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Draft of a Review of St Paul Among the Philosophers

Draft of a Review of St Paul Among the Philosophers

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Published by AnthonyPaulSmith
A draft of a review for the Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology.
A draft of a review for the Journal of the British Society of Phenomenology.

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Published by: AnthonyPaulSmith on Feb 03, 2013
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ST. PAUL AMONG THE PHILOSOPHERS
, edited by John D. Caputo and LindaMartín Alcoff, Bloomington and Indianpolis: Indiana University Press, 2009, ix + pp. 195,Pbk, £14.99. ISBN-13-978-0253220837.
St. Paul among the Philosophers 
casts a critical eye on the recent philosophicalappropriation of St. Paul by putting the ideas of Alain Badiou, and to a lesser extent SlavojZizek and Giorgio Agamben, into dialogue with historians and biblical scholars. As the co-editor of the volume John D. Caputo puts it, the volume “points out the difficultiesencountered in the exchange between the systematizers (philosophers but also thetheologians) who want to put Paul to a contemporary purpose and the historians who areinterested in reconstituting the original context of Paul’s work (1).” The original impetus forthe edited volume
St. Paul among the Philosophers 
was the first annual Postmodernism, Culture,and Religion conference held at Syracuse University in April 2005. These conferences, of  which there were finally four, were a continuation of the popular conference series Religionand Postmodernism held at Villanova University until the early years of this past decade. Thedriving personality behind both conference series was Caputo, former Professor of Philosophy at Villanova who finished his career as a Professor of Religion and Humanities atSyracuse University. He serves as co-editor of this volume along with Linda Martín Alcoff and his opening introduction serves as a good introduction to the recent revival of interest inPaul by philosophers. Alain Badiou’s
Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism 
(Standford UP, 2003),originally published in French in 1997, began the philosophical engagement with the ideas of Paul where, with utter disregard for Paul’s importance in the Christian tradition and hoping to put Paul to a secular purpose, he argued for Paul as representing the ideal of a militantbreaking with what Badiou terms the state of the situation (or the status quo in commonlanguage) in total commitment and faith to a truth-event. This counter-intuitive project of looking to a one of the foundational thinkers of Christianity was taken up by a number of other European thinkers, including Zizek and Agamben, and the publication and translationof their texts into English was met with enthusiasm from those working in the borderlandsbetween philosophy and religion and philosophy and theology.I must confess to myself never fully understanding the turn to Paul by these radicalphilosophers and found that their studies of Paul usually served to illustrate some aspect of their philosophy. This suspicion is expressed well by one of the historians in the volume,Paula Fredriksen, who writes, “I wish that the practitioners of such projects would say, ‘Iinterpret Paul this way, this is what Paul means to me,’ a hermeneutical claim, rather than‘this is what Paul means,’’ a historical claim. As a historical claim, such assertions can only beanarchronistic; and an acachronistic historical claim can
only 
be false, whatever ideologicalmerit it might otherwise display (72).” Still, these works did mark, interestingly, a differentkind of “turn to religion” than the one witnessed amongst phenomenologists in the 1980’sand 1990’s. Yet, unlike those often pious phenomenologists (it was often unclear when they 
 
 were being philosophers and when they were doing confessional theology by differentmeans), philosophers like Badiou and Zizek have a rather different, more antagonistic,relationship with religion altogether. While it would be wrong to claim that they are unableto tell us anything interesting about religious practice or religious thought, their vision of Paul still seemed more a philosophical persona to illustrate certain aspects of their ownphilosophies rather than an actual ally or even lasting resource in their quest for a secular andCommunist universalism. This suspicion isn’t abated when reading Badiou’s and Zizek’sown contributions to the volume. Badiou’s chapter is simply a summary of his Paul book, which, being remarkable in its economy and elegant in its prose, should be useful for new readers but adds nothing new for those already familiar with his philosophy.Zizek’s contribution is simply dire. Zizek’s real contribution to the philosophicaldiscussion of Paul, one markedly different from Badiou’s, is found in his early major work 
The Ticklish Subject 
(Verso, 2000), but rather than trying to update that discussion or add to it,Zizek’s chapter is instead on his current favorite contrarian G.K. Chesterton’s book on the Job. While the chapter in itself isn’t a bad piece of work, though many of the ideas arerepeated in his contribution to the
 Monstrosity of Christ 
(MIT Press, 2009), it is insulting to hisreaders to pretend, as he does with his title, that it is a “Paulinian reading of Chesterton”. The two chapters from Badiou and Zizek constitute the first part of the book entitled “St. Paul among the Philosophers”. Strangely the next section, even though it isn’treflected in the volume’s title, is much longer and is called “Paul between Jews andChristians”. It includes major scholars in Pauline studies like E.P. Sanders, Dale B. Martin,Paula Fredriksen, and Daniel Boyarin. A contribution from Richard Kearney is also includedin this section (Kearney stood in for Agamben when Agamben pulled out of theconference), but it isn’t clear to me why this contribution, aside from being a critique of Badiou’s and Agamben’s more radical political readings of Paul, was not included in the firstsection. Kearney’s contribution does a nice job of showing the marked differences betweenthe dominant phenomenological theological turn and the current batch of radicalphilosophical readings of religion, but it also shows a surprising similarity. While, on the onehand, Kearney pays more lip service to the historians work, his own philosophical andpolitical use of Paul remains mired in “aporia liberalism”. So the kenotic self-empyting of Christ witnessed to in Paul’s celebration of God “choosing what was was not to shame what was” or “the weak to shame what was” illustrates Kearney’s own celebration of weak thought. Just like Badiou and Zizek (and also Agamben who Kearney is the only contributorto address), Kearney subsumes Paul’s thought into his own and presents Paul as a kind of philosophical persona acting out Kearney’s philosophical vision. The other contributors to this section are having their own inter-disicinplinary arguments, likely not of specific interest to philosophical readers. What is interesting to notefor the purpose of this review is the central philosophical focus of these historians. In eachcase the central philosopher whose work the historian dialogues with is that of Badiou.Fredriksen’s contribution is the most direct confrontation with the philosophical

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