics, and the Earth: The New Materialism – Chapter 2, Religion

  1. “Following Lacan, Žižek argues that our symbolic and imaginary orders (how we imagine ourselves to be and the social-judicial order that governs that) are our reality; they keep us from experiencing the terrifying Real (what we really are, which shatters our imaginary selves.) So even if religion were to be erased, it would immediately be replaced by some other false consciousness, and there’s no telling if that would have better or worse results.”

    “What is metaphysically or ontologically real is of no consequence for Žižek since no “system,” whether that be a purely empiricist epistemology or any other way of being in the world, is the Real itself.”

    I might be naive, but there seems to be an obvious disconnect here: 1. The Real has at least one property: namely, that it shatters (or would shatter) our imaginary selves; and yet 2. don’t talk about what is really real because you can’t.

    I don’t know how this isn’t just a weaponized apophaticism i.e. I can talk about the Real but you can’t.

    • I think it seems weaponized, if one thinks that Zizek or Lacan are trying to make actual claims about the Real. I understand the sentiment behind thinking the contradiction is a problem, but there’s a related response from John Caputo to a critic about his so called apophaticism regarding the concrete God: (I’m quoting loosely) Someone criticizes Caputo on the fact that he describes all kinds of things about God through his description of the unknowability of the traditional theistic God, e.g. God cannot be known=something we know about God. Caputo responds by calling into question the logical tricks the critic used: both the critic and Caputo know they aren’t speaking about God per se, but Caputo (and Zizek/Lacan) is merely speaking in the colloquial language of experience.

    • Joshua, what you’ve pointed out is perhaps the biggest critique of psychoanalysis: It conveniently seems to evade its own system. In other words, it’s more than fair to point out that the understanding of the world in terms of the structure of the Lacanian psyche must itself be a false consciousness, no closer to the Real than any other false consciousness. But, to play the Lacanian apologist for a minute, I don’t think that’s a problem for Lacan (or Žižek.) If all consciousness is false consciousness, that doesn’t necessarily preclude talk about which schemes are better than others at handling our relationship to the Real. Both Lacan and Žižek absolutely think that overcoming out dependence on the big “Other” (the Symbolic Order) is the way to go. They think they have a better grasp on what a healthy relationship to the Real actually looks like–after all, they’re psychoanalysts.

      Also, I did not mean to conflate “the Real” with “what is metaphysically and ontologically real.” Those are not the same thing in Lacanian terms. I see how the way I’ve put it makes that confusing. The Real is a state of nature that we were severed from when we entered into language. It is absolute need. It is the rock against which all of our fantasies and desires ultimately crash against and sink. In the Real we were whole. Our imaginary selves are ourselves imagined as whole. When the Real erupts into our lives, we’re confronted with the fact that we can never get back to the Real since our very entrance into language is what severed us from it in the first place. No one can talk about it directly.

      I understand that that still may not be satisfying as a theory of reality as such, but as I say in the post, the employment of Lacan here is as a tool that helps us read religion differently. That means that as far as that tool is doing work for us in helping us understand religion, it’s useful.

      • Hi Joel,

        Sorry for not getting to this sooner, and thanks for the clarification. I was probably too harsh–there is no doubt that Lacan has some interesting things to say about the way social realities function.

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