The Contingent Third Term, or, Against Milbank’s Paradoxical Mediation

In The Monstrosity of Christ, Slavoj Zizek and John Milbank debate the path forward after the collapse of secular reason. As they try to mark out a post-secular way, they characterize the difference between their positions as the difference between dialectic and paradox. Zizek, ever the arch-Hegelian, advances ‘dialectic’ as the path to pass through Christianity, and to fully realize the revolutionary core of Christianity by developing the (a)theology of dialectical materialism. Zizek remains a staunch advocate of the West’s Christian project of fighting for universal human emancipation. He presents Judaism as a monotheism still haunted by other gods (pure particularity), and Islam as a monotheism of pure universal abstraction (the universal without any particular embodiment), but Christianity functions as the dialectical synthesis of the two in the incarnation of the universal God in the particular man Jesus Christ. Zizek proposes to move beyond even Christianity though by drawing out the core of this revolutionary move of worshiping the particular human death of the universal God. The drama of the cross does not lead us to posit a new God, but rather for us to realize that there never was a God at all. The cross reveals that we are indeed alone. There is no big Other (God) who ensures the outcome of our actions ahead of time and who wisely guides the path of all things to a happy conclusion. Rather the cross shifts the heavy responsibility on to us. If human emancipation and love will ever appear in the cosmos, this can only arise through living as a community of individuals animated by the spirit of a Love beyond Law, with no guarantee of our success. We only have ourselves, and this is the terror of freedom.

Milbank the arch-Augustinian opposes himself to Zizek’s dialectic by advancing the notion of paradox. He emphasizes that Christianity commits itself to a logic of participation which relies on ‘mediation.’ The creature can participate in the life of God through God’s mediatory self-giving in the elements of the Sacrament, with Christ as the pinnacle and source of this sacramental participation. For Milbank, the Christian doesn’t need to believe that God simply is the man Jesus Christ, rather God became the man Jesus Christ without becoming any less God. In the logic of mediation, the vast difference between God and His creatures does not prevent real communion and participation from taking place, even if the what of this participation remains ineffable. Milbank contends that Christianity lost this logic of mediation by accepting the nominalist and voluntarist philosophy of Scotus and Occam, ultimately giving us Protestantism. Scotus’ nominalism and Occam’s voluntarism renders the cosmos closed off from God and ‘disenchanted,’ which makes the paradoxical mediation of God in the creaturely elements utterly implausible.

We must note though that Zizek also embraces the logic of mediation. He speaks of the ‘vanishing mediator’ which simply is the void that separates the two terms in the relationship. This void produces a monstrous particular third term which functions as the true universal, the essence of the two terms. This third term simply is the embodiment of the void that lies at the heart of the universal itself. Only the particular which is expelled from the totality sustained by the paradoxical opposition of the two terms can function as the essence of the whole. Hence the title of the book The Monstrosity of Christ. Zizek contends that Christ plays the role of this monstrous exception who represents the void that separates the two terms God and man. This means that Christ in himself is exactly nothing at all. He is pure contingency, pure void, pure doubt, pure loss, and thus represents the void at the heart of even God Himself. Milbank therefore differs from Zizek by contending that a Christian notion of participation has no need to posit a third term which functions as the mediator; the mediation simply is the relationship between the two terms whereby each participates in the other.

Milbank presents a number of stumbling blocks for me. While I find the much touted Scotus/Occam fall into nominalism story to be stale, overly intellectual, and far too neat, I want to focus on the general notion of paradox itself. My concerns about Milbank’s concept of paradox also echo some of Zizek’s own concerns that he expresses in his response to Milbank’s essay.

On the one hand, I am convinced that something like paradox seems necessary to the life of finitude. Paradox arises through the opposition of two (or more) forces, and this opposition of forces functions as an engine of change and growth by creating a situation of tension. This tension causes things to be bound together and pulled apart. Paradox effectively harnesses the tendency of states to seek equilibrium. For instance, I can only ride a bike because of the productive tension between my act of pedaling the bike to stay up and the force of gravity pulling down on my body. Imagine if either side of the tension were to win the contest. If gravity had its way, the bike would lie on the ground, static and immobile. But if my pedaling overcame gravity, I would simply float off into space without control over my direction. Only the interaction of the two forces generates the movement and shape of life. In this sense, the concept of paradox contains the crucial insight that only opposition (negation) can generate change and difference.

Before expressing my issue with the notion of paradox itself, I want to briefly point out an error in praxis that I encounter with those who hold paradox at the center of their thought. Paradox frequently functions to de-motivate further inquiry into the nature of the interacting forces and their relationship. If we proclaim something a paradox, it functionally protects the phenomenon from being probed with more precise questions and tools. For instance, if one proclaims that the Trinity is a paradox which cannot ultimately be unraveled, this easily functions as an excuse to stop short of traveling as far down the road of understanding as possible. The truly great theologians such as Augustine and Gregory of Nazianzus are not guilty of this, for they boldly pursued the idea of the Trinity to the edges of human thought, but lesser minds and lesser hearts seize upon paradox as an easy way out of this dizzying contemplation. This means that any claims which go beyond the surface level in describing  the nature of the two forces in tension can easily be dismissed with the hand-waving of paradox.

Here is the thrust of the matter though: when they are really pushed, an individual will always resolve the tension of the paradox in one direction or the other. They will choose to prioritize one side of the tension or the other, because they have to do this in order to make real choices in the real world. Paradox allows people to continue on living and acting how they choose, all the while using the paradox of the phenomenon to cover over their true beliefs on the matter. In a way then, paradox lends itself to distancing ourselves from our own beliefs in order to disavow responsibility for them. Paradox acts as an ideological apparatus for protecting one’s functional beliefs (the beliefs that shape and motivate our actions) from intellectual critique by immunizing the idea so designated against the analytic powers of questions and reason. I believe that Milbank’s “paradox” serves to secretly disavow the implicit resolution of the paradox that resolves in his articulations themselves.

In this way, Milbank’s account of participation through mediation cannot truly be called a paradox. A paradox can only arise when the two terms are fundamentally or essential different, but in Milbank’s ontological schema (which he presents as underlying Roman Catholic theological reflection), participation actually makes sense because God and creation are both fundamentally Being. Not that Being is somehow antecedent to God, for God is Being, and creation thereby derives its Being from God as the ground of Being. The notion of ‘analogy’ serves to protect the distinctiveness of both terms, but posits a continuity that persists nonetheless. And now we have dissolved the paradox. For now creation’s capacity to mediate God derives from its inherent nature as possessing Being from God. This mediatory ability is hard-wired in to creation’s nature, so to speak. No wonder then that creation can serve as a conduit for God’s participation with us and our participation with Him!

A further irony presents itself here though. In Roman Catholic sacramentology, this formula is not even followed consistently. In the Eucharist, the creaturely elements must be transubstantiated into the actual substance of Jesus Christ, for they are insufficient themselves to mediate his presence and life to us. Their substance must be changed, while the accidents remain the same. Thus, the Roman Catholic Eucharist secretly disavows its own claims about the efficacy creation’s ability to mediate participation in God, for the creaturely elements must be changed in their essence in order for us to actually eat and drink Christ (of course, this simply places the ontological problem further back, for if the bread and wine are essentially divine, how are my creaturely intestines supposed to truly be said to “feed” on Christ?).

A properly Protestant understanding of the sacraments yields a much stronger paradox than the Roman Catholic system, but one which yields a dialectical result. For the Protestant, the elements need not change in the Eucharist, but rather God gives Himself by the Spirit to the heart that feeds in faith. However, the bread doesn’t have to change at all in order for God to give Himself through the bread. The sacrament just is ordinary bread and wine which is received in faith. Faith accomplishes the shift in perspective whereby the sacrament becomes truly effectual in our lives and in the world. The bread and wine (and ourselves!) are most ourselves in the field that the presence of God opens up, for God is the giver and substance of faith. God’s gratuitous and excessive giving does not dissolve the fundamental ontological divide between the created and the Creator, but instead traverses the gap via grace (we find such a Protestant sacramentology in the fiction of Marilyn Robinson), and not by any inherent capacity of creation itself to participate in God through shared Being.

Zizek points out that the notion of paradox requires this supplementary idea that behind the paradox their exists some higher and ineffable order that functions as the ultimate harmony of the two terms. Zizek characterizes this belief in ineffable unity as (1) belief in the big Other who guarantees coherency and order ahead of time, thus absolving us of experiencing the vice of decision (the abyss of freedom), and (2) as the essential supplement of any totalitarian regime, which requires an objective order to which it can defer responsibility to justify its acts of cruelty as regrettable but necessary acts of righteousness. This appeal to an ineffable higher unity behind the paradox, to which somehow the agent has epistemically privileged access, functions as an ideology to justify the status quo. “This is just how things are.” “It’s natural.” “Everything will make sense in the future.” While paradox posits an unspeakable unity that resides beyond the paradox, dialectic refuses any higher plane of cosmic order in which the paradox could find resolution. In fact, Zizek’s reading of Hegel’s dialectic identifies the very gap, the very point of irresolution, as the synthesis of the two terms (refer to my earlier comments about the vanishing mediator in Zizek). The gap possesses primacy in the dialectical method, because the gap produces the dynamic movement of terms. Without the gap which produces activity, all things would be utterly stagnant, caught in their eternal loops (what Zizek calls ‘rotary motion’), unable to begin their journey of development.

However, at least one of Milbank’s critiques of dialectic deserves closer attention. Milbank points out that dialectic doesn’t properly respect the drastic variability of what a paradox can produce. Milbank uses the analogy of standing at the North Pole. If I am standing at the North Pole, and then I decide to leave the North Pole, I have thereby negated the North Pole as my location. My action of leaving the North Pole makes the proposition “My location is NOT the North Pole” correct. But, it does not thereby make the proposition, “I am going to the South Pole” correct. In short, a negation of my old location does not tell us any determinate content about where I am going, nor does it restrict me to any particular destination. If I leave the North Pole, I could be heading back home, I could indeed be heading to the South Pole, or I could be heading for the stars in a rocket flying straight off the top of the world. Milbank contends that dialectic (which relies on the logic of negation) restricts us to saying that any two dialectically opposed terms can only produce some specific third term, that which we call its synthesis, whereas paradox opens up an entire field of different synthetic products. Milbank further contends that the beauty of paradox lies in its ability to produce a synthesis which even exceeds the two terms themselves (such as when the love of a man and a woman brings into the world a new life).

Under the “paradoxical” model, every attempt to create a singular synthesis from a paradox must inevitably result in a failed attempt to be faithful to the core of the paradox. The paradox model reduces every synthetic act to a crude approximation which, simply by nature of being singular, must betray the paradox which produced it. This logic of constantly failed attempts to approach the paradox arises because the notion of paradox relies on a supplementary notion already pointed out by Zizek whereby the actor who synthesizes nonetheless trusts that their singular act can possess some harmony with the paradox’s ineffable unity on a higher plane (perhaps the mind of God, or the harmony of the Cosmos, or the nothingness of the Buddha-nature of all things). They thereby comfort themselves that their contingent choice to synthesize this product out of the range of options (choosing to travel from the North Pole to Argentina and not to Moscow) can somehow find its justification in whatever principle functions as their big Other, the guarantor of cosmic meaning and order.

Zizek’s dialectics already contains Milbank’s notion of a field of possible synthetic products, but he actually embraces this reality more fully than Milbank himself does. When a dialectical relationship finds its synthesis in a particular third term, Zizek fully admits the contingent nature of this third term. This is why he praises the utter normalcy of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is a normal man, in every respect, and thus nothing in his constitution makes him “worthy” of being the Son of God. But Zizek disavows the supplement of this higher order which guarantees the “rightness” of the contingent choice to embrace this particular as the synthesis, the embodiment of the void. Instead, the subject only has themselves to see their decision through, and to claim responsibility for it. Zizek sees the teeming field of possibilities, and he dares to choose. I find dialectic superior in this sense then – dialectic honestly admits that a paradox must be resolved into a third particular term. That is the nature of creaturely action and thought. We can only take particular actions; we cannot remain perpetually suspended in inactivity. However, by openly admitting the contingency of this choice to produce a particular synthesis, dialectics fully embraces the radical terror of the freedom and contingency involved with the synthetic act. Paradox disavows this contingency by assuming a standard which the act is trying to live up to, even if it admits that the act fails to live up to this standard. Dialectic rejects the notion of a universal harmony that the act fails to measure up to. This throws the responsibility for the act back on the one who performs it.


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