Friday, January 3, 2014

Bonjour Badiou

On the Newstalk website there is an interview with the author of a book called There is No God: Atheists in America. It’s not a particularly good interview (for which I’d lay the blame on the interviewee rather than the interviewer), but it brings to mind Hauerwas’s claim that America has been unable to produce interesting atheists, mainly because Americans don’t believe in a particularly interesting God.

Disbelief in Europe can take a very different form. Slavoj Zizek has recently written about both the apostle Paul and Jesus Christ, but not in the way that the 19th century rationalist Richard Dawkins might write about them. Instead of battling against these Christian figures, Zizek aims to incorporate them into his own philosophy. Zizek's Jesus - like anyone's Jesus, really - is a reflection of his best self, so in Zizek's case that means we get a Jesus who tells his fellow revolutionaries to sell their coats and use money to buy swords in preparation for a violent uprising against the powers that be.

Along this strange path that leads from Jesus and Paul to atheism he is accompanied by Alain Badiou, whose book Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism I’ve been reading over Christmas. Reading a book by an atheist may seem like risky business for some Christians. What has Paris to do with Grand Rapids? The philosophy faculty with the bible college? Tertullian would appear to warn us against engaging with the dangerous ideas of “the enemy”. Yet it was Tertullian himself who declared the dangerous philosopher of his time, Seneca, to be a thinker who often sounds like “one of our own”. Tertullian’s rhetoric should not disguise his own practice of reading and quoting from (both disapprovingly and approvingly) the philosophy of his time. In short, one way to love those outside of the church is to read their books.

It is one thing reading Badiou’s book; it is another thing understanding it, however. When he writes things that go something like “the evental nature of truth entails a resurgence of subjectivity that causes a rupture in the truth procedure” I get confused and angry. He is using a language to which I am not privy. It is not unlike reading Barth for the first time, as you struggle to relate what you are reading to what is being written about.

Yet just as a small section of Barth’s billion pages of fine print can leap from a long paragraph and hammer you in the gut, so too can Badiou be occasionally and forcefully understood. Moreover, some of his theology [?] at these points of impact strike a very Barthian note. For example, he writes:

Paul has not been converted by representatives of “the Church”; he has not been won over. He has not been presented with the gospel. Clearly, the encounter on the road mimics the founding event. Just as the Resurrection remains totally incalculable and it is from there that one must begin, Paul's faith is that from which he begins as a subject, and nothing leads up to it. The event – “it happened,” purely and simply, in the anonymity of a road – is the subjective sign of the event proper that is the Resurrection of Christ (p17).

The difference between Badiou and Barth is that for Badiou the Resurrection is a fable, and the Good News that Paul declares holds no interest for him. In the end, Badiou’s theology is more Bultmannian than Barthian, as he seeks to extract the truth in Paul from the mythological framework in which it is contained. Paul would surely disapprove of this gesture, would he not? After all, if the Resurrection that he declares turns out to be a fable, Paul himself confesses that he and his fellow church members are to be pitied as the most foolish of humans. Badiou’s book is an attempt to salvage Paul from the wreckage of the Gospel-fable that this "poet-thinker of the event" mistakenly believed. In effect, Badiou says to Paul, “Jesus hasn’t been raised, but that doesn’t mean that your work was in vain.” Flawed as this perspective may be, there is enough insight in Badiou’s book for Christians to be able to say back to him, “Jesus has been raised, but that doesn’t mean your work is in vain.”

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