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date: 01 December 2021

Paul and Contemporary Philosophy

Abstract and Keywords

Modern philosophy is inextricably intertwined in the history of cultural and hermeneutical engagement with Paul the apostle. More recent philosophical and historical reflection on this fact of entwinement has renewed key struggles about cosmopolitanism, internationalism, anti-Judaism, cultural and political revolution, technology or cultures of calculation, and—perhaps above all—how we cope with our relentless drives to improve, energize, transcend, escape, or destroy the given worlds we inhabit. The goal of this chapter is to articulate several usefully orienting issues about the intertwining of Paul and contemporary philosophy and to signal some useful ways forward for further interdisciplinary research which addresses these broader cultural concerns.

Keywords: universalism, cosmopolitanism, conversion, biopolitics, singularity, autoimmunity, political theology, law, katechon myth, life

1. Conversion to Life Through the Forgetfulness of Calculation

As simple as it first sounds, it is difficult to overestimate the way modern and contemporary philosophy share with the Pauline tradition a core orientation around the assumption that life-giving energies are to be emancipated at a moment of bracketing or stepping out of calculating activity. In a more Pauline language, perhaps, beatitude or an experience of salvation reveal themselves as a step outside the usual sphere of work and wage, two key figures of instrumental or transactional activity. In any case, the basic rhetorical juxtaposition of trust or pistis over against work, or of wage versus gift, have exerted through the Pauline legacy a truly extraordinary organizing force within the history of modern philosophy and even of modern political and social theory (cf. Yelle 2018 and Bradley 2019). The sheer cultural range of these forceful, basic rhetorical oppositions are daunting to map, this fact itself providing a testimony to the generalizing power of both philosophical and biblical language in global culture.

To take up an initial philosophical example, Immanuel Kant frequently plays out his philosophy—of reason, nature, aesthetics, ethics, and religion—by relying on a traditional fundamental distinction between activity for the sake of something else and activity for its own sake, which is to say without reference to calculating or instrumental activity. In a characteristic passage within Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason (1793), for example, Kant distinguishes an experience of beautiful, pleasing incitements to good deeds from a more energizing—and ultimately salvific—experience of sublime awe, this latter experience being what we can catch sight of when encountering truth without respect of consequences, incitements, rewards, or punishments. In repeating such traditional philosophical distinctions, however, Kant’s philosophy remains tightly bound to a Lutheran reception of New Testament distinctions between servile obedience and the redemptive freedom of the uncoerced friends of God. Kant’s writings are particularly drawn towards conceptual distinctions between slavish obedience (which activity remains in an economy of instrumental inducements) and the philosopher as a living law spontaneously generating a good rule of life for the sake of the good style of life which generated it in the first place. This basic philosophical distinction, intertwined with the Pauline legacy, controls Kant’s understanding of Enlightenment, of a religion of reason, and of the ‘revolution’ in sentiment Kant believed to be afforded also by Pauline Christianity (discussed further below). Indeed, with lastingly significant implications for the history of European philosophy, Kant considered each of these themes to be variations of the same fundamental problem of conversion from heteronomy to autonomy. To borrow Kant’s remarkable language of a kind of divine election of Europe in this respect, Enlightenment, reason, religion, revolution, and Paulinism all have the same ‘vocation’ within world history, a singular calling to self-grounding expressions of life, all these terms—life included—making clear the way Kant’s philosophical terminology was often freighted with biblical cargo (cf. Tarizzo 2017: 53–85; Hollander 2008; Gasché 2009; Spanos 2016). Vocation, in the sense of a self-reliant expression of elevated or intensified life, for Kant names the salient issue for religion, democratic politics, and Kant’s sense of a global hierarchy constituted by free leaders and servile followers (cf. Molloy 2017; Carter 2008; Lloyd 2012; Bernasconi 2001).

Here is the passage in mind about this experience of a religion of reason:

The majesty of the law (like the law on Sinai) instils awe (not dread, which repels; also not fascination, which invites familiarity); and this awe rouses the respect of the subject toward his master, except that in this case, since the master lies in us, it rouses a feeling of sublimity of our own vocation that enraptures us more than any beauty.

(Kant 1996: 72 (6:23))

That Kant frequently relies on a biblical archive to express these philosophical distinctions is perhaps not surprising. In this passage, to bracket out instrumental consequences, to encounter the good without reference to outside inducements or the usual economies of work and wage, is to emancipate a transformative (and here, in fact, semi-rapturous) experience in which, as both master and slave simultaneously, the philosopher senses the buzz of a singular experience Kant refers to as a calling, a kind of majestic election to this form of being in the world.

The call to modern Enlightenment, or to religion as a self-determination of free reason, is not yet finished with Kant’s extensive biblicizations. Kant here goes on to draw on Pauline texts about sin and temptation to further elaborate his point. For instance, in this example the temptation soon sets in to cede this heady freedom wherein we find ourselves something like co-creators of the good (all of us so many little founders thundering from Mount Sinai). Under this temptation, the free giver of the law could soon give way, becoming a person who naturalizes or reifies the effects of her own freedom, in either case falling into the temptation to treat the good as something outside herself, thus reducing herself once more to the (slavishly) obedient or disobedient, failing to stand firm in her singularizing call. As he often does, Kant glosses this temptation with Pauline terms as a temptation to live by the ‘letter’ rather than the ‘spirit’ of reason’s law. Echoing Romans 14:23, Kant summarizes his entire philosophical argument in this section with the Pauline line that ‘Whatever is not of faith is sin’ (Kant 1996: 78). Throughout Kant’s writings, the same demand for a conversion from calculating heteronomy to self-reliant autonomy marks out a categorical chasm separating two ways of living, and this remains the case whether Kant is talking about Enlightenment, a religion of reason, colonial relations (as in his anthropological writings or essays on race), or international relations and the possibility of a future cosmopolitan internationalism of equals. Kant’s vision is in this respect governed by a horizon he links to Paul and the law, and a great deal of the more recent genealogical work in ‘political theology’ on concepts of sovereignty, right, justice, or even ‘life’ are only making the stakes of this archival linkage clearer (cf. Meister 2011; Sloterdijk 2020; Diamantides and Schütz 2017).

We should not miss the radical and still ongoing implications of such gestures, scattered throughout all of Kant’s writings, for modern categories like autonomy, Enlightened universalism, or even secularizing critique of religion, as all such categories become strangely—but structurally—resonant with the philosopher’s understanding of the Pauline writings. To be a free, modern, Enlightened purveyor of religion beyond merely dogmatic and parochial obedience was simultaneously to become a kind of new Paulinist who establishes a more profound experience beyond the dead letter of the law and without subservience to inherited rituals or cultural habits. Paulinism and modern philosophy—particularly when philosophy serves to encapsulate and transcend dogmatic or traditional forms of Christianity—thus arrive at a mutually energizing place wherein an experience of self-determining freedom beyond the letter of the law arrives in a moment of declaring a particular habit to be mere dead ritual or a good deed as a slavishly calculating effect of a mere economy of work and wage (cf. Blanton 2014; Løland 2018). Moreover, the move from one state to another, from a calculating subservience to the letter of the law over into a heady experience of becoming a free co-conspirator in the (energizingly majestic, awe inspiring) production of the global common good, is something Kant also situates within a Pauline tableau, particularly when he speaks of the ‘conversion’ necessary to move from one mode of being to the other, or when Kant speaks of the ‘revolution effected in the disposition of the human being’ such that a ‘new man’ can appear in world history (Kant 1996: 92).

2. Comparativism as an Exercise for the Increase of Hermeneutical Capacity

As Sigmund Freud often pointed out, and as phenomenological readings of Pauline texts also help us to see clearly, in order to process the relevant comparisons here we would need to imagine them not only as a set of formal ideas but also a set of atmospheric energies which are characteristic, say, of living as if one were beyond calculation, as if one were emancipated from a sense of guilt for a social transgression, or indeed as if one were living ‘beyond good and evil’ (cf. Sichère 2003; Santner 2016). The proliferation of modes and archives within which we might stimulate our comparative imagination in this respect is something that philosophers and historians sometimes desperately need. In Adam Wells’s welcome collection, Phenomenologies of Scripture (2017), biblical scholar Dale B. Martin noted his very sophisticated mistrust in phenomenology as a mode of reading biblical texts—but one could wonder whether his allergy to phenomenological readings involved the way they seemed to him too simple or in fact simply too pious to induce in the biblical scholar the requisite sense of excitement. It seems clear enough that dominant phenomenological engagements with biblical texts do sometimes end up as a well-worn path of poetic-pious discourse. Perhaps if Dale Martin had encountered a group of phenomenologists turning their attention towards some of the carnivalesque and socially subversive aspects of Paul which Martin himself documented so patiently in The Corinthian Body (1999) or Sex and the Single Savior (2006), he might have felt differently about ‘phenomenology’.

The interdisciplinary question is a pressing one for both sides of this hermeneutical coin. To make one suggestion in light of an occasional impasse, future work will sometimes do well to keep in hermeneutical play an unruly, and even disturbing, side to the explosions of life in this forgetfulness of calculation tradition which has so much to do with the Pauline legacy. These are the energies which George Bataille’s (2001) sociology explored under the heading of a Pauline notion of ‘sin beyond measure’ in Romans 7, which Pier Paolo Pasolini (2014) explored as a Pauline salvation through shock and sacred ‘scandal’, which Giorgio Agamben (1993) sometimes explores as the philosophical life of illicit sexuality, or which the activist writers constituting the Invisible Committee will explore in their books as a properly Pauline revelation of energies in those moments, for example, when ‘10,000 persons break everything deserving to be broken, and even a bit more, along the whole route of a demonstration such as that of June 13, 2016 in Paris’ (Invisible Committee 2017: 87; cf. Blanton, 2016a, 2016b). In good Heideggerian fashion, we might say that for any of us the comparative examples we select are themselves the truest indication of the philosophical style generating the comparative reflection in question, and the same is true of the social temperament of the historian. Howard Caygill (2013b) has on more than one occasion pointed out the way the activist Black Panther philosopher Huey Long radically inverted Nietzsche’s blistering critique of Pauline Christianity. If Nietzsche lampooned Paul’s ‘inversion of all [dominant Roman] values’ when the apostle and his allies repurposed a crucified loser into a revelation of divine wisdom, Huey Long and his allies decided rather to join in on such acts of revaluation and resistance. Long’s brainstorming session over Nietzsche’s book led him to wonder about how to ‘revalue’ the dominant values, the group eventually hitting on the idea that one could take that shining example of protection and beneficence for dominant society (the police), inverting its value by rebranding police as ‘pigs’ (Caygill 2013a, 2013b). That the path of this explicit neo-Paulinism meanders through popular culture in a generally unremarked fashion indicates something important about the sequestering of academic comparativism. One could add to the list Hent de Vries’s phenomenological analysis of Paul’s letters as an integral part of his larger philosophical reflection on a horror religiosus and history of violence (cf. de Vries 1999; Roberts 2013). The circuitous paths of Paulinism in philosophy, and of philosophy in Paulinism, need not be accompanied by soundtracks of soothing Sunday morning pieties. In fact, it is only our collective capacities to chart the range and understand the dynamics of these histories which pay the price when we sequester our thinking in the comparative play of ‘Pauline experiences’.

Dominique Janicaud (2001, 2005) has been one of the strongest voices urging phenomenology of religion to move beyond a kind of institutionalized Christian meditative form in which, for example, philosophical exploration comes down to serialized pious experiences of Eucharist, prayer, and meditative Christian joy. Such welcome calls (cf. Crockett 2014) to shake up the phenomenological guild for a ‘phenomenology wide open’ should not, however, tempt anyone looking in on these discussions to imagine that phenomenological readings of Paul are ‘done’—indeed, it is clear that they have hardly begun, which is why so many of them are still stuck in readings of Pauline texts with only the most limited awareness of the vibrant field of academic biblical scholarship. In addition to the meontological readings of Paul by Jean-Luc Marion (2012) and Stanislas Breton (2011), a sterling example of what remains possible might be taken from Didier Franck’s lucid rendering of Martin Heidegger’s interests in the epochs of politics and history in Nietzsche and the Shadow of God (2012). Franck unpacks Heidegger’s always provocative comments about the different phenomenological modes of life one can intuit from philosophical axioms in Presocratic, Classical Greek, Roman, and modern European contexts. Picking up on Heidegger’s interest in the way, say, Roman notions of truth and falsehood mirror an imagined Roman experience of sovereignty, Franck then rethinks Nietzsche’s effort to outdo Paul’s notion of resurrection life with the doctrine of eternal recurrence. In doing so, Franck shows how it is necessary to read Nietzsche in the history of interpretation not only of Paul but of the cultures of the Roman Empire, or even as part of a modern European’s own emerging sense of sovereignty and life. Franck’s work is invaluable even as it is also clear that his remarkable interdisciplinary conversation takes leave of academic biblical scholarship at the time of, say, Julius Wellhausen. Biblical scholars often underestimate the steep learning curve which is the cost of pathbreaking historical (and therefore comparative) engagement with Paul, and one wonders what contemporary academic institutions have the vision and capacity to support and instigate agenda setting of new forms of comparative research. As Franck’s work makes clear, at stake will be new modes of phenomenological exploration, from Paul to Nietzsche and beyond, if we are to integrate such studies more elaborately within the history of interpretation of politics, including more recent explorations of Pauline texts in relation to Roman imperial rhetoric. As Franck argues (and we must mention here also Abed Azzam’s important work, Nietzsche Versus Paul, 2015), the question is, simply, how we hear these thinking bodies amidst all their intensities of life—surely a question which neither history nor philosophy would want to ignore. Agata Bielik-Robson presses the issue when she draws phenomenology and history together in the claim that we must be willing to rethink traditions of philosophy as forms of ‘messianic vitalism’ (2019).

As a reader of Paul, Kant could have distinguished Pauline arguments about nomos and pistis from similar topics about living laws, self-determining or free sophoi, and servile forms of obedience in other ancient thinkers like Cicero or Seneca. As we have seen, Kant tended instead to find isomorphic structures of categorical distinctions at work in these philosophers and in Paul. As Jorunn Økland (2009) points out, the tendency to find in Paul formal categories of intellectual history is a strong one—it is another way of sequestering our play of comparative thought—and it is perhaps no surprise that recent readings of Paul in terms of Stoic formalisms have sometimes like Kant been attracted to these formalisms as a potentially fruitful ground of comparison in light of contemporary questions of cosmopolitanism (e.g., Engberg Pedersen 2000, 2011). The Kantian shadow is certainly on centre stage in such wonders. One could also compare Kant’s powerful comparative tableaux to the way John Rawls’s works on political liberalism remain haunted by Rawls’s understanding of the nature of Paul’s ‘conversion’, either indirectly in his discussion of the public sphere or through his Brief Inquiry into the Meaning of Sin and Faith (2009). To stay with Kant, recall that he links all the formalized ancient texts together—Paul and Seneca, etc.—as an example of the ‘revolution’ Christianity still ‘calls’ for today, even as he can also declare that all ‘revolution’ against inherited authority must be not merely ‘external’ but ‘internal’—a matter of conversionist self-transformation. In formalizing or universalizing the comparative links, Kant articulated a powerful analogical ‘resonance machine’ (to borrow from William Connolly’s Deleuzean approach to intellectual history) from which post-Kantian philosophy would never escape (Connolly 2008). Kant makes Pauline topics interchangeable with Enlightenment, revolutionary experiences of self-reliant democracy, and a conversionist story of modern revolutions in lifestyle. For example, it is in this tradition that Slavoj Žižek spoke, very self-consciously, when he declared that anyone wanting to attain a freely self-grounding or radically democratic life stance must, ‘in all seriousness, undergo the Christian experience’ (Žižek 2003). This conversion would also be one which foments a new self-reliant or democratic agency in which—as Žižek would proclaim with the energy of Good News to the Occupy Wall Street movement at Zucotti Park—we are the real Christians, who have no guarantees but ourselves! (Žižek 2011) Another living law, in Kantian style, thundering from Sinai.

3. Revolutions of Amplified Life

A second simple example affording another initial clue about why it is unwise to underestimate this ‘resonance machine’ operating between philosophy and the reception of Paul emerges when we compare Kant to someone who took up a more radically antagonistic rhetorical stance against Pauline Christianity, Friedrich Nietzsche. Even the young Nietzsche could excoriate European Christianity, and Kant as a European Christian par excellence, without calling into question shared rhythms or dynamics of experience about the emancipatory or life-giving release of energies made available through a conversionist or transformative turn away from calculation or instrumental behaviour. Again, the energies of grace, gift, and trust make themselves felt most acutely in the step back from what is imagined as calculating or instrumental activity. In his early work of cultural critique in The Birth of Tragedy Out of the Spirit of Music (1872), for example, Nietzsche weaves together a potted mythos of a transformative ‘fantastic exuberance of life’ which is—yet again—discovered in exceptional moments of bracketing out of the usual structures of calculation, measurement, work-and-wage, for an experience which becomes in turn more rapturous and exhilarating (Nietzsche 1993: 23). The resonance machine linking philosophy and the interpretation of Paul is one in which our highest or most exemplary experiences (Abraham Maslow might call them ‘peak experiences’ whereas Kant speaks of the mobilizing and world-transforming energies of majesty and awe) appear like a sacred holiday from everyday calculation.

Like Kant, Nietzsche sometimes speaks of this transformative stepping back from everyday rationality to something more transformative and profound in the language of a stepping back from that ‘I’ in whose name we usually speak. If the everyday ‘I’ is a calculating, instrumental measurer of causes and beneficial effects, Nietzsche points towards another experience which he links to a temporary conversionist departure from this everyday I, resulting in what—despite his frequent criticisms of Christianity—becomes a new ‘gospel of world harmony’. In this gospel, ‘Now the slave is a free man. Now all the rigid and hostile boundaries that distress, despotism, or “impudent fashion” have erected between man [sic] and man break down’ (Nietzsche 1993: 16–17). Like Kant, Nietzsche swerves in and out of various archives without ever leaving the orienting frame of the history of Paulinism. For Nietzsche, the calculating or instrumentally determined ‘I’ becomes associated with the mythic figure of Apollo, that shrewd measurer of the technical constructions of artistic beauty. Nietzsche’s gospel, in turn, becomes associated with divine self-forgetfulness and rapturous energy he associated with stories of Dionysus. Moreover, just like Kant’s sublime and awe-inspiring experience of oneself as free giver of law, for Nietzsche the move from a calculating or measuring Apollonian life to the rapturously energizing self-forgetfulness of Dionysus could also be imagined as that enchanted moment in which one is both the subject and object of an event of creation. As Nietzsche writes:

Singing and dancing, man [sic] expresses himself as a member of a higher community; he has forgotten how to walk and talk, and is about to fly dancing into the heavens. His gestures express enchantment. Just as the animals now speak, and the earth yields up milk and honey, he now gives voice to supernatural sounds: he feels like a god, he himself now walks about enraptured and elated as he saw the gods walk in dreams. Man is no longer an artist, he has become a work of art.

(Nietzsche 1993: 17–18)

Salvation, joyful reconciliation, and inventive self-transformation, occur when one says adieu to everyday measurements and calculations, risking an alternative which approaches necessarily as an uncertainty of excitation and anxiety. Such scenes are crucial to remember when considering Nietzsche’s sustained criticisms of Christianity, and of the apostle Paul very specifically, elsewhere in Nietzsche’s writings. In such other texts, Nietzsche sometimes develops blistering attacks on Paul which frequently find the apostle’s writings to be, precisely, a calculating and instrumental ideology, the apostle as founder of institutional Christianity. In these parts of the Nietzschean critique, heavenly reward, or visions of eventual beatitude, become a kind of enormous calculation inciting our investment in, if not in the world as it is, at least in a fantasized world beyond or to come. In any case, Paulinism—which Nietzsche famously glossed as a pop Platonism, a ‘Platonism for the masses’—becomes for him a monstrous and perverse form of calculation by which, for example, the weak might in some sweet by and by, outdo the powerful (cf. Blanton 2014: Preface and 1–38). Philosopher Peter Sloterdijk (2012) speaks of Nietzsche as imagining great ‘rage banks’ for the disaffected, cultural sites in which they might store up a kind of cash reserve which would—in a life to come—become the down payment to fund the creation of a new world. Sloterdijk’s framing of Nietzsche in relation to Paul is an apt one, in my opinion, in the sense that it highlights the way, for Nietzsche, Paul was always a great calculator, a hyper-instrumentalizer even of all the pointless suffering of the world. Paul was, on this reading, the one to economize it all relentlessly. It also shows why Sloterdijk consistently links this tradition to traditions of Left Marxism and, in fact, to recent appropriations of Paul by philosophers like Badiou and Žižek.

In reading Paul this way, of course, Nietzsche only underwrites his commitment to the structures of exceptional bracketing of calculation which we have identified and which frequently drive the elective affinities (or ‘resonance machine’) between philosophers and Paulinists. Cutting himself off from the overflowing life of self-forgetful and transformative experience, Nietzsche’s now ‘priestly’—or strategically calculating—Paul is presented as someone who transforms all history into a fantasy of calculation whereby the surprising and free gift of life is sacrificed to the apotheosis of a technics of measurement. In his later Anti-Christ essay (1895), for example, Nietzsche condemns Paul as the one, precisely, who submits the name God to the specifics of his own instrumental or calculating ‘will’: ‘to call one’s own will God’ (Nietzsche 1990: 175). Nietzsche’s criticism of Paulinism as an elevation of ‘sin’ is the same critique in another form, as once one sacrifices the singular calling (as Kant might have put it) to be a free co-creator of oneself as a work of art, one becomes obsessed with obedience to a given state of affairs.

If Kant gave us a Paul who pointed to the possibility of transformative freedom against the backdrop of a permanent temptation to fall back into instrumental calculation, Nietzsche’s writings indicate a similar structure of redemption against the backdrop of a Paulinism which comes to be another name of a calculatingly self-serving Christian institutionalism. More recently, for example, Stathis Gourgouris revives the Nietzschean critique against what Nietzsche imagined as a ‘priestly’ Paul, focusing on the way Paul (and a contemporary politics imprinted with these inherited structures of experience) seems obsessed with refusing, controlling, and dominating the stranger, the open-endedness of life, and the lack of a unifying rational order (Gourgouris 2019). For all their intensive differences, Kant and Nietzsche make the unlikely odd couple in this respect, another clue about the sheer breadth of the philosophico-Pauline ‘resonance machine’ (cf. Blanton and de Vries 2014: Introduction). We might even say that Nietzsche’s reading of Dionysian/gospel transformation being sacrificed for the stabilization of institutional life and dogmatic certainty is one of the key ways in which philosophy helped to fuel the modern life of the Paul story as an originally transformative experience sacrificed for the life of the institution, the system of ideas or rules. Once we begin to realize that, in this ‘resonance machine’, politics, art, history, and nations are all susceptible to the same tragic tale of lost or repressed ‘originary’ possibility, then we begin to touch upon the profound significance of these Pauline and philosophical tropes. Among other things, to recall both Kant and Nietzsche, we are touching upon their constitutive susceptibility to ‘revolution’ in the inherited routines and concepts of life. We are also exploring—as the Pauls of Pasolini’s Screenplay (2014) or Badiou’s Incident at Antioch (2013) make particularly clear—whether large-scale transformations are spontaneously unplanned, artistic, and experimental or whether they are calculating, persecutorial, and therefore violent.

4. Scholarship as Tracking Social Movements

Putting things this way invites at least two important questions from us as genealogists of the Pauline and philosophical archives. First, where would we safely circumscribe a ‘Pauline’ problematic once we are talking about questions of sacrifice, enthusiastic life beyond everyday calculation, and community formations of trust giving birth to non-natural genealogies of solidarity? Secondly, where does the philosopher or hermeneut situate herself in relation to the question of counter-cultural freedom which seems to haunt these discussions? Elizabeth Castelli (2014) was one of the first scholars to call for a more sociological approach to the philosophical discussions of Paul, urging readers to situate the philosophers’ Paul in relation to other social movements of, say, global Christianity. It is certainly the case that, for example, the philosophy of Alain Badiou initially took root in North American academic contexts on the back of an initial translation of Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, first published in English in 2003. The book was a self-presentation of Alain Badiou’s own philosophy of the event mapped onto a reading of Paul the philosopher developed with interpretative interlocutors Ernst Käsemann and Stanislas Breton. The engaging little book crystallized and formalized some of the insights from Badiou’s earlier piece of political theatre about Paul, The Incident at Antioch (2003), which in turn took as an important conceptual and artistic inspiration the political screenplay for a film about Paul, Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Saint Paul: A Screenplay (2013). For Badiou’s Saint Paul book, the political legacy of Paul was clear, inasmuch as it presents a way of living outside the major political and cultural institutions (indeed, ‘at a distance from the state’) and thus by way of a form of direct action reliant only on the subjective or countercultural solidarity of the faithful. In passionate surprise at the exception to the rules of the ruling state of affairs (which Badiou reads rather traditionally and dogmatically as the surprise of Christ’s resurrection), the community backed only by pistis—grounded in the exception—arises with an invitation to all, precisely because their address is not reliant on the inherited divisions of ownership or right from a corrupted world order.

If the little book was a plea for politics at a distance from the state, it was also a way to inject new life into desires for a political movement of global (‘universal’) potential, particularly when that desire seemed ill suited to a European Left increasingly transforming itself into specific agendas of identity politics, haunted by fears of being an inconsequential museum piece, or plagued with memories of having become totalitarian and murderous versions of itself (cf. Bourg 2007; Badiou 2013; Johnson-Debaufre and Nasrallah 2011). Badiou may be read (it would be no criticism of him) as someone searching at that point for a new and newly energized ground for the would-be philosopher of freedom. That the atheist from France became, through Paul, such a philosopher in English-speaking contexts is (based on what we have already said) not really a surprise. Indeed, such tried and true dynamics of inversion, institutional challenge, and social transplantation around the Pauline philosophical legacy only highlight the predictability and generally unremarkable nature of those jeremiads (some by Badiou’s professional disciples, some by Badiou himself) about the ‘unfortunate’ misstep of the philosopher into Paulinism, how he regrets his Paulinist fame, and so on (cf. Blanton 2013). That Paul—and Badiou’s self-styling as a militant of a new Pauline militia Christi—conjured the audiences and readerships in the name of which Badiou came to be known in North America as ‘the greatest living French philosopher’ seemed to have become a kind of guilty or regrettable secret. (The same dynamic might be operative in Simon Critchley’s (2012) use of Paul to rectify a perceived ‘motivational deficit’ among the theoretically sophisticated staff and students at the New School of Social Research in New York City. The vibrant Pauline ‘faith of the faithless’ and visions of a new kind of activism soon enough gave way to a malaise about the earlier discussions, with his next books about illusion and suicide respectively.) Paul, it seems, affords a buzzy experience of a potential new and surprising social movement, but it tends to leave one with a comedown headache the next day. Such things are not merely incidental to the broader social dynamics we are describing. Here too the ‘resonance machine’ seems to be working more than ever, with an ‘originary’ Paulinism (of the surprise and life beyond cultural ‘law’) then tragically collapsing into an obstructive institutionalism or a misrecognition of the living movement the transformative revolution once was. The biblical archive affords not simply tableaux of new starts, new founding moments, world-changing transformations of souls—it also scripts our typical forms of coping with failure, dead-ends, and even political boredom. The aftermath of their Paulinist popularities seems, in this respect, even perfectly Lutheran or Reformational. One could say the same of the Slovenian ‘superstar’ of philosophy, Slavoj Žižek, whose popularity always had something to do with the anarchic, world-inverting aspect of Pauline tropes which always fuelled the allure in Žižek’s writings, linking them to his own status as a post-communist, North American ‘superstar’ academic who is that culture’s greatest critic (cf. Blanton 2013).

To date, since the interventions of Castelli and Økland, there has been too little comparative analysis of the social movements embedded in philosophical appropriations of Paul, and further work on these topics will constitute a mammoth interdisciplinary contribution with wide-ranging cultural implications. One exception is a study of the remarkable way a movement of social experimentation at a commune in Tarnac, France is—through the activist pamphlets of the Invisible Committee—perhaps the clearest living example of a group of activists thinking through the Paulinisms of a contemporary philosopher, in this case the philosopher Giorgio Agamben (Blanton 2016a, 2016b). In ways that remain to be explored within philosophy (much less sociology or history), Agamben’s Paulinism of a ‘messianic experience’ is a key organizing feature of his entire Homo Sacer trilogy (e.g., Agamben 2005, 2016; cf. Dickinson 2021). Wider ranging in its comparative palette than the analysis of the Invisible Committee and the ‘Tarnac affair’ is Peter Iver Kaufman’s (2019) compelling analysis of the experience of desperation and political crisis in Augustine, Arendt, and Agamben.

Historians of Paul have often complained about the lack of philosophical engagement with historiography of the ancient Mediterranean, which is a worthwhile point. At the same time, the stakes of these discussions also make it clear that it will not do, either, to remain historically and socially unthoughtful in our readings of the modern and contemporary Paulinisms (and anti-Paulinisms) of philosophy. Daniel Oudshoorn (2020), for one, usefully remaps Pauline studies in terms of activist stances or forms of political life, raising the question once more and for all of us about which institutions are fomenting, or, alternatively, obstructing illuminating hermeneutical comparativism. Fatima Tofighi (2018), similarly, has gone the farthest in mapping the reception history of Paulinism onto a political history of vexed masculinities. Finally, we must also mention the stellar recent advances made in the understanding of Jacob Taubes’s Political Theology of Paul lectures (2014). Martin Treml and Siegrid Weigel, for example, have engaged the recently published letters and papers of Jacob and Susan Taubes in order to show more clearly how some of the controversial associations of Taubes himself fuelled his interest in Pauline messianism (cf. Styfhals and Symons 2019). Ole Jakob Løland (2020) has done the most to integrate this work into the many discussions around Taubes’s use of Paul to combat the political theology of Carl Schmitt. More work is needed on all sides and, again, the question is which institutions can sustain the requisite risk and resources in order to achieve an advance.

5. Paul in the Age of Biopolitical Anxiety

The audacious and sometimes troublesome link between Paulinism and global politics established in the Kantian tableau is one of the reasons Daniel Colucciello Barber argues that any gestures towards the post-Christian in philosophy are empty without an accompanying reinvention of politics outside the register of a need for transformative conversion (Barber 2011; cf. Boyarin 2009; Peterson 2011; Svenungsson 2016). Occasionally this is also the gauntlet Peter Sloterdijk (2012, 2013a) lays down at the feet of those latter-day Christians, all those post-Marxist internationalist programmes of radical political change promising to inaugurate a new humanity and renewed world. Franz Rosenzweig’s (1970; orig. 1921) classic philosophical explorations of a resistance to conversion might also be mentioned in this context, particularly as he poses the question of a strangely ethnico-philosophical lineage imagined to be operative in Kant’s genealogy from the New Testament to a freely self-grounding internationalism (cf. Hollander 2008). More recently, Eric Santner (2011) and Kenneth Reinhard (in Žižek et al. 2013) have very interestingly read Rosenzweig in relation to recent philosophical fascination with Paul, both recent philosophers opposing in different ways the danger (and not simply a theoretical danger) of the desire for a kind of pure immanence. In opposing philosophical doctrines of immanence in Gilles Deleuze, for example, they articulate an alternative model which they explore as Judaism, as psychoanalysis—in any case an alternative to that answer to the conundrum of ‘Paul and the law’ they find at work in the Deleuzean tradition (Santner 2011, 2016).

While not always remembered this way, Jacques Derrida’s writings wrestle openly and transparently with the tempting interchangeability of Christian readings of Paul and post-Enlightenment gestures towards the generalizability of self-grounding or radically democratic thinking. Derrida can be read as someone who intensifies and (arguably) pluralizes the Kantian gestures towards a kingdom of ‘ends’ rather than ‘means’ even while he remains within the basic coordinates of the Kantian philosophy of freedom. In his rightly famous updating of (alongside G. W. F. Hegel and Henri Bergson) Kant’s philosophy of religion in Derrida’s own ‘Faith and Knowledge’ essay (2011), Derrida attempts to pluralize Kant’s basic mechanism linking technical, calculating activity to an experience of a ‘sacred’ freedom imagined as what is possible to sense when calculating activity ceases. This Kantian end in itself which exceeds, supersedes, or hyper-inflates calculating activity Derrida simply maps onto discussions of an ‘unlimited fetishism’, a pluralized variation of Kant’s kingdom of God as a kingdom of ends rather than means (Derrida 2011: 84). In this new kingdom we respect the freedom of desire as a revelation of possibility even as we caution ourselves and others against the tendency to denigrate and sacrifice life in order to touch upon the hyper-real (or ‘fetishistic’) which is likewise ineradicable. Derrida’s work comes full circle to the Kantian coordinates when Derrida, also, maps this formal structure of experience onto the question of the globalization of religion as a new kind of ‘“reflecting faith”’ and ‘new “tolerance”’ (Derrida 2011: 52f.). That, in turn, Derrida’s updating of this dynamic mechanism between calculating life and its ‘surplus’ in ‘fetishism’ is glossed—yet again—as a Pauline reference to the cultural dynamics of ‘circumcision of the heart’ (Derrida 2011: 85) only Paulinizes the whole structure yet again, something Theodore Jennings explores at length in his two books (2005, 2013) on Paul and Derrida as two thinkers relentlessly driven by a desire for ‘justice beyond law’. Beyond a simple matter of intellectual history, the comparative point here would brush up against something like comparative drives, energies, and structures of aspiration linking Derrida to Paul, which was perhaps already the issue Kant’s writings were attempted to flag up for philosophical and biblical reflection.

Derrida was also one of the more recent philosophers who—in ‘Faith and Knowledge’ and elsewhere—relentlessly raised the question of the structural or even ‘machinic’ complicity of the drive to ‘salvation’ (a security beyond calculation) and a potentially violent desire to escape (or sacrifice, or destroy) the determined, scripted contexts of life which give rise to the desire for redemption, or escape, in the first place (Naas 2012). Derrida liked to write, in a borrowed term which has become a widespread meme within philosophical circles, of the risk of a kind of ‘autoimmune’ response in which a body’s efforts to rid itself of an irritation or threat themselves threaten the organism’s life. For our purposes, it is crucial to note for the cultural history of these interdisciplinary discussions that this basic structural paradox in which the very idea of redeemed life—however one construes it—gives birth to anxieties of threat is a paradox which has become the central comparative touchstone between Paul and contemporary philosophy. That fact in itself calls for further genealogical work whereby we might diagnose this state of affairs, as one might say that this is a tradition which fears that its Paulinism will kill it, even as it seems to think that some form of its Paulinism is its only hope. For now we note in this respect only the overwhelmingly dominant presence, in philosophical readings of Paul, of gestures towards Romans 7 or gestures towards the tradition of the ‘katechon myth’ in relation to the reception history of 1 and 2 Thessalonians.

In both cases, the most salient philosophical issues are imagined to be a question of ‘biopolitics’ in the sense that the imperative to make live becomes indistinguishable from, in some sense, a making die (cf. Fletcher 2009; Vatter 2014). One could perhaps already see the dynamic at work in Kant in the sense that one sometimes wonders whether the freedom to determine the good could quite show itself as such without needing in some sense to humiliate, denigrate, to render worthless all those instrumental inducements to the good which, says Kant, must not lure us away from freedom. Such, for example, was Jacques Lacan’s provocative diagnosis of Kant (in the psychoanalyst’s leadup to a discussion of Romans 7): Kant is a kind of crypto-Sadist (Lacan 1992: 71–86). Broader historical genealogies of such philosophemes, for example in Michel Foucault or Foucault’s interpreters like Giorgio Agamben, raised the question about how the history of European thought concerning autonomy or self-grounding, self-energizing life might be linked also to horrors like the way Nazism fantasized that unprecedented murder might be another name for the enhancement of Aryan capacities for life. Modernity’s archive of killing to make live does not, of course, end there. Somewhere between the specifics of Susannah Heschel’s careful analysis of Nazi reception of Paul, the generally self-congratulatory rhetoric, say, of the New Perspective on Paul, and the implicit faith in life beyond law among our neoliberal free marketeers, a strange new research agenda emerges—to remap and come to grips with the Paulinisms which are killing us (cf. Heschel 2014; Dean and Villadsen 2016; Benyamini 2012).

Pier Paolo Pasolini’s (2014) rendering of Paul, for example, sometimes explores a paranoia in which, within capitalist consumerist contexts, the very inducement to enhance life beyond inherited cultural limits might not itself be a force more malevolent than the original ‘repression’ culture had earlier imposed. When Pasolini fears that a post-repressive drive to self-enhancement ‘beyond law’ might be a form of suicide through other means, then the ‘biopolitical’ problem and the question of Paul and the law have found themselves at a peculiar secret sharing. Similarly, Slavoj Žižek’s remarkably common use of themes about Paul and the law—many of which he inherits from the psychoanalytic archive—tends to explore similar terrain, sometimes leading us towards reflection on the sacrificial violence embedded, say, in humanitarian universalisms, sometimes demanding readers face up to the real sacrifices, or even political violence, they will need to accept in order to address the problem of consumerism or the climate crisis (cf. Žižek 2006: 35–59, 273–287; Žižek 1999: 127–170). Of cultural theorists and philosophers, perhaps no one has done more than Concetta Principe’s book, Secular Messiahs and the Return of Paul’s ‘Real’ (2015), to establish a more rigorous comparativism between these modern themes and historical Paul research, and in doing so she has been able to develop a more synthetic and wide-reaching diagnosis of why Paul has returned, precisely, as a figure of crisis operative between a desire for freedom and the inheritance of cultural limits. Similarly, Laurence Welborn’s Paul’s Summons to Messianic Life (2015) brings to these discussions an unprecedented comparative sophistication by which he is able to paint a broader cultural backdrop for Paul’s talk of death-dealing crisis in ostensibly life-giving nomos, a phenomenon Welborn is therefore able to situate well outside the hackneyed Lutheran formalisms of some philosophical readings of morbid tropes of death-dealing at work within life-giving institutions and impulses. Principe, Welborn, and others like Benjamin Dunning (2014) are opening the door to a more embedded analysis of the singular rather than generic or merely formal intertwining of emancipatory desire and sacrificial violence in this tradition, and a great deal more needs to be done.

One could not move on from the topic of a formal dialectic between law and life-enhancement over against violent sacrifice and death-dealing without mentioning the (frequently Pauline) trilogy of philosophy for an age of biopolitical anxiety by Roberto Esposito. His books, Bios (2008), Communitas (2009), and Immunitas (2011) organize a panoply of modern political philosophers from Machiavelli to Deleuze as variations of Paul’s exploration of a tragic inversion of life into transgression, guilt, and death. What Esposito offers in the way of the tragic impasse is in keeping with a widespread fascination among Italian philosophers with a kenotic Pauline divinity affording—through Pauline weakness and a revaluation of criminality—the philosophy of a ‘weak ontology’ without power (or private ownership) relying only on the mindful collective affirmations arising in democratic, which is to say weak, self-reliance. Esposito speaks of a philosophy of an ‘affirmative’ (rather than violently self-protective or negating) ‘biopolitics’. Like Gianni Vattimo and Santiago Zabala in their Hermeneutic Communism (2014), Esposito consistently spices his work with suggestions that this move beyond aggressive or sacrificial logics has something to do with the insights of a Pauline tradition modernized through Luther and Heidegger. The move invites reflection on how philosophy itself might move away from the sole focus on intensely (and also formally) Lutheran contradictions and dualisms within the Pauline writings towards a more nuanced exploration of the vibrant or ‘singular’ experiments in communal living discernible within the Pauline texts (Blanton 2017). It may be that a kind of anarchist Paulinism might function as cure for the persecutorial and reactionary tendencies so often associated with the very same tradition. Taylor Weaver (2021) takes up a different approach in a study entitled The Scandal of Community by reframing Esposito’s stories of Paul and kenotic community within a more richly detailed historical account of practices of money collection and communal ideology in the Pauline letters.

As Arthur Bradley’s Unbearable Life: A Genealogy of Political Erasure (2014) makes clear, it is difficult to overemphasize the significance of reflection on the so-called ‘katechon myth’ in recent philosophical efforts to deal with the so-called biopolitical problem. At stake is a similar paradox as was at work in philosophical renderings of Romans 7, namely, how a sovereign force of security or salvation must in some sense fail or risk the sacrifice of everything it intended to save in the first place. As Bradley or as Marc de Wilde make clear, the political, theological, and historical issues related to the reception history of 1, 2 Thessalonians concerning the parousia and the ‘suppression’ of the lawless one as a kind of deferral of salvation, are vast and beyond our scope here (see de Wilde 2014). But this is only to say that many analyses remain to be written about the numerous reasons the katechon myth hits a nerve for political philosophers. Nowhere are these nervous historical linkages more intriguing than in the philosophical reflection of two-time mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, whose Withholding Power (2018) uses the tradition to rethink power and pragmatism within Europe in relation to a more radical redemptive desire to transform the horizon of pragmatic activity.

6. Openings onto New ‘Spiritual Exercises’

Pierre Hadot (2008) once signalled a mysterious imperative or compulsion within philosophy, art, and religion by evoking Goethe’s ‘do not forget to live!’, a singular admonition (Kant would say calling) to hit on a sense of surplus life which energizes, elevates, or intensifies life and, in a manner of speaking, makes life worth living. Tracing a genealogy from Graeco-Roman philosophy and early Christianity to the strangely ‘mystical’ drive to repeat-and-intensify which he found in Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of a ‘game’ or in Michel Foucault’s late interest in parrhesia or riskily transformative speech, this ‘exercise’ was never far for Hadot from a biblical and theological archive (cf. Hadot 2004). Peter Sloterdijk (2013b) picks up the Pauline thread in the archive of self-transformation in his radical expansion of Hadot’s agenda in You Must Change Your Life! On Anthropotechnics. Finally, Catharine Malabou’s philosophical work on contemporary questions of self-transformation (from What Should We Do With Our Brains? (2008) to The New Wounded: From Neurosis to Brain Damage (2012)) goes back to her engagement with the way Hegel read Kant, and early Christianity as well, as efforts to appropriate divine and human energies and capacities into a single self-transforming story of culture, pairing Paul’s sometimes kenotic Christology to being’s openness in futurity and therefore to its constitutive openness to the self-transformation ekstasis of desire for ‘sublated’ life (Malabou 2005). Malabou calls this archival linkage the space of a philosophical ‘plasticity’ or philosophical openness to self-transformation (cf. Lynch 2019; Dickinson 2018). With biopolitics, spiritual exercise, and plasticity, we may find ourselves with useful names for an interdisciplinary hermeneutic increasingly mindful of itself as—for better or worse—a form of transformative engagement with the ideas, desire, histories, and institutions our work inhabits.

Suggested Reading

Regarding the themes discussed above, on political theology in general see especially Newman 2019, and on biopolitics Ojakangas 2016. Important, recent readings of Paul in relation to contemporary philosophy include Blanton 2014, Løland 2020, Principe 2015, Wariboko 2021, and Welborn 2015.


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Žižek, S. (2011). ‘Slavoj Žižek at Occupy Wall Street, Oct 9, 2011’.

Žižek, S., Reinhard, K., and Santner, E. L. (2013). The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).Find this resource: