For Cypher, knowledge was the foundation of his very existence. And to know was to be condemned. Contra Sartre, for Cypher “hell” was not exactly other people. Hell was simply knowing. Period. Hell was the confrontation with a horizon that was so real it was impenetrable. Its very impenetrability produced dread and anxiety. To bump up against it, and to know you were bumping up against it, was to die, whether you physically expire or not. To become the living dead. Cypher had awoken to his own death.
Better, instead, to become the dead living and embrace the fantasy world of illusion. Paradoxically, Cypher’s “blissful ignorance” was also premised on knowledge, for ignorance, however blissful, is intimately related to knowledge; it cannot be thought without knowledge. Cypher believed that that which he did not know would grant him bliss or happiness. Better not to know.
This scene from The Matrix vividly illustrates the current state of the never-ending debate between theism and atheism. In this debate, knowledge is primarily the sole arbiter and creator of both these positions. What can we know? What do we believe? How can we hold to such a belief? What do we do with our knowledge and beliefs? Rational epistemology has become the standard of measurement in determining both the theistic/atheistic questions and their concomitant answers. The urgent question here, however, is this: Is knowledge the best descriptive and even prescriptive ground upon which to set these debates? The (extremely) short answer is no, at least in and of itself.
What if, instead of grounding the issues and concepts surrounding theism and atheism upon knowledge alone, we consider another ground upon which to circumnavigate these discussions? I suggest love. This will surely sound, initially, quite strange, if not outright absurd. What does love have to do with the theism/atheism debates? Doesn’t diverting our attention away from epistemology (and ontology) produce nothing more than a red herring? Do we not then signal our fear or inability to rationally engage these issues in reasonable and logical ways with nonsensical talk about love, or any other way of interpreting these issues? Might as well make rainbows, flowers, and kittens integral parts of the discussion. Clearly, this is a notion that I will have to develop at some length in order to be persuasive. What I want to suggest is not that love must be pitted against knowledge for the theist or the atheist concerning the question of God but that the concept of love is inseparable from the species of knowledge that we are dealing with when it comes to questions of the existence of God or gods precisely because the notion of belief comes into play specifically in connection to the God discussions. In the realm of belief in particular love plays a discrete and crucial role. It plays this role with regard to belief in such a way, in fact, that, as I will argue, love should be seen as a crucial element in the theism/atheism debates, for both atheists and theists. Thus, not eros vs. logos but logos in the light of and framed by eros.
The Existential Complication: Atheism’s Teeth
But alas, we’re going to have to complicate things a bit more before we are through. This is because there is a third party to these debates, one that has been conspicuously absent over the last several years, even decades, but whose presence is also required at our crowded little table. This third party is existentialism. Existentialism is not essentially (as if this word can sit anywhere near existentialism) theistic or atheistic. It is not necessarily one or the other. Though Kierkegaard is often regarded as the “father” of existentialism (and, like Dostoevsky, a theist), existentialism since his time has seemed to be more appropriated by atheists than theists: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Sartre, Camus, Jaspers, to list some primary names. Famously (or infamously) existentialism, by the very fact of its concentration on becoming over being, the individual over the universal, the concrete over the abstract, is said to flout definition. Its thinkers only loosely belong together, their differences far outweighing their commonalities. Walter Kaufmann has written, in a well-known passage on the topic, “The refusal to belong to any school of thought, the repudiation of the adequacy of an body of beliefs whatever, and especially of systems, and a marked dissatisfaction with traditional philosophy as superficial, academic, and remote from life—that is the heart of existentialism.”
But for existentialists the relationship with knowledge is a complex one. The anxious knight of Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal wants knowledge, not faith. In the imminent face of death faith is too tenuous, too uncertain. The knight wants a firm ground to stand upon. The existentialist seeks, among other things (individuality, freedom) authenticity, and to arrive at authenticity knowledge is required, a knowledge that produces awareness of the self.
But at the same time, existentialism takes particular positions with regard to knowledge, positions that are not straightforwardly reconcilable with the pursuit of knowledge. Dostoevsky’s sick and spiteful man from Notes from Underground comes to mind: “Merciful Heavens! But what do I care for the laws of nature and arithmetic, when, for some reason, I dislike those laws and the fact that twice two makes four? Of course I cannot break through the wall by battering my head against it if I really have not the strength to knock it down, but I am not going to be reconciled to it simply because it is a stone wall and I have not the strength.” According to Dostoevsky, we as human beings are ordered as if we could step outside nature and declare it unfit to govern the world and us. Two and two will never make five, no matter my rage against the natural order. But if I protest the sum of two and two I am not seeking to change the law but to constitute myself, size myself up against the sum, to declare myself unreconciled to it if I wish. And if the sum does not change according to my preferences, do I then reconcile? Of course not. That was never the point. When I write a sentence in the word processing program on my computer that the program doesn’t think is grammatically correct, a squiggly green line appears beneath the sentence. Inserted into a word processing program, this entire essay would be full of them, declaring these sentences to be wrong, unnatural, against the nature of correct grammar. This squiggly green line would be informing us that I have written a sentence fragment and would suggest I re-write it. A trifling thing, surely. But I won’t change it, not because I’m petty or lazy, or even because I disagree that it is grammatically incorrect (indeed, it is) but because it conveys what I wanted it to convey. It reveals myself, my emotive communication, reflecting the way I passionately speak in real life about my life. So I would not change it, but neither would I expect that it be changed, that nature conform itself to my wishes and reorder itself around my existence. Maybe I need those squiggly, accusatory lines to create my own existence, stamp my own footprint on a an impossibly crowded and complex world, where I am not noticed and therefore will not be remembered. I may need the lines as one of many walls—Cypher’s impenetrable horizon of knowledge—on which to bash my head simply because I can and I shouldn’t. And if I were reconciled to this particular wall I would simply find another in any case. So knowledge is a means to end, a tool by which I make myself and create awareness of myself. And this is where Cypher was, in the end, decidedly not an existentialist, despite his dread in the face of a miserable existence and death: he wanted to escape knowledge, utterly annihilate himself so that he wouldn’t have to face himself. For the existentialist, however, knowledge is indispensable to her endeavor. The collapse of knowledge would lead to the collapse of the self, the destruction of authenticity, the ruination of freedom.
This is all to say that atheism has lost its teeth. Existentialism used to be the teeth with which atheism could more or less effectively cut into the cloth of theism and construct an authentic, immanent world. However, contemporary atheism is lodged firmly on the shores of the modern scientific worldview. The atheist’s arguments are rational and scientific. Irrationality is the worst thing of which the theist can be accused. But please. Where is the real wound here? For some theists this is a serious charge and must be fought tooth and nail, but for religious believers in general, for whom their religion is an important element of their inner lives, it is a weak indictment. Or, better said, the charge of irrationality is beside the point. With regard to the universe, for example, the religious believer has a deep sense of the wonderment contained therein, a feeling of surprise mingled with reverence that describes the experience of encountering the world in all its complexity and immensity. It is important to note that this experience or account might include a consideration of cause and effect (the metaphysics of the modern scientific worldview) but being curious about how the world became possible based on prior antecedents is not central to this experience. As Rush Rhees wrote, “I do not mean, of course, that religious wonder refrains from asking the cause. It is just not concerned with that question.”
In other words, a religious account of the world is not diametrically opposed to the scientific or philosophical account. It doesn’t obtain in the life of the believer because it is the polar opposite of a scientific rendering of the universe, as if opposition to scientific or philosophical discourse breathes life and meaning into religion and opposition to religion breathes life and meaning into science and philosophy. It is simply that religion is not concerned with the language of cause and effect, and were a religious believer to insist that this was a primary concern, she would be confusing contexts of discourse. As Rhees says, “No one would try to teach children what ‘God’ means by talking about a first cause, or by talking about causes at all…If a devout adult has in some ways a different idea of God than children do, this is not because he can give a different account of anything—nothing like a scientific account, anyway.”
To teach children, or anyone about God is to teach them the language of religion, not how God is simply another analyzable object in the universe. Later Rhees says, in connection with this, “As a child grows to be a man, he becomes less naïve in what he says about God. But this is not because he knows more about God now. He has not tried to discover what God is—not because this would be a hopeless quest but because it would be a quest at all…No one comes to a deeper knowledge of God by making an investigation.” “Theory,” potentially, for the believer, makes “God” into an object, which God, for the believer qua believer, is not. Thus, theorizing brings God into the realm of objects, which is ultimately, and ironically, both an atheistic and, at most, classical theistic worldview.
Contemporary atheism, then, has lost its teeth. Where is the atheist that proclaims that it is a travesty to understand the whole of nature but not to comprehend one’s self? That reasons do not preexist you as a self, but are only reasons because you countenance them as such? That we exist out in front of ourselves, thrown into a world not of our choosing, into a context already built and formed, being-toward-death? What can I learn about life from biology? Or sociology? Only how my body behaves or how others act. If I learn about others in this way I learn nothing of myself. Even imitation of the Other is not to learn anything about my life. What good would it be for me to learn, as Kierkegaard wrote, all the principles of science, all the doctrines of Christianity, if they had no effect on my life? What if the truth stood there, cold and naked, not caring whether I acknowledged it? I need to find the truth that is true for me, the idea for which I am willing to live and die.
Until I find my truth(s), other truths could stand or fall, live eternally or die alone, and they would have no impact on my life. Learning about the Other, about the nature of the world is inconsequential if I am not affected by such truths in ways that allow me to grasp who I am to me. “The single human being alone for himself.” This, for the existentialist, is the beginning of knowledge. Not that we can grasp ourselves in some sort of totality, for to do so reveals that we are still thinking of ourselves as objects, analyzable, measurable, quantifiable. But always in process of reaching, continually becoming—only then will we have the wherewithal to address other human beings as selves in their own right. Only then will we be able to regard them as infinite creatures, not finite analyzable objects, to be used and profited from. To begin with the self, the single human being alone for himself is in the end to regard the Other as he or she should be regarded. If not—then only bits of nature, to be exploited.
Sartre, quoting Dostoevsky, wrote, “ ‘If God did not exist, then everything would be permitted.’ And that, for existentialism, is the starting point.” Thus we are “condemned to be free,” “responsible for everything,” and forced to acknowledge that “values are uncertain,” and certainly not deontological universal imperatives. The absence of God is the beginning for existentialism; from this truth everything else becomes possible. But God’s absence is the ending for modern atheism; it is the final goal in eradicating religious irrationality by force of scientific argument. Paradoxically, then, upon achieving this goal atheism disappears. But religion, not primarily concerned with rationality, will, in some form or other, remain. Atheism needs existentialism. It has forgotten the lethal precision with which existentialism aims at the heart of the religious self who, in its inner desire seeks and finds God.
Consequently, in order to do full justice to the most, shall we say, religiously devastating atheistic worldview, we will deal here with existential atheism in considering the ways in which the erotic hermeneutic might reframe the entire debate. We will consider existential atheism as the atheism most capable of doing damage to the theistic or the religious point of view, and thus the point where the tension between belief and unbelief is most strained.
Interlude: Love in a Time of Cholera
Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ classic novel explores the love triangle of Florentino, Fermina, and Juvenal. In their youth, Florentino and Fermina passionately love one another. But Fermina has set herself a deadline by which to be married. When the deadline—her 21st birthday—arrives she meets the successful and well-ordered Juvenal. He is able to offer the security, wealth, and social prestige that Florentino cannot provide her, and, casting aside her youthful romance as “naïve” she marries Juvenal. Juvenal is perfectly rational, progressive, and modern. Nevertheless, years into their marriage Fermina discovers Juvenal has been unfaithful to her many times. Florentino’s seemingly irrational, overly romantic and naïve love, on the other hand, has endured. When Juvenal dies 50 years after marrying Fermina, Florentino is waiting for her, declaring that in the most important sense he has remained a virgin for her.
And here, as Marquez revealed in an interview, “you have to be careful not to fall into my trap.” The trap is thinking that his novel is a book about idealized romantic love. On the contrary, nothing is simple; everything is complicated, especially the protagonists. The narrative cannot be reduced to elementary school love, or even Shakespeare’s “star-crossed” love. While waiting five decades for Fermina, for example, Florentino has innumerable trysts and love affairs with both married and unmarried women. He has an obvious and aching need to be loved. And so he lives his life in love, expressing and begging for love as often as he can. He even makes himself physically ill in his pursuit of love. Nevertheless, he never commits himself to one person, never purposefully fathers children or settles down into expected social roles. He waits for Fermina, and he waits until they are both old and frail. When she rejects him now, he continues to wait until she finally realizes she can reciprocate his love. Thus his love is ideal and romantic; but also depraved, fractured. There is both a light and a dark side to his love, a love that is shaped by the finite as much as by the infinite. Love doesn’t conform to the facile judgments we normally put upon her. As Thomas Pynchon writes, “It could be argued that this is the only honest way to write about love, that without the darkness and the finitude there might be romance, erotica, social comedy, soap opera – all genres, by the way, that are well represented in this novel – but not the Big L.”
Similarly, Kierkegaard wrote that love is usually conceived as the romantic, idealized love of the novel or the play. “It’s all love and love,” he writes. “But love is a matter of conscience and thus is not a matter of drives and inclination, or a matter of feeling, or a matter of intellectual calculation.” Lest we think that applying love to the rational talk of God and atheism is only to speak of romance and affection. This is why Marquez’ novel is so pertinent to this discussion: love is where immortality (“the heart’s eternal vow”) runs headlong into the finite and corruptible. Love, then, becomes the territory in human experience where, for the theist and the atheist alike, the finite and the infinite clash.
Theism and Atheism: Meet Postmodernity
Has atheism survived the postmodern (linguistic) turn? By all accounts it appears that it has more than just survived. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman estimates between 500 million and 700 million people who do not believe in a god of some sort (or at least those whom he designates “non-theists.” These numbers are growing, though he admits that even so, for the majority of the world atheism is not a live option. In the intellectual realm, however, the matter is more complicated. While atheism is found in much higher numbers among the educated and socially secure, postmodernism—a linguistic and philosophical style and concept in the arts, literature, and philosophy—is recognized almost exclusively amongst the intellectual elite. Yet postmodernism seemingly undermines traditional arguments for and against theism and atheism. Postmodernism creates spaces of undecidability, where no narrative, theistic, atheistic, or otherwise, can permanently hold sway.
Mark Taylor is one who optimistically sees this move as not one that destroys theism or atheism per se but allows us to see the creative possibilities of the world. Under the (meta)narratives of modernity, from which traditional theism and atheism are the progeny, an irreducible metaphysics of presence ruled. Religion was reduced to “the sigh of the oppressed, a psychotic fantasy, and the resentment of the weak against the strong.” Boundaries were rigid and impenetrable. Thus, postmodernism troubles both religious belief and antireligious belief. But Taylor sees this as a liberating move, the “infinite restlessness of the negative.” For Hegel and for Andy Warhol, he writes, the world is a work of art; not a finished product but a process with its own end and purpose. Since the end is endless, the process through which it approaches is neither complete nor incomplete. The poetic subject can become itself only through the activity of negation, in which it becomes what it is not. Thus subjectivity (and objectivity) is never complete or incomplete. This incompleteness is what makes creativity possible. Consequently, the transcendent creator becomes nothing more than emergent creativity, and “the sacred and secular become one while remaining two.”
Warhol’s project was to make the image real or the real the image. New technologies that he utilized in the fine arts blurred the line between image and reality, thus transforming the world into a work of art. If everything is a work of art, according to Warhol, everyone (and everything) is an artist. The kingdom of God is brought to the earth and the world itself is sacralized. If everything is sacred, then everyone is a religionist. When this happens, we move toward the edge of chaos and people try to find a firm foundation on which they can establish certainty. But in the postmodern age, certainty is nowhere to be found. This, however, is ultimately a good thing because uncertainty and instability can be creative. The new emerges at the edge of chaos in a moment of creative disruption that can be endlessly productive. Thus, Warhol collapsed high and low art in a move that disintegrated transcendence into immanence. This is, essentially, also Taylor’s project: to collapse transcendence into immanence, thus allowing creativity to emerge as Ultimate Principle. This move is meant to preserve the essence of religion without the foundational presence of (the traditional) God, and instead instantiate creativity and becoming in its place, thus making the entire world infinitely valuable.
Taylor’s philosophical vision thus follows Jacques Derrida, the main proponent of this post-structuralist version of postmodernism. For Derrida, language functions as systems of signifiers (signs that refer to signs that refer to signs). Key to understanding Derrida’s philosophy is the place of the transcendental signifier. A transcendental signifier is a metaphysical hierarchical principle that presumes to determine which constructions of signifiers are the “correct” ones. However, this is not possible. I’m always already enclosed in language. Therefore, when I talk and act I think I am doing so with regard to something beyond the signs, pointing to what they’re “really all about,” the referent that the signs point to. This is because the notion of a signifier presupposes a signified. This is what Derrida calls “differance,” meaning both differing and deferring. The meaning of language is always just disappearing. Differance is always deferred but it leaves a trace. Thus, on the one hand, language is locked in an eternal system of signifiers pointing toward other signifiers but it never reaching the signified (a referent). In the postmodern turn, God becomes the term that stands in for the transcendental signified. But God is either a term in the system, or God really is the transcendental signified, which, enclosed within language, we can never observe. This is why Derrida claimed that he could never truly know if he was an atheist, and why Taylor never refers to his philosophy as atheistic: Derrida has carried the discourse beyond theism and atheism, destroying the possibility for each, at least in their modern iterations. Within Derrida’s and Taylor’s philosophies nothing is fixed or stable. Decisions always occur in co-emergent networks and everything is co-dependent. There is no underlying foundation supporting anything. And thus there is no clear distinction between atheism and theism.
What, then, are we left with? If there is no foundation for the atheist or the theist, from which to defend atheism or theism, is the debate finished? Clearly not. Part of the reason for this is that so many theists and atheists are still stuck in the modern world of foundations and metaphysics, whether this be nature/science or God. Foundations, thusly, are still defended and supported. But this is only a partial answer. Religion and atheism still persist, parasitically, in an enemy vs. enemy relationship in which each party paradoxically requires the other in order to exist and thrive. But even within philosophies as devastating to traditional religion and atheism as Derrida’s and Taylor’s, the primary hermeneutic, and therefore the primary playing field is still epistemological, though now supremely sophisticated. What can we know? Derrida: nothing, really. Nearly everything is deconstructible. Nothing is determinate. The only sure thing is that nothing is sure. But whether we can know or ultimately not know, the theism-atheism debate, as elegantly evolved has it has become, still centers exclusively on knowledge.
Zizek and Kierkegaard: Toward an A/theological Erotic Hermeneutic
Soren Kierkegaard, the 19th century Danish anti-Hegelian and original Christian existentialist. Slavoj Zizek, the Slovenian Hegelian psychoanalyst, the subversive anti-hero of atheism. Oddly, there is an important connection between the two, though it is subtle. Actually, yes, though a subtle one. In order to draw this out, we will explore the one concept that binds them together: love.
Zizek decries much of the work of Derrida’s deconstruction because of its obscurantism: deconstruction and postmodernism generally invite an absolute permissiveness, which, in a way, allows religion (Derrida’s “religion without religion”) to return and obscure the real, hard work of revolution against global capitalism. Derrida is the master of tearing down and breaking apart but he can do nothing to build up, to unify, to organize the revolutions that will liberate the oppressed and unite the world. Nevertheless, Zizek sees value in the essence of Derrida’s post-structuralist work, as well as in certain aspects of Pauline Christianity, which, he believes, contribute to the revolution. This is, of course, all interpreted through a Lacanian hermeneutic, which views the universe as a radical split between binaries—signifier/signified; jouissance of drives/jouissance of the Other; masculine/feminine, etc. For Lacan, the object of desire is the Real, which can never be achieved, though we endlessly strive to do so. To achieve the Real would in fact cause all signifiers and drives to completely collapse. Thus, there is no law, system, God, or “Big Other” to guarantee the consistency of the symbolic space within which we dwell; there are only contingent, local, and fragile points of stability. Moments of the sublime come and go, and everything is inconsistent. We are mostly flawed, coping strategies for which there is no cure. This is the Lacanian Real.
According to Zizek, (Pauline) Christianity emphasizes human beings as sinners, symptom-ridden organisms struggling to cope. For the Christian, God honors us in our immanent mess, and thus God is directly for us. For Christianity, this present world is all there is. Even God understands this, and understands it so well that God comes here, kenotically emptying Godself of all transcendence and descending into pure immanence. This is the aspect of Christianity Zizek seeks to recover. The focus on the Real, says Zizek, makes us capitalist. But Zizek wants Christianity’s descent into the messiness of the world without Christianity’s (transcendent) God. Zizek’s fragile absolute is the realization that for brief moments everything might fit: our desires and their objects come together and synchronize. But only for a fragile moment, delicate as a butterfly’s wings. And this is where the Christian appropriation of agape love speaks to him, the original Christian charity that “today threatens the proper Christian stance.”
Zizek’s interpretation of Christianity posits that Christianity grants its adherents immediate access to the universal precisely by flattening familial and social hierarchies. This is accomplished through agape love, the direct expression of Christ’s injunction to hate one’s family in order to be his disciple:
The ‘hatred’ enjoined by Christ is not, therefore, a kind of pseudo-dialectical opposite to love, but a direct expression of what Saint Paul, in 1 Corinthians 13, with unsurpassable power, describes as agape, the key intermediary term between faith and hope: it is love itself that enjoins us to ‘unplug’ from the organic community into which we were born.
Thus, original Christianity, instead of rapidly inscribing itself in a foundation and entering into the metaphysics of presence, “is the violent intrusion of Difference that precisely throws the balanced circuit of the universe off the rails.”
This is not the love of romance and affection. Nor is it Donald Davidson’s semantic and formal principle of agreement. This is a transgressive love, a love that disturbs and destabilizes as much as it binds and connects. Like Marquez’ narrative of love, this love is a simultaneous encounter with both the infinite and the finite. Zizek calls this the “unplugging” or “uncoupling” of agape. Love—in which we hate the beloved because we love him or her in order to inscribe ourselves within a larger community—uncouples us from our original organic communities (families, circles of intimate friends) in order to reduce and sublimate us into one community. Consequently, it is no accident that Zizek utilizes Kierkegaard to assist him in describing this (admittedly terrifying) aspect of Christian charity.
Kierkegaard famously wrote, “Love believes all things—and yet is never deceived.” Kierkegaard contrasts this belief with mistrust, which believes nothing and yet is nevertheless deceived. People act upon knowledge, but they do so out of either faith or mistrust. Of course, this initial negotiation usually degenerates into mistrust, but this move is deceptive because it assumes that from a vantage point of mistrust (and only from this vantage point) can one act upon knowledge. Skepticism and pessimism are thus seen as essential in order to both appropriately know and to act on that knowledge. This move makes knowledge into mistrust, insisting that one can only know something through disbelief, and therefore that everyone must come to the same conclusions about our world based on this deceptive disbelief. It assumes everyone mistrusts and everyone learns knowledge (truths) through this same process. But, Kierkegaard argues, by virtue of belief one can conclude the opposite based on the same knowledge, meaning that such knowledge need not be gained mistrustfully. This was simply the epistemic mode through which knowledge was seemingly acquired, but it needn’t be the only mode. Kierkegaard insists that love is just as knowledgeable as mistrust. True subjective living confronts you, tests you with these two possibilities. It forces you to choose, and in doing so you reveal yourself to yourself and to the world: “what dwells in you must be disclosed.” To live, then, is to become so disclosed. It is to constantly judge yourself, and to judge others is to make a particular judgment on yourself. To choose an existential stance of belief through love allows one to believe all things without being deceived; even if one is lied to or encounters a deception (a falsity about the world) one is nevertheless not deceived because one loves and does not come by this knowledge through mistrust. Love is not naive; it knows what mistrust knows. But it simply loves, affirms, builds up. In this sense it is infinitely beyond all deception because of a certain orientation toward all things: that of self-disclosure in love.
As Zizek describes it, the one who believes in love sees goodness where others cannot. She sees many things that the loveless, or the deceptively loving do not see. Indeed, one can be deceived that one is loving. False love blinds itself to the other, ignoring weakness and faults in order to project a fantastical image of itself on the blank screen that the other becomes. True love loves the other because the other is other. The true believer (the one who believes all things through love) no longer sees opposition between appearance and reality: “precisely in trusting appearances, the loving person sees the other the way she/he effectively is, and loves her for her very foibles, not in spite of them.”
The key point here, where Zizek and Kierkegaard become fast companions (before violently parting ways at a future point in time) is that the love that believes all things does not produce certainty. It does not make things easy; on the contrary, in an important sense it makes things more difficult. It is not, as Kierkegaard had previously complained, all love and love, a blissful escape into the Romantic idealized universe. Christian charity, says Zizek, is “rare and fragile, to be fought for and regained again and again.” Both Kierkegaard and Zizek refer to love as the work of love. Zizek writes, “love is the work of love—the hard and arduous work of repeated ‘uncoupling’ in which, again and again, we have to disengage ourselves from the inertia that constrains us to identify with the particular order we were born into…Christian unplugging is not an inner contemplative stance, but the active work of love which necessarily leads to the creation of an alternative community.”Pauline Christianity is after the creation of an erotic community of lovers, where the social hierarchy is flattened and destroyed precisely by loving and elevating the lowest member of the community, instead of an epistemic community of knowers.
What, then, is the upshot of all this? After quoting Saint Paul’s paradigmatic passage on love (which Zizek earlier described as an unsurpassably powerful description of the transgressive power of love), 1 Corinthians 13, Zizek then suggests that whether knowledge is complete or incomplete, love endures. Love is there only for incomplete beings, those who possess incomplete knowledge. “Faith, hope, and love” only abide when I am incomplete, when I am uncertain. By its very nature, in the clash of the finite and the infinite, “love is the ‘nothing’ which makes even the complete series/field of knowledge incomplete.” Paul insists that without love I am nothing. But it is not that with love I then become something, but that, in love, I am also nothing but a nothing humbly aware of myself, a nothing made richer by awareness of my lack, or even, as Taylor might prefer, by awareness of the infinite creative complexity of the world, which I could never fully comprehend. Thus, Zizek concludes:
Only a lacking, vulnerable being is capable of love: the ultimate mystery of love is therefore that incompleteness is in a way higher than completion. On the one hand, only an imperfect, lacking being loves; we love because we do not know all. On the other hand, even if we were to know everything love would inexplicably be higher than completed knowledge. Perhaps the true achievement of Christianity is to elevate a loving (imperfect) Being to the place of God—that is, of ultimate perfection.
Only love is capable of revealing the fragile absolute because love itself is fragile; it thus reveals the absolute, and its attendant fragility, in which it appears and coheres, and then is gone, the sublime object eluding our grasp again and again. Love, the agape that Christianity describes so well, must be fought for and regained again and again. But it too eludes our grasp, so we must constantly seek after it. At the same time, however, love endures. It outlasts all knowledge and all mysteries. It is the vehicle through which we disclose ourselves within our vulnerability, through which we can believe all things because it reveals all things, allowing us to see what the loveless are forever blind to. Love knows things which cannot be known in any other way.
Love fractures the regime within which theism and atheism have fallen, a regime that is rational and epistemic, but above all, all too sure of itself. Again, this is not to dismiss knowledge as a way of mediating the theism-atheism dialectic, it is simply to suggest that epistemology needn’t come first. We start with love in order that we do not know where we end up. Both theists and atheists are certain of the ending of their narratives. Because of this certainty, achieved epistemically (whether through rational argumentation or through the knowledge of religious experience) theists and atheists alike are often blind to much of the world around them, a world that constantly reveals and then withdraws within its immense complexity and unpredictability. To begin with love is to believe all things, which reveals the world in a way that epistemology alone, in its often arrogant certainty, can never accomplish. Beginning with love, we are not unconcerned with knowledge, we simply deploy it for different ends, as a way of believing (in) each other without resorting first to arguments, and then, often, to violence, intellectual as well as physical. Where Derrida derailed us epistemologically, love throws the universe off its rails in an existential fashion. Love has the potential to reintroduce existential discourse, with its passionate subjectivity and concern with death and nothingness back into contemporary conversation. We must be epistemologically and existentially unbalanced in order to achieve the proper humility necessary in order to relate to one another and believe all things while still pursuing the knowing and learning of the world in a rigorous fashion. This decidedly does not mean that the atheist becomes a theist, or that the introduction of love—culled from Christian sources—is a deceptive and unthinking theological move. Zizek himself, an avowed, albeit creative, atheist suggests this sort of hermeneutic. Existentialism may yet again become the lethal teeth of atheism. Theism may once again take its difficult original Pauline injunctions seriously. Instead of letting the epistemic regime, with its all-too certain judgments of the world decide the religiosity or non-religiosity of humanity, why not allow love to do its work? Then when theistic and atheistic discourse encounter one another, they will do so in terms of lack, incompleteness, and destabilization, which lack, incompleteness, and destabilization more perfectly mirror the infinite incompleteness of the world we actually inhabit. Perhaps it is love that can ultimately fulfill the promise of postmodernism, but in such a way that humbly binds us into one community instead of insisting we remain in our comfortable and familiar camps, forever at odds with one one another. Love allows us to relate to one another as lovers first, and then as knowers. We recognize that there is one domain in which the infinite and the finite naturally co-exist. When this happens, we become true lovers of knowledge. Even (and especially) in a time of atheism.
 I am thinking here of philosophers like Jean-Luc Marion who do not explicitly distinguish eros from agape but instead think love as a unified concept. Of course I do not have the space to argue this point at length. Thus, when expressing love as eros, I am including sexual, charitable, and filial love as one and the same.
 In Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism From Dostoevsky to Sartre (New American Library, Inc., 1975), 12.
 Rush Rhees, in Rush Rhees on Religion and Philosophy, edited by D.Z. Phillips, with assistance by Mario Von der Ruhr (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 6.
 Kaufmann, 352-355.
 Kierkegaard, of course, would have it differently. For Kierkegaard, the sickness unto death, despair (an basic existential theme), is actually necessary for faith in order to align oneself properly with God. But because this post is more focused on atheism’s existential interpretation, Kierkegaard’s view will not be explicitly considered.
 Keith M. Booker, “The Dangers of Gullible Reading: Narrative as Seduction in García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera,” Studies in Twentieth Century Literature 17 (Summer 1993):181-95.
 Thomas Pynchon, “The Heart’s Eternal Vow,” in New York Times Review of Books (April 1998), Section 7, Page 1.
 Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love, translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna Hong (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 163.
 Phil Zuckerman, “Atheism: Contemporary Numbers and Patterns,” in The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, edited by Michael Martin (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 61.
 John D. Caputo, “Atheism, A/theology and the Postmodern Condition,” in Cambridge Companion, 269.
 Mark C. Taylor, After God (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 164.
 Ibid., 377.
 Caputo, “Atheism, A/theology,” 278.
 Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, or Why the is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? (London/New York: Verso Press, 2008), 107-108.
 I say Pauline Christianity because Zizek is referring to the ancient Christianity of the Pauline corpus. This is the legacy he is trying to recover, contra later (and especially fundamentalist) appropriations of it.
 Ibid., 111.
 Ibid., 112, emphasis author’s.
 Ibid., 109. This is how Davidson describes a notion of charity from an analytic-linguistic philosophical perspective.
 Kierkegaard, Works of Love, 226.
 Ibid., 228.
 Zizek, Fragile Absolute, 119.
 Ibid., 109.
 Ibid., 119-120.
 Ibid., 137
 Ibid., 138.