Archive for the ‘Political Theology’ Category

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.


Cavanaugh Lecture on the Myth of Religious Violence.

January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

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

October 25, 2011 Leave a comment

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!

July 4th

July 4, 2011 Leave a comment

On this July fourh, I pray for the day to come when we will turn our swords in for plowshares, and beat our spears into pruning hooks. I pray that, even as we are thankful for what freedoms we do have, we will remember those who’s freedoms have been and continue to be trampled upon, so that we can enjoy the luxury of privelage. That even in thankful humility, we will not forget this deep injustice. I pray too, that rather than looking back, to some supposed time in the past when “freedom was gained,” we will instead realize that freedom has yet to come. I pray that we continue to look to Christ, and to his return, and to the coming of his kingdom. And also that we will not abondon the hard work of paving a path to freedom in which everyone can participate, not through waging wars in third world countries but through sharing our own peace and abundance.

3 Part Interview with William T. Cavanaugh

April 16, 2011 Leave a comment




I’ve been a huge fan of William T. Cavanaugh’s since I started reading articles of his about three years ago. Admittedly his Myth of Religious Violence was the first full book of his that I picked up (I was stoked to have found it the first week of it’s publication). I talked about that book so much it actually inspired two regulars at my coffee shop to buy copies and now they’re trying to get others in their church to read it.

For about two years now I’ve regularly searched the internet to see if there have been any new audio/video lectures of his being posted. Unfortunately for Cavanaugh fans the pickings are slim for audio/video media featuring Cavanaugh. So I was stoked to see this three-part video interview on the Centre for Public Christianity website. The first video corresponds roughly to the issues he discusses in The Myth of Religious Violence, while the second discusses themes addressed in his Being Consumed. The third video…I haven’t watched it yet. I got too excited that I couldn’t not post these up right away. Now that it’s posted I’ll watch it. You should too!

What is Political Theology?

April 1, 2011 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the political dimension of human life. It’s an odd thing to cross that ideological veil of American life, from a conception of oneself as essentially individual and having nothing really to do with society as a whole (apolitical), into a (more authentic) self-conception that connects one’s own life to the lives of others (via socio-politcal awareness). I feel strongly that the major disparity between those who posses political power and the vast majority, the people (a disparity that keeps democracy unrealizable) is due at least in large part to the inability of the people to take seriously the social (and therefore the political) dimension of their lives.

I am reminded time and time again of my experiences of church, where, contrary to the beautiful, theological vision of unity, brotherhood, and service, contrary to the vision of a social life drawn together and organized around liturgical practice (in whatever form), the church is unable to overcome seeing it’s members through the lens of American “rugged individualism” and so fails to enter into true communal life.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about so-called political theology. What resources or insights might a political theology have to offer to these issues, either ecclesiological or civic? What makes a theology political? Picking up the Blackwell Companion to Political Theology (co-edited by a man whose work I greatly admire, William T. Cavanaugh) I’ve been exploring these issues.

The introductory chapter outlines a few basic, key points that, I think, are vital to political theology:

(1) Theology is politically important. Those who engage in either theology or politics ignore this fact only at their own peril.

(2) Theology is broadly understood as “discourse about God, and human persons as they relate to God”. The political is broadly understood as the use of structural power to organize society (i.e., a community of people). Political theology is then the critical analysis of political arrangements (which include cultural-psychological, social, and economic arrangements) from the perspective of differing interpretations of God’s ways with the world.

(3) The task of political theology is construed in different ways by different folks:

  • (a) Politics has it’s own secular autonomy, and theology is an essentially distinct activity (public v. private). We might relate the semiprivate issues of religious believers to larger social issues, but the two must remain distinct.
  • (b) Theology is something that reflects and reinforces just or unjust political arrangements. Theology is a superstructure related to the material politico-economic base. The task of political theology then would be to reconstruct theology so that it serves the cause of justice.
  • (c) Theology and politics are essentially similar activities. Both involve the production of metaphysical images around which communities are organized. Politics has theology embedded within it (i.e., it is never “secular”), and theology implies particular forms of social organization (i.e., within its various particular doctrines, e.g., the trinity, eschatology etc.). Contrary to the first group of thinkers (and in common with the second), there is no separation of material base and cultural superstructure. The task of political theology is, then, exposing the false theology implicit in “secular” politics, and promoting true politics implicit in true theology (Cavanaugh takes this latter view).

(4) What distinguishes all political theology from all other theology or political discourse, is it’s explicit attempt to relate discourse about God to the organization of bodies within space and time.

(5) Political theologies, however, vary according to:

  • (a) Which social sciences and other secular discourses are employed
  • (b) The extent to which they are “contextualized” (i.e., rooted in the lived experience of a particular people, e.g., women, blacks, Latin Americans, etc.)
  • (c) The extent to which the state is seen as the locus of politics
  • (d) the ways in which theological resources (e.g., scripture, liturgy, doctrine etc.) are employed.

How the church decides to address these points will prove crucial for it’s continued existence within the larger social world. That is to say, I don’t think these are points that any Christian can ignore.