By Michael Jimenez
The year 1968 was an important one for both Karl Barth and Alain Badiou. For the young Badiou, he went through his self-proclaimed Damascus experience during the failed events of the 1968 Revolution. For Barth, he died. Therefore, the attempt to have both Barth and Badiou in conversation is fictional to some extent. The fact that Barth was unable to read Badiou’s Being and Event or St. Paul forces us to wonder what the real Barth would think of Badiou’s Paul. Of course, Badiou could still interact with Barth’s thought even though Badiou does not seem to be interested in theology outside of criticizing the turn to the religious in philosophical thought, or in the use of Paul as a model of the event. Even though Badiou would perhaps regard Barth as an anti-philosopher (as he does with figures like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and even St. Paul; see St. Paul, 17), he does not totally ignore these thinkers because they have oftentimes provided helpful criticisms of philosophy.
Badiou is crystal clear on his position with regards to both God and humanity when he states that “the God of monotheisms has been dead for a long time, no doubt for at least two hundred years, and the man of humanism has not survived the twentieth century” (Century, 166). Then why have a dead Swiss theologian in conversation with a living, militant French atheist? Would not the most appropriate approach be putting Barth in dialogue with someone he actually interacted with, like Jean Paul Sartre?
The aim of this discussion is to make a case that there are elements of Barth’s thought that can be in conversation with a philosopher like Badiou. I will examine at least two possibilities for conversation. First, on St. Paul’s is important to both in developing their idea of the Event and the newness it creates. Second, the way the Event shapes their understanding of the social-political world. Therefore, my goal is to not get into an argument about theism versus atheism, but to find areas where these two very different thinkers can be put into conversation.
For Badiou, Paul is one of the first thinkers of the universal; a timeless message springs off the pages of Paul’s epistles (St. Paul, 36 and 108). Even though Badiou does not affirm Paul’s theology, he admires him as an original thinker. Badiou declares that Paul is a “poet-thinker of the event” and a “militant figure” (St. Paul, 2). For Barth, Paul is also an important person. Barth’s break from liberal, modern theology was fueled by his return to the Bible and especially the writings of Paul. Here he discovered the supremacy of God over and against the ways of human endeavors. The fruit of this reading led to both editions of his Romans commentary. He continued struggle towards comprehend Paul for the rest of his life; Barth writes: “Paul―what a man he must have been …. The Reformers, even Luther, are far from that stature of Paul…. What realities those must have been that could set this man in motion in such a way” (Rev Theo, 43). In language reminiscent of Badiou’s idea of rupture, Barth describes the reality of what must have changed Paul’s whole being on that Damascus road; this change by the Christ-event is what Barth spent a lifetime trying to describe.
Grace is central for both Badiou and Barth when reading Paul. Grace, as the center of the gospel message, is a universal message that is for all because it is a truth. The fact that grace has arrived makes us children of God here and now; the language of grace is centered on faith, hope and love (St. Paul, 14-5). Badiou believes that the discourse of the apostle, the Christian discourse, is a new way for Paul to speak in contrast to the Jewish (prophecy), which is the discourse of exception and the sign, and Greek (philosophy), which is the discourse of order and regularity (St. Paul, 43). Therefore, Badiou insists: “The apostle, who declares an unheard-of possibility, one dependent on an evental grace, properly speaking knows nothing” (St. Paul, 45). Theologian Gerrit Neven provides a good summary of what this new way of thinking entails and even manages to relate it to Barth in the process:
Appealing to the apostle, Badiou introduces a new way of thinking. In that thinking language is being sought that is capable of expressing this new thing - which belongs to all and is for all. . . . We don’t find resignation or conformism, but resistance. With Badiou we recognize something of what is called the ‘royal human being’ with Karl Barth. There is affirmation of earthly life and there is a strong will to convey this yes to life to everybody. This activity never leads to looking back at what has been, but to a focus on what can be done today (“Doing Theology,” 40).
There is much here that is similar to Barth. For Barth, because of the Christ-event, God’s Yes is more powerful than God’s No; in other words, God reveals that God is for humanity through the act of grace in Christ. For Badiou, the event is “pure giveness” because it is not a mediated thing or a teaching but the pure gift of grace (St. Paul, 63). The event creates the subject and so the concern with the question of knowledge is avoided because something new has happened. For Badiou, “Christ is not a mediation” but “the pure event,” which means Paul never appeals to a proof because there is no proof to prove (St. Paul, 48). Neven does a good job illustrating that “faith is about the way truth is put into practice. Badiou teaches how to do that. One must find names, words, to get the clogged up sources of humanity flowing again. This calls for a kind of thought that does not conform. Thought that conforms will get stuck one day as a matter of course. Thought that does not conform will be renewed and rejuvenated” (“Doing Theology,” 41).
According to Barth, the challenge that Paul faced – and that faces any other who believes that God has spoken a word to humanity – is in trying to speak truthfully in light of the event of revelation. In short, the event of revelation penetrates into the very secularity of this world and not some holy sphere (CD I/1, 116). In God’s self-revelation, there is a veiling and unveiling which presents a gap in what God reveals to us and what we can possibly say in response to that revelation. It is a message that wrestles with the thoughts of this world. Here, one of Barth’s most famous comments rings true:
God may speak to us through Russian Communism, a flute concerto, a blossoming shrub, or a dead dog. We do well to listen to Him if He really does. . . . God may speak to us through a pagan or an atheist, and thus give us to understand that the boundary between the Church and the secular world can still take at any time a different course from that which we think we discern (CD I/1, 55).This important passage stresses that the event of revelation is so totally new that it can perhaps catch us unawares. Furthermore, if we really take Barth seriously, we will listen to a non-Christian voice like Badiou’s when, through the Apostle Paul, he declares that the world is in trouble.
Barth announces that there is no God behind the event; God is in the event. God is known through this act. However, the event of God’s revelation can never be generalized. Therefore, Barth asserts that “the basis of His revelation we always understand God as event, as act and as life, we have not in any way identified Him with a sum or content of event, act, or life generally” (CD II/1, 264). Barth commentator George Hunsinger affirms that “in Barth’s theology truth is always conceived as an event” (How To Read, 67). This truth-event is given to human beings in the form of revelation. Truth is part of God, so in order for human beings to know the truth it takes an act of revealing on God’s part. Since God is a living being, truth is not static; God’s being is seen in the act of God’s self-revelation. Revelation just happens; it is an interruption in the ways of the world. Hunsinger notes the dynamic nature of the event and truth: “Because truth is a predicate of the living God, our human perception and reception of this truth can only be an ongoing event. They can only be understood as an event continually created and given by the living God as such” (Ibid.).
To some extent Barth sounds similar to Badiou in saying that we become subjectivized as a result of and in response to the event of God’s self-revelation:
We are speaking of the knowledge of God whose subject is God the Father and God the Son through the Holy Spirit. But we men are taken up into this event as secondary, subsequent subjects. Therefore we are not speaking only of an event which takes place on high, in the mystery of the divine Trinity. We are indeed speaking of this event, and the force of anything that is said about the knowledge of God consists in the fact that we speak also and first of this event. But we are now speaking of the revelation of this event on high and therefore our participation in it. We are speaking of the human knowledge of God on the basis of this revelation and therefore of an event which formally and technically cannot be distinguished from what we call knowledge in other connexions, from human cognition (CD II/1, 181).It is the duty of those caught up in this event to bear witnesses to it. They must speak about this revelation in the language they are familiar with. To some extent, this is a tentative duty because God is the Subject of revelation and the human subject is only secondarily taken up into this revelation; speaking about this revelation requires the gracious strengthening of the Spirit. Badiou proclaims that only a public declaration of the event illustrates that one is truly faithful to the event (St. Paul, 88).
What I have tried to establish is that both Barth and Badiou are thinkers of the event; their thought process starts from an external encounter, a happening that creates a new, engaged subject. For Barth, this is based upon a work of God, but Badiou de-theologizes the event to fit into a modern, naturalistic world. Thus, some might contest the use of Badiou’s idea of the event in conversation with an explicitly Christian thinker. However, Badiou commentator Ed Pluth observes elements of religious language in Badiou’s work in that the event sounds like something that is “descending from the sky like a miracle,” and that he uses interventionists terms that link up to an act of being seized by a revelation (Philosophy of the New, 68 and 102). In addition, philosopher Slavoj Žižek contends that Badiou’s theory of the event is religious by its very nature: “For Badiou, Truth itself is a theologico-political notion: theological in so far as religious revelation is the unavowed paradigm of his notion of the Truth-Event; political because Truth is not a state to be perceived by means of a neutral intuition, but a matter of (ultimately political) engagement” (Ticklish Subject, 183). According to Badiou, there are only four truth procedures: science, art, politics and love; religion does not make the cut. Thus, Žižek poignantly notes the irony in Badiou’s use of Paul:
The point is that his supreme example of a truth-procedure―event, and so on―its implicit model is a kind of religious interpellation. So no wonder that the best example, it’s religious! But paradoxically there is no place for religion. You know the irony is that the supreme example of the seminal structure of truth event that he tries to articulate, and it doesn’t even count as a truth-event (“Interview with Žižek,” 32).
Žižek presses this criticism further when he takes it upon himself to outline what the actual Christian event would look like using Badiou’s philosophical categories. He suggests that “the Event is Christ’s incarnation and death; its ultimate Goal is the Last Judgment, the final Redemption; its ‘operator’ in the multiple of the historical situation is the Church; its ‘subject’ is the corpus of believers who intervene in their situation on behalf of the Truth-Event, searching in it for signs of God” (“Ticklish Subject,” 130). In other words, Badiou’s method fits perfectly with Christian revelation.
What are the differences between the two thinkers? In my reading of both Barth and Badiou it seems that, for Badiou, the event is boiled down to Christ’s resurrection and, for Barth, it is in God’s revelation of his word/act toward humanity. Badiou is clear that the heart of the Christian message is that “Jesus is resurrected” (St. Paul, 4 and 63). Barth would not necessarily disagree with this point. In his early theology, Barth declared that “the Resurrection is the revelation” (Romans, 30); in his late theology, Barth’s emphasis is on the incarnation of the elected God-Man, such that one cannot have the resurrection without the cross (CD IV/1, 316-7). Thus, it appears that there is not enough attention to the No of the cross in Badiou’s reading of Paul. This might be his commitment to finding no dialectic in Paul (St. Paul, 66 and 110). Barth had a long and varied commitment to his own form of dialectic; there is not enough space here to deal at any length with his dialectical method. Still, what Barth ultimately sees in the dialectic is that it serves as a limiter to what we can say about God. Again, it presents a gap in what we can know and say about the veiled/unveiled God. Moreover, Badiou is very suspicious of the Trinity and Christ’s divinity whereas Barth’s theology of revelation centers on these ideas (St. Paul, 71; CD II/1, 262-3).
How does the event change the way they interact with the social-political world? A practical way to see how their thought connects is in their views of totalitarianism. Barth is famous for criticizing the positions of his former German professors in their support of Germany during World War I, and then later for his dismissal from Nazi Germany due to his criticism of Hitler. However, when it came to the rhetoric of the Cold War, much to the consternation of fellow theologians Emil Brunner and Reinhold Niebuhr, Barth refused to participate; he did not want to get trapped into the binary logic of choosing between either capitalism or communism. For example, Barth declared that “as long as there is still a ‘freedom’ in the West to organize economic crises, a ‘freedom’ to dump our corn into the sea here whilst people are starving there,” he refused to go completely over to the side of the West and absolutely criticize the East (Against the Stream, 140).
Moreover, much like Badiou, he refused to equate Nazism with Communism under the umbrella of the term totalitarianism (Century, 102-3; Against the Stream, 139-40). According to Barth, Fascist governments like the Nazis have no positive or constructive elements and mask themselves as a movement that is in line with God. Barth argues that at least Communist regimes have social-political liberation as their commanding idea and are open about their antipathy to any theology. For Barth, the rabid anti-Communism coming from the West went overboard in its condemnations; he did not think it took any courage to renounce the East from the safety of the West. He declares: “Must the Church then move with the stream and thus side with America and the Vatican, merely because somewhere in the text-books of its professors—ever since 1934—it has rightly been said that ‘totalitarianism’ is a dreadful thing” (Against the Stream, 117)? Furthermore, Barth clearly notes that most battle cries from the West against totalitarianism are not honest and thus not Christian; in fact, he responds by saying that if they were more concerned about the safety and care of the world’s people, they would be against all forms of totalitarianism like the one in Spain led by Franco (Against the Stream, 138).
Badiou would say an Amen to Barth’s comments. The truth that flows out of the event will produce non-conformist thought (St. Paul, 110). What one finds here, then, is how both thinkers seem not to be satisfied with the normal depiction of the social-political world that denies the prospect of something new materializing. They both look for some kind of happening to occur to wake people up from their ideological slumbers on the Right and the Left. However, Badiou puts it well when he states that we cannot sit around waiting for an event to happen (St. Paul, 11). Some might view their thinking as unrealistic or even quietist because they refuse to align themselves concretely to a party. Still, what they do teach us is to be open to the new that will materialize itself in the ebb and flow of reality.
Badiou, Alain. Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism. Translated by Ray Brassier. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2003.
————. The Century. Translated by Alberto Toscano. Malden, Massachusetts: Polity Press, 2007.
Barth, Karl. Against the Stream: Shorter Post-War Writings 1946-52. London: SCM Press, 1954.
————. Church Dogmatics. Translated and edited by G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1956-75.
————. The Epistle to the Romans. Translated by Edwyn C. Hoskyns. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.
Joshua Delpech-Ramey, “An Interview with Slavoj Žižek, ‘On Divine Self-Limitation and Revolutionary Love’,” Journal of Philosophy and Scripture 1, no.2 (2004).
Gerrit Neven, “Doing Theology Without God? About the Reality of Faith in the 21st Century,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 6 (2005).
George Hunsinger, How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of His Theology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Ed Pluth, Badiou: A Philosophy of the New. Malden, Massachusetts: Polity, 2010.
Smart, James (ed.). Revolutionary Theology in the Making: Barth-Thurneysen Correspondence, 1914-1925. Richmond, Virginia: John Knox Press, 1964.
Žižek, Slavoj. The Ticklish Subject: The Absent Centre of Political Ontology. New York: Verso, 2000.
By Geoffrey Holsclaw
I have always thought that Badiou and Barth should be compared, contrasted, and cross-pollinated. But it is near impossible to do justice to either thinker in the room provided here. Working from the other direction than Michael Jimenez (from more exposure to Badiou than Barth), I want to briefly offer some comments on further engagements between Barth and Badiou.
Jimenez usefully draws out the similarities between the two thinkers. They both see Paul as a pivotal figure in explicating the event. Both see the irruption of the new as an event of grace producing faithful subjects who witness to the truth of the event. And both understand the event as intimately connected to the socio-political world.
Of course, Barth and Badiou do not share the same theistic, or atheistic, presuppositions, and perhaps because of this they do not share the same integrated view of the cross and resurrection (as Jimenez points out, Badiou sees the resurrection as unrelated to the cross, because the death of Jesus is merely the ground or site of the event of resurrection, but resurrection is in no way related to death).
But I would say, and this might be to the chagrin of those seeking an easy introduction into his work, but Badiou’s though is probably not helpfully accessed through this work on Paul. This might be like taking Evangelical Theology as sufficient for understanding Barth. But really you have to dig deep into each system to truly understand what is going on and where the important issues lay.
I would say that a proper engagement with both Badiou and Barth must confront how each reconfigure classical ontology and the place of knowledge, and their own use of dialectic and/or analogy.
First, ontology. Badiou, particularly in Being and Event, gives a comprehensive re-description of classical ontology by offering a Platonism of the multiple against a Platonism of the One. Against all ontologies of presence, of the transcendent One, Badiou proclaims that “the One is not,” only multiplicity is. But beyond strict ontology where the One is not, in the phenomenal realm, or within the realm of presentation, “there is the Oneness” produced by languages, circumstances, and objects. These languages, circumstances, and objects are grouped and form a “situation” within which there is a secure realm of knowledge. This knowledge (what, for Barth, we might be tempted to call the world of natural theology) is comprehensive in nature, but barred from the truth because truth only comes with events, a truth produced by subjects faithfully discerning the event within each situation. Following Lacan, truth punches a hole in knowledge. In this way being and event are non-dialectically related, just as are knowledge and truth. The latter retroactively determines the former.
There are two things quickly to note here. The first regards the possible parallel between how Badiou understands knowledge within the register of being as polemically related to the event and truth, and Barth’s polemic against natural theology. The second focuses on ontology per se, and the controversy regarding the true interpretation of Barth’s actualism (this is a debate that I’m not as up on as others here, but roughly those for/against McCormick’s interpretation).
Second, dialectic and/or analogy. I find it interesting that interpretations of Barth and Badiou argue over the presence and use of dialectic and analogy. Of course, von Balthasar finds an implicit analogy of being within Barth, and another Catholic theologian, Depoortere in Badiou and Theology, finds a modernized analogy of being in Badiou. I’m only competent to assess Depoortere, which is to say that I broadly agree that Badiou’s mathematical ontology need not necessarily be atheistic, and that it should be critically deployed by theologians. But Depooertere runs his analyses through an older Vatican 1 understanding of faith and reason, and doesn’t properly engage with Badiou’s theory of the subject. Nevertheless, it seems that a deep comparison between the two regarding dialectic, which many see Badiou’s Logic of Worlds attempting to express, would fruitfully elucidate more of what Barth was doing and how it can further certain theological debates. Indeed, as I’ve argued elsewhere, Badiou in many helpful ways is splitting the difference between Protestent and Catholic theologies/ontologies, much in the same way that Barth was hoping to do in his time. It therefore might be possible that re-reading Barth via Badiou might shine light on the presence/absence of analogy in Barth, or at least offer a more sophisticated apparatus for discerning Barth’s use of dialectic and analogy.
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