Zizek & Newman: “Believing at a Distance”

In his (admittedly highly eccentric) would-be defense of Christian orthodoxy, Slavoj Zizek chides us moderns for the chronological snobbery which strangely betrays our naive ignorance:

Was there … at any time in the past, an era when people directly ‘really believed?’ As Robert Pfaller demonstrated in Illusionen der Anderen, the direct belief in a truth that is subjectively fully assumed (“Here I stand!”) is a modern phenomenon, in contrast to traditional beliefs-through-distance, like politeness or rituals. Premodern societies did not believe directly, but through distance, and this explains, for instance, why Enlightenment critics misread ‘primative’ myths–they first took the notion that a tribe originated from a fish or a bird as literal direct belief, then rejected it as stupid, “fetishist,” naive. They thereby imposed their own notion of belief on the “primitivized” Other.

Now consider (Jaroslav Pelikan on) Newman:

By contrast with … the eagerness to be explicit about everything possible (in Lewis Carroll’s phrase, ‘to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast’), the tradition of orthodoxy, in Newman’s reading, had always observed a reverent restraint.

Pelikan goes on to point out that for Newman (or Newman’s reading of Church Fathers such as Athanasius and Gregory Nazianzus), in its precreedal history “the content of the apostolic tradition had remained secret” in important ways.

Here Zizek resonates with Pelikan’s Newman in their common indictment of the (post)modern tendency–on the part both of believers who embrace it and their cultured despisers who reject it but project it onto ancient people of faith–to posit direct, literal, irreverent and unrestrained belief.

Nobody ever, Zizek is arguing, believed like that. Hence his claim that “we believe today more than ever.”

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