Rereading Žižek’s Hegel in Light of the Spirit and Truth of Kenotic Love

Though Slavoj Žižek, reading Hegel as if he were an atheist must ultimately misread him, there is a great deal in Žižek’s atheistic reading which commends itself and acts as a guide, not only to Hegel, but to New Testament Christianity as understood by Hegel. The particular point where there is both convergence and divergence between an atheistic and theistic reading of Hegel concerns the meaning of Spirit and the death of God. As Žižek describes it, the Hegelian notion of the “death of God” in Christ amounts to the death of the “transcendent Beyond” as definitive of the experience of God, and this brings about the opening of reality from within (Metastases of Enjoyment, 39). Indeed, this suspension of God as other, and the immediate experience of God as immanent is key to Hegel. But Hegel’s point of departure is not simply negation, but he is focused on the Pauline concept of kenotic self-sacrifice in which one arrives at the Spirit of Christ. The kenotic sacrifice simultaneously marks the death of something “beyond” humanity and this is realized in the Spirit through imitation of Christ’s self-giving love.[1] But it is not simply the negation of God as Other, but the bringing together of the infinite and the finite in Absolute Spirit as Concept [Begriff] or a new form of speculative understanding and Truth.

In Hegel there is a double movement as the infinite negates itself and so arises in the finite and the finite negates itself and this is realization of the infinite.[2] But this is no mere feeling, but is the way of the Spirit, the way of love and of reason. As Hegel states it, “Thus the life of God and divine cognition may well be spoken of as a disporting of Love with itself; but this idea sinks into mere edification, and even insipidity, if it lacks the seriousness, the suffering, the patience, and the labour of the negative.”[3] In Kenotic love God incorporates the finite. As Hegel puts it, “If God has the finite over against himself, then he himself is finite and limited. Finitude must be posited in God himself, not as something insurmountable, absolute, independent, but above all as this process of distinguishing that we have seen in spirit and in consciousness—a distinguishing that, because it is a transitory moment and because finitude is no truth, is also eternally self-sublating.”[4] God is not limited by the finite or infinite, as this would be something less than God.

Žižek gets this understanding half right, in that he misses the movement of Spirit as arising from both God as infinite Father, and the immanent Son. As he describes it, the Hegelian “reconciliation” is the “redoubling of the gap or antagonism” as the gap that separates opposites “is posited as inherent to one of the terms” (Parallax View, 106). “The gap that separates God from man is transposed into God himself” through the death of Christ, so “the properly dialectical trick here is that the very feature which appeared to separate me from God turns out to unite me with God” (Parallax View, 106). There is relief from the oppressive otherness of God as Christ makes God immanent, but in Hegel’s understanding there is not simply the relinquishing of the infinite for the finite, but a realization of the infinite in the finite. In “externalization” (Entäußerung), Luther’s rendering of “kenosis,” Hegel depicts the break from “immediacy” through self-sacrifice, which is the work of the Spirit experienced in the Eucharist, and in the Christian’s taking up the life and death of Christ. In Pauline terms, self-sacrifice or being crucified with Christ is to arrive at the self, and in Hegelian terms self-negation is at the heart of self-actualization.

In Žižek’s understanding, the focus is on the negative moment. The move from the legal, symbolic, totalizing religion of Judaism to Christianity, is due to the death of Christ which suspends the perverse relation to the law. In Žižek’s Hegelian/Lacanian notion of dialectic, Judaism and Christianity posit the gap either as a gap between man and God or as within God, respectively. Judaism posits the gap between God and man, as God stands outside the Law in that he cannot be properly represented within it. The holy of holies, the empty room, is isolated and separated from everyone by a series of walls emphasizing God’s absolute transcendence to the Law. God is the Other, outside of the symbolic, and yet the one who holds the symbolic together (Parallax View, 106). The death of Christ exposes the orbit of the oppressive symbolic in God as Other. In Žižek’s Hegel the death of Christ, the fulness of the work of the Trinity comes into effect as thesis/antithesis/synthesis. There is the suspension of the Other (thesis) in the death of God (antithesis). The Holy Spirit is “then posited as a symbolic, de-substantialized fiction” which exists in and through the “work of each and all” (synthesis) (Metastases of Enjoyment, 42).

Of course, the primary contention between a Christian and atheistic reading of Hegel, revolves around Spirit. In Žižek’s reading the Spirit is a fiction, which is not a dismissal of its importance, as the Spirit is an open fiction, where the movement of the Subject, in all of its phases prior to the gift of the Spirit is a necessary lie, but one that remains hidden. The hidden force of negation or death drive animates the Subject – giving life through death, but in therapy exposure of the lie, the death drive and its attendant categories, can be tapped as a source to unplug from perversion and to come to an understanding of Being as sustained in and through negation. The encounter with the death drive is a “limit-experience” which “is the irreducible/constitutive condition of the (im)possibility of the creative act of embracing a Truth-Event: it opens up and sustains the space for the Truth-Event, yet its excess always threatens to undermine it” (Ticklish Subject, 161). Behind the good, the true and the beautiful is the constitutive background of the death drive – “the Void that sustains the place in which one can formulate symbolic fictions that we call ‘truths’” (Ticklish Subject, 161). The means of manipulating the truth is through tapping into the underlying ground of the death drive and approaching the void of deception in which the symbolic truth is grounded. The death of Christ and dying with Christ provides access to this deception undergirding the truth. The truth inheres in a lie, so to refer to the Spirit as a fiction, is a new form of truth.

For Hegel, the Spirit is not a fiction but the absolute truth: “it is here maintained that this content, which the knowledge of absolute Spirit has of itself, is the absolute truth, is all truth, so that this Idea comprehends the entire wealth of the natural and spiritual world in itself, is the only substance and truth of all that constitutes this world, while it is in the Idea alone that everything has its truth, as being a moment of its essential existence.”[5] This truth, in the Spirit is a realized truth. Kenotic love unites the infinite and finite in the Concept (Absolute Spirit), which is the realization of presence (God’s and the self) and identity. Hegel slowly recognizes the inadequacies of other forms of sacrifice, which fall short of fostering the social relation, inherent to kenosis. Mere self-negation, apart from the establishment of a community of the Spirit, simply ends in self-defeat.[6] To be a living sacrifice or to “live” sacrifice is not simply a negation, but the arrival at one’s true essence.

A way to get at the divergence in regard to Spirit, is in Žižek’s focus on the death of Christ, which more or less sums up what he has to say about the gift of the Spirit and resurrection (unlike Hegel). Where for Hegel the death of Christ results in the immanence of God in the Spirit, Žižek has more to say about death, which he equates with resurrection and spirit. He repeatedly refers to Christ’s cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Mk. 15.34; Mt. 27.46)., “In Lacanian terms, we are dealing with the suspension of the big Other, which guarantees the subject’s access to reality: in the experience of the death of God, we stumble upon the fact that ‘the big Other doesn’t exist’” (Metastases of Enjoyment, 42). This negation or death opens up the possibility of life in the spirit.

In describing the death of Christ, Žižek equates life and death: “Life and death here are not polar opposites, contrasts, within the same global Whole (field of reality), but the same thing viewed from a global perspective” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 292). He concludes, “The (temporal) death of Christ is his very (eternal) life ‘in becoming’” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 292). Death and life are not in some sort of “pseudo-dialectic relation as utter loss/negation (death) and its reversal into absolute life” (The Monstrosity of Christ, 292). The death of Christ is the founding of the community of the Spirit and this community is his resurrection. According to Žižek, “That is to say that Christ’s death, in the Hegelian reading, is the disappearance of disappearance. It is in itself already what becomes for itself the new community.”[7]

Christ’s death reveals the psychoanalytic ground; the Freudian moment of madness which Schelling anticipates and which Žižek comes to understand Paul to describe in Romans 7. Radical negativity, the death of Christ or death drive, is the constitutive moment of the event which serves as the ground of a Subject no longer constrained by law or ideology (the significance of the resurrection Event). Resurrection can be identified with death as they both amount to the destruction of one’s symbolic supports and the emergence of a new form of subjectivity. This new form of subjectivity is the hysteric, which Lacan and Žižek equate with Hegel – “that most sublime of hysterics.” Where the masculine orientation identifies unquestioningly with the symbolic order of the law, the hysteric questions the status of the law. So, for example, Žižek identifies hysteria with the Paul of Romans 7. The feminine, hysteric position from which Paul writes describes the necessary passage through negativity and death drive as this is the road trod by Christ himself.

In my original reading of Hegel, through Žižek and Lacan, the role of negation was key to understanding the rise of the Subject in the dynamic interplay of the three registers of symbolic, imaginary, and real. The real is the engine of negation and death which explains the negative energetics dominating fallen personhood. I think this reading is a partially true reading of Hegel, in its diagnosis of the disease, much as Žižek’s is an insightful reading of Paul’s depiction of the problem in Romans 7. But both Paul and Hegel pass beyond this negative moment. But for Žižek, nothingness and death drive precede the Subject and are the primary “substance” constituting the Subject. In Žižek’s atheistic creation ex nihilo (a creation from nothing) God and truth, subject and object, are preceded by death drive and nothingness, which he does not hesitate to call evil (Reader, 273). Lacan also describes the death drive as the attempt to go beyond the pleasure principle to the realm of excess jouissance, the pure substance of the death drive, which he also does not hesitate to call evil: “We cannot avoid the formula that jouissance is evil” (Seminar VII, 184–5). This evil is subject to manipulation but, inasmuch as it is prime reality, it is not something that can be finally and completely overcome; nor would one want to overcome it, as this nothingness is the only possible ground for the absolute freedom of the Subject. Absolute freedom and autonomy cannot, by definition, be constrained by a prior Good (in Žižek’s reading). The absolutely free, autonomous Subject can be preceded by nothing, and this is the Nothing and negation Žižek links to death drive.

But of course, if one understands Hegel is working with negation, not in an atheistic sense as a point of origin, but in the Pauline sense of kenotic self-giving love, this will account for the illness of the Subject diagnosed as more or less incurable by Lacan and Žižek, and go beyond this privileging of the negative, to kenotic self-giving love, truth and unity in the Spirit.

[1] This is the argument of William Goggin, Hegel’s Sacrificial Imagination, (University of Chicago, PhD. Thesis, 2019).

[2] Goggin, 12.

[3] G.W.F. Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 10.

[4] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion: One-Volume Edition – The Lectures of 1827. Edited by Peter Hodgson. One-Volume Ed edition. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1988, 190. Quoted in Goggin, 273.

 [5] G.W.F. Hegel, Lectures On the Philosophy of Religion: Together With a Work on the Proofs of the Existence of God vol. 1, Trans. By E. B. Speirs, and J. Burdon Sanderson, (London:  Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, & Co. Ltd., 1895) 206.

[6] Goggin, 11.

[7] See On Belief, 106 – 51; The Puppet and the Dwarf, 171; The Parallax View, 106; For They Know Not What They Do, liii.

Discover more from Forging Ploughshares

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

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.

Leave a Reply