Another area in which we find a great deal of overlap between Žižek and Bloch is, of course, in their relationship to religion. We find in this new book on Hegel a compelling readiness to deal with the non-existence of God, in fact his less-than-nothing-ness. His nonexistence is a precondition for taking him seriously. In Žižek this exists as a disavowal of religion as such but an acceptance of the power of religion as a motivating force. Bloch too takes this power seriously and there are many places in chapter 2 of the Hegel book where almost the same language is used to describe questions of faith, belief, and religion. For example, in chapter 2 Žižek states that:
Žižek: ‘It is thus only in post-religious “atheist” radical-emancipatory collectives that we find the proper actualization of the Idea of the Christian collective—the necessary consequence of the “atheistic” nature of Christianity itself.’
Bloch: ‘the concept of the withering away of the state is an expressly Christian idea in which loving thy neighbour is only possible once social antagonism has been removed.’
Žižek: ‘My thesis is thus double: not only is Christianity (at its core, if disavowed by its institutional practice) the only truly consistent atheism, it is also that atheists are the only true believers.’
Bloch: “only a Christian can be a good atheist and only an atheist can be a good Christian” Atheism in Christianity http://www.amazon.com/Atheism-Christianity-Religion-Exodus-Kingdom/dp/1844673944 (In fact Žižek gave one of his lectures in New York precisely this title and theme – and yet nowhere in this book, nor in a lecture, is Bloch mentioned at all, which seems at least a strange oversight.)
What leads both of them to this position, however, is not a simple adoption of Pascal’s Wager; that it is best to at least keep the possibility that God exists open as a sort of cosmic insurance policy, but an understanding of the dialectic between contingency and necessity once again. As Žižek points out, Pascal’s Wager is not about belief at all but about action is therefore a highly pragmatic way of approaching the question of the existence of God. As he puts it: “one cannot decide to believe, one can only decide to act as if one believes, in the hope that belief will arise by itself; perhaps this trust that if you act as if you believe, belief will arise, is itself the wager.”
The reason both Žižek and Bloch produce for the need of atheists to have a belief in the face is that the insight into the awful truth of existence, both cosmic and individual, is of course that it is without purpose and point. Both it’s contingent nature as well as the nature of contingency forces us to create a universal message about our existence in a universe which has no message. This Nietzschean recognition of what Ray Brassier calls Nihil Unbound is, consciously or unconsciously, at the root of all questioning about the nature of existence. This is again what I have termed the Metaphysics of Contingency.
And so Žižek asks: “Is it true, then, that what I offer is a form of belief deprived of its structure, which effectively amounts to a disavowed belief? My counter-argument here is double. First, I conceive my position not as being somewhere in between atheism and religious belief, but as the only true radical atheism, that is, an atheism which draws all the consequences from the inexistence of the big Other. Therein resides the lesson of Christianity: as we have seen, it is not only that we do not believe in God, but that God himself does not believe in himself, so that he also cannot survive as the non-substantial symbolic order, the virtual big Other who continues to believe in our stead, on our behalf. Second, only a belief which survives such a disappearance of the big Other is belief at its most radical, a wager more crazy than Pascal’s: Pascal’s wager remains epistemological, concerning only our attitude towards God, that is, we have to assume that God exists, the wager does not concern God himself; for radical atheism, by contrast, the wager is ontological—the atheist subject engages itself in a (political, artistic, etc.) project, “believes” in it, without any guarantee. My thesis is thus double: not only is Christianity (at its core, if disavowed by its institutional practice) the only truly consistent atheism, it is also that atheists are the only true believers.”
Atheists are true believers in the sense that they have to believe in the ability of human beings to make sense of existence, to imbue it with some kind of purpose within the purposelessness. Žižek, as one might expect here, quotes Badiou on the need for “fidelity to the event” against a post-modernist “Democratic Materialism” which, paradoxically also informed by Nietzsche, disavows any belief in a universal pattern or a grand narrative. Zizek’s, Badiou’s and Bloch’s commitment to the grand narrative remains however not a predetermined and teleological one, but, as I have pointed out before here, one which is emergent out of its own processes. It has within it what Bloch calls a latency and a tendency but these need to be realised by labouring creative human beings. This is, in the end, why all three of them turn to Hegel as he represents that bridging point between faith in an absolute spirit external to contingent reality and faith that an absolute spirit can be constructed out of contingent reality.
Where Žižek and Bloch tend to part company, however, is over the question of what exactly the burning bush said to Moses on Mount Sinai. Zizek refers in this context to Lacan, saying:
“I am what I am,” [is] the answer the burning bush on Mount Sinai gives when Moses asks it what it is; he reads it as the designation of a point at which a signifier is lacking, at which there is a hole in the symbolic order—and this should be taken in a strong reflexive sense, not only as an indication that God is a deep reality beyond the reach of our language, but that God is nothing but this lack in the symbolic order (big Other). As such, the divine “I am what I am” effectively prefigures the Cartesian cogito, the barred subject ($), this pure evanescent point of enunciation betrayed by any enunciated. This nothing—whose stand-in (or place-holder) is objet a—is the focus of love, or, as Simone Weil put it: “Where there is nothing, read that I love you.” (Žižek Chapter 2)
Bloch, however, maintains that this is a mistranslation of the original Hebrew Ejher Asche Ejher which actually means “I will become what I will become.” In his reading, the unfolding of the holy spirit is something which is yet to come, the expression of an unfinished process, and it could be argued that this is a far more Hegelian approach to the question of religious mythology than that which Žižek takes up, located as the latter is in the static abyss of the Lacanian Big Other.
As Bloch puts it: In orthodox Christianity, “[T]he new life which bursts in on man so radically has been in many ways back-dated. To man it can now only come as rebirth; to the world only as ‘transfigured’ nature, that is, nature restored to its old state in Paradise.”[i] What Bloch wants to use religious myths for, however, is to search for a historical world which can be liberated from its own limitations, using its own stories and myths, and which will allow us to pass out of passive and anamnetic circularity into active potentiality.[ii]
While disavowing the church it is quite possible to hold on to the impetus for liberation and Exodus which the Church has co-opted. As Bloch puts it: “There is only this point: that Church and Bible are not one and the same. The Bible has always been the Church’s bad conscience.”[iii] It is also “language as speaking-to” in which the universalist message of Exodus speaks to rather than of ordinary people. “‘Let my people go!’ Rang out to all the oppressed, ‘without difference or distinction of race or faith’––as Thomas Münzer said.”[iv] Being an atheist, therefore, only means that one has to be against the Creator-God and the assumption of authority by the church and the state, who act as keepers of his word. What is important in religion is thus not the Holy Grail (which in any case doesn’t exist) but the self-constituting search for the Holy Grail. And this is a constant human drive, a quest for the something missing, which finds itself expressed in all forms of culture and religion. And as for the current discussion about God as delusion, this is what Bloch says, in terms which would not be out of place in a debate with Richard Dawkins:
“The point, however, to be made against all pseudo-enlightenment which sees religion as a spent force caught between Moses and Darwin (and also to be made against all misty ambivalence) is this: the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is why it has always been suppressed or distorted, from the serpent on.[v]”
[i] AC, 23.
[ii] The word “religion” comes from the Latin re-ligio––re-bind. We might therefore call Bloch’s atheism a quest for De-ligion.
[iii] AC, 9.
[iv] AC, 12.
[v] AC, 13.