Do we really get Romans? A little Badiou and Žižek can help.

It's been said that reformations and revolutions in Christianity begin with a re-reading of Romans.

That is certainly true of the Protestant Reformation with Luther's epoch-shaking insight into the meaning of the phrase "the righteousness of God." 

It is true as well of Barth's commentary The Epistle to the Romans, which in the words of a Catholic commentator "burst like a bombshell on the playground of the European theologians."  Barth's leveraging of Paul's argument in Romans served, in the shocking aftermath and disillusionment of the First World War, to turn the scholarly, cozy, and complex arguments of 19th century Protestant thinkers on their head and usher in the relatively long era that we today know as Neo-Orthodoxy.

The long-tenured regime of Neo-Orthodoxy collapsed – quite quickly really – in the mid-to-late 1960s with the cultural revolution of that period, which coincided with the rise of both religious studies as an "alternative", at least in America, to the intellectual cartel of Barthianism and the Barth-based mainline Protestant establishment and the emergence of so-called "secular theology," which gradually morphed into a new establishment with its own signature and features.  Much of today's Christian postmodernism has this latter development as both its source and heritage, although it is also fair to say that its initial impulse in the form of applied Derrideanism was derived from the sense of a thoroughgoing "gappiness" in conventional liberal constructions of God along with the realization that there was room for postulating a "holiness" that could be glimpsed in all the holes of the not-so-monolithic text.  That is the genealogy of all "religion without religion."

Secular theologies, whether they be grounded in the grand narratives of 19th century bourgeois progressivism or the "apocalypse now" and "destruction of metaphysics" themes of the post-Sixties decades, are always the products of good economic times and social stability.  The varieties of "crisis" theology" – the original terminology for Neo-Orthodoxy – find fertile soil in political or economic anxiety and social upheaval.   All the current discussion of what may be coming "after postmodernism" may be setting the stage for the emergence of a 21st century crisis theology, though one completely and obviously unlike what reigned from the 1930 up to the 1960s.   

Besides Romans, crisis theologies – if that's really the word we want to use – always turn out to carry the genetics of a previous and hitherto marginalized philosophical movement.  Luther relied indirectly on nominalism for his critique of Thomism, indulgences, and Catholic sacramental theology.  Barth "discovered" Kierkegaard.  If a new crisis theology is in the making – most likely with its own re-appropriation of Romans – what might that be?  

The word "postmodern," as we have known for years, carries way too much freight if it is to be intelligible in a serious philosophical or theological setting.  The term itself was deployed by Jean-Francois Lyotard in his book The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge during the mid-1980s to provide a label for the Zeitgeist of the time, although it has been applied a bit retroactively to the thought of the early Derrida and proleptically to much in the history of philosophy since then.  The feeling that "postmodernism" is now slowly fading from the picture may have more to do with a general weariness in the face of our recent past, not to mention a growing recognition that things have significantly changed in the past few years. One needs, however, to put aside the strife over labels and ask what is happening on the broader intellectual, philosophical, and theological levels.  

There has been a larger major trend since the late 1990s in Continental philosophy, especially on the French side, that has not yet gained traction in the American theological world which may be the key to the beginnings of a new "crisis theology."  The trend is closely associated with the prevalence of two special words nowadays in our postmodernist discourse – "singularity" and "event."  The nomenclature on the main can be traced back to the writings of Gilles Deleuze (though ultimately as far back as the middle and late Heidegger) But these words have become staples in the work of Alain Badiou and Slavoy Žižek. 

Without delving extensively into the technical usage of these words in postmodern philosophy, we can make the general observation that they focus our attention on the productive power of certain nameable "phenomena" in our struggle to signify the unsignifiable. Events are "singular" incidences within our narratives and articulations of what we experience that have both broad-ranging origins and consequences, though we cannot "say exactly" what the event is "all about."   The singularity of the event both derives, and derives from,  chains, complexes, and assemblages of potentially meaningful, yet inherently indiscernible, moments of signification that run invisibly back into the past and forward into the future.  The event itself, however, is unnameable.  

Deleuze talked about the singularity of the event in terms of what he called the "virtual."  This kind of talk has deep affinities with the stock, but non-mathematical, language of theoretical physics – e.g., virtual particles, virtual states.  The event, however, is unnameable.  The visible phenomenon, which from Husserl through Heidegger to contemporary "phenomenological" theologians such as Nancy and Marion, can be named by philosophy.  But the event itself surpasses the horizon of everything that is even potentially nameable.   Just as "black holes" in physics are "singularities" with their own "event horizons" that point, without signifying, beyond the laws of nature, so events in the philosophical sense indicate, without naming, beyond the horizon of our syntax and linguistic iterability.

For Žižek the event can be associated with the irruption of the "real" in the endless, but futile, formation of the psychological subject.  For Badiou the event is always identifiable and locatable, yet not "explicable," within history.  It is a "singular truth" that cannot be achieved by philosophical discussion and controversy, yet arises as a surprising and fruitful breakage within the perceived "flow of events" to be seized by thought, which then makes it meaningful through the rigorous application of "truth procedures."

For most post-Sixties French intellectuals the genuine event - l'eventement as Badiou and others call it – was the sudden and fateful inbreaking of the student protests, worker strikes, and the crisis of the Gaullist state in 1968.  For America – at least in recent memory – it might be considered 9/11.  In one's own life, if we go with Žižek's take, the event can be a breakdown of all the cognitive and the "symbolic" routines of processing our experience in accordance with our own personal imago  that we suddenly name as a collapse or "failure" i
n the generation of a sense of selfhood.  From the Christian point of view the latter is close to the unexpected profound awareness of brokenness and the need of grace.  "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, to save a wretch like me."  And so forth.  The event is the moment of "crisis" and redemption that has ramifications far beyond its own horizon of nameability. 

But what does all the foregoing have to do with theology? Much of the appeal of the earlier version of crisis theology rested on its unabashed Biblicism as well as the implicit cry of "back to the Reformation," where shibboleths like sole fide and sola scriptura resonated strongly with the fast-growing, implicit critique of secular authority.  If we are living in a time of religion's return, we are also witnessing a rapid collapse of confidence, not just in America but throughout much of the Western world, in political and secular authority.  Some kind of "Biblicism" – because of the intrinsically iconoclastic register of the Biblical canon itself, which elevates the singularity of the ancient Judaic faith experience over the would-be universality of the Greek sophrosyne or the Latin ratio, the principle of measured and "enlightened" thought in keeping with harmonious living that supposedly is a mandate for all human beings.

The Pauline indictment of such "measured thought" is most concentrated in his dialectic of "wisdom" and "foolishness", or "vanity", that are found in Romans.  The same dialectic, of course, appears in l Corinthians.   "For though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking…Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles." (Rom. 1:21-23).  

This kind of dialectic is very familiar to theologians, but what remains unspoken is the implications of Paul's repeated use of variants on the Greek term mataioites (those things that are "futile" or "vain").  The Greek word commonly suggests idolatry, but it has the primary meaning of "lacking force" or "unproductive of sense".  In other words, Paul is contrasting the emptiness or fecklessness of Greek dianoia, or discursivity, which from Plato onward was supposed to lead under the direction of sophia (i.e., "wisdom") to the pure eidetic, or ideal, vision of universal truth.  The dianoia of philosophy, which yields a specious wisdom, results in what Nietzsche termed nihilism, the "twilight of the idols." "What does nihilism mean?  That the highest values devaluate themselves.  The aim is lacking; 'why' finds no answer." (Will to Power, 2).      

In contrast, Paul goes on throughout the rest of Romans to explicate the mystery of the Cross, the importance of what he calls the "obedience of faith" in the gospel that is "the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith (Rom. 1:16)," and the subtle and rather complicated of the relationship between the Jews, "entrusted with the oracles of God", and the role of Christ followers.  What makes Christians special?  It is not that they have a "knowledge"  of God (gnosis), which is reserved for the "Greeks", or a special relationship to God through the Torah, which is reserved for the Jews.  The "obedience of faith" specific to Christians consists in a complete re-orientation of our lives and the formation of our hopes around a once-and-for all event, the event for which the horizon is Christ death and resurrection.  This event can be discerned neither through sophrosyne, which leads to futility, nor as part of the (Jewish) awareness of one's own distinctive election in the economy of God's Heilsgeschichte, which leads to "boasting" and arrogance.  It can only be discerned through the "weakness" (astheneia) of both our philosophical and religious understanding that finds the Cross intelligible only as a pure singularity that remains otherwise impervious to the inferential capacity of our computative minds (dianoia).  "But we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles." (1 Cor. 1:23)

For the event Paul, of course, employs the term kairos to indicate this singular and infinitely productive event, which can never be named per se.  "For while we were still weak, at the right time (kata kairon) Christ died for the ungodly." (Romans 5:6).   The kairotic character of the event is only perceptible to the "weak", who experience overwhelming "power" while right-minded Greeks sense futility and conscientious Jews a total humiliation, which was the Roman aim in crucifying their victims.  A crucified messiah?  How absolutely insulting to the divine majesty!  Indeed, the Cross signifies not just abject failure, but absolute nihilism so far as Western "ontology" is concerned.  "God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not (ta me onta), to reduce to nothing things that are."  On the face of it, what Paul is saying is the most shocking thing that the "onto-theological" version of Christianity can beard – God himself is the author of a strategic historical nihilism that is totally necessary to reveal the "power of the Gospel" in all its fullness and immensity.  

The fascination of today's would-be "atheistic" French philosophers like Žižek and Badiou with the singularity of the crucified Christ is not accidental.  So much of postmodern thought is not merely an "overcoming of metaphysics" and ontology, but a quest to penetrate to the singularity that is neither logical, ethical, nor ontological, but (as Heidegger would put it) the "origin" of the intelligibly determinative. Beginning with Heidegger himself, whom Derrida never really understood and who inaugurated the quest itself, we find a struggling to find some kind of "name" for this origin.  Heidegger calls it the "Being" that can "be" only by crossing it out.  Derrida names it khora, Deleuze the virtual, Badiou the event.  It is a quest for the name of the origin of the "universal."  As Badiou the  tells us, however, the event can be discerned, though not named, in the very "name" of Jesus – not the historical Jesus, not the Jesus of Christology qua onto-theology, but the event to which we give that name, and from which all names emanate.  "He is the name for what happens to us universally" (Badiou, St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, 60).  

A "crisis theology" would be concurrent with a new explication of the original sense of the Christ event. But postmodern thinking has already brought us to that crisis.

Hence, we need to re-read Romans. 

Carl Raschke






  • Doug Harink

    Thanks for this. The exegetical correlate, and in some respects corrective, to Badiou and Zizek (and I might mention Agamben, and Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History”) is the work of J. Louis Martyn. His commentary on Galatians and his book, Theological Issues in the Letters of Paul, pave the way for the kind of reading of Romans that you are suggesting. Martyn’s work has enabled me to see Romans precisely as a “strategic historical nihilism”–Paul’s accounting of the end of history revealed in and as the Gospel.

  • Adam Miller

    Thanks for the post, Carl. I couldn’t agree more. Not to toot my own horn again (or compare myself to Luther!), but I dedicated a third of my last book, Badiou, Marion and St Paul: Immanent Grace (Continuum, 2008), to a detailed reading of Romans 1-8 in light of Badiou and company. You might be interested.

  • Carl Raschke

    Thanks so much, Doug and Adam. Adam, I wasn’t familiar with your book, but I’ll now certainly take a look at it and give you my feedback. Thanks again.

  • Adam Miller

    I’d be grateful, Carl, to hear what you think. – Adam

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    i love church and it’s all i ever want to stay other than home!

  • geoffrey holsclaw

    thanks for the connection between martyn and these fellows. I thought there was something there, but I wasn’t confident to make it.

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