Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Liberal Parallax

Liberalism and fundamentalism form a ‘totality’.1

The ‘gap’ that separates the two is minimal difference, or a parallax gap.

A standard definition of parallax is: the apparent displacement of an object (the shift of its position against a background), caused by a change in observational position that provides a new line of sight.2

A simple example can be drawn from the speedometer in a car. When viewed from the driver’s seat, the speed (reading) will appear different than when viewed from the passenger’s seat—as the perspective ‘shifts’, the background behind the needle (also) changes, resulting in a different speed (reading).

A single point viewed from a shifted perspective creates this (irreducible parallax) ‘gap’.

The question before us is thus: what does parallax have to do with Christianity?  

Fundamentalism (as Žižek puts it) is a (mystifying) ‘reaction’ to liberalism3—again, the two form a ‘totality’. In other words, liberalism generates its opposite because it cannot stand on its own—or more specifically, liberalism ‘parasitizes’ on the ‘system’ it challenges, thus reinforcing it.

Opposite of how it may appear, fundamentalism is not the result of liberal positions that are too radical, but liberal positions that are not radical enough.

Take the following two examples.

(Example 1) When confronted with fundamentalist intolerance toward ‘the’ other (in the ‘pious’ form of hating sin in order to ‘love’ sinners), rather than exposing the system of scapegoating where an other is ‘the’ other, liberals insist on ‘tolerance’.

Liberals ‘preach’ tolerance as a way to ‘love’ ‘the’ other.

Many liberals reject (in theory) the notion of us vs. them, yet what is missed is there is no ‘us’.

Christianity is not an institution that welcomes everyone, it is an institution comprised of all who do not belong to an institution.

Christianity is universal in its being (dialectically) non-all.

Those who ‘participate’ (in Christianity) are a ‘part of no part’—as Paul put it, ‘the garbage of the world’. (1 Corinthians 4:13)  

Christianity is universal per each (individual) having direct access to it.

For believers, tolerance is irrelevant because ‘we’ don’t exist.

At Christ’s table ‘we’ are ‘we’, yet ‘we’ are not ‘we’ because ‘we’ are not a category of truth.4  

Tolerance is (only) affirmation of ‘the’ other, and in this way, tolerance and intolerance are separated by an irreducible parallax gap—which is, again, a single point viewed from a shifted perspective.

(Example 2) Many liberals deplore the fundamentalist notion of a vengeful God who ‘oversees’ destruction (in various forms: hurricanes, etc.) because of the sinful lifestyles of people groups who are ‘other’.

When confronted with this (position), the liberal ‘response’ is (typically) that God does not tamper with ‘nature’ (in such ways) because God is loving, and so on.

The problem here is that the fundamentalist position is only a (mystified) ‘reaction’ to the liberal position. In other words, fundamentalists preach a vengeful God (who intervenes) because liberals preach a loving God (who does not).

While these two ‘beliefs’ appear different, the truth is a God who intervenes and a God who does not is the same God.

Therefore, the gap that separates fundamentalist Christianity from liberal/progressive Christianity is (and for the last time) that of a parallax.

Only too often, liberals ‘resist’ fundamentalism by simply negating the (fundamentalist) position—however this only ensures the smooth functioning of the entire ‘system’, as resistance operates within the framework it resists.

Simple negation affirms the position it negates.

The radical (theological) position never ‘negates’ the fundamentalist position because the question of the ‘existence’ of an intervening God (of Beyond) is simply irrelevant.

This is the (radical) ‘religion-less faith’ of Bonhoeffer—where we live in the world as though God does not exist (etsi deus non daretur).

But we must be very specific here, for today it appears as though many do indeed live as though God does not exist, but this is only because everyone secretly still believes.

We do not believe what we ‘believe’—we desire a radical faith without giving up God as a psychological crutch.

We want a ‘revolution’ without a revolution—we make impossible demands on the ‘system’ without giving up our (comfortable) position (within the ‘system’).

What comes after the Event of ‘Christ crucified’ is that of a certain ‘withdrawal’—a violent ‘gesture’ of non-violence—a refusal to participate in the entire ‘system’.

The move from today’s hegemonic (Western) religious ideology (of conservative fundamentalism) to radical Christianity is thus the move from liberal parallax to revolutionary parallax—which is the move from something to nothing—from the gap that separates two ‘somethings’ (something and its negation—which is something and something) to the gap that separates a something from nothing, from the void of its own place.5

To paraphrase Žižek, ‘The difference between [Christ] and the formation of the new order is that of a parallax: the very frantic and engaged activity of constructing a new order is sustained by an underlying [withdrawal, the violent non-violence of Calvary] which forever reverberates in it…the new post-revolutionary order does not negate its founding gesture—the explosion of destructive fury that wipes away the Old—it merely gives body to this negativity. The difficulty of imagining the New is the difficulty of imagining [Christ as the God of the Old, the Transcendent God of Beyond]’.6

In other words, the Truth/Event of ‘Christ crucified’ is the underlying principle that (must) sustain the entire (post-revolutionary) ‘movement’ (of Christianity).

(For Paul) We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles…for the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:23,25)

The theological ‘weight’ of this weakness of God—the truth that what ‘dies on the cross’ is not simply a messenger of God, but is (the Transcendent) God (of Beyond)—this (Real) truth (a great) many refuse to approach.    

The truth terrifies because it is monstrous; it demands everything.

It is a Kierkegaardian ‘leap’ (of faith).

Those who side with (the) truth are not understood because (the) truth is a risk, a wager.

This (it is this writer’s belief) scratches the surface of what it means to preach/participate-in ‘Christ crucified’.

1. Slavoj Žižek, Living in the End Times, London: Verso, 2011, 154.
2. Slavoj Žižek, The Parallax View, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009, 17.
3. Žižek, Living in the End Times, 154.
4. Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce, London: Verso, 2009, 104.
5. Žižek, The Parallax View, 382.
6. Ibid.  


  1. Hey, I've followed you on twitter and have been liking your posts on here
    Interesting thoughts in this post...
    It got me thinking and some questions came to mind:
    In this framework, where does liberalism come from?
    I understand the 'totality' of liberalism/fundamentalism, but you only begin to explain the origins of fundamentalism. Is the process somewhat circular? And how do you understand conservatism fitting into this picture?
    I tend to see liberalism and conservatism/fundamentalism as stemming from modern methods for philosophy, epistemology, & linguistics. This is because modern structures provide only so many (two basic) options for developing 'camps' of thought.
    Here, fundamentalism and liberalism still easily form a totality - influencing and supporting one another, etc. - but fundamentalism doesn't rely foundationally on liberal tendency.

    1. Scott,

      Some great (and difficult) questions...I'll do my best.

      1. Liberalism is the 'foundation' of what we might call 'core values': freedom, equality, etc. Yet these terms only attain 'meaning' retroactively, that is, once we 'apply' them in 'real time'.
      2. The 'process' is the same 'structure' (or relationship) as Law and sin: one directly 'generates' the other (and in our American context, Christian fundamentalism and political conservatism are indeed bound together, for the most part).
      3. In 'general', I do not believe this is a 'modern' phenomenon, but I'm no historian. In a 'Christian' sense, I believe it is (a modern phenomenon).
      4. Fundamentalism does (in a way) 'rely' on liberalism, but that can also (now) be inverted. When multi-cultural 'pluralism' is introduced, 'fundamentalists' seek to (re-)establish 'identity'. Liberals preach tolerance from a (fake) 'meta-position', as a 'passively' observing 'world citizen'. In other words, fundamentalists seek to maintain 'identity' and multi-culturists claim to accept those who are (authentically) 'other'. The line of separation is thus purely formal.

      In a Christian context, liberals preach acceptance of 'the' other as though they are (almost) doing the 'other' a 'favor'--this is precisely the position true 'radicals' avoid, for there is no 'us'.

  2. Neither of the two theoretical extremes is true, and likewise neither is any single point anywhere else on the spectrum. I like that. In a sense they all need to be true in order for any to be true. Most Christians are in the misguided pursuit to determine which point they occupy. And likewise, trying to pigeonhole where other people are (which makes the inherently ridiculous assumption that any of that is static!) so there's this jostling for position, supremacy and affiliation. (Assumptions of "us" and "them", "right" and "wrong".)

    But rather than push harder in the given directions, I believe there is another plane. Liberal and conservative are still human theological constructs, which I feel you saying must be let go of to grasp the monstrous truth. This changes the conversation from a sliding scale in one continuum to a much more complex and arbitrary point on a 2D grid. Perhaps this is the revolution. (If I live long enough, I may grasp how this becomes an even more complicated 3D construct, which I now expect, but can't yet see.) In this sense, I fully endorse that there is no 'us'.

    And yet we are called to the impossible 'us' -- one which can only be formed as we intentionally abandon the myriad complexities of our own perspectives and influences and so merge with another's. This voluntary abandoning and merging is what we call love. We are called to it, but are incapable of it that except imperfectly and temporarily.

    Yet it is in this plane that we escape philosophy, science, theology -- all of our human constraints (though in this human form only mostly theoretically, and far from indefinitely). We discordantly believe in a truth that is far beyond the knowable. What we "know" is a shard from a different dimension, and yet there is a glib assumption out there that we can reconstruct that unknown dimension from the fragment we have been given. When we appropriately demand responsibility for what the fragment tells us, how easy it is to miss the parts of the fragment which tell us is that reconstruction of the whole is impossible. Indeed, we implicitly expect otherwise, and probably in some cases, that we've completed that already.

    Then again, perhaps it is not impossible, merely forbidden (see the Tower of Babel).

    The problem with these ideas (whether my perspective is directly compatible with yours, or whether mine is the parallax view, or something else entirely) is that most Christians are not given the tools to wrestle with this level of ethereal abstraction which unknowingly forms the core of their faith. I believe that the capacity to escape the tangible to the transcendent is probably the point, but it is seldom proclaimed as the point, and so the effort is not celebrated or understood. In fact, to many of the Christians that I've met (and many of the Christians that I've been), that is so profoundly unsettling as to be spectacularly distasteful.

  3. Brad,

    Thanks so much for the comments...some really, really good thoughts.

    I particularly liked the last line: 'many of the Christians that I've been'--I can definitely relate to that...