Christ Carrying the Cross

Christ Carrying the Cross

Monday, 7 May 2012

Christian Politics Via Badiou, or, How I Learned to Love Creatio Ex Nihilo and (Perhaps) Destroy Capitalism

Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.
          -Isaiah 43:19

I'm currently reading through and being absolutely blown away by Simon Critchley's The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. I'm not quite half way through yet, but I'm intrigued by a number of the arguments he makes. The first section is a drawn out consideration of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's political theory, and in particular the religious elements at play. Near the end, he introduces Alain Badiou's understanding of politics as being grounded in the "event" and seeks to show that politically Badiou is far more of a Rousseauist (as Critchley reads him) than a Marxist.

While my summary of Badiou is obviously going to greatly diminish the complexity--and power--of his argument, I think that we can get at the gist of it by simply citing the title of his best known work: Being and Event. "Being," to Badiou, is the situation we find ourselves in, socially, politically, economically and so on. It is the circumstances that serve only to breed with itself and perpetuate the status quo. True politics can only arrive in the form of the "event," that which has no precedent in the current state of affairs, comes from without, and can only arrive via an act of collective will (Badiou's favourite/only example of the event is the Paris Commune of 1871). Writes Critchley: 
So, what is politics, then? It is what Badiou calls an "evanescent event," the act by which a people declares itself into existence and seeks to follow through on that declaration.... It is this sudden ex nihilo transformation of the febrile sterility of the world into a fecund something, this moment of radical rupture... a seizure by thought in the event that is a seizure of power (p. 100).
Now, leading up to this section I was extremely pleased with myself that I had discerned the theological basis of the event without Critchley explicitly stating it as such. Then, as I rounded the corner my eyes scanned across a pair of italicized words: ex nihilo. Fuck, I hadn't outsmarted the brilliant, world-famous philosopher after all.

Being able to tie the political impulse to the theological is important for me because for the last while I've had a lot of trouble identifying just what it is about certain elements of the Christian tradition that still make them useful. The creation story is one of them. Under the corrupting (read: "awesome") influence of Catherine Keller, creatio ex nihilo is one of those doctrines I was ready to toss aside until Peter Rollins resurrected it for me with his charming little parable about the woman who strips for $400. The one major criticism of Rollins that I think actually sticks is that he isn't political enough, so I'm extremely pleased that Critchley is indirectly teasing out the political possibilities already present in Rollins's work via Badiou.

Throughout his epistles, Saint Paul is obsessed with the the concept of the "new." It is the new being, the new creation, the new kingdom that Christ has introduced. In II Corinthians 5:17 it says that "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!" We are also told in the famous (and progressive-favourite) passage Galatians 3:28 that "all are made one in Christ Jesus." To be a part of the new creation means becoming a part of a collective body, a body held together by that which is not a part of the present political being--grace--that is speaking with one voice, calling for radical egalitarianism and justice. 

The absurd otherness of the Christ event can and must be the necessary catalyst of the Badiouian event. Anything less would in my opinion be heresy. Like Badiou, I'm not actually that optimistic about an event taking place any time soon, but if Christianity has anything to offer the world right now, it's a prophetic imagination and faith in the "perhaps" of God's continuing work in the world. Quoth the Apostle Peter in a moment of characteristic agitation, "It's time to nut up or shut up."

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