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Jacob Taubes.

Apocalyptic time and the retreat from history

Thursday, 5 May 2011

At this year's AAR panel on Jacob Taubes and Christian Theology, I'll be giving a
paper titled "Jacob Taubes: Apocalyptic Time and the Retreat from History". I
wrote a paper last year on Taubes' interpretation of Paul; this one will focus more
on his recently translated works, Occidental Eschatology and From Cult to Culture.
Here's my rather long and rambling abstract:
In his famous theses on history, Walter Benjamin proposed that only a messianic
conception of time can burst apart the claustrophobic historicism of modern
thought, with its endless cycle of cause and effect. Jacob Taubes work was
developed against the same backdrop of modern doctrines of homogeneous time;
like Benjamin, Taubes wanted to inject the possibility of freedom into the tragic
continuum of history.
Taubes sees Nietzsche and Freud as the two great architects of a modern tradition
of tragic humanism, where human actors are utterly imprisoned by fate. There is
no hope for redemption from the powers of necessity. Taubes largely accepts this
post-Christian tragic vision, especially as a corrective to secularised eschatologies
of progress. Yet he also advocates a return to the theological conception of time in
Jewish and Christian apocalypticism. If time is endless repetition, then the urgency
of political commitment is diffused; we are compelled into a situation of decision
only where the present stands under the shadow of the end. Politics, Taubes
thinks, becomes possible only where time is rushing towards this end, and thus
where the present is not trapped in a web of repetition, but is a moment of
absolute crisis and distress.
This accounts for Taubes lifelong preoccupation with Gnosticism. For him,
Gnosticism is a form of non-revolutionary apocalypticism: its doctrine of time
locates us within a moment of urgency and decision, while withholding from us
any claim to political power, as though we could bring about the end through our
own agency. Early Christian apocalypticism is fertile because it yields up not
simply a rival politics, but a rival to politics, a critique of the principle of power

In Taubes thought, therefore, a tragic vision of history is set within a wider

apocalyptic context though not in a way that is directly liberating, or that issues
in any specific political involvement. Taubes wants to retain the tragic pessimism
of Nietzsche and Freud even while relativising it apocalyptically, just as Benjamin
relativises historicism not by arguing for the possibility of revolution but by an
immense deferral of historical hope, in which history is broken open by the coming
In this paper I will explore this unresolved tension so characteristic of modern
Jewish thought between tragedy and expectation, freedom and fate. I will argue
that Taubes nostalgia for Gnosticism represents an attempt to relieve this tension;
but that Gnosticism, with its retreat into an interior apocalypse, ultimately fails to
break the deadlock of modern historicism. Instead I argue that the realism of early
Jewish and Christian apocalypticism a doctrine not about the interior life, but
about history is the only genuine alternative to the tragic fatalism of modern

Jacob Taubes, Karl Barth, and St Paul

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

For this year's Karl Barth blog conference (coming up in July) I'll be doing a piece
on Barth and Jacob Taubes I'm also writing up a full version for publication.
Here's the extended abstract:
Karl Barth and Jacob Taubes: apocalyptic theology and political nihilism
The Jewish intellectual Jacob Taubes (1923-87) is surely one of the most eccentric
figures of twentieth-century philosophy. A political thinker of the far left, Taubes
greatest intellectual debt was to the arch-conservative German jurist Carl Schmitt.
An ordained rabbi, his work was driven by a penetrating engagement with
Christian theology, in an attempt to lay bare the roots of modern political power.
With Schmitt, Taubes believed that in todays world everything is theological
(except perhaps the chatter of theologians). He began his career with a doctoral
dissertation on the secularisation of Christian apocalyptic a vigorous response to
Hans Urs von Balthasars work on the same theme and ended his career, just
weeks before his death, with lectures on the explosive political impact of Pauls
epistle to the Romans.
At the centre of all Taubes work is an attempt to rehabilitate radical Paulinism in
the interests of a Jewish apocalyptic politics. In this connection, he returns again
and again to Karl Barth, and his reading of Barth is as profound as it is
idiosyncratic. In Taubes view, Barths interpretation of Paul is perhaps the most
significant contribution to the general consciousness of our age; like Luther,
Kierkegaard and Marcion, Barth is a true interpreter of Paul who unflinchingly
pursues the heretical implications of Pauls dialectic of law and grace. In Barths
interpretation of Paul, Taubes finds a recovery of the nihilistic impulse of
apocalyptic politics. The illegitimate nomos of the world is passing away. Neither
quietism nor revolutionary zeal counts for anything; what the world needs is
neither conservation nor reform, but annihilation and recreation.

But although Taubes appropriates much of Barths political theology, he argues

that Barths thought finally remains snared in the tragic aporia of all Christian
theology. Dogmatics presupposes the existence of a Christian tradition, and the
churchs institutional tradition necessarily erases the footprints of its own
apocalyptic origins. There can be no theological resolution (since theology is itself
the symptom) of the conflict between apocalyptic event and the brute fact of a
continuing history. Although Taubes critique rightly describes the judgment
under which all theology is carried out, Barths entire theological project can be
read as an attempt to destabilise the self-evidence of the churchs existence, and to
suspend the Christian community in a precarious apocalyptic moment between
the times.
Taubes political appropriation of Barth/Paul should therefore also be modified:
what his political nihilism lacks is a good dose of ecclesiological nihilism or in
Barthian terms, the (politically charged, but never secularised) concept of witness.
The churchs witness to divine action is always simultaneously a gesture to its own
provisional status, an acknowledgment of the abyss of judgment over which it is
suspended and thus also a witness to that strange anarchic grace by which Gods
people are gathered into being out of nothingness.