After years spent trapped in the academic equivalent of a singles bar, eagerly courting any discipline, no matter how unattractive the results, theologians have been trying to recover their reputation by being more particular about the company they keep. So how are we to explain a book like Theology and the Political: The New Debate, a 2005 volume that captures some of the world's best theologians in a compromising relationship with the economic left? Are the anti-global Marxists Antonio Negri and Slavoj Zizek really more useful interlocutors than, say, Douglass C. North, one of the developers of what has come to be called New Institutional Economics?
Theology and the Political is a helpful book because it gathers in one volume a representative sample of very serious theologians--so why are they laboring so valiantly to impede the advance of capitalism and democracy? The contributors are associated with the British theologian John Milbank and his Radical Orthodoxy movement, which has staged an inspiring revival of Christian metaphysics. While some scholars challenge Radical Orthodoxy's reading of history, I find its political ambitions much more troubling.
Take, for example, Kenneth Surin's pronouncement: "Zizek is quite right to insist that Christianity and Marxism are the only two real metaphysical alternatives to liberalism." This remark misses how Marxism, with its forced eschatological reading of history, is a Christian heresy, while classical liberalism, with all its mixed results, is a Christian achievement.
Classical liberalism sought to maximize individual freedom by minimizing political restraints on both the economy and the Church. It unleashed European economic power but had a mixed impact on religion. The triumph of the market both rejuvenated and demoted Christianity, which suggests that classical liberalism requires a nuanced providential interpretation. Radical Orthodoxy, however, treats classical liberalism as a failed form of philosophizing by turning its metaphysical modesty into a vice--a vice that only a refurbished Marxism can cure.
If Louis Althusser was right that Marxism is profoundly antihuman (he thought this was to its credit), then any surviving Marxists--even, or maybe especially, the neo-Marxists who have emerged since the collapse of the Soviet Union--need a lesson in individual rights more than a metaphysical makeover. The Radical Orthodoxy theologians, however, are as suspicious of liberalism as they are excited about Marxism. Many of them have been inspired by the dazzling if discombobulated brilliance of Zizek, a Slovenian philosopher known for manically blending Lacanian psychoanalysis and Marxism. Zizek is best thought of as a performance artist whose routine involves dropping Lacanian concepts onto items drawn from popular culture: Think of the comedian Gallagher using his Sledge-O-Matic to splatter pieces of watermelon on his eager audience.
Like a multinational corporation determined to penetrate every market, Zizek incorporates everything into his philosophy, from Stephen King to Oprah Winfrey. He has recently conscripted Christianity, calling himself a "Paulinian materialist." Zizek assumes the Church and Marxism can be allies because they have a common enemy in the corrosive consequences of consumerism. Christianity, he hopes, can strengthen the Marxist ideal of a classless society, which has been rendered fragile by global capitalism. Christianity is at such a low point in Europe that Zizek can retrieve it without worrying that he might induce anyone to actually practice it.
You might not think serious theologians would be fooled, but you can read, for instance, Daniel M. Bell Jr. explaining, "The struggle against savage capitalism must be waged at the level of ontology, for capitalism advances not merely by economic victory but by ontological capture." Meanwhile, Creston Davis and Patrick Aaron Riches try "to complete …