Tertullian called Saint Paul “the apostle of the heretics” and he was right. Ever since Marcion, the second-century theologian who thought Paul taught that the Christian God was a deity wholly distinct from and superior to the Hebrews’ Yahweh, the Pauline corpus has been creatively misread. It is hard to find much in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount to inspire heretical thoughts, but Paul’s epistles, with their powerful intimations about sin, grace, and imminent redemption, are another matter.
As Monsignor Ronald Knox put it in his classic study Enthusiasm:
The mind of Paul has been misunderstood all down the centuries; there is no aberration of Christianity which does not point to him as the source of its inspiration, found as a rule, in his epistle to the Romans.
Paul continues to breed strange enthusiasms, which is why even today many Christians blame him for ruining the simple faith of the Apostolic Church. He has been denounced as a Hellenizer, a gnostic, a hater of the body, of Jews, of women, as the great destroyer of the pristine Gospel, a traitor worse than Judas. Even Nietzsche, who was no fan of Jesus, thought Paul had done him wrong.
Given these inflamed feelings, it remains difficult to figure out just “what Paul meant,” as Garry Wills puts it in the title of his clearheaded study. Though he thinks he understands why:
The heart of the problem is this. Paul entered the bloodstream of Western civilization mainly through one artery, the vein carrying a consciousness of sin, of guilt, of the tortured conscience. This is the Paul we came to know through the brilliant self-examinations of Augustine and Luther, of Calvin and Pascal and Kierkegaard. The profound writings of these men and their followers, with all their vast influence, amount to a massive misreading of Paul, to a historic misleading of the minds of people down through the centuries.
Wills wants to dislodge the myths and prejudices encrusting Paul’s epistles and restore his spiritual message to the language and setting of his own time before applying it to our own. This is a deflationary exercise, and Paul emerges from it a more ordinary figure in the early Christian world. Drawing selectively on contemporary biblical scholarship, Wills reminds us that nearly half of the Pauline epistles are probably inauthentic; that he never quotes the Greek or Roman authors that supposedly influenced him; that his condemnation of marriage was inspired by belief in the imminent Second Coming, not prudery; and that he argued for toleration between Gentile and Jewish Christians.
Still, one can’t help feeling that Wills’s apologia skirts the most interesting questions about Saint Paul’s place in Western thought. If the mythological figure is so different from the historical apostle, it seems to me the myths get more interesting, not less so. From Wills’s account you get little clue why a certain kind of mind is drawn to Paul, and to the Epistle to the Romans in particular, which contains some extraordinarily pregnant formulations. “We hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law” (3:28): does this not mean that pure interior faith trumps all law, whether Jewish, Roman, or Greek? “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is lord of all” (10:12): does this not mean the absolute universality of the new religious and moral precepts, and the abolition of those that preceded them? “And those whom he predestined he also called; and those whom he called he also justified; and those whom he justified he also glorified. What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (8:30–31): does this not mean, following the previous verses, that those called by God are justified in tearing down the law and bringing universal truth to everyone, against all resistance?
These heretical interpretations may be philologically unsound, but who has time for philology when, as Paul himself put it, “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God” (8:19)? Though his fortunes have waxed and waned over the centuries, St. Paul has never fallen out of favor with those who would channel the divine and bring us all to redemption now. Learn how such people interpret Paul and you find yourself peering into the darkest corners of their souls.
If you wander into an American religious bookstore today you will find many self-help books but very few on Saint Paul’s epistles, and fewer still worth reading. But if you stroll the aisles of a secular university bookstore you will discover a surprising number of works about him. Oddly, there is a lot of thought being given to Paul these days by inhabitants of the foggy academic archipelago encompassing critical theory, deconstruction, post-modernism, postcolonial studies, and the like. When the wretched of the faculty club gathered twenty-five years ago, conversation would naturally drift to Michel Foucault’s views on corporal punishment; today you are more likely to hear a debate on the Epistle to the Romans as it bears on globalization and the war on terror.
The new books on Paul are of course not devotional, they are political. How the students of “theory” found themselves rummaging around in the Pauline epistles is itself an interesting story, involving the disappointments with Marxism in the affluent Sixties, the turn to deconstruction and identity politics in the self-absorbed Seventies, and the flirtation with Walter Benjamin’s messianic ideas and the “political theology” of the former Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt.1
But it also has something to do with recent changes in world politics, particularly as seen by many European intellectuals. The end of the cold war brought to a close the grand historical narrative that had shaped European political consciousness for two centuries by dividing the world into revolutionary and reactionary forces. Since then a great deal has happened but there is no new narrative to replace the old one. During the past thirty years European countries have ceded greater authority to the distant institutions of the European Union, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the traditional nation-state. Economic globalization has further undercut national sovereignty, creating new inequalities as well as new prosperity and inspiring protests by a loose network of “anti-global” groups. Muslim immigration and high rates of reproduction have made European societies more multicultural in fact, while Islamic faith and practices have made them less multicultural in attitudes, even on the left. Add to that the foreign news—the suicide bombings, the “war on terror,” stalemate in Iraq, hopelessness in Palestine—and the picture can look grim. Apocalyptic, even.
In the past decade the urge to address this situation critically has revived on the European left, though it still lacks a working ideological compass. Marx is thought (perhaps mistakenly) to shed little light on the present, and decades spent following a false messiah into the desert of deconstruction have left a generation of academics autistic. Reflecting this disarray, the left-leaning political books making their way from Europe to American bookstores and university classrooms today are an odd lot, ranging from prophecies by the old Italian radical Antonio Negri on the future of “empire” to the manic Lacanian typings of Slavoj Zizek, the genial Puck of the pomos. And now, squeezed awkwardly among them, sits poor Saint Paul.
The first thinker to promote Paul as a resource for the left was Jacob Taubes, who died in 1987. Taubes was born in Switzerland in 1923 into a distinguished rabbinic family and was himself ordained in the 1940s. After the war, and after publishing his one book, a study of Western eschatology, Taubes became a peripatetic professor and political gadfly moving restlessly between New York, Berlin, Jerusalem, and Paris, leaving admiring students and broken friendships strewn behind him. Frequent the intellectual circles of any of these cities and you will discover that everyone of a certain age has a Taubes story. In New York you learn that in the late Forties he taught Talmud to some future neoconservatives; in Berlin you find a photo of him addressing a demonstration of Sixties radicals while Rudi Dutschke and Herbert Marcuse sit admiringly at his side. Zelig had nothing on Jacob Taubes.2
In fact, he was everything those young Germans could possibly have wanted: an old left-wing Jew blessing their revolution, not with the stale scientific formulas of orthodox Marxism but with the biblical language of redemption. Taubes eventually soured on the kids but he bequeathed to them a way of seeing politics through the crypto-religious lenses of Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt. Taubes actually knew the disgraced Nazi Schmitt, visiting him at his Plettenberg home and telling anyone who would listen that “Hitler’s crown jurist” was in fact the greatest political thinker of the age. A few months before he died Taubes gave a set of informal lectures in Heidelberg on Saint Paul and Schmitt, which he intended as a kind of last intellectual testament. When the transcripts were published in Germany they found a large public, and by now translations have appeared in many European languages, including in English as The Political Theology of Paul.
Taubes was a raconteur of the highest order and a shameless namedropper, which makes the lectures great fun to read but maddeningly digressive and fragmented. Two large themes nevertheless emerge. The first is that Paul, far from betraying the Jews, was an echt Jewish fanatic sent to universalize the Bible’s hope of redemption, bringing this revolutionary new idea to the wider world. After Moses, there was never a better Jew than Paul. “I regard him,” says Taubes dryly, “as more Jewish than any Reform rabbi, or any Liberal rabbi, I ever heard in Germany, England, America, Switzerland, or anywhere.” Mainstream Jews were baffled when Taubes declared himself to be a Pauline Jew; he would respond that while Jeremiah was a prophet from and to the Jews, Paul showed it is possible to be “an apostle from the Jews to the nations”—which is exactly how Taubes saw himself.3 He attracted Christian scholars who agreed with this reading of Paul, including one who made the marvelously anachronistic remark that the language of the Pauline epistles “isn’t Greek, it’s Yiddish!”
Presumably this bon mot delighted Taubes more than it did the anti- Semitic Schmitt. Yet Schmitt would have approved Taubes’s second theme, that “for Paul, the task at hand is the establishment and legitimation of a new people of God.” This is an example of what Schmitt called “political theology,” a term he gave a special meaning. Political theology, in his sense, concerns the way in which legal orders acquire or lose legitimacy, a process he thought depended on an arbitrary decision made by a “sovereign,” whether human or divine, and which could be seen whenever those orders broke down in a “state of exception” (for example, when a constitution was suspended in an emergency). Every society, according to Schmitt, rests implicitly on a kind of political revelation. Take, for example, God’s delivery of the Ten Commandments to the Hebrews on Sinai. Seen from a theological angle, God was giving his revealed truth a political form through Moses; seen from a political angle, Moses was invoking God to legitimate his own act of state-creation. For Taubes as for Schmitt, all serious politics has this mysterious double character.
Taubes’s reading of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans offers a good example of this theological-political thinking. Taubes homes in on Paul’s antinomianism—his ruthless attack on Jewish and Roman law as the enemies to be vanquished if the Bible’s messianic promise was to reach the whole of mankind. Paul’s declaration that “you are not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14) announces a double coup d’état against Moses and Caesar, a sovereign decision establishing a new world order. Jesus has virtually no part in this reading of early Christianity; he was just a martyr in the early years of the insurgency. The real revolutionary was Paul, who imagined a utopian order and brought it about through theological-political fiat. “Compared to this,” Taubes declares, “all the little revolutionaries are nothing.” Translation: if you want to be a big revolutionary, take your cues from Paul.
With the publication of Taubes’s lectures in 1993, followed by a volume of his essays on religion,4 the Pauline moment on the European left had begun. Books and articles on Paul have been trickling out ever since, some interesting, most awful. The worst, for my money, is Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains. Agamben is the very model of the baffling postmodernist—obscure, pretentious, humorless. He is capable of writing that “the messianic pleroma of the law is an Aufhebung of the state of exception, an absolutizing of the katargesis ” and of littering nearly every page with passages quoted in the original German, French, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Spanish, Danish, Provençal, even (I’m not kidding) Hopi. Ezra Pound had nothing on Professor Agamben.
Agamben’s surprisingly popular book is only worth remarking because it is aimed at a more substantial target, the French philosopher Alain Badiou. Badiou belongs to the je ne regrette rien fraction of the French left: a student of Marxist theorist Louis Althusser in the early Sixties, a rabble-rousing Maoist and defender of the Khmer Rouge in the Seventies, he still writes warmly about the Cultural Revolution.
Imagine the shock, then, when Badiou published Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism in 1997, calling on the left to rediscover the radical universalism of Saint Paul and apply it to revolutionary politics! Hands were wrung in seminar rooms across Europe and North America, since any mention of universals is grounds for excommunication from the church of academic “theory.” Agamben attempts to forestall this apostasy and return the left’s gaze to its deconstructed navel, writing that “no universal man, no Christian can be found in the depths of the Jew or the Greek, neither as a principle nor as an end; all that is left is a remnant and the impossibility of the Jew or the Greek to coincide with himself.” But he is no match for Badiou. Like Pope Leo X faced with Luther, he is up against an inspired Pauline fanatic.
“For me,” Badiou recently told Le Monde, “May 68 was a fall on the road to Damascus.” Whether he ever regained his sight can be debated. It is quite an experience to plow through his political writings, which are now appearing in English. When was the last time you read a defense of Mao’s personality cult, and in quasi-theological terms, no less? In Polemics Badiou calls Mao an “aesthetic genius,” adding that “there are moments when for the revolutionary masses he is less the guarantee of the really existing party than the incarnation, all by himself, of a proletarian party that is still to come.” If that doesn’t get you thinking then take a look at The Century, where he puts the victims of the twentieth-century revolutionary movements in what he considers perspective:
What about the violence, often so extreme? The hundreds of thousands of dead? [Millions, actually.] The persecutions, especially against intellectuals? [Why “especially,” one wonders.] One will say the same thing about them as about all those acts of violence that, to this very day, have marked the History of every somewhat expansive attempt to practice a free politics…. The theme of total emancipation, practiced in the present, in the enthusiasm of the absolute present, is always situated beyond Good and Evil…. Extreme violence is therefore the correlate of extreme enthusiasm, because it is in effect a question of the transvaluation of all values…. Morality is a residue of the old world.
Such cold-bloodedness was long out of fashion in France. After many thousands of the victims of the Viet Cong and Khmer Rouge escaped onto their rafts into the South China Sea in the mid-Seventies, the French romance with revolution seemed to end. During the next two decades stiff-necked Maoists like Badiou lived in interior exile while the political debate revolved around human rights, multiculturalism, and political and economic liberalism. In the past ten years, though, as a more radical leftism returned, Badiou made a comeback. Today people listen when he denounces “capitalist-parliamentarianism, whose squalor is ever more poorly dissimulated behind the fine word ‘democracy,'” or mocks race-conscious multiculturalism for causing the “Pétainization” of the French state. Appointed to a distinguished chair in philosophy at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1999, he recently retired.5
What explains Badiou’s turn from Mao to Paul? We get clues from his philosophical summa, Being and Event, which he published in 1988. Its subject is ontology (the theory of being) but it is also an earnest if abstract meditation on the idea of revolution. Though there is no God in Badiou’s ontology, there are miracles, which he calls “events.” Events break unpredictably into human history and establish new truths that rearrange the world and us, so long as we get with the program.
This sounds something like Schmitt’s sovereign “decisions” except that Badiou is more of a populist, seeing a tradition of revolutionary events surging up from below, creating a chain over time. Each new event announces a new truth, but it also fulfills and justifies earlier ones in the chain. Pascal had made a similar argument in his Pensées, claiming that the prophecies in the Old Testament were actually false until Christian revelation made them true. Badiou, in a nice chapter on Pascal, makes a similar point about the history of political revolutions, suggesting that 1968 revealed and fulfilled the promise of 1917, which in turn justified 1848 and 1789, and so on. Revolution is never finished, which is why we must maintain “fidelity” to the chain of revolutionary “events,” even in the darkest of times. That kind of fidelity is hard, though, since it runs up against the evidence of our eyes. Which in turn explains why fidelity to the cause of revolution is “always the affair of an avant-garde” that understands that “what is at stake here is the militant apparatus of truth.”
Like Jacob Taubes, Badiou wants to find a place for Saint Paul in the revolutionary pantheon, calling him a “poet-thinker of the event.” A seat is reserved for him right next to…Lenin:
There is currently a widespread search for a new militant figure… called upon to succeed the one installed by Lenin and the Bolsheviks at the beginning of the century…. Whence this reactivation of Paul. I am not the first to risk the comparison that makes of him a Lenin for whom Christ will have been the equivocal Marx.
For a Maoist-Leninist Badiou is remarkably open-minded about Christianity, so long as it is seen as a revolutionary movement that upset “the previous regime of discourses.” Against the Greek philosophers’ pedantic demand for reasons and evidence, Jesus performed miracles and made prophecies; against Roman and Jewish law he proclaimed a universal gospel of justice and redemption based on interior faith. Jesus, for Badiou, was certainly not the Messiah, though the myth of his incarnation, crucifixion, and especially resurrection reminds us that salvation depends on “a lawless eruption.”
So Badiou, like Taubes, finds the real Christian “event” in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, not in the life and teachings of Jesus. The revelation on Sinai was also a revolutionary event in history, but like a long, disreputable line of Christian theologians Badiou maintains that Jewish legalism and ethnic particularity became aggressively counterrevolutionary after the death of Christ. Real “fidelity” to the Jewish “event” demands acceptance of the new, more universal Christian event.
Here there is an important difference between Badiou’s and Taubes’s readings of Saint Paul. For Taubes, Paul universalized the messianic promise first given to the Hebrews, he did not abolish it. Thanks to him, we are all children of Sinai. For Badiou, Paul’s militant universalism gives us a foretaste of what Kant, in a regrettable phrase, once called “the euthanasia of Judaism.” The apostle, like Kant, understood that “it is imperative that universality not present itself under the aspect of a particularity,” so he set out to “drag the Good News (the Gospels) out from the rigid enclosure within which its restriction to the Jewish community would confine it.”
When Alain Badiou criticizes “particularity” in the context of the Epistle to the Romans, you assume he is attacking modern barriers to his revolutionary ideal—bourgeois individualism, private property, ethnic communitarianism. Which he is. But when you turn to his journalistic essays you start to see that the Jews play a larger, and much darker, role in his political imagination.
In 2005 Badiou published a collection of essays titled Circonstances 3: Portées du mot “Juif”—“Uses of the Word ‘Jew'”—which has now been translated along with other of his essays in Polemics. In it he expresses annoyance that the word Jew has become a “sacred signifier…placed in a paradigmatic position with respect to the field of values,” adding, “that the Nazis and their accomplices exterminated millions of people they called ‘Jews’ does not to my mind lend any new legitimacy to the identity predicate in question.”
The proximate target of this outburst is contemporary Israel, which is charged with exploiting the Holocaust to justify its treatment of the Palestinians and to demand reparations from Western governments and individuals. Circonstances 3 contains a wild essay on this theme by Badiou’s sometime collaborator Cécile Winter, titled “The Master-Signifier of the New Aryans.” Winter angrily informs us that
today, in perfect continuity with Hitler’s invention, the word “Jew” has become a transcendental signifier, an inversion by which the powerful of the day turn in a profit, a word brandished to reduce one to silence on pain of sacrilege.
Badiou agrees, adding, “I propose that nobody any longer accept, publicly or privately, this type of political blackmail.”
Circonstances 3 was assailed across the French political spectrum, from the pages of Le Monde to those of Sartre’s old journal Les Temps modernes, where the literary critic Éric Marty published a blistering attack on Badiou and Winter that has now been issued as a freestanding book. Badiou’s response to Marty, included in Polemics, takes the reader through the standard poses in these unsavory “debates.” He claims to be looking out for the Jews’ best interests by criticizing Israel, given that “the principle threat to the name of Jews comes from a state calling itself Jewish.”
In fact, he thinks Israel may still have a universal world-historical mission, which would be to dissolve itself into a “secular and democratic Palestine” where there is “neither Arab nor Jew,” and thus to become “the least racial, the least religious, and the least nationalist of states.” (Apparently this is the one spot on the globe where Badiou thinks parliamentary democracy would be splendid.) On a practical note, he admits that this would require the rise of a “regional Mandela” in the Arab world and that the rest of us would have to “forget the Holocaust.” But miracles happen.
Sentiments like these about Israel are increasingly common in Europe, but for Badiou the real problem is Jewish particularity as such. This is how he puts it in the creepiest passage of Polemics:
What is the desire of the petty faction that is the self-proclaimed proprietor of the word “Jew” and its usages? What does it hope to achieve when, bolstered by the tripod of the Shoah, the State of Israel, and the Talmudic Tradition—the SIT—it stigmatizes and exposes to public contempt anyone who contends that it is, in all rigor, possible to subscribe to a universalist and egalitarian sense of this word?
Mao and his revolutionary guards couldn’t have put it better: a petty faction stands in the way of the universal revolution, insisting on its rights and identity, setting a bad example and serving the forces of reaction. If universal truth is to shine forth, something must be done about the Jews. Badiou does not strike me as a violent man, at least anymore; the only revolutionary action he now promotes is attacking the reigning “dictatorship of predicates” that turns the adjective “Jewish” into the noun “Jew” for use as a weapon to exploit non-Jews. His meandering response to Éric Marty ends with the lame declaration, “le juif, c’est moi!”
Laying siege to the “dictatorship of predicates” sounds like work for the Marines of the Comp Lit Department, where Badiou has acquired a bookish following in recent years. But do his American readers really understand the implications of his ideas? In Europe they are clear. In France Badiou is part of an important political network that has already had an effect on recent elections, most dramatically in 2002 when radical left parties drained so much support away from Socialist presidential candidate Lionel Jospin that the racist National Front candidate Jean Marie Le Pen was catapulted into the runoff against Jacques Chirac. And Badiou’s writings on Israel and the Jews also find an echo in Great Britain, where academic unions have been in pitched battles over whether to boycott Israeli universities and scholars because of the West Bank occupation. (It is noteworthy that Badiou’s political writings are being translated and distributed by British left-wing publishers, not American ones.) However frivolous Paul’s newest disciples may appear, the ideas they are juggling can have real consequences.
And perhaps that is why their books are finding an audience among left-leaning academics in the United States. Eight years into the Bush administration and forty years after the revolutions of 1968, one senses a frustrated desire to have some kind of effect. But how? By reprinting Mao’s little red book and rehabilitating the Gang of Four? Or establishing reeducation programs for the dean and provost? That seems to be what Slavoj Zizek has in mind when he writes, in On Belief :
The reassertion of a politics of Truth today…should take the form of a return to Lenin…. A Leninist, like a Conservative, is authentic in the sense of fully assuming the consequences of his choice, i.e. of being fully aware of what it actually means to take power and to exert it…. What Christianity did with regard to the Roman Empire, this global “multiculturalist” polity, we should do with regard to today’s Empire.
Reading stuff like this must give an armchair frisson to assistant professors too young or clueless to know just what the names Lenin and Mao conjure up to millions of people around the globe. And since they seem not to know anything about Saint Paul, either, they apparently find it unobjectionable that the worst butchers of the twentieth century are now being presented as heirs of the same man who could write “and now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).
There is not a hint of love to be found in the new pomo Paul, just hope for a miraculous secular transformation of the human condition and faith that it can be brought about through political revolution, violent if necessary. These authors, and probably many of their readers, belong to the cult of political romanticism that longs to live life on more dramatic terms than those offered by bourgeois society, to break out and feel the hot pulse of passion, to upset the petty laws and conventions that crush the human spirit. We recognize this longing and know how it has shaped modern consciousness and politics, often at great cost. But its patron saint is not Paul of Tarsus. It is Emma Bovary.
My articles for The New York Review on all these developments have been collected in The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals and Politics (New York Review Books, 2003). ↩
A biography of this unusual figure, by historian Jerry Z. Muller of Catholic University of America, is in preparation. ↩
Wills makes a similar argument from the opposite angle, suggesting that “Jesus founded no new religion, and Paul preached none,” which meant that “Paul was just as Jewish as Jewish can be.” ↩
Jacob Taubes, Vom Kult zur Kultur: Bausteine zu einer Kritik der historischen Vernunft (Munich: Fink, 1996). ↩
On the revival of the French radical left, and Badiou’s place in it, see Philippe Raynaud’s L’Extrême Gauche plurielle: entre démocratie radicale et révolution (Paris: Éditions Autrement, 2006). ↩