“Badiou and Theology”: a not so micro-review

9780567032621 Frederiek Depoortere, Badiou
and Theology
(Philosophy and Theology). New
York: T&T Clark International, 2009.

Below is my review of Depoortere's recent book on Badiou.  For a less favorable review see Clayton Crocket's over at NDPR (he sees it as incoherent, but I think this broadly has to do with differing theological outlooks).  I would be very interested in any others interacting with Badiou on a theological level.  I would like to do more work with Badiou, but my dissertation may go a different direction for now.

While many have turned to Alain Badiou’s critique of
contemporary politics and his theories of the event and the subject, few
theologians have fully engaged in the task of understanding and assessing
Badiou’s underlying ontological commitments.  But without this a truly theological appropriation and/or
critique of Badiou has been lacking. 
Frederiek Depoortere’s Badiou and Theology gladly, and impressively, steps into this gap.  Matching Badiou’s robust atheism with a
clear-sighted theological orientation, Depoortere models theological
engagement, even if one does not necessarily agree with his presuppositions.  The basic thesis of the book is that
while Badiou understands his ontology as essentially atheistic, Depoortere
argues that it in fact it does not foreclose belief in God, but actually opens
toward a renewed proof for the existence of God with its own version of
analogy. Depoortere accomplishes this by first examining Badiou’s understanding
of the death of God and the contemporary state of the questions of the
existence of God, then investigating Badiou’s ontology, and finally, by
offering a theological reading of set theory.

            Depoortere
begins by considering what Badiou means that God is died.  Ever since Plato’s Parmenides philosophy has labored under the impasse of the one
and the many, ultimately needing to identify ‘being’ and ‘the one’.  Badiou escapes this dilemma with the
axiomatic decision that ontologically ‘the one
is not’ even if it is presented phenomenologically
(11).  The unbinding of being from
the one, accomplished via contemporary set theory, allows being itself to
occupy the place of the actual infinite without recourse to a transcendent
God.  Because of this set theory
deposes the “living God of religion, the conceptual God of metaphysics, and the
God of the poets” (18).  For
Badiou, the metaphysical God is now known to have never existed, the religious
God can no longer be encountered in thought, and the Romantic God of Hölderlin
and Heidegger is revealed as merely nostalgic (19-20).  In outlining the contemporary
understanding of arguments for the existence of God, Depoortere essentially
agrees with Badiou’s typology, but against deconstructive returns to a poetic
God (mentioning Caputo explicitly), he but argues for the unity of the God of
religion and the God of metaphysics, siding with the First Vatican Council’s
understanding of the twofold order of knowledge and the possibility of a proof
for the existence of God. 
Explicating this proof, and relying on Denys Turner’s recent work on
Aquinas, Depoortere argues that the statement “God exists” must function such
that ‘God’ is a proper noun, and ‘exist’ is a judgment of actuality rather than
conceptuality (48-50).  Because of
this, arguments for the existence of God must rule out a univocal use of being
or existence without implying equivocity. 
In other words, contemporary arguments for the existence of God must
argue toward analogy, not from it (54-56).  And this, Depoortere argues, is exactly what Badiou’s
ontology does.

            To
show this Depoortere examines part one of Badiou’s Being and Event, and other relevant texts.  He centers around the themes of the being of the one, the
void, and the infinite. Concerning being, Depoortere excellently explains how
Badiou relates set theory to ontology as the presentation of being qua
being.  Via the theory of the
multiple, Badiou argues that “the ontological situation is that situation in
which total abstraction is made of all particularity and in which no longer
this or that is presented, but presentation as such” (64).  In this way, unlike contemporary
constructivists, ontology is not derived from language, but the reverse
(66).  This however, means that
Badiou must postulate some initial place from which to infer being, since
language does not accomplish this. 
The ‘void’ achieves this as the multiple-of-nothing which puts set
theory on its way as the pure multiple, before the one and the many.  The void is the multiple included
within each presentation as
nothing (69-72).  As Depoortere says, “Everything which
is
presented, the whole regime of
presentation, characterized as it is by the dialectic of the one and the
multiple, is a fabric woven out of nothing but ‘the void’ which is itself
in-different to this dialectic because it is neither one nor multiple”
(81).  And from this pure multiple
springs the actual infinity of being, uncoupled from any transcendent
grounding.  Based in the immanence
of the void, transfinite numbers exist as actual infinities, even while
themselves expanding into new levels of infinity (81-94).  For Badiou, the significance of set
theory, then, is that it articulates an understanding of transfinite numbers
that encompass and surpass the infinite succession of ordinal numbers, without
recourse to a transcendent actuality.

            After
outlining Badiou’s ontology, Depoortere turns to Badiou’s conception of actual
infinity to offer his theological evaluation.  While Badiou rejects Cantor’s theological conclusions, who
founded set theory, and announces an ontological atheism, Depoortere
interrogates Cantor’s distinction between “the transfinite ‘increasable actual
infinite’ accessible to mathematics and ‘the unincreasable or Absolute actual
infinite’, or God, not accessible to mathematics” (110). Depoortere points out
that Cantor even speaks of created and uncreated infinity suggesting a possible
“up-to-date version of Aquinas’s distinction between created being as finite
and uncreated being as infinite” (112). 
Cantor postulated an Absolute actual infinite because increasable
transfinite numbers do not make sense without it (113).  From the level of everyday mathematics,
one need not account for this Absolute, and indeed can axiomatically reject it,
which Badiou does.  But, Depoortere
argues, once mathematics has been elevated to the level of ontology, as Badiou
also does, this restriction begs the question in favor of atheism (120).  If this restriction is eliminated there
is no reason to assume the atheistic nature of set theory, but rather it makes
it possible to rethink a traditional distinction.  Instead of placing a divide between creature and creator as
that between the finite and infinite (124), the divide is between the finite
and transfinite on the one side, and absolutely infinite on the other
(125).  Or rather, “Aquinas’s
distinction between finite creation and infinite Creator can simply be kept on
the understanding that ‘finite’ now includes both what has traditionally been
understood by it and the transfinite” (125).  The upshot of this conclusion, for Depoortere, is that the
Absolute is still partially comprehensible within the transfinite as limit
concept.  Or rather, set theory
itself suggests a principle of analogy completing the requirements of a modern
proof for God’s existence (126). 
Of course Depoortere notes this proof still needs to be developed, but
within the set-theoretical universe, this proof does not seem excluded out of
hand as Badiou had hoped.

            For
as short as the book is Depoortere does a remarkably good job digesting the
relevant information regarding Badiou’s ontology and offering a succinct
critique and proposal (which is insufficiently reflected in the above
summary).  But he does admit it is
merely a first step towards a theological evaluation of Badiou.  Nevertheless, while Depoortere states
his intention to only focus on Badiou’s ontology, Badiou is explicit that his
ontology is in service to his theory of the event and the subject it produces,
and therefore a lack of engagement in the later realms of Being and Event hinders Depoortere’s theological evaluation in two
ways.  The first concerns
Depoortere’s criticism of Badiou’s axiomatic decision, against Cantor, to
affirm those aspects of set theory that set it against all versions of
theism.  Badiou would argue that in
the figure of the subject itself is revealed the halting point of set theory
and is the beyond of mathematics, contra the assumption of a grounding Absolute
infinite.  In this sense Badiou is
eminently a modern Cartesian and/or Hegelian cum Lacanian.  Second, a more robust engagement with
Badiou’s theory of the event, and its production of the subject, would
problematize Depoortere understanding of the relation of faith and reason
grounded in the First Vatican Council. 
While Depoortere is certainly to be praised for resisting the circle of
faith presupposing faith expressed in various enclave or sectarian theologies
(see his long final note on 146-147), Badiou’s work precisely questions what is
and is not sectarian in regard to politics and thought itself and the function
of faith, which needs to be grappled with theologically.  All in all, while one might disagree
with Depoortere juxtaposition of a rationalist version of Thomism and Badiou,
its results are very compelling as an attempt to actualize a contemporary proof
for God within the Scientific Age.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/itselfwordpresscom Itself.wordpress.com

    Did my comment get eaten or was it just not welcome?

  • http://geoffreyholsclaw.net geoffrey holsclaw

    it must have been eating.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/adamscottmiller Adam Miller

    Thanks for this review, Geoffrey. I’ve been working on a number of other projects and haven’t gotten around to this book yet.
    By way of shameless self-promotion, if you interested in a divergent reading of Badiou’s importance for theology, I believe my book (also published with Continuum) may be the only other book-length treatment of the subject.
    My best,
    Adam

  • http://profile.typepad.com/geoffh geoffrey holsclaw

    adam,
    i would like to get at you book sometime soon, but current research might not lead through Badiou. but hopefully it will.

  • Jason Knott

    Adam–
    As fascinating as I find the issue of Badiou and theology, your book costs $100 on Amazon. I’m sure it’s worth it and all, but is there somewhere we can get a thumbnail sketch of your treatment?

  • http://profile.typepad.com/adamscottmiller Adam Miller

    It’s on sale for just $100! (Actually, don’t get me started about this . . . )
    At any rate, Jason, you can find a generous review and summary of the book by Tom Grimwood here.

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