Who Is Making Trouble for Universalism Again?
By Laurent Cohen | 04/11/2010
Paul of Tarsus is revived to a renewed, surprising and worry-inducing life in the books of some of the Europe's contemporary active philosophers. Laurent Cohen looks into the ideas of the neo-Paulists of today
illustration: Udi Gindi
Paul of Tarsus is considered one of the most radical founders of religion known to humanity. In the course of his relatively short life – he was born in 10 CE in what is today Turkey, and apparently died in Rome in 64 CE – Paul succeeded in giving his mystical experiences meanings and expressions that became the basis on which the Christian faith was founded. It is reasonable to assume that if it had not been for Paul, the beliefs that arose around the figure of Jesus would have become only another stream of Judaism, another one of the sects heralding the apocalypse and the messianic groups that rose up in Palestine 2000 years ago. But the appearance of Paul, his energetic missionary activity, his literary talents (recognized in his epistles included in the New Testament), and his abilities to combine esoteric sayings with organizational considerations, turned the modest group that believed in Jesus into the Christian church, that is, into an enormous and boundless religious and political power.
In the history of ideas, Paul's name is linked to extreme vicissitudes. The founder of Christianity was born a Jew, and educated in Mosaic Law. He even tended to slander Jesus' first followers and to encourage their persecution. And he continued this activity until his mid-30s, when, on his way to Damascus (where, according to the story in the New Testament, he planned to lead the struggle against Jesus' students) he underwent an experience described in the New Testament and in the Christian literature as a revelation of the crucified. From that day on, Paul declared a new spiritual age. If we try to briefly put a finger on the main characteristics of this age, we can say first and foremost that Paul determined that from now on, the "old Law," i.e. the Torah, would be replaced by belief in the death and rebirth of Jesus. Although Paul knew well that this idea would be received as scandalous by "Jew" and "Greek" alike (or, in the words of Paul himself: "But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness," I Corinthians 1:23), he did not hesitate to base – or, more accurately, to claim that he was basing – the new faith on Biblical verses. Paul says, for example, "Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures" and "That he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures" (Ibid 15:2-3).
In the fascinating book by Israeli-French scholar Dan Jaffé, Jésus sous la plume des historiens juifs du XXè siècle, published in Paris in 2009, we read how the great Jewish philosophers of the modern age tended to emphasize Jesus' Judaism. They viewed Paul as the decisive factor in the process of separating original Judaism from the community that gave rise to the Catholic religion. In previous generations, Zvi (Heinrich) Graetz and Joseph Klausner, for example, linked Paul directly to the experience of negating the Torah commandments. Paula Fredriksen, who teaches history of religion at Boston University, states that the Jesus about whom Paul writes in his epistles, is not the "earthly" Jesus, i.e. the Jewish Jesus, but rather, the "resurrected Christ."
In effect, there is at least one point of agreement between Christians and Jews, namely that it was Paul who founded the world Church. And if we think in terms only of the last two decades, we must say that Paul has enjoyed an unusual reincarnation in the books of some contemporary European philosophers, to the point where he has reassumed the role of a figure that cannot be overlooked in the field of contemporary philosophy.
The revolution and the "new man"
It seems that in the wake of modern-age attempts to bury religion in the trash bins of history, the question of the encounter between philosophy and theology is resurfacing. It should be immediately emphasized that the "issue of Paul of Tarsus" which the focus of this article, is only one aspect – albeit impressive – of this renewed encounter. Moreover, it very well may be that the revival of the religious matter at the heart of the philosophical discourse is one of the outstanding theoretical characteristics of our post-modern age.
This phenomenon has many faces. To name just a few: the importance in the present intellectual arena of the works of Franz Rosenzweig, Emmanuel Levinas, Paul Ricoeur, and others. This fact attests to the opening of the borders between faith and reason, between ethics and metaphysics, and between humanism and hermeneutics. Beyond the philosophical realm, it is also important to state that in contrast with the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the barriers erected between esthetics and religion – or between the arts and religious motifs, are much less hermetic, and are even erased in certain cases. For example, the prominent journal, "Ligne de risque," issued in Paris since 1997, might present in a single volume poetry and mysticism, the arts of the novel and spirituality, and offer articles about Gertrude Stein, early Shi'ism, the poetry of Lautréamont, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, T.S. Elliot, Gnostic writings, Martin Heidegger, and the like.
The very significant presence of Paul the Apostle, then, in intellectual discourse, is nothing more than additional evidence of the return of the monotheistic religions and its heroes to European thought. But what form does the interest in religion assume, and who are the thinkers that encourage and even cultivate renewed and excited curiosity towards Paul of Tarsus, a figure who, until not long ago, the secular intellectual tended to identify with the most reactionary dimensions of Church tradition? Since the spiritual status – or validity – of the Jewish people is so central to Paul's epistles, let us also consider the theoretical implications of the neo-Pauline phenomenon on Jews in the State of Israel.
First of all, we would not be exaggerating if we stated that the Pauline motif has become one of the strongest expressions of the “philosophically correct.” As for the question, “What is philosophically correct?” one might give a dualistic answer, and say that it is both a given philosophical matter that gives rise to tremendous quantities of publications, essays, interpretations, doctoral dissertations, international conferences, as well as a specific understanding, i.e. a very particular understanding of this same matter. The “philosophically correct” is therefore, in effect, just another name for an “intellectual fashion” and in the case of Paul, it is a fashion that pretends to be the embodiment of the avant-garde of freedom, equality, and brotherhood, and in the same breath, does not hesitate to present its contenders as lovers of subjugation, negligence and hatred. A like example is the world of clothing, for example, where fashion does not stop at setting one line or another, marking those that do not heed it or forcibly associating them with the camp of the past, the outdated, the ugly or the blind; in short, it relocates them to the camp of the dark. Of course, this becomes much more problematic the moment we are talking about ideas, or philosophical or theological concepts, rather than bathing suits or shoe companies.
Israeli readers have access to Itzhak Benyamini's book, Paul and the Birth of Sons´ Community − An Investigation into the Foundations of Christianity with Freud and Lacan (Resling 2007, in Hebrew), where they can discover some of the founding ideas of Western neo-Paulism. Through his fastidious analyses relating to Paul the Catholic, such as baptism and the Lord's Supper, Benyamini formulates extremely interesting concepts and, among other things, presents the “new” human community of which Paul dreamt, as a “narcissistic community.” At the same time, the popes of the Pauline wave sweeping over Europe, are not really known in Israel – only in closed academic circles and among those close to the neo-Marxist European left, which condemns the State of Israel, among other reasons, as a “colonialist” “artificial” entity in the heart of the Middle East.
Alain Badiou, for example, of whose books only one has been translated into Hebrew (its English edition is entitled Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, transl. by Peter Hallward, New York: Verso, 2000), was perceived as one of the major philosophers, or at least, in the eyes of the media, of our day. Recently, one of his essays that became the bestseller The Meaning of Sarkozy (translated into Hebrew in 2007 and published in English by Verso, 2008), compares French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy and his government to the Vichy government, which collaborated with Nazi Germany. Badiou's main work, which is on Paul (published in 1997 and released in Hebrew in 2003 and English in that same year under the title: Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, transl. Ray Brassier; Stanford: Stanford University Press) and has since come out in numerous editions and translations, is considered the theoretical foundation on which neo-Paulism rests. In all probability, Giorgio Agamben, who in 2006 won the Prix européen de l'essai Charles Veillon, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in Europe, is better known to the Israeli reader. His classic work, Remnants of Auschwitz (New York: Zone Books, 2000, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazin) was published in Hebrew (trans. Maya Katzir, 2007) and his philosophy can be found at the heart of Professor Vivian Liska's new book, Giorgio Agamben's Empty Messianism (Hameshichut ha'rikah shel Giorgio Agamben, Tel Aviv, trans. Roi Bar, Resling, 2010). In any case, Agamben, about ten years ago, wrote a long and in-depth commentary on the “Epistle to the Romans,” one of Paul's most radical writings. In a manner similar to Badiou, who writes on the “burning” of the Christian evangelist and on the urgency to return to his writings, Agamben believes, in his commentary whose English title is The Time that Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, trans. Patricia Dailey (2005), that “Paul's works and our period planned some kind of secret rendezvous that we absolutely must not miss.”
The Revolution according to Paul
Some of the representatives of neo-Paulinism rose up in the circles of revolutionary philosophy, and from utopian socialism according to one version or another. Although most of them are atheist, they view the man who should be considered the true founder of the Christian religion (as a mystical body, but also as a political force) as their guide and as an absolute rebel. The famous book of French philosopher BernardSichère, former leader of an extremist group called "Groupe Foudre d'interventionmarxiste-léniniste dans l'art et la culture" ("Lightening Group for Marxist-Leninist intervention in art and culture") is called, Lejourestproche: La révolution selonPaul ("The Day draws Nigh: The Revolution According to Paul.")
Alain Badiou is also counted among the outstanding figures of French Maoism, but in contrast to most of the radical activists of the 1960s and 70s (including Benny Lévy), who came to clear ideological conclusions from the "tangible" communism of the Soviet Union and China, Badiou continues to compose poems of praise dedicated to the "communist wisdom." In the same vein, he also believes that democracy is nothing more than a "propaganda tool" in the hands of capitalism. Therefore, one shouldn't be surprised that the apostle Paul is praised in Badiou's writings, and described as a "progressive" and an "activist." Badiou crown's Paul with countless epithets from the treasury of revolutionary expressions. Among other things, he symbolizes, in Badiou's words, the "militant figure" par excellence.
At this stage, we must ask precisely what struggle and what revolution are the under discussion in the neo-Paulists' books? In his essay, "Saint Paul" (2006 edition), the philosopher Claude Transmontagne asserts that "Paul wants to herald the coming of the new man." By way of clarification, he adds that: "The man of old was entirely earthly, rooted in the earth, and this first humanity is animal-like, coming from the world of life, while the second humanity – that is, the second man – comes from the heavenly realm." In the original context of the New Testament, it should be noted, Paul's words about the "new man" as a creature that is entirely a "spiritual body," are vague and enigmatic. For example, in I Corinthians (15:40), he writes, "There are also celestial bodies, and bodies terrestrial: but thegloryof the celestial is one, and thegloryof the terrestrial is another." And yet, in the post-modern interpretation of Paul's epistles, the meaning emerges in socio-political terms. Indeed, for the activist of the 21st century who believes that the future growth of humanity depends on erasure of all differences, borders, identities and communities, the "new man" embodies the "truly universal man." This point is exceedingly important: it leads to a negation of the "law," perceived as a particularistic, "tribal" mechanism that erects walls between people, determining norms, rights and obligations. On the other hand, it explains why Paul was perceived by these philosophical streams as the most passionate advocate of a humanity that has no more "difference," and in which all religious, national, and gender identities have disappeared in favor of the only possible identity, i.e. human identity itself.
The most extreme manifestations of this vision can be found in Paul's words, including "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female" (Galatians 3:28) and "There is no difference between the Jew and the Greek" (Romans 10:12). In the eyes of Bernard Sichère, then, Paul is a "militant of the truth," since his philosophy encompasses "the very essence of humanity, and the definition of man to himself, underwent a transformation" (Lejourestproche: La révolution selonPaul, p. 37, 119).
Here, it would be prudent to recall that according to Paul, in other words, in his epistles included in the New Testament, the "Jew" is the archetype of the "man of old." Why? Since the Jew sees himself as part of the national collective, and since this collective exists based on the revealed law (i.e. the Torah). Since the "Jew" holds fast his specific identity, he can only isolate himself and "separate" himself from the collective identity, setting him apart from the rest of humanity. Therefore, for over five hundred years, Christian anti-Semitism was based on Paul, and claimed that the "Jew" was a "stumbling block" in the way of the "new' humanity, precisely as today, Alain Badiou does not hesitate to say that the "Jewish state" is an impediment to world peace. This is because the Israelis insist with blind intransigence on their special identity, on the name "Israel," rather than blending in with the general collective of the Middle East. In an absolute sense, after Paul's gospel to the new, united humanity erased all difference (that is, diversity) its midst, the Jew became superfluous, zealous, racist, or an insignificant fossil.
As is known, Paul's "Jewish" name was Saul, and it should be noted that for the philosophers under discussion here, the move from "Saul" to "Paul" is an ontological transformation, a complete existential reincarnation. Agamben, for example, says that one can relate to the name "Paul" as to a "messianic nickname," while Sichère writes, "Deep down, Paul is upholding the meta-historical mutation that is killing the first Jew in order to give birth to the new man; this is apparently the significance of his name change." In order to be born, Paul (i.e. the "new man") had to assassinate Saul – in other words, the "old man," the "congregational man," or in Sichère's words, "the first Jew." The dangerous potential inherent in logic of this type can be easily measured. Of course, Sichère's students, Badiou and others, will respond that it is only a "symbolic assassination" or a homicide of identity, and not true bloodshed. Perhaps. In any case, it remains that the Jew, and his Judaism, are directly tied to the idea of death.
Following from dozens of quotes by Paul, Badiou emphasizes that on the theoretical level, the particularistic law (i.e. the Torah) is the "path of death": "From now on," i.e. after the Pauline gospel of universal man, "the law becomes one of the names of death," writes Badiou explicitly. The reason for this is that every "law" serves a specific "identity," a singular community, meaning that the "law" is essentially "anti-universal," and if so, it can generate only violence, discrimination, xenophobia or mockery of the humanity that lies outside it. Or in other words: since it is always sectoral, the "law" constitutes, from a humanist and universalist perspective, a cause of "death," that serves here as a synonym for "separation," "factionalism," an "identity locked within itself," and the like.
Indeed, Badiou believes that the only policy that can emerge from the "identity" is a "warring and murderous policy, like Nazism,"; and this enables him, in other texts in which he prophesies with great pleasure the end of the "Zionist entity" to claim that the use made of the name "Jewish" in the Jewish State renders it in practice to a "racist state." For Badiou, every "community statement" leads to disaster. He even substantiates using clear examples: "It is not an exaggeration to say that statements such as "only a homosexual can understand what it is to be a homosexual," or "only an Arab can know what it is to be an Arab," are completely barbaric statements." As opposed to "collective statements" of this type, Badiou brings the words of Paul, including, "For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit" (I Corinthians 12:13). In conclusion, Badiou claims that Paul is a "founding figure," since he is "one of the first theoreticians of universalism."
Of course, Badiou's work all rests on clear methodological "principles" which some of his critics prefer to call "distortions," that in any case, are difficult to ignore.
For example, for Éric Marty: essayist, expert on modern French literature, and author of the book: Une Querelle avec AlainBadiou,philosophe, the philosophical system that emerges from Badiou's works is a "disturbingly strange philosophic carnival." Among other things, Marty emphasizes, the State of Israel is described in Badiou's books as an "anti-Semitic state," "Claude Lanzmann's film, Shoah, becomes a Nazi film," "the true Jew is a person who abandons the name 'Jewish,' the real Jew is a Palestinian, St. Paul, Badiou himself."
As for Badiou's reading of Paul's epistles, we must state that he is completely selective, rendering him theologically and scientifically worthless. How does this "textual selection" take place? The answer is simple: Badiou "forgets" to state that Paul replaces the Jewish/Torah-based particularism and the Greek-philosophical particularism with a third particularism that is irrational, and even absurd in the eyes of both Jew and Greek alike, namely, the belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus. This key component of the Pauline gospel does not interest Badiou. As a result of this intentional apathy, his interpretations and analyses become subjective, a partial reading, and in short, an ideological project.
The most prominent – and vulgar – expression of this can be found in Badiou's very use of New Testament sources. For example, not only does he repeatedly quote the famous verse mentioned above from Galatians (3:28); he also propose various and strange reformulations of it. However, Badiou methodically erases from it the words that contradict his universalist-maximalist positions. If so, the verse is not: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female," but rather, There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." The implications of linguistic maneuvers of this sort are tremendous, inter alia because by way of the ostensibly minor difference, Badiou succeeds in turning a particularistic verse, dependent on a very particular belief (that Jesus was the messiah) to a romantic, post-gender and post-identity verse. In effect, in order to present Paul's thinking as abstract, anonymous, and a-nomist (i.e. non-law-bound) "universalism,", Badiou is impelled to empty it of the magical and mythological content related to the crucifixion of Jesus. He therefore censors the Christian apostle, or at least, rearranges his words, in order to adjust them to his troubling communism. And this rearrangement is so radical that there is no longer any real connection between Badiou's Paul – i.e. the fashionable, revolutionary, proto-hippie, about whom dozens of books have been written in the past fifteen years – and the historical Paul, who, in mild terms, was a strict believer who provided a deep basis, through dozens of sworn anti-feminist statements, for the worst Western misogyny (see, for example, I Corinthians 14:34Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but they are commanded to be under obedience…").
All this, however, are minor details in the eyes of those who walk follow the crowd, the neo-Pauline philosophers and the ?, who believe that the approaching coming together of humans is more important than literary precision, i.e. accurate and full use of the sources. Such are the ways of the "philosophically correct" in 2010.