God the “Master Signifier”

I notice a repeated pattern in much Christian theology that seems to me to parallel Zizek’s explanation of Lacan’s “masculine” logic, the logic of the “master signifier” or “constitutive exception.” One of the clearest contemporary examples can be found in Zizioulas’s Being as Communion. He’s trying to demonstrate that the modern notion of a “person,” thought as a monadic individual, must be supplemented by Trinitarian doctrine, wherein personhood is irreducibly relational and wherein a person (God the Father), not a substance, is the origin of all things. Yet in the course of his argument, it becomes clear that for him, God the Father effectively is the modern monadic individual he’s trying to critique — he founds the order of personhood, yet he’s an exception to the intrinstic relationality of all other persons (including the trinitarian persons).

More broadly, many theologians emphasize that we shouldn’t be grasping and possessive of created things and even make the regime of property the very essence of sin. Yet their reason is not simply that the notion of ownership is bad, but rather that God is actually the one who owns everything. Other theologians castigate human pride and self-seeking, but in the service of making sure that God‘s power and glory are unchallenged.

In short, there are many strains of Christian theology that essentially make God out to be the very exemplar of sin, and it seems to me that that can’t possibly be right.

18 thoughts on “God the “Master Signifier”

  1. I may be mis-remembering, but isn’t there a heresy that maintains that, in order for Jesus to die for our sins, he would have to take responsibility for the sins by actually commiting them?

  2. I’m not familiar with that one, but there was (supposedly) a heresy that taught that you had to commit all kinds of sins in order to have the full range of experience, or something along those lines. It’s hard to tell if it was real or not, though, because the early fathers sometimes seem to me to be exaggerating.

  3. When you say “God the Father effectively is the modern monadic individual he’s trying to critique”, do you think that this may be because of the denial of the Filioque in Zizioulas’s Eastern Orthodox theology? Would God still be considered the “modern monadic individual” if the Father were not the sole source of the Son and the Spirit?

  4. I dunno. I reckon there’s a certain amount of mileage in basing morality on expressions such as “No God but the Lord”: so that sin is basically attempting to be God when we’re not. Being good for us is being a creature. God’s morality does not resemble ours in that way.

    Hence: pride is the main sin; the enlightenment was wrong for defining God as being like the soul; negative theology has the force of critique. (I believe some people keep just war theory going on this kind of basis: just wars (or even jihad) are OK, but we haven’t seen one yet).

    But of course, if the Father is defined as the exception to the trinity, that is heretical. So no qualms there.

  5. Troy, I don’t think it’s the Filioque as such that’s the problem, but rather his exaggerated rejection of the Filioque leads him into his error — he’s so intent on the monarchy of the Father that he excludes any notion that the Father could be conditioned by the Son and Spirit (i.e., he seems to regard it as meaningful to talk about the Father in abstraction from the others in a way that it’s not meaningful to talk about the others in abstraction from the Father).

    That is to say, good Orthodox theologian that he is, Zizioulas feels obligated to be an absolute and total dick about the Filioque and generally to assert the Eastern doctrine as superior in every way — but his error (as I see it) is not simply that he asserts the Eastern doctrine. In fact, one could construe the Western doctrine in such a way as to end up in the same place.

  6. Brad, You can make that argument from the outside, sure, but from “within” theology, it seems like an obvious mistake.

    Augustinian, But that wasn’t the argument of the early fathers — nor was it Augustine’s argument. In their polemics against paganism, the overriding theme is that the pagan gods have unlimited license for wickedness, while the Christian God is good, in a way that is immediately recognizable. Not to say that the position you’re espousing isn’t in the tradition — but it does seem to me to be wrong in an obvious way.

  7. Within theology, I would say that God can be the ultimate owner of all things without moral contradiction because God is also the perfect sharer of all things. Thus the argument isn’t “don’t grasp, you’re stealing from God” but rather “don’t grasp, you’ll get what you need.”

  8. I think that, within theology, the logic of the constitutive exception will take much time to register.

    I am convinced that everything “postliberal” is reducible to it – and a couple of other fundamental philosophical errors.

  9. Also, whatever the merits of the larger point (which I think are considerable) bear in mind that Zizioulas is wildly incoherent. Given his commitment to an eclectic and ersatz dialogical personalism, there’s no way, within his system, for him to avoid egregious anthropomorphism or “ontotheology” (actually these are reducible to the same problem in his trinitarian thought). Come to think of it, ontotheology would simply be another way of naming the problem of the constitutive exception.

  10. What examples, exactly, might one give as theological ‘exceptions’ to this pattern of thought? It seems to me that, even if they never explore this issue in detail, this sort of ‘God as founding exception’ thing stands behind nearly every theology that isn’t Hegelian or otherwise dialectical or pan(en)theistic.. The idea of transcendence seems almost as if it emerged from an attempt to solve the issue of the founding exception, a way to reconcile the commitment to both the founding character of the origin and its embodiment of absolute perfection. The very notion of the agathon epekeina tes ousias seems like an obvious example of such a go for an ‘exceptional’ foundation.

  11. Where would you say is the best account of Zizek’s thought on this by the way? Are we talking the Universal Exception?

    As far as I remember from my scanty reading of Marx, it is not property as such that is bad, but the form of property available in capitalist societies. So maybe God can own everything but not as we now understand ownership: we’d have to work on our thoughts concerning what is wrong with ownership in order to get it straight.

    I can’t get around conceiving God as an exception except by simply refusing to compare Her with humanity.

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