Wednesday 22 August 2007

Theology with Alain Badiou

At the moment, I’m using every spare moment to read the philosophers Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou – and they’re blowing my mind.

I really wish I had read Badiou sooner. His little book on Saint Paul is an astonishing tour de force – an atheist reading of Paul which is far more profound (and far more theological) than most recent theology!

In particular, I’m wondering whether Badiou’s conceptions of “the event” and of “universal singularity” might provide a useful way of understanding Jesus’ resurrection. Is anyone else out there interested in Badiou at the moment? And does anyone know of any contemporary theological work which engages with his thought (apart from Milbank)?

Anyway, here’s a quote from Saint Paul – a critique (spot on, in my view) of the concept of “mediation”:

“With Paul, we notice a complete absence of the theme of mediation. Christ is not a mediation; he is not that through which we know God. Jesus Christ is the pure event, and as such is not a function, even were it to be a function of knowledge, or revelation…. Christ is a coming; he is what interrupts the previous regime of discourses. Christ is, in himself and for himself, what happens to us. And what is it that happens to us thus? We are relieved of the law. But the idea of mediation remains legal…. [This idea is] a muted negation of evental radicality” (pp. 48-49).


Anonymous said...

Hi Ben,

I don't know Badiou (though I've just ordered his Saint Paul on your say-so), and so my question might be premature - particularly as he sounds typically, gnomically French - but why is the idea of mediation, eo ipso, "legal"(istic?)? It certainly sounds strange for a "Barthian" like yourself (Barthians without inverted commas I take to be suspect!) to cry "spot on" to a dismissal of mediation. I am thinking of Barth's critical juxtaposition of Schleiermachian immediacy with Christogical mediation, and his later acknowledgement that "there is not much mediation in Romans!" (coincidentally I've taken this quote from Colin Gunton's just-published The Barth Lectures which I've just started), despite the famous commentary's Kierkegaardian rejection of direct communication. Does Badiou reject this dichotomy and offer a third choice that is Christologically acceptable?

Go on - put me straight!

Anonymous said...

By the way, Barth himself would certainly have agreed with your assessment of enlightened atheists: see the influence of Franz Overbeck's critique of 19th century Protestant liberalism's ignorance and neglect of eschatology (cf. also, among others, Bonhoeffer's respect for Nietzsche as a prophet, and Moltmann's admiration for Ernst Bloch).

Ben Myers said...

Hi Kim -- thanks for this query. Admittedly, Barth's understanding of mediation is still a disputed question -- but on this point, I'd be much closer to Jenson and Jüngel than to Gunton. In Jüngel's reading, for instance, Barth's whole dogmatics can be interpreted retroactively through the lens of the baptism fragment (CD IV/4), which offers an extremely stark depiction of divine/human correspondence as opposed to divine/human mediation.

Of course, students of Gunton will point out that God must also mediate himself (pneumatologically); but I've never really seen why this perspective is compelling. I guess my gut-feeling is that models of mediation tend to undermine the disruption, the sheer actualism and eventfulness, of God's grace.

So I like Badiou's idea that Jesus' resurrection is not a "mediation" but a sheer "happening"; it is not "a function" of something else, but a pure event (p. 48) -- not "an accomplishment", but a "pure beginning" (p. 49). As such, Badiou says, this event is "grace", "rupture", "pure givenness" (p. 63).

This reminds me of Barth's remark that it is "terrible" to regard Jesus Christ "as though he were only a means or instrument or channel, and [to] look to something different from him, some general gift mediated by him, regarding this as the object of Christian hope" (CD IV/1, p. 116). After all, "Jesus Christ is not what he is ... in order as such to mean and do and accomplish something else" (IV/1, p. 126) -- rather, he himself simply is the (unmediated) unity between God and humans. Or to put it another way: the unity between God and humans isn't accomplished, it simply happens.

Fred said...


Thanks for this interesting post and comments!

Event is a critical term for Fr. Luigi Giussani. See, for example, this talk: "The Gushing of Obedience."

As for mediation, I recently was struck by a phrase in Balthasar's In the Fullness of Faith: "immediacy mediated" (p42) - also in the context of sin and freedom, etc.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for that, Ben. I think I'm with you on what you affirm, and I certainly don't want to understand Christ instrumentally: Christ is our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (I Corinthians 1:30). Nevertheless, mesites in Hebrews 9:15, 12:24 - and especially in I Timothy 2:5 - must be dealt with, even if by a redefinition that must surely include a "betweenness" (granting, of course, that Christ is not some tertium quid): "There is one corresponder between God and humankind"?

And then there is the centrality in Calvin and the Reformed tradition of Christ's office as Mediator and his role as our heavenly intercessor (where I Timothy 2:5 is biblically pivotal).

A mediatorial role for the church, in any strong sense of the word, is, of course, out of the question - though Catholics will beg to differ!

Fred said...

I like that! There is one correspondence between God and human beings, Jesus Christ.

I also notice that you don't say that there is NO mediatorial role for the church: else why would we need preachers? Whatever the relative strength of the mediatorial role of the church, it ought to be 'immediacy mediated' - Christ must increase and I must decrease.

Michael O'Neill Burns said...

since you asked...
I'm actually about to start postgraduate research considering Badiou's concept of "the event" as a way of understanding the resurrection; and then situating the resurrection within a participatory ontological framework, supposing that this "event" contains the possibility for truth/being.

Unfortunatley, I don't know of anyone engaging his thought theologically outside the RO world; that's why I'm going to Nottingham to work on this topic. I know Milbank has engaged his work a lot, but Conor Cunningham and Catherine Pickstock have also engaged badiou on a much more brief level.

Anonymous said...

Jamie Smith has begun engaging Badiou a bit, but of course that's RO.

Is it just me, or has RO done most of the ontotheological work lately?

Anonymous said...

I've only read little bits of Badiou, but I'm not convinced that he is as theological as you make out, Ben. The logic of the event is a formalised philosophical construct. Badiou is not interested in the Christ-event as such - he is, after all, an atheist (of sorts). So, at best, his work might provide for the theologian some useful categories for Christology (or eschatology, soteriology). But doesn't make Badiou's work theology.

I think this point is worth stressing since if we think what Badiou is doing (or Zizek, or Hegel for that matter) is theology, then we forget that theological reflection begins in the love of Christ - not in the fascination with the Event.

But you, a Barthian (or "Barthian") would be able to appreciate this difference, barely perceptible but on which everything turns. Right?

Ben Myers said...

Fred: Thanks for the link!

Erin: I'd be very interested to know which of Jamie Smith's books engage with Badiou.

Matheson: thanks, I really appreciate your reminder. I agree, and I don't think Badiou is actually "doing theology" -- I'm just wondering whether some of his key concepts might be useful resources for theological reflection.

Michael: thanks for your comment -- it's great to hear of your proposed research topic. I'll send you an email, and I hope you'll keep me up to date on your research....

Ben Myers said...

Oh, and I forgot to add one more response to Kim: will I be revealing too much if I admit that my least favourite theological idea is the notion (as developed, e.g., by T. F. Torrance) of Christ as a "heavenly intercessor"....

Anonymous said...

A great post and thread of comments! Thanks so much for this.
It puts into such cuttingly clear terms how some try to create explanatory edifices that end up functioning (gratefully inefficiently, we may hope) as protection from the intensity of the presence of God. Not that it's intentional...just perhaps a natural response to so much that is beyond what we can control. Encounters with Christ replace any sense of 'being in control' with so much of divine affection and focus that the typical response is to both turn away and long for more. Badiou seems to capture this sense quite clearly – I’m ordering the text as well.

John Wesely (sermon 91) writes: “Nothing humbles the soul so deeply as love: It casts out all "high conceits, engendering pride;" all arrogance and overweaning; makes us little, and poor, and base, and vile in our own eyes. It abases us both before God and man; makes us willing to be the least of all, and the servants of all, and teaches us to say, "A mote in the sun-beam is little, but I am infinitely less in the presence of God."


Anonymous said...


The reference above seems to be at odds with TF Torrance's theology as developed in "The Mediation of Christ". Would you say more on why TF's interpretation of our 'heavenly intercessor' is one of your least favourite theological ideas?

Michael O'Neill Burns said...

I'm not really sure if I agree with your aprehension to consider, theologically, the work of thinkers such as Badiou and Zizek. Now, I agree that their work isn't in itself "theological", but when considered "theologically" in can provide some wonderful (and I would say groundbreaking) insights in theological discourse.
Sadly enough, it seems that too much of the time we depend on philosophy to fuel further theologically reflection, because (to me at least) there isn't nearly as much interesting work being done in theology these days.
When reading Badiou I can't help but think, why haven't theologians considered the concepts he does (esp. in his notions of truth and the event).

derek said...

If this is true then Ben, how do you handle sections of the Epistle to the Hebrews? It seems pretty unavoidable.

Anonymous said...

Okay, we've got Zizek and Badiou, now all we need is Agamben to complete the trinity of "post-Marxist" appreciation of Christianity, represented by Jesus with Paul (rather than the typical "Marxist" appreciation of Christianity represented by Jesus against Paul).

Ben Myers said...

Hi Jonathan and Derek. Obviously the Letter to the Hebrews interprets Jesus' saving work typologically via a range of cultic categories. I think all this can be fully accepted and appreciated -- but it's another thing to reify these very categories, so that (as in Torrance's work) they are turned into pure mythology.

My own impression is that we can do full justice to the soteriological message of Hebrews, without getting involved in this kind of reification. The writer to the Hebrews uses various cultic and Jewish-Alexandrian categories to articulate the significance of what took place in Jesus. But if you reify these categories, you end up with an inversion of the whole message -- i.e., the death and resurrection of Jesus are eclipsed, and the action of God is removed from real history and located instead in some distant Platonic world.

To my mind, that's exactly what happens in Torrance's theology: his mythological portrayal of a "high-priestly mediation in heaven" actually results in the opposite of what the Letter to the Hebrews intends -- i.e., it leads away from the eventfulness of Jesus' death and resurrection. (Thus, while Torrance thinks he is improving on Barth at this point, he's actually undermining the whole point of Barth's doctrine of reconciliation!)

Anyway, that's how I see it (although I realise that many readers of Torrance will disagree)....

Joel said...

Much to provoke thought in this post and discussion! Though I admit to being puzzled by the Badiou quote (but perhaps this is mainly my ignorance of philosphical categories), with many questions, including:

Doesn't viewing the resurrection as "pure event" with no functional relation to anything else run the risk of isolating the resurrection from the earthly life of christ on the one hand, and the life of the believer (in union with Christ) on the other?

Is it only in the "pure event" of the resurrection that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself", or is it also in his entire life of obedience, his self-emptying and death on the cross?

Where does this leave "Chalcedonian orthodoxy"? Calvin, for example, gets a lot of mileage out of the concept of Christ-as-mediator (relying on St Paul in many places!), using it explain the two natures of Christ and draw out their soteriological implications.

a. steward said...

Wow, that's a fantastic quote. I'm reading through Zizek's The Parallax View with a few friends, and came across a similarly Kierkegaardian passage:

"How, then, does the analyst stand ith regard to Christ? There is proximity and gap, but not where we wouold expect them. Back to great Teachers like the Buddha: they did not reveal their Truth in the strict Christian sense; they merely exemplified by their model life the universal teaching they were spreading. In this precise sense, the Buddha was a Bddhist, even an exemplary one, while Christ was not a Christian - he was Christ himself in his absolute singularity. Christ does not "demonstrate with his acts his fidelity to his own teaching" - there simply is no gap between his individuality and his teaching, a gap to be filled in by the fidelity of his acts to his teaching; Christ's ultimate "teaching" - lesson - immediately is his very existence as an individual who is, in absolute simultaneity, man and God." (98)

derek said...

I think that i'm not in agreement with your analysis of Hebrews. What benefit or truth can a figurative expression of Christ interceding AFTER THE RESURRECTION communicate about the ONE-TIME PAST EVENT OF JESUS' DEATH AND RESURRECTION?

In my view, the intercession of Christ isn't eclipsed by his work post-resurrection, rather it is the central event of the death and resurrection of Jesus that makes all else possible. In this sense, everything always points back to this central event. To negate his post-resurrection ministry is to limit the significance of the salvation brought by Christ. In a (very rough) sense, the coming of the Spirit was also made possible by the resurrection, but was also sent by Jesus after the reurrection.

In fact, the contemporary presence of Christ in the Spirit saves us from "removing God from real world history." It seems that if we hold to a Trinitarian theology, the idea of a high priestly intercessory ministry of Christ can be prevented from spiraling into Neo-platonic dualism if we have a robust pneumatological understanding of the presence of God.

What do you think Ben? Am i off my rocker? I guess to sum up i see no threat by a post resurrection intercessory ministry to the meaningfulness and centrality of Christ's resurrection, due to the presence of God in the Spirit.

We can have our cake and eat it too!

scott said...

To avoid discussion completely, but still try to be helpful:

Connor Cunningham is alleged to write a theological 'critical introduction' to Badiou in the new "Interventions" series (see here).

I don't know of much else by way of theological engagement with Badiou, but I'm looking. I might check the past two issues of Dialog (the Luther Journal) - I think there was something there about the new contintental reading of Paul with Badiou in it (but it seemed more negative).


scott said...

Oh, I just remembered - there's an excellent essay by Dan Bell in the recent Journal for Cultural & Religious Theory, that treats Badiou: you can view the issue here (you may need to skip a book ad), and then just click on Bell's "The Politics of Fear & the Gospel of Life".

Also, Philip Goodchild has a downloadable essay here that at least mentions Badiou and Zizek's reading of Paul. It's the one entitled "The Exceptional Political Theology of Paul."


Ben Myers said...

Many thanks for this, Scott -- looks like some good stuff here, and I'll look forward to reading it.

JKnott said...

Ben and Michael,

I'm so glad I found this discussion. I just began reading Badiou during the past spring semester (I'm a PhD in Theology) and was blown away by how Barthian he is. Also, I find that reading Barth with Badiou actually supports those who read Barth along the lines of Jungel, McCormack, MacDonald, et al, rather than Torrance and company.

I have not found any who have tried to engage Badiou theologically either except the RO crowd, and with the predictable response: "If it's not Platonism, it's nihilist!"

What this also helps me see more clearly is how fundamentally Pauline Barth was, with the rest of scripture really playing a supporting role. I think this is likely to be the most controversial point, but I think that kind of thing is inevitable. In Badiou-ian terms, "Sola Scriptura," when it means circumscribing truth within the covers of the Protestant version of the Bible, is still a kind of statist thinking and thus not Pauline but anti-Pauline. There may be no middle point but only an either-or choice.

This is one of, if not the most intelligent discussion I have ever seen in a blog. Kudos.

Ben Myers said...

Hi JKnott -- "I find that reading Barth with Badiou actually supports those who read Barth along the lines of Jüngel, McCormack, MacDonald, et al, rather than Torrance and company".

Yes, that's exactly what I've been thinking. Thanks for your excellent contribution to this discussion.

JKnott said...

I know this thread is old, but I can't help making two more comments:

1. Considered with Badiou in mind, I think the scene in the Cohen Bros. movie "Oh Brother, Where Art Though" were the KKK rally is accompanied by the song "Oh Death" is a cinematic masterstroke.

2. To bring this back to an even EARLIER thread, might one not argue that the general idea of mediation (at least in some construals) is not only the WORST theological invention, but actually the one and only heresy? All the old ones anyway--Arianism, Nestorianism, Docetism, etc.--have in common a sense that Jesus might get us TO God somehow, but only as a half-way point. And this even brings in Barth's nemesis theologia entis as well, because it is a way of mediating between God in Jesus Christ and us. Any thoughts?

JKnott said...

Holy crap at the typos in my previous post!

"Oh Brother, Where Art Thou"
where, not "were"
analogia entis, not theologia entis

I'm ashamed...but you can understand my points anyway.

Anonymous said...

FWIW, I've been reading Badiou for a few years now (though not as much as Zizek). My current reading is in relation to Paul and theology of culture (mentioned on my blog a few months back). That will see the light of day in some form next year.

Anonymous said...

There's an article by P. Travis Kroeker entitled "Whither Messianic Ethics? Paul as Political Theorist" in Journal for the Society of Christian Ethics, 25, 2 (2005): 37-58. He discusses Badiou, Breton, Taubes, and Agamben. In my opinion, he is much more open to Badiou than the RO crowd.

You may also want to check out the current issue of Angelaki (Volume 12, No 1 April 2007), which has numerous articles on Badiou. Milbank has one there, and so does Dan Bell, though I think that Bell's article is not that good. (I haven't read the Milbank yet.)

Ben Myers said...

Thanks, H. Phelps -- that's extremely helpful!

Anonymous said...

There's no doubt that Badiou is interesting but so far no one has shown me how he offers anything other that metaphors by which Christians might make themselves less alien to atheists. What good is this? Milbank's recent fascination with Badiou just shows him to be one more liberal theology in disguise, desperately jumping on any passing fad in order to make theology more respectably - how alien this is to Theology and Social Theory!
Badiou understands many aspects of Christianity in a Barthian fashion - but, and maybe I'm missing something here, so does Barth! Are people just excited because they can now write articles on Badiou and get them published because he's a cool, albeit second rate and atheistic, version of Barth?
I'd love to be wrong as then I'd write a few of these articles too, but people, is this not all, just a wee bit, pathetic?

Anonymous said...

jus thtought I might fill you in with this book

Anonymous said...

The real question is: there are opportunities to create an alternative space for the secular thought (or we are doomed to wander, ontologically, the pathos of a transcendent dimension and romantic)?

I have worked (mediated by S. Zizek, A. Badiou, Deleuze, John Milbank and his school, Radical Orthodoxy, and the reflections of Speculative Realism) here in Brazil.


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