William A. Walker III

Pastor, Professor, Theological Educator

Tag: Slavoj Žižek

Striving for the Good in the Face of Uncertainy: The Paradox of Faith and Politics in Kierkegaard and Niebuhr

[My argument in this paper is that Kierkegaard and Niebuhr together, with their notions of faith and justice as paradoxical, provide a political theology that is neither despairing nor presumptuous in its vision for how to strive for the good. This is what I presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Conference in San Diego this past week. For that reason, it is written more for a talk and is not in final format, so some of the references are not properly cited yet.]

The paradox of politics for Rousseau was the question of, “Which comes first, good people or good laws?”  In other words, how can a democracy be legitimate when the legitimacy comes from the democracy itself which is to be founded? There is always the problem of delimiting the people and deciding who speaks for them. It is never a fixed entity, and certain groups are always excluded. According to Bonnie Honig in her book Emergency Politics: Paradox, Law and Democracy, “…even established regimes are hardly rendered immune by their longevity to the paradoxical difficulty that Rousseau names… the paradox of politics is replayed rather than overcome in time” (EP, 14).

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Alan Badiou on Saint Paul’s Event: A New Christian Politic?

INTRODUCTION

How does one construct a subject in a world where the subject has been deconstructed?  Why should I fight for this group or that, when history has shown all too clearly that all political projects are partial and fragmented, often birthed out of superficial identities?  Removing the mediating factors, could an event enable such a construction?  Could Paul, the alleged poet-thinker of the Event, be the “metaphysician” for such a task, after the end of metaphysics?  It has been contended that there must be something to give a common sense of solidarity for protest.  Cultural and victimist theories of humanity will not do for Alan Badiou:  “It will be objected that, in the present case, for us ‘truth’ designates a mere fable.  Granted, but what is important is the subjective gesture grasped in its founding power with respect the generic conditions of universality . . . [but] the progressive reduction of the question of truth (and hence, of thought) to a linguistic form, judgment . . . ends up in a cultural and historical relativism.”[i] On the other hand:

What is the real unifying factor behind this attempt to promote the cultural virtue of oppressed subsets, this invocation of language in order to extol communitarian particularisms (which, besides language, always ultimately refer back to race, religion, or gender)?  It is, evidently, monetary abstraction, whose false universality has absolutely no difficulty accommodating the kaleidoscope of communitarianisms.  The lengthy years of communist dictatorship will have had the merit of showing that financial globalization, the absolute sovereignty of capital’s empty universality, had as its only genuine enemy another universal project . . . and it is certainly not by renouncing the concrete universality of truths in order to affirm the rights of “minorities,” be they racial religious, national, or sexual, that the devastation will be slowed down.  No, we will not allow the rights of true-thought to have as their only instance monetarist free exchange and its mediocre political appendage, capitalist-parliamentarianism, whose squalor is even more poorly dissimulated behind he fine word ‘democracy.’[ii]

We learn of Badiou’s political concerns and critiques early on in his book on Paul in a section where he talks about the situation in France.  More generally – applying the France case writ large – Badiou describes two opposing tendencies in the globalized world.  There is on the one hand “an extension of the automatisms of capital,” which imposes the rule of abstract homogenization, and on the other hand ”a process of fragmentation into close identities, and the culturalist and relativist ideology that accompanies this fragmentation”; and Badiou argues that both processes are “perfectly intertwined.”[iii]  They are parasitic upon each other.[iv]  This is because every identity, community or territory that asserts itself becomes vulnerable to exploitation by providing the potential commercialization of itself by the market.  The more recognition a group demands, the more movie tickets, “action figures,” and the more overpriced hybrid cars will be sold.  Badiou says Deleuze put it best: “capitalist deterritorialization requires a constant reterritorialization.”[v]  For in the end, what most political subjects want is equal inclusion in and exposure to the whole with everybody else.  Accordingly, Badiou is asserting that no universalizable truth can be sustained in such a system.  Furthermore, it disallows for coalition-building and instigating revolution.

So Capitalism doesn’t recognize anything singular; it objectivizes and turns particular identities into numbers while competing identities serve the very cause of the capital they seek to undermine and oppose. Unification and fragmentation are not two different processes in this perpetual cycle.  Thus Badiou acutely identifies humanity’s natural inclination toward collective egoism.  Hence, the question arises: how to avoid oscillating between these reciprocally maintained ends, where each side subsists by discrediting the other or subsuming everything into a vacant totality?  Or, to state Badiou’s thesis question, “what are the conditions for a universal singularity?”[vi] Another way of putting it would be: how can one transcend both the general and the particular?  It is precisely at this point that Badiou engages the apostle Paul, whose foundation for universalism consists neither of the Jewish, legal, exceptional (circumcision) particular nor the general, Greek, philosophical (wise), moral universal.  Rather, Paul’s allegiance for Badiou is to the declared Event, which in Paul’s case happens to be the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

BADIOU’S EVENT

Event is not, as Badiou sees it, axiomatic or structural.[vii] The Event gives rise to a truth that “groups together all the terms of the situation which are positively connected to the event.”[viii]  In the Event, conditions of emergence are transcended and exceeded such that the conditions can be reconfigured afterwards.[ix]  It has the capacity to divide history in accordance with its own terms.[x]  Concurrently, it is essentially subjective, which is to say that the meaning and significance of the Event is dependent upon a conviction relative to it.  The Event is “what Badiou following Kierkegaard calls a ‘subjective possibility,’ without logical proof, conceptual consistency or empirical verification.”[xi] So the new discourse after the Event is proclaimed, not proven.  The Event is announced to all, and is without a historical subset; namely, no previously established community can possess it.  After the Event, there is neither Jew nor Greek, but the new.

At the same time, truth according to Badiou is not a momentary illumination so much as a process – a revolution.  So while the Event functions to disrupt, reconstitute and reformulate the duality of Jewish “election” and Greek “reason,” it is not wholly divorced from these pre-existing contexts.  Therefore fidelity to the declaration of the Event is crucial.[xii]  This fidelity is best understood as a conviction, Badiou says, which he takes from the Greek word pistis, or faith.  Slavoj Zizek helps with Badiou’s interpretation of Pauline Hope and Love in addition: “Hope is the hope that the final reconciliation announced by the Event (the Last Judgment) will actually occur; Love is the patient struggle for this to happen, that is, the long ad arduous work to assert one’s fidelity to the Event.”[xiii]

Finally, a Truth-Event is indifferent to circumstances like the Roman occupation for example.  It is subtracted and distanced from that system and as such does not compete with other opinions about the state of affairs – this would also be particular, and formulated by something like identity politics or the customs of a group such as the Judaizers in Galatia.[xiv] The declared Event cannot be domesticated because it is solid and timeless, “intelligible to us without having to resort to cumbersome historical mediations.”[xv]

In Richard Kearney’s interpretation of Badiou, the power (dunamis) of the cross that Paul speaks of “is this surplus of Spirit which defies the laws of rational understanding, represented by the Greek philosophical logos.  Invoking the language of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Badiou interprets this Christ-event in terms of the real which cuts across the law of language”:[xvi] “Interestingly, Badiou considers these aporias and paradoxes to be completely irreducible to hermeneutic mediation of any kind . . . Badiou is, it seems, an atheist of event rather than a theist of advent.”[xvii]

For this reason, it is admissible to suppose that Badiou is thinking not just about this Event, but Events for today as well.[xviii] The transcendence versus immanence distinction is replaced by a now and then distinction, whereby transcendence is historicized.  Geoffrey Holsclaw elucidates what is a crucial (and maybe injurious) feature of and Badiou’s account of the resurrection: “Badiou is against a Hegelian-Nietzschean capture of the resurrection as merely the sublimation of death, as the negation of negation (the object of Hegel’s praise and Nietzsche’s scorn).  In this way Badiou argues for a de-dialecticized Christ-event, which separates out the cross and death as merely the site for the event, and resurrection as the event itself.”[xix]  In the same vein, Badiou insists that Paul is not concerned with the resurrection as “an order fact, falsifiable or demonstrable,” but as pure event.[xx]  What concerns Badiou is form much more than content: “its genuine meaning is that it testifies to the possible victory over death, a death that Paul envisages . . . not in terms of facticity, but in terms of subjective disposition.”[xxi]  Christ’s resurrection is a type, and according to Badiou, the meaning of which is obscure for Paul.[xxii]  The gospel news is strictly evental.

Paul is the apostle who names this possibility opened up by the event.  The pure faithfulness to this possibility is not determined by knowledge.  Instead it is dependent on evental grace, characterized by “foolishness” and “weakness” in contradistinction to “wisdom” and “power.”[xxiii]  This is what constitutes Paul as the anti-philosopher.  To repeat, he relies on neither “proof” (philosophers) nor “signs” (Jews).  Badiou even goes as far to say that Paul anticipated Heidegger’s critique of onto-theology – that is, thinking of God as one supreme Being among other beings rather than beyond or “without Being”[xxiv] (Jean-Luc Marion has criticized Heidegger himself, however, for making the very same mistake).[xxv]  Zizek puts forth a similar notion, in one sense, in his reading Job, wherein he describes Job’s friends as “onto-theologians” who both Job and God ultimately dismiss.[xxvi]

The focus on the evental nature of grace in Badiou’s reading of Paul stems from the division between “flesh” and “spirit,” which is not an equivalent to the Greek or Platonic juxtaposition of body and soul.  Based on Romans 8:6, Badiou can affirm with Paul that “setting the mind” on “flesh” leads to “death,” but thinking on “spirit” brings “life.”  This usage of “life” and “death” corresponds to what was mentioned above – the hope that humanity can now vanquish death and affirm life in the contingent sense, rather than by trusting in a literal or physical promise of resurrection.  Death and life are paths that can be chosen.  So finally, the duality is taken one step further by Badiou, from life/death to grace/law, because “the pure event can be reconciled neither with the natural Whole, nor with the imperative of the letter.”[xxvii]  Stated another way, totality and place become extraneous, creating space for our adoption as “sons,” or children – not philosophical disciples – who are loyal to the event that brings “sonship” for all.

BADIOU ON NIETZSCHE AND PAUL

It’s a useful and intriguing comparison to make here – which can also be made with Zizek as will be evident below – between how Badiou reads Paul and what Nietzsche thinks about Paul, as a dishonest Jew who hijacks Christianity and formulates the Church’s sick ideology that Jesus never intended.  How surprising it is that two materialists would have such divergent sentiments about the apostle – one in praise of and the other detesting him.

When Nietzsche exclaims that Paul “could make no use at all of the redeemer’s life” (Anti-Christ, 42), Badiou concedes by at least admitting that Paul’s doctrine is certainly not historical.[xxviii]  But these two interpreters of Paul part ways when they assess the implications of Paul’s position:  “If Nietzsche is so violent toward Paul, it is because he is his rival far more than an opponent.”[xxix]  In other words, Badiou characterizes Nietzsche as an individualist and Paul as a universalist.

Nietzsche’s accusation that Paul is promoting the hatred of life is in Badiou’s understanding completely the opposite of the apostle’s teaching:

[Paul is the one] for whom it is here and now that life takes revenge on death, here and now that we can live affirmatively, according to the spirit, rather than negatively, according to the flesh, which is thought of death.  For Paul, the Resurrection is that on the basis of which life’s center of gravity resides in life, whereas previously, being situated in the Law, it organized life’s subsumption by death.[xxx]

Against a major stream of historical Christian theology, Badiou agrees with Nietzsche that suffering and death ought not be conceived as redemptive.  This is not  where Badiou and Nietzsche differ.  Badiou supports his own analysis in defense of Paul by pointing out the chronology of the Gospels and Paul’s epistles.  If there is a disparity, the Gospels cannot be said to have been the “originals,” because their authorship is dated some twenty years later.  This would seem to weaken Nietzsche’s claim that Jesus was misappropriated by Paul.  Nietzsche isn’t concerned with textual criticism though, and he admits as much.

And regarding the individualist/universalist distinction noted above, Badiou underscores Nietzsche’s disgust with Paul’s rebellion against “everything privileged” (Anti-Christ, 46).  But unlike Nietzsche, Badiou welcomes this aspect of Paul – as should be expected based on his philosophy of the Event – by holding tightly to the belief that “God shows no partiality” (Rom 2.10):

“[T]he Christ-event establishes the authority of a new subjective path over future eras.  The fact that we must serve a truth procedure is not to be confused with slavery [something Nietzsche seems to project onto Paul, according to Badiou], which is precisely that from which we are forever released insofar as we all become son of what has happened to us.  The relation between lord and servant differs absolutely between master and disciple, as well as from that between owner and slave.  It is not a relation of personal, or legal, dependence.  It is a community of destiny in that moment in which we have to become a “new creator.”  That is why we need retain of Christ only what ordains this destiny, which is indifferent to the particularities of the living person: Jesus is resurrected; nothing else matters, so that Jesus becomes like an anonymous variable, a “someone” devoid of predicative traits, entirely absorbed by his resurrection.”[xxxi]

Paul emphasizes rupture rather than continuity with Judaism in Badiou’s reading.  Contrarily, despite the fact that both Badiou and Agamben wish to employ Paul for contemporary political purposes, Agamben locates in Paul’s writing a concept of “messianic time,” which is a way of relating to time in the now, irrespective of the evental truth proclaimed by Badiou.  Moreover, identity is not subordinated for Agamben to the degree that it is for Badiou.  It is suspended, rather than directly overcome, and certainly not erased.  Without giving a satisfactory overview of Agamben’s position, and hopefully in spite of his bias, Zizek’s rhetoric can perhaps further illuminate some of the differences between Badiou and Agamben:

“What if the way to found a new religion is precisely through bringing the preceding logic (in this case, of Jewish messianism) to its end?  What if the only way to invent a new universality is precisely through overcoming the old divisions with a new, more radical division which introduces an indivisible remainder into the social body?  What if the proclamation of a new identity and of a new vocation can take place only if it functions as the revoking of every identity and every vocation?  What if the truly radical critique of the Law equals its opening toward a se beyond every system of law?  Furthermore, when Agamben introduces the triad of Whole, Part, and Remainder, is he not following the Hegelian paradox of a genus which has only one species, the other species being the genus itself?  The remainder is nothing other than the excessive element which gives body to the genus itself, the Hegelian “reflexive determination” in the guise of which the genus encounters itself within its species.”[xxxii]

Accordingly, Badiou’s view depends on the singular (again, not particular) Christ-event from which a universal declaration has been made, which abolishes the law and makes possible the traversing (not ignoring or eliminating) of all differences on the grounds of loyalty and commitment to the Resurrection, or to life, and the immanent distribution of revolutionary doing.[xxxiii]

ZIZEK ON BADIOU

Zizek sees that for Badiou the Event emerges ex nihilo, as an intervention from Outside or Beyond.[xxxiv]  Said differently, “the subject is strictly correlative with the ontological gap between the universal and the particular.”[xxxv]  What is left is not mere subjective faithfulness in response, however – as if the subject determines the event itself – but rather, because the Event transcends the subject, a quest of sorts is initiated to discern the “signs of Truth” amidst the finite multiple of a situation, and the resurrection Event is the situational example par excellence.[xxxvi]  According to Zizek, Badiou is after a “politics of Truth” in the modern state of global contingency that avoids subjugation to the postmodern dogma that would regard any reference to the transcendent or metaphysical as destined for totalitarianism.[xxxvii]  Zizek highlights one of Badiou’s brilliant theses – namely, that infinite complexity fails to provide the dignity of a proper object of thought.[xxxviii]  Badiou and Zizek both reject the supposed imperative that “the principal ethico-political duty is to maintain the gap between the Void of the central impossibility and every positive content giving body to it – that is, to never fully succumb to the enthusiasm of hasty identification of a positive Event with the redemptive Promise that is always ‘to come’” (a reference to Derrida).[xxxix]

The Event possesses a certain undecidability because it lacks an ontological guarantee.[xl]  It includes its own referent, which is a Void, until its goal is reached.  The Event must be understood on its own terms and not as just a semblance determined by a subjective vantage point: “Badiou insists on the immanence of the Truth-Event . . . for the agents themselves, as opposed to external observers.”[xli]  Thus the evental quality is solidified by the community that has been held together by the Event and engaged on its behalf.  There needs to be a group of believers!  But because Badiou and Zizek accept the modernized “rules of science,” the resurrection Truth-Event itself can only be a semblance after all.[xlii]

Like Badiou, Zizek finds Paul to be:

[U]nexpectedly close to his great detractor Nietzsche, whose problem was also how to break away from the vicious cycle of the self-mortifying morbid denial of Life: for him the Christian ‘way of the Spirit’ is precisely the magic break, the New Beginning that delivers us from this debilitating morbid deadlock and enables us to open ourselves to the Eternal Life of Love without Sin (i.e., Law and the guilt the Law induces).[xliii]

From here Zizek inverts the famous Dostoevsky quote about God’s existence and declares that for Paul, “since there is the God of Love, everything is permitted” (emphasis added) – a statement that might cause Nietzsche role over in his grave.[xliv]

ZIZEK AGAINST BADIOU

Zizek, following Lacan, does differ from Badiou in at least one important respect.  Unlike Badiou, Zizek considers conceiving of the subject as the act and gesture that both creates and heals the ontological gap to be a fatal trap.[xlv]  As Zizek has it, by collapsing the two (the Event and the naming of the Event), Badiou’s subject becomes the very Void or Gap itself, and “by means of a short circuit between the Universal and the Particular,” the subject fills or heals the Void at the same time by its fidelity to the Void.[xlvi]  In this sense, the subject is a ‘vanishing mediator’ between being and the event[xlvii] (it is also an invisible third term between Judaism and Christianity).[xlviii] Because the subject becomes an entity that is consubstantial with the structure – in its faithfulness to the Event that makes the Gap – the result is a new hegemony and as the subject’s act to fill the Gap retroactively preserves and maintains it.[xlix]

Zizek, on the other hand, along with Lacan, wishes to make the point that “‘subject’ designates the contingency of an Act that sustains the very ontological order of being,” rather than causing the subject to be “inscribed into the ontological structure of the universe as its constitutive Void.”[l]  Act is only a negative category for Lacan and Zizek, so the Gap or Void is supposed to be transposed from their point of view, not healed.  This is why Zizek focuses more on death, while Badiou emphasizes the resurrection. As Geoffrey Holsclaw frames it, “Rather than the reactionary approach of hostility instituting a new order around the truth-event of resurrection [a la Badiou], Zizek sees in Lacan the truly radical and perpetual gesture of death, a death escaping the dialectic of law and desire.”[li] This gets back to the critical Lacanian distinction between the act as object and the naming of it in a positive Truth-procedure, the latter of which is only a negative gesture of discontinuity.[lii]

SOME CRITICAL RESPONSES CONSIDERED

Writing from a Christian point of view, I echo Stephen Fowl and welcome these philosophers with hospitality to an encounter with the Christian faith and its Scripture.[liii]  Moreover, I confess upfront my limited familiarity with Badiou’s expansive work outside of his brief book on Paul, and certainly do not mean to apply any criticism to him as a philosopher or to his exceptional scholarship in general.  Lastly, it’s worth underscoring once more that Badiou is explicit and transparent about the extent to which he is demythologizing Paul and Christianity in general, so he should not be accused of any covert attempt to usurp the epistles or the tradition.  But as Paula Fredriksen put it, this is tolerable “if only they would confess that it is they who speak, not the apostle.”[liv]

While it is clear that Badiou does not intend to completely discount or subsume Paul’s context,[lv] Caputo says it well when he describes events: “Events are like metaphors; they have to differ from their existing discourse while having enough purchase in the existing discourse to be recognized as a metaphor.  They must have enough of a an anchor in the existing usage for their novelty to be felt or for them to have any bite; otherwise, they are just gibberish.”[lvi]  Another fair critique of both Badiou and Zizek’s construal of Paul is brought by Dale Martin when he says the following:

[S]o many of Paul’s current philosophical readers get him wrong on one very important point: their desire to see in him the founder of a new people, a new ethnicity, a new religion.  For not only is Paul constrained by his eschatology from announcing the establishment of the kingdom of God in the Church, he is also prohibited from proclaiming a new people or a new religion because of his faithfulness to Israel and the God of Israel.[lvii]

First, this constraint Martin speaks of on the eschatological announcement is critical.  One finds it in Paul here:

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it m own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:10-12, NRSV).

We see that salvation is not something possessed or achieved in the past for Paul – the issue of justification notwithstanding – but rather that it has not yet been obtained.  It is a future hope to which Paul orients himself in the process of transformation, and Badiou does recognize this.  What problematizes his reading of Paul further, however, is extent to which Badiou cannot reconcile Paul’s discussion of suffering with this very process – a process that has always been central to the Christian tradition’s understanding of discipleship.

Concerning the separation that Badiou and Zizek make between Judaism and Christainity, the feminist Pauline scholar Davina Lopez agrees, but not without qualification: “assimilation into one stereotype will not accomplish the goal of solidarity among the defeated.”[lviii]  She goes on to say, however, that even from the Christian viewpoint, Judaism for Paul was not necessarily meant to be overcome.  In this regard, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class, religion, and so on (Gal 3:28) are not irrelevant, but the contemporary, “progressive” reduction of the truth question to a linguistic form must likewise be withstood.[lix]   Both can be upheld, in other words, without such a violent break.  Collapsing differences leads to silence, so one still needs to hold the two in tension.[lx] The philosophy of the Event tends to praise the novel, and this can easily be taken too far.  At the same time, while one should wonder how much rupture there really was between Paul and the Jerusalem church as recorded in Acts, Jean-Francois Lyotard and Daniel Boyarin for instance have commented on this issue with respect to the Jewish-Christian context, and in their critiques, they might be subtracting Paul from his Christianity too much.[lxi]

What is more, one can get the impression from Badiou that the Law is something bad, which Paul fervently wants to supersede, but this is not entirely accurate.  There is nothing “wrong” with the law as far as Paul is concerned.  It does however hold people in bondage; therefore it is the separation from God that must be overcome – not the law as such.

It is along similar lines that Gordon Zerbe charges Badiou with seriously misunderstanding Paul’s talk about the interrelationship between the cross, resurrection, and suffering.  Zerbe argues that Badiou is preoccupied with “the specter of some Nietzschean resentment, hatred of life, as a driving force in Paul’s life and thought.”[lxii]  Zerbe goes on to say that Badiou, “unlike Taubes . . . cannot appreciate Paul’s emphasis on true solidarity with the world’s outcasts as the prime mode of messianic existence,” because for Badiou, “evental truth declaration in the [formal] modality of weakness does not correspond to one of lived weakness.”[lxiii] Any embrace of the cross as a model of messianic existence in Badiou’s mind is collapsed into a masochistic embrace of suffering, and this is Badiou’s grave mistake in Zerbe’s view.  Zerbe instead understands Paul’s counter-imperialism not to be derived from some kind hunger for revenge or from envy, as Nietzsche would have it, but from “his articulation of the messianic glad tidings.”[lxiv]

In response to Badiou and others, Richard Kearney has proposed instead what he calls a  “micro-eschatology of the possible:

[God’s power] clearly is not the imperial power of a sovereign; it is a dynamic call to love that possibilizes and enables humans with to transform their world by giving itself to the least of these, by empathizing with the disinherited and the dispossessed, by refusing the path of might and violence, by transfiguring the mustard seed into the kingdom, each moment at a time, one act after an other, each step of the way.  This is the path heralded by the Pauline God of ‘nothings and nobodies” (ta me onto) excluded from the triumphal pre-eminence of totality (ta onta) – kenotic, self-emptying, crucified God whose weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:25). It signals the option for the poor, for non-violent resistance and revolution taken by peacemakers and dissenting “holy fools” from ancient to modern times.  It is the message of suffering rather than doing evil, of loving one’s adversaries, of no enemies, of soul force (satyagraha) . . . the God witnessed here goes beyond the will to power.”[lxv]

Kearney’s understanding of God disallows for his intervention in situations like the Holocaust, because if ever there was a time for God to act, it was then.  Drawing on Psuedo-Dionysius and Nicholas of Cusa, Kearney asserts that God is not omnipotent in the traditional metaphysical sense, nor responsible for evil.  Thus he concludes: “[I]f God’s loving is indeed unconditional, the realization of that loving posse in this world is conditioned upon our response.  If we are waiting for God, God is waiting for us.  Waiting for us to say yes, to hear the call and to act, to bear witness, to answer the posse with esse, to make the world flesh – even in the darkest moments.”[lxvi]  This approach has some resonance with Badiou and Zizek, which Caputo notes by pointing out a connection between Zizek and Bonhoeffer: “God expects us to assume the responsibility for direction of our lives and not wait for him to show up in the nick of time to bail us out . . . [and for Zizek] the death of Christ is the beginning of the kingdom of God on earth, which we are responsible to realize.”[lxvii] Nonetheless, what Kearney has in mind would likely not permit coercion or revolution, but rather consistent in an eschatology of “little things” like the mustard seed, the coin, and the buried treasure.[lxviii]

Stephen Fowl submits that if one were to summarize Paul’s message in one phrase, it should be that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” instead of “Jesus is resurrected” as Badiou contends.  Taking this beyond what Fowl deduces, however, the former announcement is arguably much more subversive in the Roman context – a context about which Badiou is fairly silent.  If followers are so bold to declare that it is not Caesar that commands real power, but Christ, wouldn’t this sanction the most fervent confrontation with the rulers of the known-world?  But as is the general consensus in contemporary Pauline scholarship, Paul does not intend a revolution in the sense that Badiou imagines, if for no other reason than because of his expectation of the imminent parousia of Christ.

And is it not the case that “for Paul, the character of love, which is the fulfilling of the law (Rom 13:10), is inseparably bound to the other-regarding, self-offering death of Christ, who is the telos of the law (Rom 10:4)”?[lxix] As Douglas Harink has said, this is the part of Paul’s thought which Badiou eschews.  And is indifference to difference really what Paul means by love?  Does Badiou successfully conceive of difference in terms of non-competitive relationships, as he wants to claim?[lxx]

Badiou’s eradication of differences diminishes the role that reconciliation must play, not only between God and humanity – granting that this is a relationship Badiou is not addressing – but between individuals and groups of people.  “Slave vs. free,” for instance, is not a disparity that can be easily resolved.  This propels the discussion into another realm that Badiou unsatisfactorily considers.  How does Badiou’s Event offer a path through which the victim and victimizer may become equally filiated to the Truth?[lxxi]  It is hard to imagine how these “sins” committed against human beings by other human beings can merely be forgotten without a more robust notion of reconciliation.  This is partly why Christians find so compelling the belief that it is God who must act and has acted.

One can still sympathize strongly with Badiou’s concerns – particular regarding capitalism and its empty promises, as well as with respect to the paralyzing nature of identity politics in its feeble attempts at resistance to the ever-adapting free market.  Moreover, some impatience and frustration with the theological pushback against Badiou’s appropriation of Paul from guardians of the tradition is indeed justified, especially in view of the complacent, if not complicit and comfortable stance most churches in the United States for instance have taken toward the reign of global capital.  At best, these churches might lament the misfortunes of the marginalized and give petty alms to assuage their own conflicted consciences, but rarely is real change ever made.  It is no wonder then where the incentive comes from for the very militant employment of Paul’s evental structure by Badiou, who is obviously impressed by the apostle’s community organizing skills.

A look at Neil Elliot’s feedback, who writes to represent the Marxist perspective and with similar convictions to Badiou’s, is fitting at this juncture:

Capitalism’s universalism is hollow because it enfranchises only those who submit themselves to the inexorable logic of the market.  Law becomes a device for distinguishing those to whom material resources may be allocated, for a price, from those who must be excluded.  Human wellbeing is not the measure of economic health; rather it is the free flow of capital, which requires increasing restriction on the movements of human beings.[lxxii]

In the present day United States, we face a comparable quandary to that of Paul’s congregations living in Roman territory, in which the interests of the elites of the “private sector” are privileged and promoted over and against the popular will, all under the guise of ‘The Republic’:  “For Paul to proclaim that just such a body [that of a slave/conquered subject], inscribed in death . . . by the power of the Empire, had been raised from the dead by God, and that this divine act established the true filiation of a free people regardless of their ascribed status in the Roman symbolic economy – this was inherently and irreducibly subversive.”[lxxiii]

Not wanting to completely disqualify Badiou’s deployment of Paul, Elliot does link what Badious does to Jon Sobrino’s theological effort through a political creatio ex nihilo of no salvation outside (or apart from) the poor.[lxxiv]  Elliot suggests that Sobrino’s distillation of Paul to the start of a new, alternative community of solidarity with a civilization of poverty is more historically defensible.  Zizek on the other hand might receive a more favorable review from those concerned about subaltern geopolitics of knowledge.  Geoffrey Holsclaw shows how for Zizek the void in between God and humanity is internal to God on the cross of Christ, which is in himself.  But Holsclaw goes on to say that “rather than the death of God leading to our freedom from him, Zizek claims that the death of God, and our participation in that death, allows us to suspend the symbolic law, just as Christ did.”[lxxv]  Because Zizek invokes God’s self-emptying in Jesus’ as a radical immanentization that confirms the Void and empowers a community to live “as if not” in some sense, liberationists and Marxists are more likely to welcome and benefit from this reading, as there is noticeable overlap between them.[lxxvi]

CONCLUSION

So while Christian exegetes are faulting Badiou for not giving due diligence to the Jewish theological context that was inextricably linked to Paul’s talk of the Christ-event (especially those aligned with the “New Perspective”), post-colonial theorists and/or Marxists readers of Paul will censure Badiou for not accounting for the political dimensions and ideologies at play in the Roman setting.  Both reproaches appear to have their merit, and thus it seems appropriate to unite them and render a fairly synthesized conclusion.

Insofar as anyone defending a traditional view of Paul’s discussion of the death and resurrection of Jesus has failed to diagnose the pathology of the local churches in the imperial West and their assimilation to colonial culture, such a conservationist position should be severely scrutinized, but necessarily without letting the proverbial baby be thrown out with the bath water.  Those like Elliot who call attention to the importance of cultural symbolism, rhetoric, and the political climate in Rome for grasping the meaning of Paul’s resurrection-talk and lordship language about Jesus are doing traditional interpreters an indispensable service.  What is perhaps a mistake, however, on this side, is the degree to which militantly-charged, would-be revolutionaries like Badiou, Zizek, Agamben, or anyone else, still reference Paul in such a way as to diminish his reliance on Christ’s relationship to God as authorizing justification and initiating a redemptive, salvific act that somehow atones for humanity’s sin and opens up the possibility for reconciliation between individuals and different people groups.  Additionally, properly doing justice to Pauline exegesis at minimum requires the acknowledgment – which is to say nothing about one’s own confession – of the promise of resurrection in which Paul and his congregations hoped would come for those who believe (hoi pisteuentes).

And so to finish by highlighting an alternative political project:  though he is primarily responding to Agamben and the notion of the messianic now (non) time, in light of everything mentioned thus far, I submit that what Paul Griffiths has aptly called “quietist” political action is a fitting Christian politic.  In my judgment it seems to capture a piece of each aforementioned criticism above.   And to be sure, what is being insinuating by such a phrase is not the promotion of anything “quiet” or “inactive,” but instead a political outlook that is indifferent to outcomes – not indifferent to action itself:

Political advocacy that is quietist with respect to interest requires of us a good deal of work . . . [but work in which we] are likely to have a more accurate understanding of the limits of our capacity to make accurate prospective judgments about the results of enacting one political proposal rather than another, than do those whose thinking hews to the ordinary consequentialist line.[lxxvii]

From a Pauline eschatological standpoint, it could be stated that while Badiou’s accent of the resurrection tends toward an overly realized eschatology, Zizek’s is under-realized.[lxxviii]  What Griffiths outlines here cuts right between these two extremes, prohibiting inactivity and apathetic inertia on the one hand, while precluding over-involvement that could taint the witness to the alternative, evental Christian community on the other hand.  The former behavior is energized by Paul’s discourse on love; the latter is constituted by faith and hope.  Such a balance is not dissimilar to what Paul himself commissioned.


[i] Alain Badiou, Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, 1st ed. (Stanford University Press, 2003), 6.

[ii] Ibid., 6-7.

[iii] Ibid., 9-10.

[iv] Neil Elliott, Ideological Closure in the Christ-Event: A Marxist Response to Alain Badiou’s Paul in Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision: Critical Engagements with Agamben, Badiou, Zizek and Others (Cascade Books, 2010), 138.

[v] Badiou, Saint Paul, 10.

[vi] Ibid., 13.

[vii] Ibid., 14.

[viii] Alain Badiou and Oliver Feltham, Being and Event (Continuum, 2007), 335.

[ix] Hans Dieter Betz, “Saint Paul: the foundation of universalism,” Journal of Religion 85, no. 2 (April 1, 2005): 304-305.

[x] Mike Mawson, “Saint Paul: the foundation of universalism,” Stimulus 12, no. 4 (November 1, 2004): 47.

[xi] Richard Kearney, “Paul’s Notion of Dunamis: Between the Possible and the Impossible,” in St. Paul among the Philosophers (Indiana University Press, 2009), 148.

[xii] Badiou, Saint Paul, 15.

[xiii] Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology (Second Edition), Second Edition. (Verso, 2009), 135.

[xiv] Badiou, Saint Paul, 29.

[xv] Ibid., 36.

[xvi] Kearney, “Paul’s Notion of Dunamis: Between the Possible and the Impossible,” Caputo and Alcoff, St. Paul among the Philosophers, 138.

[xvii] John D. Caputo and Linda Martín Alcoff, St. Paul among the Philosophers (Indiana University Press, 2009), 149-150.

[xviii] Badiou, Saint Paul, 110-111.

[xix] Geoffrey Holsclaw, “Subject between death and resurrection: Badiou, Žižek, and St. Paul,” in Paul, philosophy, and the theopolitical vision (Eugene, Or: Cascade, 2010), 159.

[xx] Badiou, Saint Paul, 45.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Alan Badiou, “St. Paul, Founder of the Universal Subject,” in St. Paul among the Philosophers, (Indiana University Press, 2009) 29.

[xxiii] Ibid., 47.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Jean-Luc Marion, God Without Being: Hors-Texte (University Of Chicago Press, 1995).

[xxvi] Slavoj Zizek, “From Job to Christ,” in St. Paul among the Philosophers, (Indiana University Press, 2009).

[xxvii] Badiou, Saint Paul, 57.

[xxviii] Ibid., 61.

[xxix] Ibid., 62.

[xxx] Ibid., 63.

[xxxi] Ibid., 63.

[xxxii] Slavoj Zizek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (The MIT Press, 2003), 108.

[xxxiii] Ibid., 84.

[xxxiv] Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, 130.

[xxxv] Ibid., 158.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 130.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 131.

[xxxviii] Ibid., 133.

[xxxix] Ibid.

[xl] Ibid., 136.

[xli] Ibid., 140.

[xlii] Ibid., 143.

[xliii] Ibid., 150.

[xliv] Ibid.

[xlv] Ibid., 159.

[xlvi] Ibid.

[xlvii] Geoffrey Holsclaw, “Subject between death and resurrection: Badiou, Žižek, and St. Paul,” 158.

[xlviii] Zizek, The Fragile Absolute, 145.

[xlix] Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, 159.

[l] Ibid., 160.

[li] Holsclaw, “Subject between death and resurrection: Badiou, Žižek, and St. Paul,” 164.

[lii] Zizek, The Ticklish Subject, 167.

[liii] Stephen Fowl, “A Very Particular Universalism: Badiou and Paul” in Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision (Eugene, Or: Cascade, 2010), 120.

[liv] Caputo and Alcoff, St. Paul among the Philosophers, 19.

[lv] Ibid., 162.

[lvi] Ibid., 4.

[lvii] Dale B. Martin, “The Promise of Teleology, the Constraints of Epistemology, and Universal Vision in Paul,” in St. Paul among the Philosophers, (Indiana University Press, 2007), 98.

[lviii] Davina C. Lopez, Apostle to the Conquered: Reimaging Paul’s Mission, illustrated edition. (Fortress Press, 2008), 147.

[lix] Badiou, Saint Paul, 6.

[lx] Dale B. Martin, “The Promise of Teleology, the Constraints of Epistemology, and Universal Vision in Paul,” 98.

[lxi] Jean-Francois Lyotard and Eberhard Gruber, The Hyphen : Between Judaism and Christianity (Humanity Books, 1999); Daniel Boyarin, “Paul among the Antiphilosophers; or Saul among the Sophists,” in St. Paul among the Philosophers, (Indiana University Press, 2009).

[lxii] Gordon Zerbe, “On the exigency of a messianic ecclesia: an engagement with philosophical readers of Paul,” in Paul, Philosophy, and the Theopolitical Vision (Eugene, Or: Cascade, 2010), 279.

[lxiii] Ibid.

[lxiv] Ibid.

[lxv]  Richard Kearney, “Paul’s Notion of Dunamis: Between the Possible and the Impossible,” 155.

[lxvi] Ibid., 156.

[lxvii] Ibid., 12.

[lxviii] Ibid., 157.

[lxix] Stephen Fowl, “A Very Particular Universalism: Badiou and Paul,” 124.

[lxx] Ibid., 129.

[lxxi] Ibid., 133.

[lxxii] Neil Elliott, “Ideological closure in the Christ-event: a Marxist response to Alain Badiou’s Paul,” in Paul, philosophy, and the theopolitical vision (Eugene, Or: Cascade, 2010), 141,

[lxxiii] Ibid., 145.

[lxxiv] Jon Sobrino, No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays (Orbis Books, 2008).

[lxxv] Holsclaw, “Subject between death and resurrection: Badiou, Žižek, and St. Paul,” 166.

[lxxvi] Elliott, “Ideological closure in the Christ-event: a Marxist response to Alain Badiou’s Paul,” 153.

[lxxvii] Paul J. Griffiths, “The cross as the fulcrum of politics: expropriating Agamben on Paul,” in Paul, philosophy, and the theopolitical vision (Eugene, Or: Cascade, 2010), 192-193.

[lxxviii] Holsclaw, “Subject between death and resurrection: Badiou, Žižek, and St. Paul,” 171.

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