Joanne Knight

October 22, 2012

The God Sacrificed

Filed under: Nature of Belief — joanneknight @ 11:14 pm
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In the play Freud’s Last Session at the San Jose Repertory theatre, Freud and CS Lewis rehash the 19th century debate between rationalism and religion. The thing I find frustrating about the ‘does God exist?’ debate is that it’s framed in such dichotomous terms: religion vs rationality. According to the rationalists, religion is irrational and according to the religious, rationality (or non-believers) do not accept mystery. There is no position which encompasses a non-rational secularism or a religious rationality. It seemed to me, when the characters were discussing religion as myth they stopped at an impasse that myths were either lies or truth. There was no middle ground. You either accept God as real (the CS Lewis/ Tolkein position) or you dismiss the whole of religion as superstition (Freud). There is a position which says that we accept myth as a symbolic truth but not as a literal truth. One does not need to believe in a supernatural being with a concrete existence in order to accept the validity of myths.

Zizek argues with the claim that with the death of God, everything is permitted. Rather than leading to hedonistic excess, he claims that the death of God has led to self-imposed restrictions, such as we see in political correctness. It refers to the idea as to whether one perceives an ultimate external authority or not. Christians who recognise God as an ultimate authority may commit any atrocity in his name. Those who do not, hedge themselves about with all sorts of moral restrictions. Even the Godless Communists, mobilised a sacred cause in the name of historical progress.

Many imply that consumerism is a result of hedonistic excess and propose that we need a new limit, such as the environment as the sacred, to impose external limits on our consumption. Zizek warns against such absolutist thinking as it may lure us into a ‘perverse, self-destructive rapture.’ We must take a stance where the disaster, such as environmental devastation, may be eternally postponed. I think that as an activist or a reformist, this means that, even though there is no hope of an ultimate victory or devastation, no final ending, we must continue to act as if there is hope of victory. If we fall into despair, any atrocity may be committed in the name of environmental preservation. We see some advocating such things as a scientific dictatorship to force all of us to act in the interests of the environment or the imposition of charges to prevent people from buying fuel and driving cars, which would impact poor and middle income workers most severely. It could potentially create barbaric situations such as hoarding, stealing and rioting. Zizek’s proposition of an ‘apocalyptic’ mindset, in which we are eternally engaged in postposing disaster, engaged in a never-ending negotiation to prevent worst-case scenarios arising, is effective in democracies. Extremists of the left and right (although leftwing extremists are not the danger these days) are usually thrown out of office in time or forced to modify their positions through negotiation.

Zizek also engages in a discussion of ‘sacrifice’. He discusses Lacan’s theory of sacrfice. The subject offers a sacrifice to fill in for the missing Big Other, ie God, to sustain the appearance of the Other’s omnipotence. One sacrifices oneself to maintain the appearance of the Other’s honour, to save the Other from shame. However this requires the constant staging of a self-humiliation of the subject in order to demonstrate their sacrifice, their lack of jouissance (the inability to attain their ultimate desire). Thus ‘through sacrifice, the Big Other, the transcendent agency which poses limits to our activity is sustained.’

Chrisitanity introduced a world-historical rupture by removing the subject of the sacrifice. In Christ, the story of the sacrifice is told from the point of view of the one sacrificed, thus removing our ability to scapegoat, to create evil personages who we may sacrifice to maintain order and contain violence. The rituals of Christianity, such as the Mass, stage the profaning of the sacred, eating the body and drinking the blood of Christ, in order to remind us of the sacrifice of the victim, keep in our mind the pain of the one sacrificed. For example, the story of the massacre of indigenous peoples help us to understand their anger at Western society. To tell the story of the sacrificed from the point of view of the victim, helps us to understand the experience of victimhood and to refuse to enter into the creation of it. The impact of this knowledge is deeply ambiguous. We cannot completely remove the need for authority or the sacrifice and so the sacrifice is contained within ritual, such as the conferring of awards, titles and elections, to invest those in power with the authority they require. But this authority is contested and ambiguous, not absolute. Thus the constant negotiation required in democracy and Christian society. This is the force which opposes capitalism and its constant movement towards absolutism. Not just the opposing force of Christianity and the sacred (which is deeply ambiguous), but its own constant tension of creation and destruction, which does not allow it to solidify into an absolute dominance of corporations and the rich over everyone else.

The knowledge of the suffering of the victim which pervades our society through the story of the suffering of the Christ and which is reinforced through the stories of the suffering of other victims, such as the Jews in World War 2, can provide a limit to the pursuit of power, the urge of hedonistic, self-destructive excess. It is not enough on its own, for we can see such stories mobilised in the name of violence and the pursuit of excess, but if we continue to assert the compassion necessary to enter into these stories, we resist the temptation to hate the victim because of their weakness and to worship power, we may endlessly postpone our ultimate self-destructive impulses. But the process is never-ending. We constantly fall into sin to be redeemed, to sin again.

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