Saturday, July 26, 2008

Slavoj Zizek and Infinite Justice

Slavoj Zizek is a sociologist, philosopher and cultural critic from Ljubljana, Slovenia. I'd never heard of him (or Ljubljana either, I must confess), until recently. Apparently, however, Zizek is "the Elvis of culture theory". The first time I heard of him it was because someone said he was a frequent quoter of GK Chesterton. My curiosity was piqued on both accounts.

So when I saw one of his books on my sister's coffee table a couple weeks ago (she's a Master's level literature student) I knew I had to put my other summer reading aside and give Zizek a go.


It is hard to explain this book, let alone read it. It is a collection of five essays on 9/11 and its cultural/political aftermath. The back jacket of Welcome to the Desert of the Real (yes, its a line from The Matrix) says the following:

"On September 11, the USA was given the opportunity to realize what kind of world it was a part of. It might have taken this opportunity -- but it did not; instead it opted to reassert its traditional ideological commitments; out with feelings of responsibility and guilt towards the impoverished Third World, we are the victims now!"

Agree with that or not, you have to admit that's a jarring perspective. But here's the part I want to comment on. In a section where he is talking about the US government's first response to 9/11 Zizek mentions the intriguing original title of their military campaign: "Infinite Justice".

Incidentally, this title was changed when Muslims complained that only God could administer infinite justice. My question is whether any Christians bothered to point that out. Zizek then refers to Jacques Derrida's post-9/11 comments, which were sympathetic to victims, but refused to declare anyone "politically guiltless". Then Zizek makes a bold proposition. Regarding Derrida self-critical stance, he writes:

"This self-relating, this inclusion of oneself in the picture, is the only true 'infinite justice.'" Quoting Hegel, he elaborates: "Evil resides (also) in the innocent gaze itself which perceives Evil all around."

If I'm reading him right, the point is that the only infinite justice is when no one claims the higher ground and real dialogue is able to take place. This is a profound and important thing that I think we all need to hear. But I think it over-states itself.

I agree that there is more justice in this kind of humble dialogue than the alternative, but how can this be called infinite? I suppose it offers infinite possibilities, and hope for justice, but such dialogue can only be the firstfruits of justice, and not the fulfillment of it in all its potential (which is implied by the adjective "infinite".

Reading Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace raises a few questions for me that I would like to put to Zizek:

Even once dialogue has begun, one has to wonder if injustice will be dealt with in the general or in the particular? How specific will we get in sorting out injustices? Will we stop at 9/11s or will we talk about our verbal abuses, our power-plays in the boardroom, or neglect of children?

And will we stop at talking about it? Or will there be an attempt to right wrongs? And how will we discern those exactly? And can they be righted, fully? To what extent?

And will wrong be punished? And if so, how can it be punished without adding new injustices? If not, how is there justice if the rapist steals from the raped and leaves it at thate, the murderer kills and yet gets to live in place of thes victim, the abuser inflicts pain and it ends there?

Will wrongs be forgiven? Or forgotten? On what basis and how and by who?

In what sense would facing and discussing our guiltlessness be "infinite justice"? Perhaps, though important, it is only a beginning, like fear of God is to wisdom. Even then, I would suggest that this is only the beginning as far as we are concerned, but that infinite justice must and does begin (and end) somewhere else; in someone else. Someone more humane than humans. Someone with the innocence, clarity, and power to discern and judge injustice, to punish wrongdoers, and to yet offer freedom from those wrongs.

This is a tall order. And I would suggest that if not for Jesus Christ, there would not be any hope. There is a lot of injustice out there. And even Jesus' answer was to answer the injustice of the world with an even greater injustice, an "infinite injustice", if you will. The Innocent Divine dies for the Guilty Humanity.

I think Zizek and Derrida have us onto a very crucial self-critical and dialogical stance, but still leave us a ways to go. Infinite justice can only be really be approached in the context of some larger redemptive plan involving someone like the Christ.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

On Return From Vacation

You know that day after vacation that you spend simply catching up on your real life? That's my day today. Funny how I've been on the computer all morning and yet our trunk is still full of luggage. The observant among you will note that, yes, I've prioritized a blog update above unpacking the car. Its also a morning for taking it easy. This home-brewed coffee is tasting very good right now.

I feel like there is a lot to write about. But there is also a lot to do. I have been thinking about commenting about some of the books I've been reading, including Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, the incredibly Life of Pi by Yann Martel, and Slavoj Zizek's Welcome to the Desert of the Real (thanks Amy, I guess I should mail that back to you). I'd also love to comment on my denomination's total failure to do the right thing at its last General Assembly (but maybe that comment is as far as I should take it in this venue). So hopefully those posts will be coming soon. We'll see. I'm also embroiled in an atheist's dialogue on another blog so maybe that will slow down my posts. Thanks for reading, anyway.

On a personal note, a couple exciting bits of information in my inbox while away:

Turns out I've been accepted to present a 15 minute version of my thesis at the Mid-Atlantic Popular/American Culture Association's Conference in Niagara Falls in October. Pray the twins are not born while I'm gone! I'm not kidding.

Also, I came third in a student writing contest for Ministry Magazine (the prize is US$300), so some time in the future you'll see me linking to my article, “A Theological Approach to Pastoral Leadership Today”, in their International Journal for Pastors. I had submitted three entries, and I'm (pleasantly) surprised they took this one because I come down pretty hard on most pastoral leadership gurus today (see my previous "Valedictory Address" post for the gist of it).

And finally, I will also be teaching a one-week module at Nipawin Bible College in January (pray the twins are born before then! Okay, now I'm kidding). The class is Theology II: Humanity, Sin, and Salvation. The previous prof used a fairly systematic book by Millard Erickson as the text. I'm wanting to be a little more wholistic and postmodern in my approach. Any suggestions? What is the best introduction to the theology of humanity and redemption that you have read?

So that's the latest. I better get unpacking that trunk now.

By the way, am I supposed to take this recent flurry of sholarly opportunities as affirmation in that career direction? Especially in light of my dismay with my denomination and the types of pastoral jobs that are out there? You don't have to answer that.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Taken Aback By A Prayer

A little while back I sat in my last class at seminary. In the closing moments the prof asked Ross, a friend of mine, to close in prayer. In this prayer he was asked to think especially of those for whom this was the end of the seminary road.

Ross is a soft-spoken guy with white hair and an amazing moustache, so you always listen when he is going to say something. Especially to or about God. Sorry Ross, but its true.

Anyway, he prayed a fairly short prayer, sincere and to the point. In it he addressed the "God of help" and asked Him to guide us in our future steps. I appreciated it.

But what I wanted to mention about this prayer was the line he threw in there after those ones which quite literally blew me away, challenged, and inspired me all at once. Maybe it won't seem that special to you, but before the "amen" was even said I had pencil in hand and was writing the prayer down. It was one of those "flippancy eliminators" which I think is only possible to pray and mean (let alone follow through on) within the supportive communion of kindred spirits.

He came to that part where usually we go on to ask God for wisdom to make the best decision for our future or discernment to find his plan for our lives. That's what I was expecting, and it wouldn't have been a bad thing to say that. But instead this is what he prayed:

"Give them the courage to make the sacrifices that you ask of them."

Oh my---do I dare say it?---Amen.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

What To Do, What To Do . . .

If anyone is interested to read about how, and why, you go about applying for PhD work, here's an excellent guide.