Expertise and Denial: NT Studies Edition

In the late 2000s-early 2010s it was particularly in vogue to respond to the work of various philosophers who had expressed interest in St. Paul, perhaps the most monstrous figure Christianity had on offer.

Paul and the Philosophers

While Jesus is often above significant reproach (note Nietzsche’s divergent feelings toward these figures…), Paul is often a figure of backwardness, misogyny, a sort of lawful lawlessness, a static-rule filled Christianity that just can’t get in line with the radical Jesus who fulfills the dreams of both conservative and liberal readers.

This interest helped to bring back shades to Paul that were often missing outside of the discipline. But, the figurations of Paul created have often be loathed by NT scholars. Why?

Well, a rather obvious answer is that the plaything of the discipline was being shared outward with disciplines that seem to lack the critical tools to deal with the apostle. There is a shared difficulty here: while the charge could be true, the ability for many biblical scholars to understand the nuances of what is actually going on in these figurations of Paul is stunted.

I don’t recall many Pauline scholars orienting themselves around the works of Schmitt, Benjamin, or Taubes in order to better understand how Agamben is utilising Paul, and whether it coincides with what could be said about Paul from popular disciplinary readings.

But, what I find more annoying is the half-baked reading of theory that often happens in the discipline. I recently noted this happening in regard to the concept of ‘gift’ and the fixation on Derrida. Which, really, is fine to do. Derrida is, after all, well-known for his work on the gift. But, every time I have found Derrida in contemporary NT studies, he is butchered and lays on the page as a sort of scapegoat, sacrificed for just not getting what the gift really is (he should have just paid more attention to Mauss, obviously…).

Except, every time he comes up in this regard, he is understood in a facile manner. And, while it may not ruin the argument being made by the writer, it is certainly egregious because Derrida is asking questions that pierce to the heart of the issue!

It was while ranting about this on social media that Jonathan Bernier noted the importance of treating scholarship like a dialogue with not just a thinker, but the community of scholars who are working on that thinker and within a separate discipline. This is surely something we need to keep in mind, especially when attempting to use work that is outside of our usual disciplinary marker.

Let us read more, listen more, and respond with caution.

The Hobbesian Anthropos

In some ways I feel as if I barely understand Hobbes. Perhaps that has something to do with the divergent iterations that spring from varied corners of academia.

Hobbes represents everything, and nothing. He is one of those not-too-distant scholars in history whose varied existences go toward proving that figuring out exactly what a thinker is doing, why, and how is a little harder than your entry-level college textbook is willing to admit (and, who blames them? We can’t wade into the shit head first; instead, we take slow subtle steps). So, yes, we can talk, definitively, about the years of his exile in France, his bachelorhood, his travels across Europe with those he is tutoring; but, the tricky business is determining his place in the history of political thought, the importance of his specific take on the social contract (and not talking anachronistically of a full-blown political liberalism), and, perhaps, what exactly the hell is going on with his particular model of the human.

Hobbes and Chill

 

I can’t solve all the problems. This isn’t really my area of specialty, but what I think I can speak to his the particular form of the Hobbesian state of nature. What bothers me most is the way it is carelessly and crudely employed. Even in scholarly writing there are the quick, throw-away references to Hobbes and his anthropology. Usually the charge of psychological egoism, an overwhelming self-interest or greed; or simply the quick line pointing to the ‘wolf man’.

What isn’t paid enough attention to, I think, is the deeply physiological nature of the Hobbesian human. It is perhaps one of the more careless omissions that in the only (that I can find) translation of De  Homine (Bernard Gert’s work) the first 9 chapters are missing! Why? Well, the footnote in the 1991 reprint merely says “they are irrelevant to Hobbes’s moral and political philosophy” (35). Well, gee, thanks for deciding that for me. Maybe I wanted to read them??

The reason that they are irrelevant? Well, the first chapter deals with ‘out-of-date’ biology and chapters 2 through 9 are concerned with optics. But, why does Hobbes devote the first 9 chapters to things wholly extraneous to the rest of his work dedicated to de homine? Well, perhaps he had a reason?

It seems quite obvious to me that there are physiological reasons, that the foundation of Hobbes’ thought regarding the human, and going beyond to his moral and political philosophy is grounded in the materiality of the human, in the physiological workings of man. This needs to be appreciated to understand anything about the necessity and inevitability of violence in the state of nature. Fear, not simply greed, leads to violence. But, fear is based on the inability of the subject to determine (a hermeneutical problem) what the other subject will do. And, when one thinks that they may suffer violence, they are led by their natural right to do what they can to defend their self from the ultimate evil (as Hobbes doesn’t allow for a teleology, only an evil, which is immobility and death).

It seems quite obvious, then, why both optics and biology are important for the foundation of Hobbes’ material concerns when discussing man. It sucks it was left out of this particular translation of De Homine….

Murdering God

While more posts, after a long hiatus, will be developed soon, I thought I would share some of one of my favorite writer’s (Philip Goodchild’s) work, a spectacular moment of vulnerability which occurs in the preface of his magisterial volume, Capitalism and Religion: The Price of Piety.

This book emerged from the tension between four powerful insights – insights bringing problems, no solutions. The last insight to arrive was the contemporary truth of suffering: a growing awareness that current trends in globalization, trade and the spread of technology are not only leading towards a condition where the human habitat is unsustainable, but the urgency and responsibility announced by this preventable catastrophe mean that little else is worth thinking about. . . As a whole, however, my work is grounded in an ‘idea’ – or perhaps I should say ‘experience’ – of what I will call ‘God’. This ‘idea’ was so overwhelming and so distinct from our customary ways of thinking that, while intelligible in itself, it remains incommunicable until it has called into question and reformulated all existing categories of philosophy and theology. Finally, the work of the revaluation of values which may lead to the cessation of suffering was developed in the form of the ‘murder of God’ –  the actual work of calling into question the fundamental concepts and values of the European tradition. (xiii-xiv)

The provocative ‘murdering of God’ is a necessity, especially when it comes to overturning those ways of being, ways of relating to others, that are dominant but which bring forth suffering. Here, Goodchild is insistent on the immense importance of finding new ways to value. Or, perhaps, hearkening back to older traditions of value, lost ways of determining worth. Our dominant systems (of discourse, trade, sociality), while often gesturing toward ideas like ‘human rights’, ‘justice’, ‘the good’, ‘God’, are only superficially intertwined with various ways of thinking about them. Instead, what Goodchild realizes and explicates in his broader corpus, is the way that money is what determines the way in which those prior signifiers are thought. To the point that the dominant religion simply is money. Money is God now.

But, here, we see that this isn’t just a cold ‘just the facts’ sort of discourse. In fact, doing so would be mirroring the sort of mirage of the ‘fact/value’ distinction that many modern economists assert.

Goodchild continues, though:

Each of these insights  fractured my self-consciousness, exposing an abyss beneath my thoughts and relations to myself, to others and to the world. I became a stranger to those closest to me as well as to myself.  Each issue imposed itself as a dynamic force on thought, a problem of unlimited importance that I feel barely equipped to begin to address. Moreover, these are not personal but universal and global problems, imposing the responsibility on each person to find an appropriate way of addressing them. In the case of each problem, however, there is only a minority who feel the impact of its force. . . The public consensus is engaged in a vast enterprise of evasion, sheltering in a wicked and lethal complacency. . . Thinking is nearly as dangerous as complacency. (xiv)

Engaging in the problems of contemporary economy, then, is of the most immense importance, such that even thinking seriously about it causes immense pain and ignites crisis. As Goodchild mentions, while there is an importance, for him, in the issues of ‘liberal norms’ such as toleration, rights, and also post-structural notions of difference, alterity, and locality, these take a seat to the overwhelming insight of suffering, but not just any suffering. Here, we are talking about universal suffering found in the univocal policies which are bringing about ecological crises which may eliminate the human race in under two centuries.

Maybe it is only though investing ourselves in these problems, problems which hurt to think about, that we can turn back the tides of collapse.

And, this will undoubtedly call for murdering God, because the global God isn’t the God of natural theology, nor Christianity, nor Islam; effectively, in the practicality of every day life, our God is something else. And, it is killing us.

 

Badiou, Encounter, and Narrative

I have long been fascinated with Alain Badiou.

If you have paid much attention to this blog I interviewed a close friend, mentor, and teacher of mine, Jeph Holloway, early last year. Jeph is not only a keen reader of Paul, philosophy, ethics, and everything else in the world, but he is a nice fellow and has a knack for realizing what the important trends are in scholarship and pointing his students toward those.

So, knowing my naive, undergraduate fascination with Derrida and how deconstruction and theology interact he quickly encouraged me to look into Badiou and his book on Paul. This was at the very beginning of my Master’s work. I still remember him asking me to meet him in his office and telling me about the revolution going on in Paul’s use in political philosophy. Since then, I have tried to pay attention to Badiou, transcending just his engagement with Paul (however fruitful that may be, which depends on who you’re reading, really).

I am no Badiouian. But, I recognize the significance of what he has done with set theory in connection with ontology, and most importantly the insistence on Event and how Events are defined and characterized.

Badiou and a rather beautiful cat.

Recently I came across his interview centering around ‘encounter’ published on Verso Books blog page. And, here I realized that accepting encounters are not for the timid. Encounters are unlikely, break from the usual, and upends one’s life. And, encounters are ‘contingent’, a moment of pure chance. Perhaps here we can speak of a clinamen, an Epicurean swerve of the atoms that is unpredictable and non-reductive (and, in the irreducibility of the clinamen, Lucretius sees the justification for freedom of the will).

For the encounter to be distinguished from mere experience the encounter has to ‘disturb the rhythm of existence’, and it then assumes a moment of newness or beginning. The beginning, then, has to be either refused or accepted.

In order to make sense of one’s life, Paul Ricoeur insists on a sort of hermeneutic anthropology (Edit: How the heck do word processors not have ‘hermeneutic’ in thier dictionary??). For time to make sense for the human actor there has to be a narrative element present to represent and bring together otherwise discordant elements. But, sometimes one has an encounter. And, the encounter, while acting as an interruption, brings about new. The new is painful, it is disturbing in the fullest sense of the word because it breaks apart and irritates what was once seemingly coherent, and it is destruktion in the positive Heideggerian sense of the word, in that perhaps it will disturb those previous calcified, traditional elements within our seemingly coherent, static story.

 

But, stories shift. And can be told in new ways. Perhaps instead of the origin, the present is what gives form to the past of the narrative. And, with this in mind, the encounter, though a present reality (because it echoes throughout the constancy of the now), forms a new hermeneutic lens through which to understand the self.