From Žižek to Bulgakov: Dividedness as the Entry Point of Kenotic Love

One of the tragedies of reducing atonement to a legal theory (penal substitution or divine satisfaction), beyond the low or evil view of God and the shallow view of the human plight, is the loss of the gospel diagnosis of the human problem. It was through the work of Friedrich Hegel that an alternative, a personal or psychological theory was posed (preserved, in the West) which bore deep resonance with an Eastern understanding. Thus, it is no surprise that Sergius Bulgakov utilizes Hegel and German idealism in his theology. Slavoj Žižek utilizes Hegel in his psychoanalytic theory and theological understanding, posing a parallel understanding (which might be read as a development of an alternative to Western theories of atonement). Bulgakov and Žižek present parallel notions of the human predicament, both rendering the human problem and its solution in a psychological/theological idiom. Žižek’s atheism is an obvious delimitation in describing a cure, but even so, kenotic love (which in Žižek’s version has no ontological ground, and though acknowledged is anomalous to his system) is definitive of the solution and an indicator of an alternative understanding of the self.

Where the legal idiom is taken as primary, the split or gap or self-antagonism, such as Paul describes in Romans 7, is thought to be inherently pathological in its disjointedness. The split is a sign of sin and guilt, and salvation would amount to closing the wound of self, and achieving an inner wholeness and centeredness. The way toward this wholeness is through being made right with the law, and being integrated or interpolated into its singular voice. God as model of this goal, is singular and undivided, and the presumption is that the human image is self-contained, like God. In this understanding, rather than Trinitarianism and a kenotic understanding of the divine taking precedent, God is primarily unmoved, unchanging, distant and inaccessible.

In contrast, for Žižek the divided self is both the problem and the cure, as there is no escape from the conflict of drives or the antagonism between the registers of the self (symbolic, imaginary, and real). Antinomy is not the problem of reality but its basis. Where Kant exposes the structuring principle of the world in antinomies, Hegel presumes this is not a problem to be solved, but the very nature of reality and this is Žižek’s point of departure. “And does not Hegel, instead of overcoming this crack, radicalize it? Hegel’s reproach to Kant is that he is too gentle with things: he locates antinomies in the limitation of our reason, instead of locating them in things themselves, that is, instead of conceiving reality-in-itself as cracked and antinomic.”[1]

In one of his sustained engagements of the human predicament in light of German idealism, The Parallax View, Žižek describes the gap within thought and being in a series of systems notable for their irresolvable difference.   The gap that exists between the conscious and unconscious is one that repeats itself in a series that Žižek maintains constitutes human reality.  There is the gap between the individual and the social, the ontological gap between the ontic and the transcendental-ontological, there is the wave-particle duality of quantum physics, and the gap between the face and the skull in neurobiology, and the gap which is the real. The perceived gap or difference is constitutive of “reality” and closure of the gap or dissolution of dissonance, the exposure of the primordial lie, would amount to a dissolving of this perceived reality. The goal is not to overcome the gap but to conceive it in its “becoming” and thus manipulate it.[2] So, one should learn to enjoy their symptom rather than cure it, as the symptom is the reality of the Subject. There is a sense in which Bulgakov would concur.

Bulgakov, likewise see antinomies and division as characterizing reality, but he sees this “crack in reality” as indicating the kenotic love of God (kenotic love as an ontology). Both Žižek and Bulgakov are following Hegel in this understanding, but Žižek would ontologize the absence (not love), making nothing or evil generative of all else. Death drive, or evil is subject to manipulation but, inasmuch as it is prime reality, it cannot be completely overcome; nor would one want to overcome it, as this nothingness is the only possible ground for the freedom of the Subject. The absolutely free, autonomous Subject can be preceded by nothing, and this is the Nothing and negation Žižek links to death drive. The Subject arises from and has “life” through this power of absence. In his account of Schelling, Žižek presumes Schelling reads this understanding into God himself: “A whole new universe is disclosed here: the universe of pre-logical drives, the dark ‘ground of Being’ which dwells even in the heart of God as that which is ‘in God more than God himself.’ For the first time in the history of human thought, the origin of Evil is located not in humanity’s Fall from God, but in a split in the heart of God himself.”[3]

Bulgakov also traces the split into God, assigning it to his kenotic love, and also suggests this may entail the rise of evil: “He spares even Satan, the father of lies himself, but he defeats him on his own paths, allowing the chaff to grow together with the wheat until harvest. He ‘permits’ evil in order to protect the very foundation of creation: its freedom and self-determination.”[4] God does not impetuously destroy evil, as the apostles would at Samaria.

The relation of the Creator to creation in ‘synergism’ always remains meek and restrained, the kenosis of God in creation. This kenosis is determined by the union of God’s omniscience and wisdom in relation to the paths of the world, but with the self-limitation of His omnipotence. God waits for creaturely freedom to say: ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it unto me according to thy word’ (Luke 1:38).[5]

To seek to overcome difference, to violently destroy evil, to force the hand of God, is not the solution but the problem.

Both Žižek and Bulgakov read Hegel’s critique of Kant, not as a denial or overcoming of the Kantian antinomies, but pointing toward the rupture within the Absolute itself. Bulgakov’s idea of kenotic love is a reflection of Hegel’s attempt to describe the dynamics of the kenotic Subject, and Bulgakov and Žižek share this meta-psychological idiom in their understanding of the human Subject. According to Bulgakov, “This antinomical task makes the I into a riddle for itself, into an insoluble charade. That which […] appeared […] to be the most reliable and most self-evident […] fulcrum turns out to be situated at the point of an antinomical knife, to be a living paradox, which, obviously, cannot be understood from out of itself.”[6]

Like Žižek, Bulgakov does not presume to resolve the paradox, but affirms paradoxical antinomies as a pointer to a reality beyond the self-enclosed I.

In antinomies there is given experiential, graphic proof of the supra-rational character of being, or, what is the same thing, of the insufficiency of the powers of reason for adequately comprehending it. The presence of antinomies inevitably leads us to the conclusion that the current state of being is transitional, unfinished, and, in this obvious incompleteness, it now reveals openings to different possibilities of consciousness.[7]

Both Bulgakov and Žižek see the attempt to resolve the antinomies or to overcome them, as inherent to the human disease. For Bulgakov, this is the tragedy of philosophy and for Žižek this defines the end point of philosophy reached by Kant: “the original motivation for doing philosophy is a metaphysical one, to provide an explanation of the totality of noumenal reality; as such, this motivation is illusory, it prescribes an impossible task” or it describes the human disease.[8]

As Jack Pappas puts it, for Bulgakov the split within the Absolute is not an indicator of absence, evil or pathology but serves as a sign of the resolution of “the loving self-donation of the Father’s very substance to the Son-Word and the Spirit, a dynamic upsurge of desire whose ens realissimum finds expression in loving relation to others.”[9] The giving of the Father to the Son, and the outpouring of the Son for the world, realizing the kenotic giving of the Spirit, is a Trinitarian movement definitive of God and of the completion of human-kind in the image of God. This is the heart of Bulgakov’s notion of divine Sophia: “Sophia as the substance of divine self-consciousness is itself the eternal reality of the Absolute in its self-revelation, the identification of the differentiated Father, Son, and Spirit in mutual recognition.”[10] As humans enter in to the divine wisdom, like their Savior, kenotic love is realized as the fulness of personhood.

This poses a different understanding of the human predicament as outlined in Romans 7. Dividedness, alienation, disassociation, point to the cure of self-giving love, moving beyond the self and acknowledging the fulness of the self in relation to the Other. Bulgakov offers a counterproposal to Žižek, “one which refuses to identify self-sacrifice (kenotic love) with loss and fragility with negation. Indeed, Bulgakov’s Sophia indicates that the essential fracture which yields differentiation is not merely an open wound concealed by a veneer of hysterical self-deception, but rather a donative self-offer that produces the possibility of relation and expressive re-identification in otherness.”[11] The wound of self is not healed through closure, but is the opening to the Other, the healing of which is in taking up the cross in kenotic love.

(Sign up for the course, The Theology of Maximus the Confessor with Jordan Wood. https://pbi.forgingploughshares.org/offerings. The course will run from 2024/3/25–2024/5/17 and will meet on Saturdays.)


[1] Slavoj Zizek, Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (p. 8). Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

[2] Slavoj Žižek, Parallax View (The MIT Press; 2009) 6-7.

[3] Zizek, Less than Nothing, 12.

[4] Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (p. 233). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Kindle Edition.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sergii Bulgakov, The Tragedy of Philosophy: Philosophy & Dogma (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2020), 125. Quoted from Jack Louis Pappas, “Sergii Bulgakov’s Fragile Absolute: Kenosis, Difference, and Positive Disassociation” in Building the House of Wisdom: Sergii Bulgakov and Contemporary Theology: New Approaches and Interpretations (Aschendorf

[7] Sergius Bulgakov, The Sophiology of Death: Essays on Eschatology: Personal, Political, Universal (pp. 1-2). Cascade Books. Kindle Edition.

[8] Zizek, Less than Nothing, 10.

[9] Pappas, 120.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Pappas, 121.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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