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On God and Politics: Comparing Žižek and Peterson

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him—you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition?

~Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

Religion has long played an important role in framing our sense of both who we are and the societies to which we belong. This has had a tremendous impact on world politics, for better and for worse at various times. But since the inauguration of what is loosely called modernity, many have expected the private importance of religion and its political influence to gradually diminish. In the Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes famously dismissed appealing to the “thin spirits” of religion as a support for various political positions. Voltaire and other Enlightenment philosophes ridiculed the mythologies and privileges associated with the Catholic Church and its traditionalist hierarchies. Immanuel Kant famously claimed that pure reason can never provide concrete proof of the existence of God. Karl Marx infamously waved religion away as the “opiate of the masses” which would disappear with the rise of a communist society. These myriad developments infamously led Friedrich Nietzsche—following in the footsteps of the atheist philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer—to declare that God was dead, and that we had entered into a new and uncertain secular age.

Nietzsche predicted that this age would see the emergence of new and potentially radical ideologies, many of which would shake the foundations of the global order. But since then, many have argued that secularism, far from leading to great turmoil, will gradually lead to a more peaceful and interconnected globe. New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris claimed that religion had always been a divisive force, and that its inevitable decline would abet the emergence of a more humanistic world. In his recently published posthumous book, Stephen Hawking claimed one final time that there is no God, and that science and reason will and must take the place of faith in our examinations of the world. But in a strange twist God continuously seems to (appropriately enough) resurrect himself. While there is indeed declining levels of support for traditional religions, the world as a whole does not appear to be moving in a more atheistic direction. As a consequence, religion continues to play an important role in the private life of billions and in their political sensibilities.

In this brief essay, I do not intend to evaluate this phenomena in any significant depth. I am adopting a stance of methodological agnosticism on both the ontological question of God’s existence, and the meta-ethical question about what God’s existence or non-existence might imply for our normative beliefs. I have in the past addressed this meta-ethical question from a secular standpoint in some detail, and the interested reader may turn there. This essay will also not evaluate the more social and political questions about the impact of religion in domestic and global politics. While fascinating and worthwhile, there is no space to develop such an analysis here. Instead, I will focus on the way God plays a role in framing the moral and political outlooks of two well-known thinkers: Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek.

My choice of comparators was determined by three factors. The first is that Peterson and Žižek are both well-known public intellectuals. Much might be gained by critically comparing their work, since their positions are likely to be known to a relatively wide literate audience. Sadly, we may never get to see the debate between the two that was promised, which might have gone a long way to informing this article’s observations. The second is that Peterson and Žižek, despite stark disagreements, actually have more in common philosophically and politically than one might suspect at a glance. Both draw philosophically on a broadly psychoanalytic framework; with Peterson leaning heavily on Carl Jung and Žižek claiming to be an occasionally heretical follower of the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Moreover, both Peterson and Žižek are politically highly critical of postmodern philosophy and identity politics; albeit for very different reasons.

But, thirdly, both Peterson and Žižek have shown a consistent interest in religious issues and, in particular, the revitalizing aspects of Christian theology and politics. This interest is present in both of Peterson’s major books, and certainly came through in his interesting series of debates with the atheist Sam Harris. In Žižek’s case, his engagement with Christian thinking comes through most prominently in works such as The Monstrosity of Christ and The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For.

These factors make a comparison between their respective positions potentially fruitful and edifying. While naturally Peterson and Žižek understand God and the Christian legacy in profoundly different ways, I will conclude this essay with some thoughts as to why both have taken a considerable interest in it. This in turn might help us examine the broader question of why religion remains such a potent force in the world today, despite the predictions and efforts of many.

Jordan Peterson, God, and Politics

Jordan Peterson has been both widely praised and criticized for his analysis of Christian teaching and his appeals to God. The criticisms come both from those who have strong religious beliefs and argue that Peterson is insufficiently faithful and from those who believe a serious minded intellectual should not entertain fanciful religious notions:

The source of many of these critiques lies in the fact that Peterson himself has been curiously ambiguous about many religious questions, as has been pointed out in these very pages. For instance, at various points Peterson has claimed he does not think God exists, that he needs time to ponder the question, or that there are too many dimensions to his belief to fully discuss. Perhaps the most concrete answer he has given to date appeared in a brief tweet in June 2018, in which he claimed that “God is that in which you manifest necessary faith…” and that this is a “mode of being, which is to say, a personality.”

This conception of God is echoed in Peterson’s 2006 paper “Religion, Sovereignty, Natural Rights, and the Constituent Elements of Experience”:

Finally, phenomenologically considered, all human beings are individual. We have a subjective domain of being, privately experienced. Its nature can only be communicated in part. Our pain is therefore frequently only our own, and so are our joys. Our births and deaths are individual births and deaths. Whatever creative realm we might inhabit exists at least in part uniquely within us. Furthermore, we are self-conscious, so our individuality is apparent to us—and the fact of that appearance colors our experience ineradicably. Individual being is our greatest gift and our most appalling curse. As a gift, self-consciousness is conceived of as the very image of God reflected within us. As a curse, self-consciousness is unbearable knowledge of our own finitude, inadequacy, and tendency towards wrongdoing—conceived of, equally, as never-ending labor unto death.1

Peterson’s conception of the divine is rather hard to discern, but seems to me very close to that of German thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and Paul Tillich. For Peterson, as for these earlier figures, God is not necessarily a being in itself, let alone one whose existence can be proven through the powers of human reason. God is instead what Kant might call a “postulate of practical reason.” The term “God” is a metaphor for what it is that we choose to value most highly. To put it in the terms of Paul Tillich in his Dynamics of Faith, God is a term for whatever a person takes to be of “highest concern.”

This also has a dynamic quality for Peterson, since what is of “highest concern” is also what we choose to dedicate our lives to. We are always in danger of losing our connection to God by ceasing to value what is worthwhile, and falling into the individual and social “chaos” defined by rabid cynicism or ideological fundamentalism at either pole. The wise person seeks a balance in their life between these latter two concerns by remaining committed to what is of “highest concern”; the God who brings order to our lives by clarifying what it is we value and by extension how we act in the world.

For Peterson, this is fundamentally related to his arguments for both classical liberalism and traditionalism; what is sometimes called “ordered liberty” by political theorists. He believes that individuals must be free to determine what their values should be, but remains concerned that the collapsing political and religious traditions may lead some to turn down a very dark path. Peterson agrees with Nietzsche that the “death of God”—understood as a literal being—was a liberating moment; a therapeutic rupture with the reactionary conservatism of traditional religious beliefs. But the “death of God” also left people unmoored from these same traditions, many of which had given their life a sense of meaning by framing the values which they associate with the sacred—what is of “highest concern.”

This development has been exceptionally dangerous, since it can incline many people to lapse into the chaos of cynicism and ideological fundamentalism. This is why Peterson often expresses concern that the apparent anti-traditionalism of postmodern thinkers has gone too far, since it contributes to the rootlessness many people feel in the contemporary world. Peterson is worried this rootlessness will lead to nihilistic cynicism at best, and the return of ideological fundamentalism like Nazism and Stalinism as worst.

Slavoj Žižek, God, and Politics

While Peterson seems to locate himself squarely on the political center-Right with his support of “ordered liberty” (as I understand it), Žižek is firmly on the far-Left. At various times he has expressed support for the rebirth of communist movements, was active in promoting the efforts of Occupy Wall Street protestors, and has tirelessly claimed that the only true utopian thinking is the belief that the current liberal capitalist system can go on forever.

Yet, at the same time, Žižek has never embraced the philosophical atheism and political secularism of many of his left-wing peers. He has consistently called himself a “faithful Christian,” a “materialist Christian,” and so on. Moreover, these claims are not entirely in jest as he has written and spoken at length in praise of many aspects of Christian doctrine:

And Žižek is not alone on the far-Left in this resurgence of interest. Alain Badiou has written at length about St. Paul. The anarchist Simon Critchley has readily invoked the religious thinking of Emmanuel Levinas. How to explain this?

Like Peterson, Žižek is quite open that his support for Christian doctrine does not extend to a belief that God himself exists as an actual entity. His philosophical outlook holds that reality is never ontologically complete, but always in a state of dialectical dissolution and temporary stability. This precludes believing in a transcendent God who, in effect, holds reality itself together, whether by will or through his mere being as Spinoza hypothesized. But, as Žižek argued in an essay entitled “Only a Suffering God Can Save Us,” he does not believe that Christian doctrine, properly understood, ever supported such a transcendent conception of God.

This brings us to the third position above and beyond the first two (the sovereign God, the finite God), that of a suffering God: not a triumphalist God who always wins at the end, although “his ways are mysterious,” since he secretly pulls all the strings; not a God who exerts cold justice, since he is by definition always right; but a God who—like the suffering Christ on the Cross—is agonized, assumes the burden of suffering, in solidarity with the human misery. It was already Schelling who wrote: “God is a life, not merely a being. But all life has a fate and is subject to suffering and becoming. /…/ Without the concept of a humanly suffering God /…/ all of history remains incomprehensible.” Why? Because God’s suffering implies that He is involved in history, affected by it, not just a transcendent Master pulling the strings from above: God’s suffering means that human history is not just a theater of shadows, but the place of the real struggle, the struggle in which the Absolute itself is involved and its fate is decided.

God’s chosen fate, as Žižek’s version of Christian doctrine teaches it, was to die in order to liberate the world. The insight of Christian doctrine was to recognize that God himself had died, and to stage that death as the mythological account of Jesus’s crucifixion and ascension into heaven. Moreover, by sacrificing himself, God deliberately abandoned his role as being the true eternal father of order. Instead, he created a world of chaos, but also of the possibility of full freedom.

From a psychoanalytic standpoint, one might say God refused to any longer play the role of the Holy Father, deciding it was time for his creation to mature and live on without him. Žižek believes the deep lesson of this parable is that God sacrificed himself to the world so that people could be truly free; that it was now up to each individual to decide what to do with their life without moralizing interference from beyond. A true Christian community is one that takes this lesson seriously, and works to further God’s project of emancipation across the globe for all individuals. For Žižek, this of course means engaging in left-wing advocacy to free all from the oppression of capitalist ideology. It also means moving away from the substitute idols of identity politics, which offer false hope of a new transcendent horizon of meaning in lieu of the divine.

Conclusion

Peterson and Žižek reach radically different conclusions about God in their respective works. But the similarities are more interesting than the differences. Both claim to not believe in some God who literally exists as an independent being. Both believe that a proper conception of God engenders support for the individual and personal freedom. And both Peterson and Žižek regard identity politics as a false solution to the threat of nihilism; an attempt to find false ideological security in a world where we must learn to act as individuals without a transcendent source of meaning.

Where they differ most prominently are on the political consequences of their arguments. Peterson believes his conception of religion leads to support for classical liberalism and traditionalism, what many call “ordered liberty.” Žižek believes that a more consistent interpretation of religious thinking leads to radical left-wing politics and demands for liberation. I will not weigh in here on which of these arguments seems more plausible. I will simply observe that it is clear that God and the politics of the divine are not going away anytime soon. Thinking through the consequences of this is an important task for our troubled times.

 

Matt McManus is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. His forthcoming books are Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and What is Post-Modern Conservatism? He can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca or followed on Twitter @MattPolProf

Reference:

1Religion, sovereignty, natural rights, and the constituent elements of experience” Psychology of Religion / Archiv für Religionspychologie 28(1):135-180, December 2006 DOI: 10.1163/008467206777832580