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Paul and the (Continental) Philosophers

February 29, 2012

One of the luxuries of my “retirement” is that I have the opportunity to catch up on a few things that the press of other commitments previously prevented.  One of my “catch up” efforts has been to dip into the “rediscovery” of Paul among some contemporary political philosophers, most notably Alain Badiou (Saint Paul:  The Foundation of Universalism, 2003; French 1997) and also Slavoj Zizek, and, less frequently noted, Georgio Agamben (The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, 2005).

Badiou’s book in particular stirred up a lot of interest when it appeared, and perhaps still more after its translation.  Given its denseness of expression  (some sentences I found utterly impenetrable), it’s mercifully short (111 pp.).  But his basic point is clear enough:  He posits a reading of Paul as a model for the sort of thinking that dares to offer a major re-ordering of the world.  Though at the outset reassuring the intended readers (Paul’s “cultured despisers”, to borrow a term from Schleiermacher) that he finds the content of Paul’s religion completely incredible, Badiou argues that the procedure of Paul’s thought is inspirational.  Specifically, he applauds Paul’s positing of a singular event (Jesus’ resurrection) as foundational for a radical message that transcends all the other religious and intellectual options of his time, and Paul’s readiness to stake everything on this event (which, Badiou emphasizes, Paul could only assert, not prove).

In my view, Badiou is correct to emphasize the centrality of Jesus’ resurrection for Paul, although I think he minimizes incorrectly the significance of Jesus’ death (too anxious is Badiou, perhaps, to deflect criticism of Paul from Nietzsche and others?).  Badiou aims to be commendably sympathetic to a figure whose core beliefs he doesn’t share.  So, for example, Badiou (again, rightly, to my mind, and against what you find touted in cocktail parties and in the popular press) stresses that Paul wasn’t a dour moralist, wasn’t a woman-hater, and wasn’t anti-Semitic.

But there are curious mis-steps.  These include small ones, such as his mis-count of the number of Pauline letters that are pretty much uncontested as genuine (he omits that little gem of benign manipulation, the Epistle to Philemon).  There are more serious ones, however, such as his assumption that Romans 7 is autobiographical and the heart of Paul’s letter to the Romans, the notion that Paul rejects as an inferior principle of life “law”, a failure to give due account of Paul’s strongly eschatological outlook, and (to mention one additional matter) his treatment of Paul as primarily concerned with the individual “subject” (whereas Paul was clearly concerned to form communities of believers, “ekklesiai“).

But, on the other hand, Badiou clearly spent a lot of time reading Paul’s letters.  Indeed, it appears that he’s consulted the Greek text (commendable in a time when some would urge that PhDs in NT don’t have to do so!).  It’s an interesting project, is Badiou’s little book.

At a conference held in April 2005 in Syracuse University, Badiou, Zizek, and a collection of religion-scholars engaged in a spirited discussion of these matters.  The results appear in an interesting volume edited by John D. Caputo and Linda Martin Alcoff, St. Paul among the Philosophers (Indiana University Press, 2009).  The interlocutors include Baniel Boyarin, Paula Fredriksen, Richard Kearney, Dale Martin and Ed Sanders.

Predictably (for those of us who know her), Paula Fredriksen is probably the most forthright and colorful in critique.  For example, rightly observing that Badiou and Zizek fail to do justice to Paul’s apocalyptic outlook, she writes, “The sweep of eschatological excitement in the finale of Paul’s letter to the Romans is to the tempo of the Peri  Archon [the theological work by Origen, 3rd century] what the Seventh Symphony is to Bolero” (70).  Or how about this one:  “If we as historians seek to understand how people in the distant past made sense to each other, then we have to work hard to reconstruct their world, not to project upon them concerns from ours. . . . . The dead are not our contemporaries, and if we think they are, we are not listening to them, but talking to ourselves” (72).   And maybe just one more:  “Thus, to respond finally to Badiou’s characterization of Paul posed in his first chapter heading–Paul:  Our Contemporary–I would have to say, Yes.  Badiou’s Paul is our contemporary.  And that is precisely how we know that Badiou, in giving us his fresh reading of the apostle’s letters, has presented us not with a study of Paul and his concerns, but with an oblique self-portrait, and an investigation of concerns and ideas that are irreducibly Badiou’s” (92).

Ahem.  Well, nothing convoluted there!  Paula’s main point is well taken:  That our first obligation to anyone is to try to understand them in their own terms, and to be very careful (and up front) if we try to appropriate their actions and thoughts as a basis for our own.  I’d probably be a bit more generous to Badiou, as I think that he did make some effort to do this.  His key problem was that he wasn’t sufficiently self-critical in the things he assumed about Paul and how to approach him.  Despite his commendable efforts to read Paul (and not simply about Paul), he still seems to be working with (and through) the theologizing and philosophizing of Paul that characterized European thought for many centuries.  He could have benefited his project considerably by engaging with Pauline scholarship, especially work of the last 40 years or so.

But, whatever the results, I’m personally always ready to applaud scholars from another field who make the effort to engage the figures, texts and phenomena with which those of us in NT/Christian Origins occupy ourselves.

For examples of other responses, see the following links:

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  1. Scholiast permalink

    I haven’t read Badiou, but it seems that there are two different kinds of reading going on here between Badiou and his critics. One is the type that sees the text as the text and seeks to explore its relevance for today and for the individual reader of our culture who encounters it; the other is the type that seeks to understand the text primarily through its own cultural lens. Both, I believe, are useful readings, although we should be cautious about projecting the findings of Badiou’s kind of reading upon the historical person of St. Paul.

    In fact, I hope that the latter kind of reading, which abounds in various literary-critical circles with other ancient, medieval, and modern texts (I think primarily of articles I’ve read and papers I’ve heard about the likes of Catullus and Pindar), might find a place amongst biblical scholars, and neither type of reader reject the other as not doing ‘the real’ work.

    • It’s a free-market economy in reading texts, and people can do what they like, of course. It’s more the claims that they make that can generate justifiable critique, and the quality of the work on which those claims rest. In the case of Badiou, for example, he doesn’t say “Romans 7 is an interesting probing of human angst in the face of one’s shortcomings, and I deal with it without claiming anything about Paul.” Instead, he takes it as Paul’s own self-reflection on his own condition (dubious since at least the late 1930s in NT scholarship), and fails in the other ways I’ve mentioned simply to take adequate account of the texts that he sets out to speak about. I’m certainly not discouraging efforts to apply/read Paul in the light of current issues. I’m a bit critical of this particular effort, because it wasn’t as well done as it could easily have been.
      One final point: Badiou treats Paul’s own “event” (Jesus’ resurrection) as a fable, and contents himself with admiring Paul’s readiness to stake everything on it. OK. But Badiou never indicates what “event” he has or points to as an equally motivating basis for the kind of moral action he seems to advocate. It’s an altogether curious book. And I rather suspect that the only reason it got attention was that it was a Marxian author writing on Paul.

      • Scholiast permalink

        I see more clearly now. Thanks.

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