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The Highest Contradiction: The Dyadic Form of St. Paul Among the Philosophers

John D. Caputo and Linda Martín Alcoff. St. Paul Among the Philosophers. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009. 208 pages. $17.90 paperback.

St. Paul Among the Philosophers is a landmark of the resurgence of interest in Saint Paul within contemporary continental philosophy. In keeping with the theme of this issue of The Other Journal, the anthology delivers a celebrity line-up that begins with its editors: John D. Caputo, the founder of “weak theology,” and feminist epistemologist Linda Martín Alcoff. The first section features essays from the philosophical corner, including essays by the Slovene Slavoj Žižek and the most infamous French philosopher since Derrida, Alain Badiou, and the second section includes essays from the theological-historical corner, consisting of Paula Fredriksen, E. P. Sanders, Dale B. Martin, Richard Kearney, and Daniel Boyarin. The volume concludes with a roundtable discussion between the contributors, the editors, and some others (Karen Armstrong and questions from the floor) from the conference “Saint Paul Among the Philosophers: Subjectivity, Universality and the Event” held at Syracuse University in April 2005.1

The introduction, written by contributing editor John D. Caputo, is entitled “Postcards from Paul: Subtraction Versus Grafting”. The essay outlines the debate between the philosophers (Badiou and Žižek) and the historians (Kearney, Boyarin, and company) over Paul’s statement from Galatians 3:28 that “there is no Greek or Jew.” The issue of whether this universal statement is “subtracted” or “grafted” points to the real crux of this anthology: the tension between the future of Paul as described by the philosophers and the history of Paul as described by the historians. On one hand, the philosophers embrace the theory of subtraction, which stipulates that the event of Christ adds an entirely new element to the world, and on the other hand, the historians embrace the theory of grafting, which posits that the event of Christ is added on to an already-present reality. However, Caputo “want[s] to engage with a bit of both” (1), and this volume does exactly that.

Concerning the opposition between the future proposed in the first section and the history presented in the second section, we could join with Frederiek Depoortere who writes that:

All this raises the question of whether the passion for the new is an essential part of any true Christian stance or whether the adoption of this passion amounted to nothing but the invasion of Christianity by something fundamentally alien to it.2

Much of what is presented in St. Paul Among the Philosophers maintains the structure of this question of the new, addressing issues of subtraction versus grafting, history versus philosophy, each occurring in the form of a dyad. Even the book itself represents the mediation of a dyad—in the same way that the tension between the historians and philosophers is mediated, a higher understanding is proposed by Caputo, who writes that “God is the site of the highest contradiction, the identity of opposites, which shows up in the last words on the cross where God (in Jesus) laments that he too is forsaken by God, which means that God too is for an instant an atheist, that God doubts, that God rebels against himself” (14). It is this simultaneous duality, proposed as a characteristic of God, that this book offers to both the theological and philosophical reader. St. Paul Among the Philosophers is situated between the historians and the philosophers, between the theists and the atheists, and it provides a most useful mediation between them. Indeed, this dialogue is a refreshing change from the war waged on bookstore shelves between the New Atheists and the Christian fundamentalists.

The first section contains two essays, one from Badiou called “St. Paul, Founder of the Universal Subject” and one from Žižek called “From Job to Christ: A Paulinian Reading of Chesterton.” Much of what has sparked the recent interest in Saint Paul, and presumably St. Paul Among the Philosophers, has arisen from a book Badiou wrote in 1997 called St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism in which he proposed the application of Saint Paul’s “method” toward the goal of true revolutionary action. In a similar vein, Žižek wrote The Fragile Absolute (2000) and The Puppet and the Dwarf (2003). These three works are shining examples of the seemingly secular engagement with not only Saint Paul but Christianity itself as apprehended from outside the discipline of theology proper. Both Žižek and Badiou are card-carrying atheists, yet they retain a mystical fervor that many theologians are missing.

But to say that they are both atheists in the strict sense would do them no justice (or grace). It would be more fair to say, in Derridean terms, that they both rightly pass for atheists.3 Badiou has had his own “road to Damascus” experience during the May ’68 student riots,4 and Žižek has confessed in turn that “there is an inner necessity to this turn to theology, going so far as to claim in The Puppet and the Dwarf that ‘to become a true dialectical materialist, one should go through the Christian experience.’”5

If we follow Caputo’s idea that God is the highest contradiction through to its radical end, we will come across the Irish theologian Peter Rollins who writes of what he calls the “a/theistic approach.” This approach “can be seen as a form of disbelieving what one believes, or rather, believing in God while remaining dubious concerning what one believes about God (a distinction that fundamentalism is unable to maintain).”6 Although Rollins distinguishes between the act of belief and the content of belief, it is the operation of transcending the simple dyad of belief and unbelief that is crucial. Where Caputo states that he wants to engage in a bit of both subtraction and grafting, Rollins wants to engage in both belief and unbelief, both theism and atheism. The simultaneous nature of the a/theistic approach has considerable application here in the tension between Badiou and Žižek’s atheism and the theism of Caputo and others. The tension between the two groups is particularly evident during the roundtable discussion at the end of the work, where the diction of each speaker comes across clearly—Badiou’s methodical articulations and Žižek’s staccato contributions are a pleasant change from the overtly dry tone of many of the essays.

This is to say that St. Paul Among the Philosophers is not without its frustrating moments, the most apparent being Žižek’s tendency to recycle themes and material such as his reading of the theologian G. K. Chesterton. Žižek’s contribution to the volume, “From Job to Christ: A Paulinian Reading of Chesterton,” contains material that is strikingly reminiscent of an earlier work, co-written with John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ. In turn, Badiou’s article acts as a comfortable summary of St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism.7

The content of St. Paul Among the Philosophers is in many ways defined by the contributions of Badiou and Žižek who apply their philosophical frames to the question of Paul’s significance and method. Žižek’s exploration of what he calls the “fighting universal” is, unlike the content pertaining to Chesterton, a new development in his thought. The fighting universal is defined, according to Žižek, as the “diagonal cut” of true universality. In his frame, today’s conflicts are represented by a horizontal plane, and it is the fighting universal that names the issue that is universally affective and thereby manages to unite conflicting parties (170-171, italics in original). An example may be found in the unification of the Jews and the Greeks (the conflicting parties) under the banner of Paulinian Christianity, which acts as the “affective” fighting universal. Žižek also reiterates the argument that he presented in The Monstrosity of Christ for a “double kenotic” dialectical understanding of God’s contradictory nature. Instead of seeing God as the simple “unity of opposites” (as Caputo may have us do), Žižek suggests that in God there is “dialectical relationship between the Universal and the Particular” (45). Instead of seeing God as a “higher synthesis” of the categories of the universal and the particular, Žižek proposes that double kenosis is the proper way in which to apprehend the dialectical nature of God: God is both self-alienated and alienated from humankind, and these two alienations overlap. Žižek asks rhetorically whether “antagonism [is] inscribed into the very heart of God, or is ‘Absolute’ the name for a contradiction tearing apart the very unity of the All?” (ibid.).

It is here that the fighting universal finds its voice as the proper response to the antagonism that is so inscribed into the being of God. I would even claim that Žižek’s double kenotic dialectical view of the dyadic nature of God is itself the diagonal cut of the fighting universal. If the fighting universal offers any hope at all (with Žižek’s seeming disdain for the idea of a higher synthesis aside), it is that we might gain an understanding of God that has no illusions about the dual nature of the divine. Whether it is Žižek’s double kenosis, Caputo’s highest contradiction, or Rollins’s a/theistic approach, there is surely a God that is beyond both the theist and the atheist, the knowable and the unknowable, the past and the future, and so on, until all dyadic forms have been exhausted.

In further reference to the dyadic form of the work, Žižek states during the roundtable discussion that “there is an antagonism, a tension, inscribed into modernity itself” (171-172). This statement points directly to the problem of the Enlightenment project, the notion that we are all condemned to this antagonism or tension. Our dilemma is that we have not yet learned how to apprehend a god that is between and beyond the dual (the question remains whether antagonism is necessarily dual or simply inwardly disturbed). In the same breath as his claim that modernity possesses an inherent antagonism, Žižek states that “Modernity is a code word for capitalism,” linking the antagonism of modernity to tangible economic effects (ibid.). The term turbo-capitalism, as used by Dale B. Martin in his contribution to the volume (92), is a fitting title for the economic state that the West has seemingly resigned itself to as prescribed by modernity.

In his essay “The Promise of Teleology, the Constraints of Epistemology, and Universal Vision in Paul,” Martin is also right to ask that “After learning so well to deconstruct so many statements claiming to represent Universal Truth, should we be putting other universal truths in their place?” (91). This is exactly what we see in both Badiou and Žižek, who stand out in their attempts to cultivate the idea of a universal truth in a postmodern context. Such a neopostmodern attempt to return to the universal is equally evident in Žižek’s fighting universality as it is in Badiou’s post-politics of truth.

Badiou’s system of thought surfaced in 1982 with the now newly translated Theory of the Subject,8 a work of comparable substance to his two-part magnum opus Being and Event and Logics of Worlds (Being and Event II). His most recent work, released through Verso, The Communist Hypothesis, is indicative of his leftist position. One of his most accessible works Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil provides a decent outline of his thought; loaded terms such as truth process, the event, and the four orders are described fairly clearly throughout the book. Badiou’s thought involves the militant subject who exhibits a certain fidelity to a transforming event that allows a truth process to occur.9 If Jacques Lacan’s three orders were the Imaginary, the Symbolic, and the Real, Badiou’s four orders are art, politics, science, and love. An interesting parallel can be drawn here between Badiou’s militant adherence (read: fidelity) to the truth process of the revolutionary subject, and Søren Kierkegaard’s concept of the Church Militant. Kierkegaard writes:

[. . .]The Church militant never arrives. It is in the process of becoming. By contrast, an established Christianity is. It refuses to change. It is rooted in the conceit of human impatience that wants to take in advance that which ultimately comes later—the kingdom of God. It is blind to what Christ said about his kingdom not being of this world. Though his is truly enough a kingdom in this world, it is not of this world. His Church, therefore, is militant. As soon as Christ’s church makes a deal with this world, Christianity is abolished.

The triumphant Church assumes that the time of struggle is over; that the Church, because it has expanded itself, has nothing more about or for which to struggle. With this, the Church and the achievements of the world become synonymous. This is not the way of Christ. He promised only one thing: hatred and opposition from the world. Christ’s Church, therefore, can only endure by struggling—that is, by every moment battling the world and battling for the Truth.10

As can be seen here, there are many similarities between Badiou’s project and Christian theology; even more so than in Žižek’s work. Badiou states that “The contemporary world is thus doubly hostile to truth procedures,”11 which sounds very much like John 15:18: “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” Another example can be found in John 3:11-12 where Jesus states that “I tell you the truth, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things?” In the same light, Badiou writes that according to Paul “it is not the signs of power that count, nor exemplary lives, but what a conviction is capable of here, now, and forever.”12 Badiou’s reading of Paul is indicative of his larger project even if it serves as a mere example in the shadow of Being and Event.13

Badiou’s treatment of Paul in St. Paul Among the Philosophers is as “our contemporary,” but this is “a hard sell to historians” according to Paula Fredriksen. In her essay “Historical Integrity, Interpretive Freedom: The Philosopher’s Paul and the Problem of Anachronism” (61), which begins the second section of the book, she emphasizes that the historical context must remain a priority where historical interpretation, rather than philosophical interpretation, is concerned. Fredriksen effectively reduces Badiou’s claims about Paul to a mere reflection of Badiou as seen through his own hermeneutic. Whether there is any historical backing for Badiou’s interpretation of Paul remains a mystery from our culturally and historically removed vantage point. The point is, with all historicity aside, that the contributions of both Badiou and Žižek are an opportunity to move beyond the hyperpragmatics of postmodern thought and the dyadic dogma of modernity and the Enlightenment to a place that is altogether other (toute autre).

St. Paul Among the Philosophers is an opportunity for both the theological and philosophical communities to reexamine stale dualisms such as atheism versus theism, and faith versus reason. Capturing the “Saint Paul Among the Philosophers: Subjectivity, Universality and the Event” conference in 2005, this book is an event that should be proclaimed, to use Badiou’s terminology. The book represents a profound, healthy dialogue that moves beyond the modern demarcations of atheism versus theism and belief versus unbelief to a place that Peter Rollins may describe as both un/known and a/theological. From the Judaism versus Hellenism split as explored by E. P. Sanders (74), to the “strange duality” in Zizek’s interpretation of Chesterton (42), there is a refreshing move beyond modern naïveté and postmodern despair. In his contribution, Richard Kearney writes, highlighting the dyadic form of the issues raised, that “There is of course a profound paradox here: strength in weakness, power in powerlessness, glory in folly, meekness, and non-being” (149). If it is as Caputo writes in his review of The Monstrosity of Christ that “postmodernism means a recognition of hybridity, a weakening of rigid modernist binarities like matter/spirit, faith/reason, objective/subjective, philosophy/theology,” then this work is a strong step in the right direction.14


1.  See Clayton Crockett, “St. Paul and the Event,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 6, no. 2 (2005), http://www.jcrt.org/archives/06.2/crockett.pdf; and Jeffrey W. Robbins, “The Politics of Paul,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 6, no. 2 (2005), http://www.jcrt.org/archives/06.2/robbins.pdf.

2. Frederiek Depoortere, Badiou and Theology (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2009), 3.

3. A theme dealt with in Jon Stanley, “Why Every Christian Should ‘Quite Rightly Pass for an Atheist,’” in “God Is Dead,” and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself: Theological Engagements with the New Atheism, ed. Andrew David, Christopher J. Keller, Jon Stanley (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2009).

4. Depoortere, Badiou and Theology, 5.

5. Adam Kotsko, Žižek and Theology (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2008), 73.

6. Peter Rollins, How (Not) To Speak of God (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2006), 26. Italics in original.

7. Compare Caputo and Alcoff, St. Paul Among the Philosophers, 40 to Slavoj Žižek and John Millbank, The Monstrosity of Christ, ed. Creston Davis (Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 44. And see Alain Badiou, St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, trans. Ray Brassier (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003). See also Giorgio Agamben, The Time That Remains, trans. Patricia Dailey (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2005) and Richard Kearney’s engagement with Saint Paul in Caputo and Alcoff, St. Paul, 150.

8. See Alain Badiou, Theory of the Subject, trans. Bruno Bosteels (London, UK: Continuum, 2009).

9. Ibid., Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (London, UK: Verso, 2001), 67.

10. Søren Kierkegaard, Provocations (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing House, 2007), 226.

11. Badiou, St. Paul, 12.

12. Ibid, 30.

13. See Frederiek Depoortere, Alain Badiou and God (Text presented during the “Theology & Ethics” Seminar, University of Edinburgh Divinity School, Edinburgh, Scotland, March 11, 2010).

14. John Caputo, “Review of The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic?” Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews, September 33 (sic), 2009, http://ndpr.nd.edu/review.cfm?id=17605.

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Maxwell Kennel :
Maxwell Kennel is a student in philosophy and rhetoric & professional writing at the University of Waterloo Ontario, Canada. His research interests include the continental philosophy of religion, speculative realism, deconstruction and religion, and critical theory. He is currently in the midst of his second term covering a pastoral sabbatical leave at Steinmann Mennonite Church, and he can be found at http://maxwellkennel.wordpress.com/.