Tuesday 11 September 2007

St Paul's journeys into philosophy

When Paul looked back on all his prior privileges and achievements, he could only exclaim: “I’ve lost all that now, like worthless shit, in order to gain Christ!” (Phil. 3:8).

Occasionally, one has moments like that in thought – when everything you had ever learned or known suddenly appears like mere “shit” (σκύβαλα) in the light of some new discovery, some unexpected gift or insight. That’s how I felt when, years ago, I first read Calvin; and I felt that way again when, a few years later, I picked up a dusty old book by someone named Karl Barth (it was his explosive early collection, The Word of God and the Word of Man). Suddenly and unexpectedly, everything I’d ever known was placed under judgment. As Bob Dylan puts it, “I got new eyes, everything looks far away.”

And I must admit, I felt a similar sense of shock and disruption and alienation – in a word, a profoundly disturbing awareness of theological σκύβαλα – when I recently read Alain Badiou’s astonishing little book on Saint Paul. My brain is completely submerged in Badiou’s works at the moment, and I’ll no doubt be posting more on him in future.

But for the time being, I was delighted to hear that Doug Harink – author of the brilliant study, Paul among the Postliberals – is organising a conference to explore the theological significance of the new readings of Paul by contemporary philosophers (e.g. Agamben, Badiou, Žižek) – and of Paul’s “readings” of them! The conference will be entitled “St Paul’s Journeys into Philosophy: Contemporary Engagements,” and it will be held in Vancouver, 4-6 June 2008.


Anonymous said...

There was a similar conference held a couple years ago at Syracuse:


I also believe Hent de Vries is currently editing a volume on Paul and philosophy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info on the conference. Is there a conference website up yet, or somewhere to get more information? And do you happen to know if there will be a general call for papers?

Ben Myers said...

Hi again, H. Phelps. No, there's no conference website yet, and I don't know about a call for papers. Doug Harink will be keeping me updated, so I'll post further details when they're available. Meanwhile, if you happen to be working on Badiou and theology, perhaps you could drop me a quick email? I'd love to know what you're working on.

michael jensen said...

Badiou is great fun, and in particular I think really GETS Paul in a way that New Testament scholars spectaculary fail to.

Unknown said...

P. Travis Kroeker, chair of religious studies at McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario, I believe has also received funding for work on Paul and Continental Philosophy. I unfortunately had to drop out of one his seminars (though still managed to read the texts).
I will be curious to see how you respond to the issues of transcendence and immanence in the works of Badiou or Zizek. I've only read the latter and need to get into the former. We likely need to temper our zeal over the discover of "fresh" readings.

Anonymous said...

I am reading Badiou's Saint Paul at the moment (along with Taubes' somewhat similar Political Theology of Paul). Interesting stuff.

JKnott said...

That's so exciting! I just finished a term paper comparing Barth and Badiou in a very broad but shallow way, alas. One has to choose between breadth and depth. Definitely keep us abreast of the developments for this conference!

Anonymous said...

Ever the gadfly.

After nearly 2000 years what do you really know about "paul".

It is all conjecture---every last bit of it. Especially as "paul" never met Jesus or any of his disciples.

"Paul's" writings were entirely his own creation--a projection of his own cultural back-ground. As (inevitably) is everyone elses philosophy.

And what has "paul" got to do with the "postliberals".

Any and every ones philosophy and politics is either True or not. Why use an essentially fictional character as some kind of water-mark test of truth or authenticity.

Anonymous said...

Hi John,

Out of curiosity, what are your favourite books on Paul?

Anonymous said...

Give it six months, it's bound to wear off.....

A recent quote summarizes the matter well:

"The French have so assiduously cultivated their knack for glib philosophizing that most Americans less credulous than professors of English literature have lost all interest in French intellectual life. They sense that the French are more interested in expounding novelties than truths."

The quote could apply just as easily to recent theologians whose Francophilia is closely tied to their aloofness and elitism to the Christian in the pew reinforced by their fondness for jargon and doublespeak.

Stick with the clear-eyed historians.


Anonymous said...

Hi James,

That sounds like intellectul "Freedom-fries" to me, an attitude that is as old as that astute and fair-minded observer of the American mind Alexis de Tocqueville , who, in the 1830s, observed that in the United States, "the majority had staked out a formidable fence around thought":

"I think that in no country in the civilized world is less attention paid to philosophy than in the United States... As they perceive that they succeed in resolving without assistance all the little difficulties which their practical life presents, they readily conclude that everything in the world may be explained, and that nothing in it transcends the limits of understanding. Thus they fall to denying what they cannot comprehend; which leaves them but little faith for whatever is extraordinary... This disposition of the mind leads them to condemn forms which they regard as useless and inconvenient veils placed between them and the truth."

This disposition also led de Tocqueville to fear that only men with second-rate minds would venture into American politics. Enough said.

JKnott said...

John and James,

With all due respect, nothing you say betrays the shallowest familiarity with Badiou's work. You either accuse him of things of which he is wholly innocent (attempting to veil the truth) or state positions he has amply critiqued in his work (truth-claims, or "philosophies" are only projections of one's cultural background), without taking the discussion further by critiquing his critiques. Either read his work so you can fruitfully join the discussion or I for one will have little interest in what you say.



Anonymous said...

I agree with you it is far better for discussion to be informed if it is to have credible momentum.

However, while i have not read a lot of Badiou (but have read areasonable amount of other post WW2 French thinkers) - except for slabs of St Paul, I think his work is tricky to follow and this is where the previous critical remarks of James and John have some traction.

Consider the following quote which took less than 10 secs to find;
For capitalist monetary abstraction is certainly a singularity, but a singularity that has no consideration for any singularity whatsoever: singularity that is indifferent to the persistent infinity of existence as it is to the eventual becoming of truths." (St Paul p 10)

Now when you read either side of the quote things become a little clearer - but surely the whole thing could be more simply said.

JKnott said...

I concede that at times Badiou could express himself more simply. That is a far cry from the charges made against him here to which I object.

Derrick said...

Just wondering, for those who are reading Badiou on Paul, if you might possibly summarize in a nutshell (if such a thing is possible to do) one or two (or more...) of Badiou's takes on Paul that you find to be a breath of fresh air, or that really "gets" him in ways that others have not? While I definitely want to read him, I have to jealously guard my reading lists, lest I be continually distracted by new temptations :) Maybe a tasty kernal of Badiou wisdom on Paul would move him up the list though.

Anonymous said...

Good request, perhaps devotees could undertake some exegesis of the following sentences from the conclusion of St Paul p 109:
“Thought becomes universal only by addressing itself to all others, and it effectuates itself as power through this address. But the moment all, including the solitary militant, are counted according to the universal thought, it follows that what takes place is the subsumption of the Other by the Same.”

Badiou tries to link this with notions of equality in Christ (eg neither free men or slaves etc). But is it a case of so much smoke but not a lot of fire? Can devotees shed more light on the key themes?

JKnott said...

I think one might start with Badiou's take on Paul's "Theory of Discourses," from chapter 4 of _Saint Paul_. This is only 15 pages so reading it would not significantly extend your reading list, page-wise.

What is so important about this is that the topic of discourse encapsulates so much in that it shows the character of one's thought; where it comes from and where it goes, what it is about, etc. In my view, some of both the positive and negative treatments of Badiou's thought in theology thus far miss this crucial element. Conor Cunningham, I think, treats Badiou as if he were operating within the "Greek" discourse of being, and therefore wrongly acuses him of being "nihilist." Dan Bell appreciates Badiou's emphasis on life rather than death and the politics of fear, but transplants this, again, into the wrong discourse (of Being). Of course you have to get some handle of Badiou's theory of discourses to understand that.

So a short summary. Badiou posits four kinds of discourse: 1.The "Greek" discourse which focusses on being. 2.The "Jewish" discourse of the sign. 3.The "Christian" discourse of the event. 4.The "mystical" discourse of silent intimacy with the divine. He gets this from Paul's words in 1 Cor. 1:17-29 and 2 Cor. 12:1-11.

Badiou insist that at least Jewish and Greek discourse (these are not ethnicities but subjective dispositions) presuppose one another and are "statist," which means they work toward upholding settled particularities, communities, institutions, authorities, etc. Mystical discourse is similar in that it fails to challenge the "state" (situation, roughly). Only Christian discourse in this scheme is revolutionary, broadly speaking.

This won't, of course, settle everything but hopefully it piques your interest.

Anonymous said...

Well put jknott thanks - but i still think Badiou on St Paul is a lot of work for not a lot of gain. It reminds me of 3 summers spent reading Lacanian psychoanaylsis - very hard work for a slim profit - but then again i don't regret it.

derek said...

Outside of St. Paul, what works would anyone here recommend by Badiou? My local bookstore carries several of his works, but not St. Paul.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Derek -- I'm working my way through a big pile of Badiou's books at the moment. I found Infinite Thought to be a very helpful and accessible introduction to some of Badiou's main concerns.

Anonymous said...

Manifesto for Philosophy and Ethics are good places to start. Peter Hallward's Badiou: A Subject to Truth is a good, comprehensive introduction. It's especially helpful for understand Badiou's use of mathematics, though he doesn't do justice to the Paul stuff, I think.

derek said...

Thanks Ben, i think that the bookstore has Infinite Thought. Hopefully i can check it out eventually.

Ben Myers said...

Or even better, Derek, I'd follow H. Phelps' suggestion and go for Badiou's Ethics.

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