faith is a ghost that haunts: Zizek and Barth

“One becomes a full member of a community not simply by identifying with its explicit symbolic tradition, but only when one also assumes the spectral dimension that sustains this tradition, the undead ghosts that haunt the living, the secret history of traumatic fantasies transmitted ‘between the lines,’ through the lacks and distortions of the explicit symbolic tradition.” [1]

“‘[Luther:] Only when that which is believed on is hidden, can it provide an opportunity for faith. And moreover, those things are most deeply hidden which most clearly contradict the obvious experience of the senses. Therefore, when God makes alive, He kills; when He justifies, He imposes guilt; when He leads us to heaven, He thrusts us down into hell.’ [Barth] The Gospel of salvation can only be believed in; it is a matter for faith only. It demands choice. This is its seriousness. To him that is not sufficiently mature to accept a contradiction and to rest in it, it becomes a scandal–to him that is unable to escape the necessity of contradiction, it becomes a matter for faith. Faith is awe in the presence of the divine incognito; it is the love of God that is aware of the qualitative distinction between God and man and God and the world.” [2]

 Zizek and Barth (quoting Luther) resonate here in emphasizing the anti-humanist element of faith that cannot be fully exorcised. 

I like that contradiction is inescapable for Barth—faith is not a matter of resolving the contradictions of searching and longing for God in the world, but of moving forward through the scandal in awe. I like that Zizek understands that rolling the comforting words of the tradition around in one’s mouth is still superficial. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is also the God of Job. 

Living in (and living out) the Christian tradition is not always uplifting, inspiring, and empowering. The faith that always smiles remains suspect. Has it ingested the contradictions, the fears, the doubts, the pain that are as integral to the transmission of the tradition as its hope, its joy, and its light?

This isn’t to valorize suffering and darkness as honorable, good, or even useful—it’s just to recognize that the Christian tradition has its ghosts and that all along the way the journey of faith is accompanied by these ghosts—even where they are supressed. 


[1] Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: the Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 128.

[2] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn Hoskyns (London: Oxford UP, 1933), 39.

5 Replies to “faith is a ghost that haunts: Zizek and Barth”

  1. Paragraph #4. Contradiction is indeed inescapable. Our desire for resolution often borders on idolatry, and I suspect that this often happens during misguided attempts to make the “hard to swallow” parts of Christianity more palatable.

    I’m not sure I’d agree that “rolling the comforting words of tradition around in one’s mouth” is entirely superficial. It can be, but there is a supernatural element as well. As a new Catholic, I’m still working this out.

    Paragraph #5. Agreed.

    Paragraph #6. Less agreed. Suffering is useful, and I’m beginning to think it is even necessary. This could be fodder for conversation over Christmas.

    1. Thanks for your comments here Tim,

      I would really enjoy a conversation about this stuff over Christmas. I’m still working out my suspicion about the synthesis between theology and humanism and finding Zizek, and to a degree Barth, helpful in that process.

      All that I meant in my hedge against valorizing suffering was to break any notion that all suffering is useful, or that suffering is a good in and of itself, to whatever degree that might have been implied in the post. I have no doubt that suffering often works to the good of those who suffer, nor that God is complicit in some way in bringing about some created suffering. I don’t, however, think that all suffering is explicable in terms of a coherent narrative arc.

      Glad to hear about Adam’s GRE success! That will certainly help in his endeavor!


  2. Thanks for engaging me Eric. I look forward to our conversation.

    BTW, I forgot to wish you a happy feast day of the Maternity of Anna! That’s what us Easterners call it. As one who finds the Immaculate Conception theologically disastrous (if I remember your comment correctly) I think you’d find the Eastern view a bit more tenable. Actually, I find the Eastern view of what exactly came into the world through Adam, and consequently what was passed down through him, much more tenable than Western views of original sin. John Meyendorff’s book Byzantine Theology is a great reference in these matters.

    1. Yes, I believe that you caught me at my Lutheran best that day, though Luther probably would have thrown in an excremental reference for good measure. We’ll have to talk about what “you Easterner’s” think of the immaculate conception of Mary at Christmas as well!

      I passed on a congratulations to Adam, thanks for letting me know.


  3. Eric,
    the more I chew on this line the more eagerly I await our discussion:
    “I like that Zizek understands that rolling the comforting words of the tradition around in one’s mouth is still superficial.”
    Since I don’t know where Zizek is coming from, I am having a hard time evaluating this statement at face value, although I am inclined to say that it sounds like an extremely broad generalization, and one that is further complicated by the lowercase t.

    See you soon!

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