This year’s debate between Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Žižek was marketed as one of the greatest intellectual debates of the century. At one point, tickets were being scalped for over $1,500 a seat. To many’s disappointment, but probably for the best, the event went off without the anticipated drama. Peterson and Žižek managed to find significant common ground.
The debate, which lasted over two and a half hours, has been watched online by more than 350,000 viewers. The interest in Peterson and Žižek represents a growing online audience who are routinely consuming multi-hour lectures and debates through youtube and podcasts. Figures like Žižek and Peterson are having a profound influence on, particularly, young men. While Peterson describes himself as a person who “lives as if there is a god,” his precise views on Christianity are complex and intentionally hard to categorize. Alternatively, Žižek describes himself as an atheist but provocatively contends that the only true path to atheism is through Christianity.
Since their debate in April, there has been one moment which I continue to see shared and discussed online. It is often referred to as, Christ’s moment of atheism on the cross. It was Žižek who introduced the topic into the night’s discussion. He represents a growing trend of individuals who articulate a path of Christian Atheism, honoring the value of Christianity while maintaining there is no God.
The topic came up in Žižek’s description of Christ’s cry from the cross: “My god, my god, why have you forsaken me.” Žižek explained:
“The crucifixion is something absolutely unique because in that moment of, father, why have you abandoned me?, for a brief moment, symbolically, God himself becomes an atheist, in the sense of getting a gap there. That is something absolutely unique. It means you are not simply separated from God. Your separation from God is a part of divinity itself.”
Peterson, visibly struck by this observation, responded, “There is something that is built into the fabric of existence that tests us so severely in our faith about being that even God himself falls prey to the temptation to doubt.”
The Rise of Christian Atheism
For some time, Žižek has been reading the gospels as an argument for atheism. Žižek goes so far as to claim that the only path for atheism to have developed was through Christianity. In his view, Christianity sowed the first seeds of an atheistic worldview. Christ was abandoned on the cross. When Christ turned to God, he came to the realization that there was no God.
Žižek articulated this brand of Christian Atheism in an interview with Third Way. He explained:
“I take seriously those words Christ says at the end: Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani? It’s something really tremendous that happens. G K Chesterton (whom I admire) puts it in a wonderful way: Only in Christianity does God himself, for a moment, become atheist.
And I think – this is my reading – that this moment of the death of God, when you are totally abandoned and you have only your ‘collectivity’, called the ‘Holy Spirit’, is the authentic moment of freedom.”
When making this point, Žižek often turns to the writings of G. K. Chesterton, a twentieth-century Catholic writer and contemporary of C. S. Lewis. This week I went digging through my copy of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, and sure enough, I found the lines which have caught Žižek’s attention. In chapter eight, entitled “The Romance of Orthodoxy,” Chesterton writes:
“In this indeed I approach a matter more dark and awful than it is easy to discuss; and I apologise in advance if any of my phrases fall wrong or seem irreverent touching a matter which the greatest saints and thinkers have justly feared to approach. But in that terrific tale of the Passion there is a distinct emotional suggestion that the author of all things (in some unthinkable way) went not only through agony, but through doubt…
He passed in some superhuman manner through our human horror of pessimism. When the world shook and the sun was wiped out of heaven, it was not at the crucifixion, but at the cry from the cross: the cry which confessed that God was forsaken of God…. Nay, (the matter grows too difficult for human speech,) but let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.”
Chesterton himself warns that we can not be too careful in speaking of this topic. Yet, it’s interesting that when quoting Chesterton, Žižek eliminates the word “seems.” Chesterton’s words were, “God seemed for an instant to be an atheist,” but they are remembered by Žižek as “God himself, for a moment, became an atheist.” In a nearly three hour debate, who would expect a person to recall quotations word-for-word? We always allow for rough paraphrasing. But here, more than the word has changed. Chesterton’s point is fundamentally altered.
Žižek suggests that in Chesterton, he has found a Christian theologian, who supports his radical reading of the crucifixion as not just the death of the son of god, but the death of God himself. Jesus’ cry from the cross and heaven’s empty response prove that there is no god. But something significant is missing from Žižek’s reading.
Follow the Footnotes: The Source of Jesus’s Cry
Chesterton was right about the nature of approaching Jesus’s cry of abandonment; it is dark and difficult to consider. Church history is filled with writers who have been shocked by Christ’s words, and surely there is something about it which pulls all of us to the edge of the darkness. But there are important points about that moment in the gospels which Žižek seems to be completely unaware of. I hesitate to say that, Žižek’s familiarity with the text and historical theology are evident, but it’s hard to understand how a person can draw such massive implications from a Biblical text without taking the text itself equally serious.
Of all the gospel writers, Matthew, in particular, makes Jesus cry of abandonment central to his story. A careful reading of Matthew 27 reveals that much of his passion narrative has been structured around allusions to Psalm 22. In fact, Jesus’s prayer, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” is a direct quotation from the psalm’s opening. The parallels go on. Both the psalm and Matthew describe the mocking crowd, those who “wag” their heads, how the sufferer has trusted God, and yet how he has had his hands and feet pierced. Both Psalm 22 and Matthew 27 describe enemies dividing up the victim’s garments. Matthew clearly wants us to read his passion story in the echos of Psalm 22.
As modern readers, having far less familiarity with the Hebrew texts, it’s difficult to understand how these references would have struck an early Jewish reader. The Psalms, in particular, were the spiritual foundation of Israel’s prayer life. The Psalms formed the vocabulary of Jewish worship and religion. Mentioning even the first word would call to mind the entire Psalm and set the cross in the context of David’s reflections.
As an example, when Jesus was tempted in the garden to turn stones into bread, he had responded, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the Lord.” We might hear that as a kind of cryptic, sagacious response, but Jesus was referencing Old Testament scripture. He was quoting from Deuteronomy 13 which explained that God had fed the Israelites in the wilderness with manna so that they might learn that man’s need is greater than his belly. Satan’s temptation of hunger wouldn’t work. Jesus’s quotation pulled in a broader context beyond just his single sentence citation.
To offer a more current example, you might say to a rival after your defeat, “you may have won the battle.” Though that appears to be a statement of defeat, we know it isn’t because what is implied is the next line of that saying, “but you won’t win the war.” The assumed familiarity with the referenced content fundamentally changes the meaning of what is being said. With the right context, we can ironically say one thing while implying the opposite.
A quick reading of Psalm 22 reveals, that while it opens with an expression of abandonment, it is hardly a song of defeat. Quite the opposite. Psalm 22 builds towards the triumphant ending of faith and trust in times of darkness and isolation.
Psalm 22 concludes:
For he has not despised or abhorred
the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
but has heard, when he cried to him.
From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will perform before those who fear him.
The afflicted shall seat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the LORD!
May your hearts live forever!
Jesus could have cried any phrase of abandonment from the cross. He could have invented his own. The thieves surrounding him had no problem turning to curses. The crowds imagined he was crying to Elijah for help.
It’s hard to imagine Jesus would have selected the opening line of this psalm in an attempt to articulate God’s nonexistence when every Jew would have immediately associated that Psalm with the reassurance of God’s presence. That Žižek would claim to “take seriously those words Christ says at the end” and yet not even mention David’s psalm is reading far too simplistic and crude. Matthew uses every literary detail of his passion narrative to turn our minds to Psalm 22. There is no discussing Jesus’s words without taking the time to consider David’s.
A Darkness Deeper Than Death
What Žižek does manage to capture is the horror of what Christ experienced on the cross and the unexpected possibility of that experience. Christ’s suffering faced its greatest test in the temptation to doubt, to abandon God in the face of having been abandoned. What does it mean for God to reach out to God and for the first time in all eternity, find nothing? In this way, Christ, in his humanity, tastes the atheist’s deepest experiences of nothingness. Christ took on the most fundamental human experience, alienation. And so Matthew records, a verse before Jesus’s words, “darkness came over all the land.”
As a painter, Rembrandt is known for his dramatic use of light and darkness. Nowhere does he deploy this contrast more effectively than in his painting of Christ being raised on the cross. In the painting, a large crowd has formed around Christ, as three men work to hoist the cross upward. Interestingly, the man central to the raising is believed by scholars to be a self-portrait of Rembrandt. Christ is cast in warm and bright light, but the source of that light is mysterious because surrounding the scene is a black shadow. It is the noon hour, but there is no sun in the sky. As the cross is still being raised, it has not yet reached its vertical position. Its angle forces Jesus’s view upward on to the vast open darkness which dominates half the painting. Jesus stares into the empty black.
By comparison, many medieval painters filled their Good Friday skies with angelic creatures and beams of heavenly light. Many of Rembrandt’s contemporaries, like Peter Paul Rubens, opted for dramatically clouded skies. Rembrandt sought instead to draw our attention to that overwhelming, empty section of the canvas. This was also the experience of Christ. To look upward and find emptiness.
This same observation led Chesterton to consider Christ the God of atheists because no other god could better relate to the crushing weight of doubt. The atheist’s sense of God’s apparent absence has never been experienced as deeply as Christ did on the cross. Christ himself stepped into the experience of doubt in ways more profound than any human before him.
As C. S. Lewis put it, “To enter heaven is to become more human than you ever succeeded in being on earth; to enter hell is to be banished from humanity.” What Christ saw in that great emptiness was hell opened before him. It was a space void of God’s presence. It was the nihilistic world of the atheist’s most crushing doubts.
Chesterton also pointed out that, “In a garden Satan tempted man: and in a garden, God tempted God.” When man was tempted, we each failed. We continue to. Even waking each morning into the preserving grace of God’s patience, even walking daily with him in the garden, as the first man did, we continue to fail that test. We live as if there is no God. It takes less than God’s abandonment for our hearts to turn against Him.
But, and it’s an important but, a test of one’s faith in the face of doubt is not necessarily a denial. It may be, as I think Rembrandt captures, that the greatest light of faith shines brightest in the greatest darkness. Rembrandt’s mysterious source of light is Christ himself. And Christ’s cry is no curse. Instead, Christ does what no man has been capable of doing. In the honesty of his cry, acknowledging his abandonment, he sows the seed of hope. He turns us to Psalm 22. Christ threw himself into the emptiness. But far from cursing God, Luke records Jesus’s final words as, “Then Jesus called out in a loud voice, “‘Father, into Your hands I commit My Spirit.’ And when He had said this, He breathed His last.”
By his allusion to Psalm 22, Jesus forces into the darkness expectations of faith. In the absence of God, Christ still believed. Even when alone, he called out, “my God!” How, in the echo of Christ’s words, do we not hear the psalm’s final conclusion still to come? “He has not hidden his face from him, but has heard, when he cried to him… May your hearts live forever!”
Jesus plunged into the abyss, entrusting his spirit to a God he couldn’t see and believing in a vindication still to come. So Søren Kierkegaard would write, “This is one of the most crucial definitions for the whole of Christianity; that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.” Christ is made perfect in faith. His power is revealed in weakness. His vindication in defeat. His faith in the face of doubt.
The Absence of Resurrection Light
It’s striking that, as seriously as Peterson and Žižek discuss the cross, neither makes mention of the Gospel’s resurrection finale. The gospel writers could not have imagined a conversation about the cross, which dismissed the resurrection. As the Apostle Paul would put it, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and your faith is in vain… if Christ has not been raised, your faith is empty.” The meaning of Christ’s cry on the cross hangs on the actuality of his resurrection. Christians have believed this since the first century.
To imagine you are reading the gospels carefully while lopping off their final culminating event is hard to reconcile. Try telling the story of the Trojan war without the Trojan horse? Could you recount Lord of the Rings without Frodo finally casting the ring into the fires of Mordor? Is it still a fairy tale if you delete it’s final happily ever after?
Paul was correct. Even two thousand years ago, he recognized that life and death—defeat and vindication–depend on the resurrection. The message of the cross hangs on the resurrection. There is no way to read the gospels with any semblance of respect while simultaneously stripping them of their conclusion. The moment we reduce Christ’s resurrection to the symbolic, we forfeit the vindication of his suffering. Without that vindication, Christ’s abandonment becomes defeat. He is nothing more than mistaken or disillusioned. The entire edifice of Christianity collapses in on itself. We are left to the scraps.
In a novel move, Žižek attempts to cast this collapse as Christianity’s strength. In a Nietzschean proclamation, Žižek declares the cross the actual death of God. Or as Žižek has described it, “The truly dramatic point is in Christianity, and that is why, although I am (I must admit it) an atheist, I think that you can truly be an atheist – and I mean this quite literally – only through Christianity. That’s how I read the death of Christ – here I follow Hegel, who said: What dies on the cross is God himself.”
I think Chesterton, a self-acknowledged favorite of Žižek’s, offers the final pages of the gospel story the fuller reading they deserve. Chesterton saw in the death and resurrections story, not the death of God but the death of humanity. He saw in it not a dawning of man, but a dawning of God—a new creation. I have rarely read words by any Christian author more profound than Chesterton’s description of resurrection from the Everlasting Man.
“There were solitudes beyond where none shall follow. There were secrets in the inmost and invisible part of that drama that have no symbol in speech; or in any severance of a man from men. Nor is it easy for any words less stark and single-minded than those of the naked narrative even to hint at the horror of exaltation that lifted itself above the hill. Endless expositions have not come to the end of it, or even to the beginning. And if there be any sound that can produce a silence, we may surely be silent about the end and the extremity; when a cry was driven out of that darkness in words dreadfully distinct and dreadfully unintelligible, which man shall never understand in all the eternity they have purchased for him; and for one annihilating instant an abyss that is not for our thoughts had opened even in the unity of the absolute; and God had been forsaken of God.
They took the body down from the cross and one of the few rich men among the first Christians obtained permission to bury it in a rock tomb in his garden; the Romans setting a military guard lest there should be some riot and attempt to recover the body. There was once more a natural symbolism in these natural proceedings; it was well that the tomb should be sealed with all the secrecy of ancient eastern sepulture and guarded by the authority of the Caesars. For in that second cavern the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human. The mythologies and the philosophies were buried there, the gods and the heroes and the sages. In the great Roman phrase, they had lived. But as they could only live, so they could only die; and they were dead.
On the third day the friends of Christ coming at daybreak to the place found the grave empty and the stone rolled away. In varying ways they realised the new wonder; but even they hardly realised that the world had died in the night. What they were looking at was the first day of a new creation, with a new heaven and a new earth; and in a semblance of the gardener God walked again in the garden, in the cool not of the evening but the dawn.”
While Žižek reads the cross as God’s defeat, he reads Chesterton very wrongly to come to that conclusion. Instead, Chesterton saw in Christ’s cry a kind of courage. It is the courage to believe even when abandoned. This is the great contribution of Christ to man. This is what separates the Christian God from others. As Chesterton put it, “Alone of all creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator. For the only courage worth calling courage must necessarily mean that the soul passes a breaking point–and does not break.”
Christ’s prayer of abandonment was a subversive act of faith. When tested, and even when acknowledging the sheer horror of his isolation, still Christ does not break. He leads us not to atheism but pulls us by faith through our doubt.
Christ did not give in to the doubt. “Not my will but yours,” was his prayer. He passed through hell and was vindicated in resurrection. This is not the story of denial or defeat; it is the story of courageous faith, a perfect faith. A leap of faith, as Kierkegaard would describe it.
I can’t help but end in reflecting again on Rembrandt’s painting. At the foot of the cross is a shovel stuck in the ground before a freshly dug grave. For those soldiers who placed Christ’s body in the tomb, death was the finale. How shocked those who had carried his cold body must have been to have seen him resurrected: eating fish, walking with his disciples, and bearing his scars. Christ’s resurrection transcends our certainty.
Or remember the words of Lewis’s imaginary tempter, Screwtape, “Our cause is never more in danger, than when a human, no longer desiring, but intending, to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys.”
“For me the most radical demand of Christian faith lies in summoning the courage to say yes to the present risenness of Jesus Christ.” — Brennan Manning, Abba’s Child