Monday, September 20, 2004

The Trouble with Continental Philosophy #3: Zizek on Christian Universalism

Slavoj Zizek in On Belief (Routledge, 2001, pp. 143-144) has this to say:

What is perceived here as the problem is precisely the Christian universalism: what this all-inclusive attitude (recall St. Paul’s famous "There are no men or women, no Jews and Greeks") involves is a thorough exclusion of those who do not accept inclusion into the Christian community. In other "particularistic" religions (and even in Islam, in spite of its global expansionism), there is a place for others, they are tolerated, even if they are condescendingly looked upon. The Christian motto "All men are brothers," however, means ALSO that "Those who are not my brothers ARE NOT MEN." [Emphasis in the original.] Christians usually praise themselves for overcoming the Jewish exclusivist notion of the Chosen People and encompassing all of humanity – the catch here is that, in their very insistence that they are the Chosen People with the privileged direct link to God, Jews accept the humanity of the other people who celebrate their false gods, while Christian universalism tendentially [sic! tendentiously?] excludes non-believers from the very universality of humankind.

What a delightfully seductive passage!

What Zizek is saying here is that the Christian universalism expressed by "All men are brothers" excludes non-Christians from the class of human beings. Zizek supports this surprising assertion with an argument. Made explicit, the argument is that
1. All men are brothers
2. All who are not my brothers are not men.
3. All who are not Christians are not my brothers.
4. All who are not Christians are not men.

Having made Zizek’s argument explicit, we can easily see what is wrong with it. The problem is (3). Without (3), one cannot validly infer the conclusion (4). But (3) is false: no Christian holds that all who are not Christians are not his brothers; they are his brothers whether or not they accept Christianity. For whether or not they accept Christianity they are sons of a common Father, God. Or if you insist that (3) is true, I will say that there is an equivocation on ‘brother’ as between (2) and (3). In one sense, two people are brothers if they have a common father. In this sense, all men are brothers if they have a common father, i.e., God. In a second sense, two people are brothers if they are members of a common organization or religion. Two teamsters, for example, are union brothers even if they do not share a common earthly father. The same for two members of the Muslim Brotherhood.

In sum, Zizek makes a highly dubious assertion and then tries to support it with a worthless argument.

It is important to see that he really is giving an argument in the above passage, but that, like many Continentals, he argues in a slip-shod, half-baked way. It’s as if he wants the advantange of an argument without having to do the hard analytic work. In this regard, the above passage is characterisitc of a lot of Continental philosophy.