How can we know what is real? In the wake of 9/11 many philosophers offered interpretations of the event from their own perspective of reality. Marxist philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, claimed that 9/11 was an event which woke America up. America, he wrote, has been awakened, like Neo in The Matrix to, using the phrase Morpheus used, “the desert of the real.” Americans, Žižek argued, were, before 9/11, like Truman in the movie, The Truman Show1 – living in “the late capitalist consumerist Californian paradise…in its very hyper-reality, in a way ireal, substances, deprived of the material inertia.”2
According to Žižek, the attacks on America burst the bubble of unreality and brought home the material reality of the rest of the world: “The United States just got a taste of what goes on around the world on a daily basis, from Sarajevo to Groznyy, from Rwanda and Congo to Sierra Leone.”3 Furthermore, he suggests, “the relative prosperity and peace of the “civilized” West was bought by the export of ruthless violence and destruction into the “barbarian” Outside.”4 Žižek asked us to consider the awakening as a conversion from falsity to reality. The conversion, in this case, does not occur at the event, but happens when one has been led into the light of the real by one who has access to it – namely, in this case, Slavoj Žižek.
How does Žižek determine the real and unreal? He claims to have access to knowledge which has only recently, since 9/11, been accessible to Americans. But perhaps it is he who is in the bubble of unreality. It is not certain that the bubble has been burst. In the example of The Truman Show, we are led to believe that the show is the only bubble. But there is no reason why there might not be another bubble to be burst. What if the show itself was being filmed for another show? People may have been sitting in their homes watching them watching Truman. Žižek cannot be sure of who is in the bubble and who is out. Perhaps it is he who was duped by unreality and Americans who lived in the real. The point is that he cannot know which is which.
By claiming to have access to a secret knowledge, hitherto unknown to Americans, Žižek claims an elite status. It is he who has access to the keys to salvation, a secret knowledge, a hyper-gnosis. Žižek is also a committed Marxist materialist5 so the knowledge he seeks to provide is economic and political. Yet, for the Christian, this is an insufficient view of reality. It is actually Žižek who must be awakened to the real: a spiritual real. Combined with Žižek’s elitism, his denial of that which is unseen displays a Gnostic premise – a devaluation of reality. As Jeffrey Satinover remarks:
Socialism is little more than Gnostic spirituality transposed to the realms of politics and economy – hence its irrational grip on the souls of so many millions, in the teeth of its persistent failures and destructiveness. It proposes, in effect, a materialistic route to salvation that eliminates the need to depend upon the unseen real. Through its ideology one is enabled, so it claims, to transmute an idolatrous worship of mere material well-being into transcendent holiness (in short: Heaven on earth).6
It is, as Satinover suggests, Žižek who will one day be faced with the unseen real, not the plastic world of Truman’s illusion, but the all too real spiritual realm. And this is not the secret knowledge available to the few, but the knowledge of every man made in the image of God. It is the knowledge of the real which is not hidden from them, but suppressed because of sin (Rom 1:18-21). It is Žižek’s secret knowledge, but it is only a secret in that he attempts to keep it from himself. He is, in a spiritual sense, blind.
If Žižek’s attempt to convert the West to his view of reality is flawed then perhaps the Christian response—to recognize the spiritual realm in 9/11—might offer some hope. Indeed, many Christians responded to 9/11 with calls to convert to Christianity. Some argued that the events of 9/11 were intended, by God, for just such a purpose. Srinivas Aravamuden recalls how many in the West blamed themselves for the attacks, which, in their minds, were “brought on not just by evil adversaries but by the godless life and sexual deviance of Americans themselves.”7 Consequently, Pat Robertson and others used the event to exhort the American people to convert to Christianity. The event was, for them, an apostrophe, a sudden interruption to the discourse of daily life in which Americans would cry out to God. The reason for the attacks was not so much malicious evil from another religion, but the judgment of the Christian God, a provocation to stop what they were doing and turn to Christianity.8 God, in this scenario, is similar to Žižek’s “barbarian Outside,” able to burst through the bubble of an ireal world.
The trouble is that it didn’t work. There was no revival. Perhaps, we might wonder, the judgment was not harsh enough. If that was as bad as judgment can get, many obviously thought (since they did not become Christians), that we are still okay. Even if our worse fears were realized (for example, an impending catastrophe of a global environmental meltdown like the one depicted in the movie, 2012), it is not guaranteed that any one would, even then, convert. That is not how Christian conversion works.
Conversion, rather, is a work of God in man, received through the Word of God (1 Thess 2:13). It is the regeneration of the inner man by God. He is reborn and awakened to the real which was there all along and which he has known all along yet has denied in his unrighteousness. It is, therefore, not primarily conversion from the outside, but from the inside. The conversion to Christianity is not merely a presentation and acceptance of reality, but an internal transformation which creates the conditions for knowledge of the truth.
Conversion is, therefore, exclusively Christian. There is, in reality, no other kind. The world is not divided into a plethora of equally valid worldviews. One does not really convert from one to another; one only swaps one set of untruths for another set. Even if a man becomes first an atheist, then a mystic, then a Christian, he only converts once and for all when he is born again.
Both Žižek and some Christian preachers do not include an internal transformation which is necessary for knowledge of the truth. Both postulate a revelation—of God or of global economic plight—but say precious little about the conditions by which reality is known. The Christian, on the other hand, is one who has been born again, has had the scales lifted from his eyes. He can see not because he is given something new to look at, but because he has been given sight.
1 In The Truman Show, Truman is duped into living a false life which is televised and watched across the world. The movie climaxes with Truman’s realization of the truth and his escape “to reality.”
2 Slavoj Zizek, “Welcome to the Desert of the Real!” Dissent From the Homeland: Essays After September 11 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 131.
3 Ibid., 133.
4 Ibid., 132.
5 See Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2003) for his denial of transcendence. He postulates that Christianity was a proto-Marxist movement. Zizek follows Freud in his assertion that God, in any transcendent sense, is mere psychological projection.
6 Jeffrey Satinover, The Empty Self: C.G Jung and the Gnostic Foundations of Modern Identity (Westport: Hamewith, 1996), 17.
7 Srinivas Aravamudan, “Ground Zero; or, The Implosion of Church and State” Dissent From the Homeland: Essays after September 11 ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Frank Lentricchia (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003), 198.
8 The Islamist intent to convert is all too obvious. As V. S. Naipaul comments: “Islam is in its origins an Arab religion. Everyone not an Arab who is a Muslim is a convert. Islam is not simply a matter of conscience or private belief. It makes imperial demands. A convert’s worldview alters. His holy places are in Arab lands; his sacred language is Arabic. His idea of history alters. He rejects his own; he becomes, whether he likes it or not, a part of the Arab story. The convert has to turn away from everything that is his… the turning away has to be done again and again.” V. S. Naipaul, Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples (New York: Vintage, 1999), xi.