Experiencing Easter After Peterson vs Žižek
The following is a guestpost by Christian Bergmann, who was a brilliant former student of mine at Campion College Australia, ans is a student both of Religious Studies and Psychology. By his own admission, he is currently wandering aimlessly in search of a real job, because all he really wants to do is write novels You may remember that Kamila Soh also guest-featured on this blog.
Slavoj Žižek is a weird breed of philosopher, but I have been reflecting on his recent conversation with Jordan Peterson, and something about it resonated with me, especially having freshly undergone the Easter Triduum of Catholic liturgy.
For those who watched, integral to the debate was the notion of ‘happiness’, yet they both had very little time for taking the matter seriously. Both agreed that modern conceptualisations of what constitutes ‘happiness’ are seriously flawed. Peterson, for his part, has more to say about living a meaningful life; Žižek, for his part, likewise considers happiness to be more of a ‘by-product’ of something more meaningful – say, commitment to a cause transcending the individual self.
In fact, Žižek went further and, in the context of discussing happiness, referred to Chesterton’s brilliant remark, in Orthodoxy, that upon the cross, even God became an atheist. This was to suggest, maybe, that not even God values happiness as much as we do. This resonated for reasons I am still trying to unpack.
In large part, it has to do with this year’s entering into the Easter Triduum. The Octave of Easter might be over, but Easter is celebrated for fifty days in the Catholic tradition. We are far from done immersing ourselves in the mysteries of the Pascal Mystery.
Maybe it had to do with the way in which I entered into it – that is, with more intention than usual – but I found the effect of the liturgy on my heart, mind, and body to be a disorienting one. Pope John-Paul II spoke frequently about the ‘experience of the body’ in our understanding of a personalist theological anthropology; I think I began to experience, in an utterly distinct way than usual, a ‘liturgical experience of the body’.
It was Holy Thursday that did it. After the commencement of the Triduum, when the altar was stripped bare, the church vacated, and the tabernacle emptied of the presence of God, I experienced within my own self a kind of emptiness that mirrored and almost responded to the emptiness of the tabernacle.
It was an emptiness that I did not know what to do with, because I did not know how to navigate the church anymore. All of the instincts, habits and feelings that have been ingrained within my body over the course of a lifetime came up against the utter barrenness of the sanctuary that once housed the presence of God. The only feeling possible at that point was disorientation.
It was a profound bodily immersion into the Mystery of Easter. I felt as if I were coming up against the possibility of a vacant world, a world stripped of anything sacred, a world emptied of meaning, of presence, of any orientation whatever.
I suppose my instincts were coming up against the mystery of the cross.
Kierkegaard once wrote that there was ‘a ridiculousness we should guard against: talking ingratiatingly about Christianity’. I felt this deeply throughout the Triduum, because I felt as though the liturgy itself was deconstructing within me my own knowledge, my own assumptions, my own instincts, and my own notions of what it might mean to be happy.
I found myself contemplating something I do far too little: that happiness and emptiness belong together in some way.
But I began to wonder if the emptiness itself might have meaning, lest the death of God become an unanswerable event incapable of overcoming its own nihilism.
It does. Which is why Žižek’s ‘theology’ is no theology at all, and why his attempt at a profound understanding of the cross bears no possibility of being profound. The emptiness of the cross is not profound, because that would make nothingness itself profound. Which it is not.
The only reason why the dead body of Jesus, empty of life, has any profundity is because of what John-Paul II called ‘the hermeneutic of the gift’: the emptying of the self in an act of love that is the only way of bringing about new life.
This new life was the resurrection.