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Žižek and the Ideology of “Religionless Spirituality”

January 21, 2013 2 comments

Marxist theorist Slavoj Žižek is widely known for his provocative, if sometimes reckless, pronouncements on contemporary culture. He is, of course, less well-known for careful, restrained or “rigorous” analysis. Despite this, there are notable moments in which Žižek is so right-on that one wonders whether even he knows how right he is. In a now often quoted passage from his opening chapter in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (co-authored with RO theologian John Milbank) Žižek writes the following:

“…when today’s New Age ideologists insist on the distinction between religion and spirituality (they perceive themselves as spiritual, not part of any organized religion)… The idea is that all religions presuppose, rely on, exploit, manipulate, etc., the same core of mystical experience, and that it is only “pure” forms of meditation like Zen Buddhism that exemplify this core directly, bypassing institutional and dogmatic mediations. Spiritual meditation, in its abstraction from institutionalized religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.”

While it’s not really clear from the context how this “New Age” insistence on “spirituality without religion” is supposed to be related to “today’s global capitalism”, elsewhere Žižek has offered a slightly more detailed explanation of this same basic idea. In his book On Belief for instance, he notes the irony that today, while “European” technology and capitalism are dominating globally at the level of “economic infrastructure,” at the same time, this New Age, “Asiatic” thought is establishing it’s hegemony at the level of “ideological superstructure.” Žižek explains how this pervasive cultural shift from “institutional religion” to “spiritual experience” is, he thinks, tied to what Alvin Toffler referred to as “Future Shock” – i.e., the inability of those in the West to cope psychologically with the ever-increasing rate of technological progress and it’s resulting social changes. The appropriation of various “Eastern” spiritualities seems to allow Westerners a way out of this dilemma. According to what Žižek calls “Western Buddhism”:

“Instead of trying to cope with the accelerating rhythm of technological progress and social changes, one should rather renounce the endeavor to retain control over what goes on, rejecting it as an expression of the modern logic of domination – one should, instead, “let oneself go,” drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference towards the mad dance of this accelerated process.”

Thus, Žižek claims – making only a passing reference to the old Marxian adage about the “opium of the masses” – that the current emphasis on “spirituality without religion” allows Westerners a way to cope with the “mad dance” of late capitalism that traditional religious institutions, especially Christianity, cannot. The unfortunate irony of this situation however, is that though this “religionless spirituality” may appear to us as a form of resistance (e.g., to capitalism, to the ‘status quo,’ to “Western” technological society, etc.), it is, in effect, “the most efficient way for us to fully participate in the capitalist dynamic while retaining the appearance of mental sanity”. In other words, in the very act of renouncing control over our circumstances (which often amounts to little more than a renunciation of the right to judge a given situation as objectively unjust), and contenting ourselves with a merely subjective stance of indifference (i.e., “letting oneself go”), we effectively undo any possibility of real resistance, allowing ourselves to become the passive instruments of “the capitalist dynamic.”

It’s important to note that Žižek isn’t criticizing Eastern spirituality as such. He insists, for instance, on a distinction between real, authentic Buddhism – that is, Buddhism as it might be practiced by devout followers – and the decontextualized, and cherry-picked version that figures prominently in the “New Age” pastiche. It’s the latter, rather than the former, that draws his critical ire.

If Žižek’s analysis is able to indicate one possible way in which this so-called New Age ideology functions once it appears, perhaps the work of a growing number of anthropologists and scholars of religion can shed light on how it is able to appear in the first place – i.e., how is it that we have come to inherit as our basic starting point it’s founding assumption: that there is a pure, universal core of “undistorted” spirituality underlying each particular religion’s “manipulation” of it. In my next post, In a future post, I’d like to explore the contention of religious scholars such as S.N. Balagangadhara, Tomoko Masuzawa, Timothy Fitzgerald and a host of others, that the concept of “religion” as a universal, transhistorical, transcultural feature of human life, is not an objective, neutral descriptor of a certain kind of practice, “out there” in the world, but is an invention of early Western modernity which was superimposed upon or borrowed by other cultures through the process of colonization. I will then examine the implications of this work for the kind of “New Age” ideology that Žižek addresses above, in order to show that it’s emphasis on a “religionless spirituality” not only functions as a “supplement” to our capitalist economics (as Žižek claims), but that it is also the logical extension of a particular ideological discourse which has its roots in a long history of colonization, and western imperialism.

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A Thinking Reed on David Clough’s “On Animals: Systematic Theology”

Lee M. over at A Thinking Reed has been posting his reflections as he works through David Clough’s new book On Animals: A Systematic Theology. The book promises to be a very exciting moment in the area of animal theology. It is the first work exclusively dedicated to the development of the doctrinal issues underpinning the Christian-theological understanding of non-human animals. The ultimate aim of this book, of course, is to provide an adequate theological foundation for a Christian ethics of human-animal relations (which task Clough will take up in the second volume). But rather than develop doctrinal issues as he goes, Clough has decided to dedicate an entire volume to doctrine first. He takes up the consideration of animals under the theological headings of Creation, Reconciliation, and Redemption respectively. Here are the links to Lee’s discussion (enjoy):

          1) Reading David Clough’s On Animals.

          2) On Animals: Creation.

          3) On Animals: Reconciliation.

          4) On Animals: Redemption.

I look forward to reading the book myself, but with financial constraints and a price tag of $116.25 I think I’ll have to wait awhile.

The Crucified Christ as the Measure of Theology.

“There is an inner criterion of all theology, and of every church which claims to be Christian, and this criterion goes far beyond all political, ideological and psychological criticism from the outside. It is the crucified Christ himself. When churches, theologians and forms of belief appeal to him – which they must, if they are to be Christian – then they are appealing to the one who judges them most severely and liberates them most radically from lies and vanity, from the struggle for power and from fear. …Whether or not Christianity, in an alienated, divided and oppressive society, itself becomes alienated, divided and an accomplace to oppression, is ultimately decided only by whether the crucified Christ is a stranger to it or the Lord who determines the form of its existence.” -Jurgen Moltmann, The Crucified God

Categories: Jurgen Moltmann, Theology

Cavanaugh Lecture on the Myth of Religious Violence.

For those who haven’t read Cavanaugh’s magnificent book The Myth of Religious Violence: You really should! This book has had an enormous impact on my own thinking about the “twin categories” of religion and the secular, about how these concepts are constructed, defined, and employed to legitimate certain forms of practice and marginalize others. I recently stumbled upon the following video of a lecture He gave at Butler University which essentially outlines the argument he gives in greater detail in his book. There is also a Q&A session that follows.

Theology Occupies Wall Street

I have recently stumbled upon a new theo-blog, The Theology Salon, AImed at questioning what the task of the theologian is in the OWS movement? Do the occupations need theologians? Does theology need “occupying”? Theologians reflect on their own involvement as activists within the current struggle, and question what the task of the theologian, as the theologian, might be in light of the OWS. As I’ve just stumbled upon this blog myself, I am not entirely certain of what the movement is actually doing, or where the contributors stand theologically. From the looks of it, there are voices from perspectives all across the spectrum. At first glance there are some really great posts as well. I will definitely be reading in the days to come!

Readings in Theology and Animal Ethics

October 11, 2011 3 comments

I am currently working on a research paper discussing the question of the moral status of animals within Christian theology. Much of my research revolves around essays and articles by Andrew Linzey, as his work arguably represents the most extensive theological engagement with the moral issue of human-animal relationships (Although there are voices from a “Christian-feminist” perspectives, critiques from evangelical perspectives, as well as some work from other theologians that I plan to include as well).

Not everything that Linzey says do I agree with. Many theologians have taken issue, for instance, with his use of the language of “rights” which, I would agree, is theologically debatable. Nevertheless, since his work is really the first to engage the question of what place, if any, animals might occupy within Christian ethics, I think the notion is valuable, if for no other reason than that it provides a starting place for Christians to approach the ethical issues surrounding human-animal relationships.

Here is a discussion of two articles of his I’ve recently read:

In the essay “Theology as if Animals Mattered”, Linzey touches on some of the challenges that the issue of animal welfare poses for Christians in particular. Christian theology, he argues, has been slow to engage with the growing concern for animal welfare, often marginalizing the plight of animals as a non-issue. As the case for the moral significance of animal welfare gains an increasingly strong rational basis in philosophical ethics, for Christians the issue of animals and their moral status remains “at a stage somewhat similar to the feminist issue forty years ago”, that is, when many Christians were openly critical of equal rights for women (Linzey 10). Linzey laments the anthropocentricity in much of Christian ethics as a myopia which, through it’s long history, has become so deeply ingrained in our thought that many now find it difficult to think of animals as existing for any purpose other than the utility of humans (Linzey 11). Linzey takes particular issue with two facile assumptions about Christian theology: First, that the bible lends support to human “supremacy,” and second, that it endorses the view that animals are here for our use. Citing a number of biblical passages, he shows that the assumption of human supremacy can only be considered as biblical in a “highly qualified way”, and that the second claim, that animals are made for human use, is flat out un-biblical. Linzey suggests that to the degree that Christians seek to be biblical in their theology they ought to supplant their anthropocentric conception of animals with a theocentric (i.e., God-centered) one.

Here, Linzey provides a decent entry-level primer for thinking theologically about animals. Nevertheless, this particular essay seems too casual, and brief. The essay seems to lack the clear, point-by-point, presentation of a definite case. Moreover, there is not much room given to detailed discussion of more fine-grained evidence. This article may provide some useful insights to help orient readers unaquainted with thew issues involved, but it will certainly need to be supplemented by more careful discussion of relevant data (e.g., deeper biblical exegesis, inclusion of major voices within the theological tradition etc.) if it is to be of any value in the larger debate.

In chapter one of his book Why Animal Suffering Matters, Linzey spells out his case for the moral significance of animal suffering. He notes that “those who wish to justify or minimize animal suffering rarely argue that animals do not suffer. Rather they argue that animal suffering matters less, if at all, because animals are different than human beings” (Linzey 10). Of course it is obvious that there are many important differences both within species as well as between them. The important question is whether the cited differences are morally relevant. Linzey considers in turn, the six differences most often cited as the basis for disregarding animal suffering, showing how, contrary the conclusions drawn by their proponents, such differences actually form a strong case for treating animals with the heightened care and concern we would extend to the weak and vulnerable. First he discusses the view, of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, that animals are “naturally slaves” (Linzey 12), based on the view that nature consists of a hierarchy, whereby the inferior exist for the superior. He then considers arguments from animals’ lack of certain capacities or characteristics such as rationality, language, moral agency, their “soullessness”, as well as their lack of the “divine image” (or imago dei). In each case Linzey shows how the premises do not support the intended conclusion. Moreover, he argues that such grounds, in fact, provide good reasons for seeing animals as especially vulnerable to human exploitation. Their lack of language, for instance, means that they can never give or withhold consent to their treatment, or articulate their own vital interests. Linzey’s discussion of the meaning of the biblical declaration of humans as the imago dei is especially relevant to a theological engagement of human-animal relations, and provides a strong religious motivation for extending care and protection to animals.

Here, Linzey provides not only a great argument against those who claim that it is permissible to discount animal suffering as morally unimportant, he provides a unique and powerful method of argumentation. He uses, what one reviewer aptly refers to as “a kind of jujitsu, using an opponent’s force against him” (Marks, Joel. “Why Animal Suffering Matters by Andrew Linzey.” Philosophy Now. Philosophy Now. 2010. Web. 10 Oct. 2011.). This chapter, while still brief, provides an excellent assessment of some of the most influential and pervasive arguments against the ethical importance of animals. It includes an extensive bibliography incorporating a number of important scholarly figures from theologians and biblical scholars to philosophers as well. Furthermore, the major thrust of the argument (i.e., that we ought look after the weak, rather than exploit their weakness) is congenial to a Christian ethic based on the model of Christ.

Some other works I am anxious to get my hands on (Thank you InterLibrary Loan!) include: David L. Clough’s On Animals: Systematic Theology, Andrew Linzey’s Animals & Christianity: A Book of Readings, and Animal Gospel. I am aso awaiting a copy of Daniel MIller’s Animal Ethics and Theology: The Lens of the Good Samaritan. Should be some good readin’!

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Linzey, Andrew. “Theology as if Animals Mattered.” Creatures of the Same God. Ed. Andrew Linzey. NY: Lantern Books, 2009. 9-19. Print.

Linzey, Andrew. Why Animal Suffering Matters: Philosophy, Theology and Practical Ethics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print.

Rev. Andrew Linzey and Vegetarianism

September 21, 2011 2 comments

This really is a shoddy video. I’m only posting it because I have a profound appreciation for work of Rev. Andrew Linzey. The project of Animal Theology is still in it’s infancy in many ways and there are not a lot of videos out there in the internets that address the subject. So I’m posting this here for your viewing.