A mistaken enterprise?


Paul in the Grip of the Philosophers, edited by Peter Frick, (published by Fortress Press), is concerned with the perhaps surprising contemporary phenomenon of otherwise atheist philosophers’ interest in the apostle Paul. Most of these philosophers would be placed on the “left”, although Frick points out in his introduction that simple left-right polarisations are not very helpful because they can block out potential lessons to be learned on both sides. The chapters cover what may be the usual suspects – Nietzsche, Derrida, etc. – while describing how Paul’s position within his society stimulates their thinking, even if many philosophers dismiss the content of his message. A final chapter encourages us within the churches to be not so precious with Paul and to accept as prompts the alternative viewpoint these philosophers present.

To take a couple of examples, the chapter on Alain Badiou (above) begins by noting that postmodernity is characterised by both pluralism and homogenisation. We have endless choice, but there is a sameness about it all, meaning true novelty is hard to find. And truth is seen as merely a matter of opinion. Badiou’s political problem is finding truth that is not so abstract as to be meaningless, but that is grounded in something more than a particular moment that is of interest to only a select few. And he finds in Paul an example of someone, even if in Badiou’s view what Paul is preaching about is nonsense, whose method treads this middle ground – applying a particular event (the resurrection) in a wider context.

Similarly, Slavoj Zizek, that frowning giant of European philosophy, finds inspiration in Paul’s proclamation of what seems a “scandal” to reason. For Zizek, Paul proves that radical change must come not from within the “horizon” of “common sense”, but must be sparked by something analogous to Kierkegaard’s (and Luther’s) leap of faith. Zizek claims then that his radical political philosophy is a far closer descendant of Paul than the theology of the mainstream churches. In other words, it is Paul’s radical method, and not his content, that is the most important thing. Now, Zizek may be saying this tongue in cheek (it’s hard to tell with Zizek, and he might say it is beside the point), and it certainly is contrary to the mainstream views in the churches, but for Zizek we live in a different world, and the sort of continuity with the early church we seek in the contemporary churches, in theological rather than political terms, would be for him a mistaken enterprise.