Out of all the chapters of Dan Barber’s excellent On Diaspora, this is the one I have found most personally challenging. Reading this chapter (which he passed along to me in manuscript form about a year ago) was decisive in weakening my deep desire to find a more or less purely “optimistic” reading of Paul. It’s all the more powerful for me in that arguably Barber’s primary point of reference here is also one of mine: namely, Taubes.
The argument of this chapter traces out the path by which a political stance can be so uncompromisingly radical that it effectively becomes conservative — and hence, even as its primary importance is genealogical, it can also serve as a cautionary tale. It begins by laying out the task Paul set himself, of founding a community that would follow in the wake of the Christian declaration Barber laid out in chapter 2. The task of this chapter is not simply a critique of Paul, then, but “also a reclamation of the problem to which he sought to become adequate” (64). Barber’s primary interlocutor here is Taubes, who has done so much to situate Paul’s thought politically.
The immediate problem Paul faces is how to create a community of Jews and Gentiles, and the first obstacle there is the law. Yet as Taubes points out, the concept of law cannot be reduced to the Torah here, as it also names the unifying point of reference for the “simultaneously flexible and delimiting liberalism” that defined the Greco-Roman world (68). Hence the stakes in rejecting the law are much higher than evading certain “religious” qualifications — it amounts to a rejection of the world as such, a true revaluation of all values that would overturn the Powers. And this is precisely where Paul falls short: he ultimately rejects the content of the Powers while keeping the form. Instead of embracing the immanent apocalypticism Barber outlined in chapter 2, Paul opts for a transcendent solution: “Political theology becomes less a way of being politically within the world (differential composition) and more a way of being politically against–because ontologically beyond–the world.”
Barber then traces the way this foreclosure of immanence plays out across four key concepts: people, love, chaos, and world. In each case, there is an ambivalence in Pauline thought, a sense that things could have taken another direction — yet at the same time, the gravitational pull of reestablishing identity proves determinative for the later Christian tradition. Perhaps most interesting here is Barber’s engagement with Carl Schmitt, who in Taubes’s view does justice to the fact that Paul is opposed to the world tout court and opts for order — any order — in the face of the chaos that apocalyptic commitment threatens to unleash. This is a fundamentally Christian move foreshadowed in Paul himself, “who is at once the thinker of katechon and the anarchic theorist of revolution against Rome” (81) — and even Yoder is no exception to this paradigm, in that he calls for submission to the “fallen” earthly Powers that supposedly still bear some connection to their divinely appointed purpose.
Overall, Paul tends in the direction of resolving the tension between Christ and the world through a transcendent solution that establishes what Boyarin calls an “allegorical” relationship between Christ and world, ultimately allowing a qualified affirmation of the world under the transcendent direction of Christ — hence laying the groundwork for the establishment of the concept of religion.
I have rarely encountered such a daring conceptual articulation of Paul’s thought — Badiou and Agamben look overly traditional and unrigorous in comparison. The strategic focus on Jewish commentators, supplemented by the (very differently) radical Christian thinkers Yoder and Schmitt, is particularly helpful in getting decisively “outside” the traditional reception.
I would like to suggest, however, that there is one more non-mainstream figure missing from his argument: Marcion. Bringing in this point of reference may have helped to clarify two points. First, Marcion — and, in a different way, the “Gnosticism” with which he is often over-hastily, but not totally unjustifiably, conflated — shows what the “purely anarchic” version of Paul’s transcendent solution to the antagonism between Christ and world might concretely look like: total rejection of the world and the body, total escape into otherworldly speculations, and a total break with the creator God of the Hebrew Bible. Second, and relatedly, it would show that the allegorical solution to the problem was motivated in large part by a desire for continuity with Judaism and, more specifically, by an insistence that the God of Jesus Christ was also the creator of the world.
I am less sympathetic toward Gnosticism than are other members of the blog (most notably Anthony), and so my account here might seem overly sympathetic toward the orthodox solution insofar as it is the “least bad” option. Yet I think it would highlight the danger behind the transcendent solution to the exaggerated antagonism between Christ and world: surely orthodoxy and Gnosticism are subject to Stalin’s famous dictum that “both options are worse,” yet these are the primary “livable” options that arise from the tensions inherent to Paul’s thought.
A couple other scattered observations:
- Given the reference to Kant’s notion of “the euthanasia of Judaism” in note 48 (page 85) and our recent discussion of Jay Carter’s argument that Kant’s thought is ultimately Gnostic, I wonder what we might make of Kant’s infamous combination of “dare to know!” and “obey!” In light of Barber’s discussion, the latter thought structure (which is arguably more central to Kant’s thought than the question of Judaism) seems more classically “Christian” than Gnostic.
- Barber criticizes Paul for leaving out of consideration “the matter of the world: it is the middle term of the opposition between dissolution and constitution, it is that without which both would be unthinkable, yet it remains unthought in itself” (82). One Christian locus classicus in which this middle term is thought is of course Augustine’s Confessions book 12, where he postulates that God had to have created formless matter — changeability itself — logically prior to the formed creation. (Catherine Keller of course takes this up in Face of the Deep, which Barber will engage with in a later chapter.) This notion of necessary changeability is in obvious tension with another of Augustine’s classic themes: evil as privation, which seems to correspond more closely to the Schmittian theme of chaos as that which we must avoid at all costs. I’m not sure where to go with this, though, other than to point out that some immanent or diasporic themes do continue to pop up at times in the later tradition.
I hope the somewhat scattered nature of my reflection can be taken as testimony to how productive of thought I have found this book and this chapter in particular — and to the fact that I’m still grappling with it.