The Political Resurrection of Saint Paul

Matthew Bullimore
The Political Theology of Paul. By Jacob Taubes. Translated by Dana Hollander. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004. Pp. xiv + 160.

As far as most theologians are concerned, Saint Paul has never really gone away. He has, of course, been reconsidered and appropriated for different ends on many occasions. But since Nietzsche’s tirades, the philosophers have let him be and seem to have gradually forgotten about him. Some recent philosophers, however, have noticed him lurking about on the edge of theology, looking a little frustrated and perhaps even just a trifle bored. Jacob Taubes was one of the first to do so and to realize that there is still a lot more that Paul wants to say. Until his death in 1987, Jacob Taubes held the Chair in Hermeneutics at the Free University of Berlin. He also taught at Harvard and Columbia, which perhaps makes it surprising that this is the first work of his to be translated into English. One suspects that he is only now being translated in the wake of the recent Anglo-American interest in the works of Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, and Slavoj Žižek, all of whom, after Taubes, have recently rediscovered Saint Paul for themselves. Indeed, Agamben’s The Time That Remains is dedicated to Taubes. Upon opening the volume, one can immediately sense the difficulties that the translator must have faced in coherently setting out on paper the teachings of a man who thought out loud. (The fact that Taubes was a Rabbi had more than a little to do with this.) This edition presents a set of lectures that Taubes delivered in Heidelberg shortly before his death, and all difficulties aside, it nobly manages to bear witness to the oral form of Taubes’ teaching. The lectures as a whole have an autobiographical and notably idiosyncratic tenor, and they document the last testament of a Jewish intellectual living in Germany during the second half of the last century. Moreover, they offer at once an homage to and a stringent critique of the work of the Catholic jurist, Carl Schmitt, at whose urging Taubes produced these lectures. Taubes’ engagement with Schmitt, it should be noted, was not without cost. For his dialogue with Schmitt, Taubes was repeatedly censured by other Jewish thinkers, which may explain why he waited until the eleventh hour to fulfill his promise to Schmitt.
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As he teases out questions about legitimation. and his refusal to conclude sections can be frustrating. he outlines the contours of its powers of critique and describes the resources for and urgent necessity of partaking in negative political theology as a present way of life. which takes up fully one-third of the book. Jewish-Christian/Gentile-Christian relations. one comes to realize that Taubes does not provide a program for a negative political theology. of the royal line of David. for Taubes. Taubes unearths a thoroughly political vision. Taubes’ theses are elusive. which underpinned Schmitt’s work. and successful. . and the second reproduces two letters: the first. election. this is not an easy book. By analyzing the salutation and the introduction of the letter (Rom. All that is “imperatorial. The style of the book follows from its highly charged and polemical content. presumptions. In Part I (“Paul and Moses: The Establishment of a New People of God”). addressed to Armin Mohler. which in its very negativity would disallow a political system. a right-wing “extremist” with whom Taubes had studied.”) In addition to a preface that situates the lectures in the context of Taubes’ advanced cancer (he spent a day in between the four lectures in intensive care). (The present reviewer was relieved to read that one professor of Biblical Studies who had no problems with Badiou and Agamben found these lectures “bewildering. digressions. Paul is a servant of the Messiah. and the dialectic between the centralized Jerusalem church and the Diasporic Gentile church. The first presents Taubes’ own account of their relationship. The medium for the presentation of this negative political theology is a new reading of Paul and a reflection upon the reception of Paul in the Western philosophical and political tradition—a tradition that for Taubes is either explicitly or implicitly theological. 1:1–7). addressed to Schmitt himself. the edition as a whole does not miss the apocalyptic tone and urgency of Taubes’ lectures. there are also two appendices that aid the reader in reconstructing Taubes’ dialogue with Schmitt. kingly. Instead. For all the extra material. and the argument is littered with asides. as well as many witticisms and putdowns. bore witness to a comedy of letters reminiscent of the fated missive in Poe’s The Purloined Letter (99–100). which is necessary. Reading these lectures. who is also the Son of God. omissions. then.174 MATTHEW BULLIMORE In many ways. The editors’ afterword attempts a risky reconstruction of the argument.” as Schmitt had demanded that he must do— even as they nevertheless undermine the anti-semitic reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans. imperial” about Christ is brought forth as a direct challenge to the Emperor in language that any thoughtful Roman citizen would see as properly belonging to Caesar (14). and the second. whether it knows this or not. found its way into Schmitt’s hands. welcome. These lectures were. a final opportunity to put forward his own “negative political theology. Taubes begins by reading the epistle to the Romans as a political declaration of war on Caesar’s Empire.

Taubes argues that for Paul. who negates and yet transvaluates all law. Law could be seen as hypostasis. as the perfor- . a reading that he develops through a discussion of Sabbatianism as well as an account of the logic of Jewish Messianism. And so Taubes reads Romans 8–11 again in order to find a logic of messianic universalism that refuses any anti-semitic cast. by way of Rosenzweig’s analysis of the liturgies of Yom Kippur. an apotheosis of nomos” (23). and he seeks God’s forgiveness for them.” What he recognizes in Paul is a transvaluation of values: “It isn’t nomos but rather the one who was nailed to the cross by nomos who is the Imperator!” (24). Paul’s new vision of the universal is mediated through the particularity of this crucified king and so transvaluates the world’s values. However. Paul presents a new understanding of the people of God and of the transvaluation of law by virtue of their faith in the Messiah. and in its place is an allegiance to and trust in God’s Messiah. who may provoke God’s wrath by not having faith in the Messiah. even as it is transfigured into a new people of God.THE POLITICAL RESURRECTION OF SAINT PAUL 175 Taubes describes a Paul who is utterly Jewish—and for that reason alone. Taubes argues persuasively that Paul deploys a typology between himself and Moses. be they imperatorial or theocratic (“Afterword” 121). The messianic message of Paul is for Taubes a wholly Jewish message. who are at that very moment worshipping an idol. the Day of Atonement. Paul does not simply oppose a nationalist and Zealot political theology of the Torah against the cosmopolitical Roman nomos.” Taubes. and he wishes to be similarly accursed if it would ensure their inclusion in God’s newly revealed work. Taubes offers here a phenomenology of Jewish experience as it regards divine forgiveness and wrath. Taubes sees Paul’s allegorical reading not as a “spiritualizing” that negates the material but. where Moses succeeds in his pleas and brings the law. utterly political. via Benjamin. The performative nature of the Yom Kippur liturgy is set alongside Romans 9 in order to show that Paul undergoes the same agonies as Moses before God. Paul’s universalism is thus determinate in that it is a universalism seen through this one. The pneumatic content of Paul’s thought in Romans 9–13 is then explored with reference to Spinoza and Hegel. All of Israel is to be saved. too. has “yet to be taken in by a liberal. even if he must be made anathema for their sake.” There was at the time “a general Hellenistic aura. But Paul is not taken in by this “great nomos liberalism. On Sinai Moses pleads with God for his people. The Torah no longer determines Israel. So Paul also pleads for his people according to the flesh. and yet it does not refuse any who wish to partake of the new people of God formed through faith in this Messiah. law is “a compromise formula for the Imperium Romanum. He is totally illiberal. He “fundamentally negates law as a force of political order” and refuses all forms of sovereignty. There follows a complex and inspired analysis and comparison of Romans 8:31–9:5 and the Talmudic treatise Berakhot 32a. as the Universal.

for the sake of their ancestors” (Rom.) Paul writes: “As regards the Gospel they [the Jewish people] are enemies of God for your sake. for it is faith-in-the-Messiah. Taubes outlines the reception of Paul in the Western tradition both by those who abuse the Pauline message and by those who recognize or rehearse the messianic potential of his negative political theology. (“This is where an almost ninety-year-old man sat with someone who was a little over fifty and spelled out 9–11” (51). Alongside Walter Benjamin and Franz Rosenzweig. 11:28). By virtue of their beloved status. and behind that a theological distinction between Christian friend and Jewish enemy. the messianic vision hopes for the inclusion of all in “all (pas) Israel. a messianic faith) or one does not.. The exception . Allegoresis is put alongside typology as part of Paul’s textual strategy.176 MATTHEW BULLIMORE mance of a way of life in which the spiritual breaks through into the material. but as regards election they are beloved. and so the historical and horizontal (typological) is placed alongside the transcendent and vertical (allegorical). The decision is allimportant for it is the choice of the exception. a new radically democratic association of the sons of God. Barth and Schmitt reject the liberal consensus and any secular deliberative model of political government in favour of a Kierkegaardian stress on the apocalyptic importance of the “decision”—a decision summed up in the decision. Paul’s transfiguration of the people of God by virtue of their faith in the Messiah (the vertical) is thus accomplished by and proven through reference to the law and to the prophets (the horizontal). In Part II (“Paul and Modernity: Transfigurations of the Messianic”). who by virtue of all human reckoning (Roman and Jewish Law) cannot be the Messiah for he is the accursed upon the cross. as Taubes rapidly deploys various thinkers to make his points. that for Christ or for Barabbas (68). He begins with Marcion’s anti-semitic and Gnostic reading of Paul. Either one decides for the in-breaking of the Absolute into the world (i. Here the argument is less clear than in the first section. The much disputed concept of “faith” (pistis) is shown to be as much a part of a Jewish logic as a Hellenistic one. the “miracle” (85).” Carl Schmitt and Karl Barth. the corporeal community. Opposed to this “essentialized” Christianity. and Paul’s Jewish messianic logic. and so are to be grafted back into the root by way of the witness to the Gentiles (the nations as light to the chosen people). Knowledge of God is separated from consideration of the people of God. are the “Zealots of the Absolute and of the Decision. This moves towards the crux of Taubes’ discussion with Schmitt.” The new union that is the body of Christ is a life born out of pneuma and lived out in agape.e. which he sees as a precursor to the type of Germanic Protestantism exemplified by Adolf von Harnack. If Schmitt’s antagonistic conception of the political has at its root the distinction between friend and enemy. then Taubes shows that for Paul the Jewish people are enemies who are nevertheless beloved. which has been deprived of Hellenistic and Jewish political potential.

Wright. can legitimate a system of law. can only be overcome through participation in the body of Christ (“Afterword” 137). Bruno Blumenfeld. whose death marks the redundancy of worldly sovereignty. Robert Jowett. manifest in the decision for the Messiah. where the latter is more anti-modern in its acceptance that it has not and cannot pass beyond guilt and décadence by its own power. Those who ignore the exception leave the state susceptible to revolution from below. For Schmitt. But Taubes’ insistence on “original sin as a nexus of guilt that encompasses human history” leads him to the more humble position that guilt. Instead. Nietzsche. one lives for the messianic because salvation cannot come by way of worldly sovereignty. Taubes’ reading of Paul is tantalizingly close to recent scholarly treatments of Paul (see Neil Elliott. however differently conceived (“Afterword” 136). makes a decision—for atheism and not for Christ—but according to Taubes he fails to grasp the importance of the Pauline dialectic between guilt and atonement. of course. Nietzsche has a modern preoccupation with a humanly achievable emancipation from guilt.” but he loses the sense that “in the I there is a profound powerlessness” (87). made manifest in this decision on the state of the exception.” in which one relates to the world in its irredeemable nature in the mode of “as though not” (1 Cor. The apocalyptic openness to the transcendent. buttressed by the power of an immanent human reason (64). Like Freud. N. 7:29–31). Taubes introduces Benjamin’s “Pauline” conception of “nihilism as world politics. as recognized by law. however. Richard Horsley. Taubes’ reading is particularly neces- . Only a voluntaristic divine legitimation. Freud believes he can heal guilt—and here Taubes offers a fascinating reading of Moses and Monotheism. the cosmos and humanity within it are guilty but justified by faith in the Messiah. and Alain Gignac) that constitute a small but growing body of work examining the political content and potential of Paul’s letters. Taubes turns to Nietzsche and Freud. where Freud identifies with Paul and not with Moses. for the present form of the world is passing away. When Paul’s Roman context is brought to the fore—in contrast to the one-sided depictions of Paul the Pharisee or Paul the Hellenist—then the subversive political message of Paul’s gospel becomes much more evident. Schmitt argues that “Sovereign is he who decides on the state of exception” and that the law can not stand alone by virtue of its own innate strength. thus cuts across modern interpretations of sovereignty. The superman in immanence is set alongside the body of Christ in its openness to transcendence. T. It also tells against Schmitt’s defense of totalitarianism by bearing witness to a new covenantal community based on an order that goes beyond mere law. the one who decides when the law can be suspended is the one who can preserve the state from the forces of anarchy. For Paul. By contrast. Finally.THE POLITICAL RESURRECTION OF SAINT PAUL 177 is that which opens law to that which comes from without and disturbs its apparently immanent security. Nietzsche is a humanist with a “humane impulse.

the “body in Christ” (“Afterword” 129–31). that is foregrounded. and the love of God is mediated through the new community. Taubes’ reading of Paul instead sees the new community as necessarily integrating both Gentiles and those who as yet do not have messianic faith. For Paul. While Taubes describes this resonance with a hermeneutist’s skill. Instead.178 MATTHEW BULLIMORE sary because it shows that Paul’s political voice is inseparable from his Jewish voice.” and this community can only be formed by the apocalyptic decision to have faith in a Messiah who breaks apart all hitherto known forms of universality and sovereignty (“Afterword” 140).. the apocalyptic moment for Taubes is truly revolutionary because it opens the world up to its transfiguration by the coming of the transcendent. in Romans 13. The new community is thus not constituted. If. upon a fundamental political antagonism. This translation of The Political Theology of Paul is also important for an understanding and reappraisal of the works of other theorists who are now turning to Paul. Taubes’ extended conversation with Schmitt opens up a new angle of critique on a thinker who has had considerable influence in contemporary political theory. the love of God and the love of others is inseparable. While the Right has obviously had an interest in Schmitt. Thus the community’s love of the enemy (outward love) and the love of the neighbor (inward love) redefine the political as an agapeic economy of gift exchange (witness Paul’s “collection” for the “poor” in Jerusalem (17)). Negative political theology undermines the worldly order and especially law as an allencompassing ordering power. love is social. as the editors of this volume explain. It is thus worth briefly fleshing out the main differences between Taubes and Schmitt. The worldly order is not seen as legitimated by a non-immanent category and so governed by a “representative” or imitative form of government (e. it is nevertheless the love of the neighbor. sovereignty for Taubes is linked to a sociological consideration of the community: Taubes’ theology is not “a theology of sovereignty” but a “theology of the community. the people of God on the traditional understanding. the “totalitarian concept” as derived from a voluntaristic form of theism: the representative political order is legitimated by a form of divine sovereignty). So while Schmitt is the “apocalypticist thinker of counter-revolution” (“Afterword” 142). While Schmitt sought to preserve the State against chaos by the totalitarian seizure of the moment of exception. maintains the “absolutely necessary” separation of the spiritual powers from the worldly powers (103).. i. The apocalyptic moment for Taubes. for Paul. which disrupts all human forms of . Taubes has no “spiritual investment in the world as it is” (103). like Schmitt’s.g. on the contrary. his phenomenological-experiential approach appropriates the obviously polemical figure of Paul for the Jewish tradition. Frankfurt School theorists and even Benjamin on the Left have been moved by Schmitt’s critique of liberalism and parliamentarism.e.

the state of exception puts the lie to the liberal account of law’s own immanent foundation and the possibility of founding a consensus upon reason. The work of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe on radical democracy (Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. If liberalism is interested in the freedom and the rights of each individual. for democracy sublimates violence into votes. after Benjamin and Taubes. been challenged by thinkers such as Badiou and Žižek. opens once again the possibility of new conversations between philosophers and theologians about the subject of the political. And similarly again. while the demos is interested in the opinion of the many. susceptible to an endless re-territorialization by the workings of Capital. The messianic subject . However. Considering the reactions to and appropriations of Schmitt’s analyses in much contemporary political theory and theology. the publication of Taubes’ lectures is particularly timely. Schmitt’s concept of the political thus returns. Enjoyment is forever deferred. The messianic subject lives. as it were). For Agamben. and so the endless circulation and rearticulation of democracy puts it in a bad infinite. which seeks to find a consensus by means of rational mediation (Habermas). A new living otherwise is possible in which the subject dispossesses all previous identities. like Badiou. then a tension remains between the two. Agamben accepts Schmitt’s analyses but not his conclusions. but Laclau and Mouffe disavow Schmitt’s attempt to remove pluralism from the State. even after the fact. and there is no hope of a rational unanimous consensus that is not a totalitarianism. for the messianic subject is the “use” and “vocation” of the subject who still exists in the world that is passing away. Giorgio Agamben (State of Exception. Against the deliberative model of liberal democracy.THE POLITICAL RESURRECTION OF SAINT PAUL 179 sovereignty. of course. This agonistic economy has. Democracy can only succeed on the basis of this agonism (no longer an ant-agonism. unlike Badiou. Agamben hopes for a different form of community to come. But instead of accepting this fact and establishing a new account of democracy based upon constitutive agonism. The Time that Remains) sees the genius in Schmitt’s understanding of the political. who see it as merely commensurate with the eschatology of the capitalist economy. “as though not” in this world. evacuates the content of the figure of Jesus in favor of drawing out a logic of the messianic. To have Taubes’ critique of Schmitt. Agamben does not posit a new universalism. Like Laclau and Mouffe. Agamben appropriates Paul’s Christ and yet. their work utilizes a Derridean approach to highlight the constitutive antagonisms at the heart of liberal democracy. The Democratic Paradox) uses Schmitt’s thought as a basis for understanding the operation of liberal democracy. seeing it rather as constitutive of a democracy that will not and cannot find its end in—even though it seeks to move towards—an impossible “eschatological” moment of consensus (Laclau). In this way Taubes’ Paul is far more Christian than Schmitt’s could ever be.

a new form of universalism. male/female. Against the hierarchical and voluntarist conception of sovereignty in Schmitt. embodied in the ecclesial community. it allows one to live otherwise in a community of those who do likewise. but not in order to found a totalitarian state (either in Schmittian fashion or by way of Badiou’s new universalism). Badiou’s Paul remains susceptible to a charge of Marcionite negation of past particularities. and Hellenistic context. it nonetheless transfigures it by placing it within a supra-nomic transcendent economy of love. By contrast to Taubes’ interpretation.180 MATTHEW BULLIMORE marks a split with and in all previously formed identities and forms of community. Schmitt. Taubes’ Paul presents a radically democratic consensus where each is equal by virtue of their sonship in Christ. Badiou (Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism) argues that a new consensus cannot be found within the orbit of the old state of being but only through fidelity to an Event that has a mutually constituting relationship with the Subject faithful to that Event. Paul is an amenable example because he founds a new universalism free of all other contingent identity markers (slave/free. offers a paradigm for revolutionary change now devoid of content. Paul does offer a new form of community based on consensus. Instead. but it is not predicated upon an annihilation of his particular circumstances. For Badiou. Jewish. True. removed from its Roman. After all. Schmitt provided an apologia for a form of consensus founded and maintained by totalitarianism. “Gospel” thus stands to “Law” as the “State of exception” stands to “Law”. For Agamben. thus gives birth to a conception of necessary plurality within the democratic state (Laclau and Mouffe) and to a thoroughgoing critique of the totalitarian possibilities inherent in the state of exception (Agamben). rather than immanentizing this moment of decision and the concept of fidelity. opens the subject up to the transcendent apocalyptically breaking through into the present order. Taubes puts forward a political theology. which “presumes the nonautarchy of the human being. there is an agreement that the apocalyptic moment that Schmitt sees in the political actually splits open all previously known conceptions of law. Paul’s faith in the Event. What is new. Taubes founds it upon the model of a community that is aware of its own sinfulness. Paul’s messianic logic is a Jewish logic that is reacting against a particular but false Roman universalism. Yet this reading does not negate Paul’s particularity. Like Schmitt. By contrast. the impossibility of an immanent rational foundation of one’s way of life” (“Afterword” 140). about the Pauline universalism is that while it breaks open the law and reveals that it is not immanently sustained. The consen- . Taubes. the totalitarian apologist. and particular. But instead of founding sovereignty upon a model of divine fiat. but the apocalyptic effect of Gospel is not an unleashing of Schmitt’s totalitarianism. however. Like Taubes. the insufficiency of human innate and acquired capacities. then. Jew/Gentile) and offers a paradigm of a new subject and a new community.

THE POLITICAL RESURRECTION OF SAINT PAUL 181 sus is neither based upon the success of human reason (deliberative liberalism) nor grounded in the exercise of naked power (Schmitt). the transcendent crossing of the political is here theorized and even lived out. The fecundity of Paul as political thinker is seen anew through the lens of a philosopher who understands that theology and philosophy are not tribal departments (4). as did Schmitt’s in another way. because there are ‘even’ between man and man relationships that ‘exceed’. which must nevertheless be constantly liturgically enacted and performed. mercy. The apocalyptic formation of the new community allows for an ontology of politics predicated upon a love that is not just love of the neighbor but also of the enemy. The importance of Taubes’ account is that. one might dare to hope. (“I would be inclined to develop theology out of liturgics: perhaps this is a Catholic notion” (38). Against the secularizing and immanentizing tendency of contemporary theory. instead.) Taubes’ reading of Paul thus provides a strongly ethical reading that emphasizes the new life of the people of God as constituted by the worship of the One who confounds all human universalisms and who paradoxically manifests a law of love beyond law: a messianic account of at-one-ment. and especially Christian theologians. it reintroduces the transcendent into these debates as indispensable where the immanent is revealed in its crisis (“Afterword” 135). The equality of the members of the new community is founded by a transcendent outside. Taubes’ work. structured and made possible by the economy of love that faith in the Messiah creates. but it will significantly enlighten and enrich the current debates that have so surprisingly rediscovered Paul as a present concern. forgiveness (not at all ‘sentimentally’. “law is finally not the first and the last after all. and hence as equality in Christ (“Afterword” 135). the “metaphysics” thus unveiled calls for the attention of political theorists. a messianic time. the assertion of the guilt of humanity allows for the possibility of redemption and atonement from without. following on Benjamin and Barth. As Taubes writes in a letter. now liberated from the constraints of historical-critical methodology. ‘transcend’ law—love. will benefit from the phenomenological insights of Taubes and from turning their attention to the urgent political message of Paul. . In anti-modern fashion. it is organized. Theologians. leaves open many questions. could reap fresh ecumenical and inter-religious understandings. In the context of the new debate. the hidden theology behind modern (and now postmodern) accounts of the political. This volume likewise adds to the current philosophical debates about the nature of a different time. and about the nature of a different subjectivity. Good philosophical engagements with Paul. Despite the modern segregation of apparently autonomous university departments. the choice that Taubes thus makes possible is the one between Christ and Barabbas. At the very least. a messianic subject. Taubes’ premodern and antimodern approach reveals. by virtue of its form and its content.

The boundary between spiritual and worldly may be controversial and is always to be drawn anew (a never-ending task of political theology). For Taubes as for other contemporary theologians (John Milbank. Catherine Pickstock). we will run out of (Occidental) breath” (112). but should this separation cease. Taubes maintains the difference between the inside and the outside. in Christian thought or in Taubes’ Jewish understanding.182 MATTHEW BULLIMORE but ‘in reality’)” (110). So. is that it receives itself from an outside that is not a voluntaristic idol but a source of love beyond sovereignty. beyond the mere exercise of power for its own sake. beyond Reason alone. as Taubes enjoins: “Begin anew to interpret Paul!” (95). and finally perhaps even beyond universality. the danger of a politics based upon the immanent is the danger of a nihilism that leads to one form of totalitarianism or another. but the outside is now seen as the radically other outside of the transcendent: “Without this distinction we are exposed to the thrones and powers that in a ‘monistic’ cosmos no longer know any Beyond. . What constitutes the life of the Pauline community.

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