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Does theology hold the answer for revolutionary politics?

Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou at Birbeck College, London, 2005. Photograph: Robin Mackay

Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou at Birbeck College, London, 2005. Photograph: Robin Mackay

‘We still wear Christian eyeglasses, although they no longer fit the eyes.’
Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul (2004)

The paradoxical consequence of the surge in ‘new atheist’ publications since Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion (2006) has been a revived interest in the very subject the scientist so vehemently denounces. As theologians, philosophers, academics and cultural commentators rushed to take sides in the debate, in early 2009 even the advertising space on London buses became a battleground. The British Humanist Association launched a publicity stunt: ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ This was swiftly countered with this riposte, paid for by a trinity of Christian bodies – the Christian Party, the Trinitarian Bible Society and the Russian Orthodox Church: ‘There definitely is a God. So join the Christian Party and enjoy your life.’ Such has been the maelstrom of publicity around the debate that Pope Benedict XVI, in his recent visit to the UK, felt compelled to join in, criticizing the rise of ‘atheist extremism’ and ‘aggressive secularism’ – terms framed in the language used to denounce religious extremism.

Attacks on religion – made most recently by populist intellectuals such as Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris et al – are, of course, no new thing. From Socrates’ refusal to recognize the Athenian gods at his trial to the Enlightenment tradition that runs from Voltaire to Bertrand Russell, religious belief has often been denounced as irrational. But it is only now, at a time when religious extremism dominates the public consciousness, that the debate has taken on an ideological charge. Religion has always had a political dimension; now some philosophers are asking whether the revolutionary politics of the left can be reactivated by theology.

Modernity has long and famously treated religion with scepticism. Yet for leftist academics only just recovering from the failure of the Marxist-humanist dialectical tradition to dismantle the hegemony of capitalism – even after the financial crisis of 2008 – some now anticipate that theology can succeed where philosophy and critical theory failed. In the shadow of popular books by the new atheists, a much less publicized but potentially far more radical strain of the ‘God debate’ (as Terry Eagleton framed it in the subtitle to his 2009 publication Reason, Faith, and Revolution) has grown. This time the focus is on the founding father of the Western European Christian church and perhaps – as theologian Jacob Taubes suggests in The Political Theology of Paul (2004) – of modernity itself: Paul of Tarsus.

Creston Davis, John Millbank and Slavoj Žižek have – since their 2005 publication Theology and the Political: The New Debate, and the book last year of The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? (2009) – been fuelling the discussion. With the publication this month of Paul’s New Moment, their interest has moved from a general analysis of Christianity and the figure of Christ to the figure of Saint Paul and his teachings. The essays are divided into three sections – ‘On Paul’, ‘On the Liturgy’ and ‘On Meditation and Apocalypse’. They neatly update the scholarship on the saint in the Postmodern philosophy and cultural studies circles that began, in its current form, with the publication of two small yet important works: Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (2003) and Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains (2005). Mirroring this, Žižek and Millbank use Badiou and Agamben, respectively, to motivate their differing arguments for the importance of Paul now.

Millbank, a Catholic theologian and author of Theology and Social Theory (1990) – an attack on what he saw as the Modernist tradition of ‘secularism’ and its influence on the social sciences – bookends the eight essays comprising Paul’s New Moment (co-edited with Žižek and Creston Davis) by noting that capitalism – which he characterizes as a quasi-religion that relies on a ‘belief in abstract fetishes and the worship of the spectacle of idealized commodities’ – is shifting towards forming political and structural alliances with actual religions, particularly in the US. For Millbank, this is the natural conjoining of liberal biopolitics and the Christian dogma of personal salvation – both activating an atomized notion of the self within culture as fundamentally reliant on an artificial social contract. Millbank’s Agambenian reading sees this ‘negative subjective freedom’ as one based on the threat of violence – at its most basic, a ‘let’s not kill each other’ arrangement. This formal freedom (following Lenin’s distinction of actual and formal freedom) is mirrored in the contract conditional of American neo-evangelical Christianity: ‘I am free to choose salvation yet in my salvation I am a slave to Christ’ and also in the systemic structure of the Church itself which Millbank sees as treating its work of the ‘saving of souls’ like any business or corporation – potential souls as valuable commodities to be signed up, logged and mined for further capital. Yet Paul provides the answer beyond the biopolitical. Long before Agamben and Millbank criticized the law as instantiating the transgression it forbids, Paul declared: ‘For the law brings wrath, but where there is no law there is no transgression’ (Romans 4:15). His appeal is to natural justice: a shift from a negatively inscribed contractual law, which is itself based on the fear of death, to one based on the grace of God and the gift of eternal life through the resurrection of Christ. Beyond the problematic dichotomy of immanence and transcendence, Christ’s mortality and resurrection offers a convergence of material, flesh and blood and spiritual immortality.

Badiou, an unabashed atheist, declares in the opening sentences of Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism that his interest in Paul is born out of political intentions rather than restorative theological concerns. Reacting to the apparent deadlock of the modern, then Postmodern, dialectical model of philosophical critique, his intention is to use the figure of Paul, as well as his teachings, to re-posit a universalism and therefore transcendence into the ethical relativistic mire of the Postmodern age. It is clear then why Žižek – himself a self-proclaimed atheist, though, in his words, ‘more Christian than Millbank’ – sees in Paul the way to political salvation.

By any standards, Paul was indeed a revolutionary figure. Žižek, who has theorized extensively and critically on the Trinitarian account of a Christian God (most notably in his 2003 book The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity), sees in Paul’s appeal to a God (based on the fleshy figure of a resurrected Christ rather than a ghostly transcendent God), a ‘materialist theology’ – not only an ontological convenience but, in his founding of the early Christian communities, a political blueprint. Žižek’s first contribution is a slightly altered chapter from his 1999 book The Ticklish Subject; his second is taken from a 2007 lecture at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum of Rollins College, while in his final piece – a development of his argument expounded in Living in the End Times (2010) – he outlines the threat of catastrophe as more likely to come from an techno-ecological disaster than a biblical one. This, therefore, is no new Žižek but more a condensed summation of his recent writings on Paul.

Žižek follows Badiou closely in his theorizing of Paul through the ‘truth-event’ of the resurrection. Tracing his thought through his differentiation between Being and Event, between philosophy and ontology, and finally to subjectivity and history, Žižek (as he so often does with his readings of philosophers) cleverly splices his reading of Badiou reading Paul into Žižek’s own reading of him. For Badiou, Paul was the first thinker to formulate ‘the formal conditions of the truth-procedure’. Žižek responds by disclosing: ‘For Badiou, Christ’s death on the cross simply signals that “God became human” that eternal truth is something immanent to human life, accessible to every human being.’ In applying to Paul the mantle of theorizing universality (and by extension truth), Badiou sees him as the saviour of philosophy from Postmodernism; for Žižek, in Paul’s teachings is the revolutionary potential for revolution from liberal capitalism.

Like Millbank, Žižek highlights Paul’s objection to the law in his ‘Epistles to the Romans’ but focuses on the psychological aspect of the objection. He is at his lively best dabbling in some art-historical critique, using Michelangelo’s Christ on the Cross (c.1541) to expound his theory of a divided God – the forsaken (angry, faith-wavering) one on the cross and the God on high (Žižek previously wrote on this distinction in The Monstrosity of Christ). There is a twist of course: instead of Christians looking to God for meaning and assurance – ‘trust in God, have faith etc.’ – Žižek sees the reverse message. The crucifixion, the resurrection and the Holy Ghost should be read as God trusting us: ‘The gesture of Christ says, “I leave it to you.”’ The ‘you’ here is the community of early Christians that Žižek sees as an example of a social grouping free from today’s liberal egoism and Christian fundamentalism. He finishes this essay on a dramatic note: ‘This is why I – precisely as a radical leftist – think that Christianity is far too precious a thing to leave to conservative fundamentalists.’ Quite, but will it be safe in the hands of radical atheists?

Paul Teasdale is editor of frieze.com. He is based in London.

Issue 135

First published in Issue 135

Nov – Dec 2010
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