In my self-directed catechesis, I chose to compare works on the Apostle Paul by Pope Benedict as well as Alain Badiou. Paul, apostle-martyr, experienced a visionary conversion from conservative Judaism to Christianity in the first century of the common era. Badiou, atheist, references Catholic imagery as well as symbolism in his Marxist influenced philosophy. Benedict, one of the leading theologians of our time, resigned from the papacy.
Their biographies create a triangle. Paul, who was not one of the original twelve disciples of Christ, stands as a foundational figure. Approaching him from either side are Benedict, the bearer of a two thousand year old church tradition, as well as Badiou, who wields a significant secular authority based in academic humanism.
This triangle, which forms around the ambiguities of faith, mirrors the negotiations between scripture, secularism, as well as the Catholic Church that became commonplace in the twentieth century. For an individual with the intention of navigating contemporary fine arts while practicing Catholicism, issues of atheism, comparative religion, as well as theology are ever present. Fluency in these issues beyond the mere ability to act in harmony with an aesthetic is necessary for integration into artistic as well as spiritual communities.
How to speak as well as how to think in a language are the issues. My contention is that a visual language of Catholicism exists, potentially superseding theology, yet rooted in liturgy. The echoes of this language are seen in the Vatican’s art collection, church architecture, as well as western secular culture. They are heard in the humanities. To proceed, then, in the development of a flexible contemporary Catholicism that integrates fine arts, it makes sense to use the critical aspects of the humanities as well as secularism as tools to reread visual culture. The skeletal analysis of atheism is thus not a threat to faith, yet reinforces it. Around this form, the emotive as well as transcendental nature of theology can shape the accent of an individual viewpoint.
Returning to Saint Paul, his life, as well as his work, one sees that in various forms these structural issues have been present since the early beginnings of Christianity. For Benedict, the task is one of consolidation as well as presentation. His book compiles several months of lectures to general audiences on the apostle that cover church teachings. Badiou, the radical, presents Paul’s hermeneutics as an ideal, while denying the resurrection of Christ. His analysis does not diverge significantly from that of Benedict, though his style of argument is singular.
What does Badiou argue? To put it simply: that the subjective figure of Paul subtracts truth from the communitarian grasp so that it bears no relationship to its cause or destination. There can be no economy of salvation according to his arguments, only an individual conviction, established through love. Adherence to the law is no measure of righteousness, which exists on an abstract level.
Benedict cannot take this stance as a Catholic. Catholicism does have laws, in fact very firm ones, though they are largely self-regulated. The process of appeal goes through a rigid hierarchy ending with the pope, a position he held at the time of his lectures.
As a result, the entire tone of Benedict’s writing differs because of the proscriptive nurturing of his theology.
Badiou does not speak to the simple libertarian impulse, however, nor does Benedict produce a bland regurgitation of the classic commentaries on Saint Paul by Aquinas, John Chrysostom, Luther, as well as Origen. Both men address the legacy of Saint Paul as it impacts contemporary relativism. Both attack Nietzche’s take on Paul.
The differences between Badiou’s atheist analysis as well as Benedict’s Catholic catecheses manifest in surprising areas. Because Badiou speaks of Paul’s rhetorical technique in terms other than divine inspiration, the reader can incorporate aspects of it systematically.
Benedict, accepting Paul’s ties to the twelve apostles, describes him as far more complex as well as multilayered that the ‘militant’ in Badiou’s text. These two differences are so profound that they color a comparison between the two books.
To understand how as well as why these differences arise, it helps to return to one of the core issues of any discussion of the epistles: the law. I mentioned briefly that Badiou claims Paul proves truth is separate from any law, as well as that such positioning could not be part of Catholic thought. Badiou’s thesis stands firm in simple terms, as well as yet laws, Catholic, secular, etc… are something very different that the Law of which Paul speaks. Benedict spends some time on this distinction. The Law of the Pauline epistles is Mosaic law, a code of behavioral norms that form an individual as well as determine his righteousness. The complexity as well as grandeur of this Law is only comprehensible if one can understand that modern concepts of nationality, law, religion, culture, health as well as etiquette could form part of it.
The point at which the conventional Pauline topic of ‘justification by faith alone’ unfolds into the two authors’ separate discussions is this legal topic. Specifically, it is both authors’ concern with contemporary relativism in their respective communities as justified by laws. The ways in which each author inflects Paul’s personality with radicalism or conservatism mirror their goals. For Benedict, this requires a focus on Paul’s humility as well as friendships. For Badiou, his individuality—subjectivity—is most important.
Badiou identifies Paul’s subjectivity on purely human terms, in his prologue stating that the epistles represent for him a classic text with no transcendence, equal in significance to any other. According to the author, Paul is a ‘Poet-Thinker of the Event’ proving that an event cannot be reduced to simple cause as well as effect nor serve as a model. How does this relate to the Christian message?
Badiou says: ‘Paul is the Lenin for whom Christ is the unequivocal Marx.’
The Communist analogy is poignant, for Badiou spends a significant portion of his introduction discussing economies. His goal here is to place the truth, and the real, above judgement and monetary abstractions. Read simply, Badiou seems to tell his audiences that much of popular culture’s sense of diversity is the result of the marketing of suffering as a commodity. Although the capitalist abstraction that assists this process is universal, the subsets that form as a result are false.
Badiou uses Saint Paul to find the conditions for a true universalism. For just as Paul wanted to structure the Christian subject in terms separate from Mosaic law, Roman society, Greek philosophy and Greek morality, Badiou wants to find a universal singularity that can withstand economic abstraction and community pressure.
This is where Badiou’s analysis separates from Benedict’s catecheses in ways that could provide a uniquely helpful text for non-atheists. I provided a simple version of this above. In his more complex writings Badiou condenses the arguments in Paul’s epistles into four points:
- The Christian subject does not preexist the event he declares (Christ’s resurrection). Thus, the extrinsic conditions of hisexistence or identity will be argued against. He will be required to be neither Jewish (or circumcised), nor Greek (or wise).
This is the theory of discourses (there are three: the Jewish, the Greek, the new). No more than he will be required to be from this or that social class (theory of equality before truth), or this or that sex (theory of women).
- Truth is entirely subjective (it is of the order of a declaration that testifies to a conviction relative to the event). Thus, every subsumption of it’s becoming under a law will be argued against. It will be necessary to proceed at once via a radical critique of Jewish law, which has become obsolete as well as harmful, as well as of Greek law as the subordination of destiny to the cosmic order, which has never been anything except a “learned” ignorance of the paths of salvation.
- Fidelity to the declaration is crucial, for truth is a process, and not an illumination. In order to think it, one requires three concepts: one that names the subject at the point of declaration (pistis, generally translated as “faith,” but which is more appropriately rendered as “conviction”); one that names the subject at the point of his conviction’s militant address (agape, generally translated as “charity,” except more appropriately rendered as “love”); lastly, one that names the subject according to the force of displacement conferred upon him through the assumption of the truth procedure’s completed character (elpis, generally translated as “hope,” except more appropriately rendered as “certainty”).
- A truth is of itself indifferent to the state of the situation, to the Roman State for example. This means that it is subtracted from the organization of subsets prescribed by that state. The subjectivity corresponding to this subtraction constitutes a necessary distance from the State as well as from what corresponds to the State in people’s consciousness: the apparatus of opinion. One must not argue about opinions, Paul says. A truth is a concentrated as well as serious procedure, which must never enter into competition with established opinions.
These four points derive from the primacy of Paul’s encounter on the road to Damascus. It is an event, an encounter, that confirms in him the Christian message as well as radically alters his life. Benedict as well as Badiou agree on this point. Benedict: “This turning point in his life, this transformation of his whole being was not the fruit of a psychological process, of a maturation or intellectual as well as moral development. Rather, it came from the outside.”
What implication does this have? It proves that, as Badiou states, ‘one can begin from faith that is unconditioned’ . In a very real sense, Paul’s journeys as well as writings reflect the fact that the event happened without a traditional conversion or preparation, though Benedict is careful to state that this came later, when Paul was baptized, entered into communion with the Church then lived in harmony with the other Apostles.
For tolerant Catholics, the unconditioned nature of faith is not a groundbreaking concept. However, Badiou’s work on the grace of resurrection may seem to offer some interesting possibilities. In his examination, Badiou repositions suffering from a means for redemption to something ancillary to the core of the Christian life.
Regarding the life of Christ separate from his resurrection, Badiou states, ” the rest is not real in conviction but obstructs or even falsifies it.” Here is the most radical distillation of Paul’s work. Because the life of Jesus precedes the resurrection’s singularity as well as the event is unconditioned, he is able to define grace within an antidialectic of death as well as resurrection.
A dialectical understanding of resurrection is found in Hegel, German romanticism, as well as Heidegger’s concept of ‘being towards death’. It underpins the idea that suffering must fill the ego until it breaks as well as allows a transformation. Yet, as Benedict affirms, Paul’s Christianity is not ” a development of his ego.” Christ’s resurrection did not negate death, rather he was pulled from the eventual trial of death. How did this work? Badiou proposes that it occurred through the same antidialectic that Paul experienced on the road to Damascus. Thus, there is no being towards death, only a path towards death in ‘divided composition’.
In chapter five of his book, called “The Division of the Subject”, Badiou addresses the constitution of the subject (in the case of resurrection, Christ is this subject) in relationship to the real. A subject (person) is nothing yet “the weaving together of two subjective paths” , the flesh (sarx) as well as the spirit (pneuma), the real that it obtains: death (Thanatos) or life (Zoe). Badiou translates an excerpt from Paul (Romans 8.6) as the following: “The thought of the flesh is death; the thought of the spirit is life.” Badiou is careful to state that “the opposition between the spirit/the flesh has nothing to do with the opposition between the soul as well as the body”.
In fact, it is the bodily resurrection of Christ that makes this difference between oppositions clear. The resurrection is pure grace. “It is neither a bequest, a tradition, or a teaching.” . Badiou calls this: “being under grace” in contrast to Heidegger’s “being towards death”. It is thus, antidialectical.
Nietzche condemned Paul for presenting a dialectical understanding of the resurrection. Yet, as both Badiou as well as Benedict affirm, Nietzche’s interpretation of the epistles is lacking. A dialectical understanding of the resurrection, still rooted in a form of Christianity, maintains that the path of life as well as affirmation is the labor of the negative, withstanding suffering as well as even death. Resurrection is the negation of the negation, life maintains itself, and suffering redeems. Badiou shows instead that Paul’s presentation of the resurrection is antidialectical, reflecting this concept of the divided subject.
Death is not obligatory. It is an Adamic phenomenon, a choice of the flesh against the spirit. Grace can thus be affirmation without preliminary negation. Suffering is part of life, yes, but it cannot provide the conditions for resurrection. That is the result of grace as “pure and simple encounter.”
Returning to the question of a visual language of Catholicism, reinforced by the Vatican’s art collections, it makes sense to highlight the grandeur as well as life affirming power of their beauty. Rather than a love of suffering as redemptive, it may be more appropriate to say that they reflect the values of certain Stoic ideas. Stoicism, rather than resurrection, may result after the release from the ego created due a life of Heideggerian “being towards death”.
Stoicism prioritized spiritual humanism, frugality, as well as the equality of all people. Benedict finds its influence in Paul’s letter to the Philippians when he writes: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, should there be any excellence, should there be any worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4.8). These values are compatible with artistic rigor rather than suffering as a condition for creation.
Though Benedict says that Stoicism influenced Christianity only in part, it is clear that its influences are felt at the core of Christian morality. For Benedict is less interested in presenting the structure of Paul’s arguments than he is in guiding his audience in their underlying message of humanism. Benedict’s vision, which is compatible with Badiou’s but more articulated, is of a community not free from distinctions, but free from division. In his discussion of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he states: “those Christians thought that since they had been freely justified in Christ through faith, “they could do as they pleased.” Then they believed–and it often seems that today’s Christians also think this–that it is permissible to create divisions in the Church, the body of Christ, to celebrate the Eucharist without looking after the neediest of our brothers, to aspire to better charisms without being aware that each is a member of the other,… so forth.” . He goes on to say that this reduces faith to an arbitrary subjectivism that is harmful. So here we see that Benedict adds something more to Badiou’s subjectivity. He adds a moral intention that relates to Stoic ideas.
When I state that a visual language exists, I by no means intend to create a law to govern that language. The law, as expertly analyzed by Badiou, presupposes a fictional subject (in this case, perfect art). This law would not result from an encounter with the real—it could not be created from the “being” of grace. In fact, it would be the aesthetic equivalent of the very signs of righteousness that Benedict as well as Paul condemn.
If this visual language exists, it would be most closely related to music, where pure form is given life by a human musician. The form in this case is not material, related to proportions, color or visual systems. It is the form of worship, given life by a subject choosing what Alain Badiou calls the thought of the spirit, life, as well as “being under grace”.