Badiou (Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism) gets a lot wrong. Primarily, what he gets wrong is the very modern effort to fit universalize Paul into a herald of “the Event.” Badiou has no interest or belief in the specifics of the gospel Paul preaches, only in the formal structure of a Paul who announces a great event that defines truth in terms of faithfulness to the Event.
But his approach does get some things right. Like this: Paul’s letters “are in no way . . . narratives, in the manner of the Gospels, or theoretical treatises, of the kind later by the Church Fathers, or the lyrical prophecies, such as the Apocalypse attributed John.” Rather, he says, “they are interventions” (31). Paul “propounds a speech of rupture, and writing ensues when necessary” (31).
He also gets at something true by speaking of Paul as the anti-philosopher, who resists all attempts to confine the gospel events into a system, especially every attempt to coopt the gospel into a form of Greek “wisdom,” which takes its cues from the order of the cosmos, the way things are, In this respect, Badiou is correct that Paul is a theologian of the event – only he is not a theologian of the even in general but of one event-complex, the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That is the touchstone of everything for Paul, the touchstone of “physics” and “ethics.” What is not the touchstone is some permanent substructure of reality discernible by wisdom and explicable in rhetoric.
Nor can Paul be bundled together, Badiou says, with the Jews, for whom signs play the role that wisdom plays in Greek philosophy. Jewish “discourse” is the discourse of the exception, “because the prophetic sign, the miracle, election, designate transcendence as that which lies behind the natural totality” (41). Neither wisdom nor signs define Paul’s discourse. One cannot start from the Whole or from the exception to the Whole, neither Greek or Jew. “One must proceed from the even as such,” which Badiou describes as “a-cosmic and illegal, refusing integration into any totality and signaling nothing” (4).
These are discourses that Badiou describes as discourses of the Father: “They bind communities in a form of obedience (to the Cosmos, the Empire, God, or the Law).” One (Greek) is a universalizing discourse of the Father; the other (Jewish) is a particular discourse of the Father. What’s needed for what Badiou identifies as a true universal is a “discourse of the Son” (42). The discourse of the Son is one that is “absolutely new.” The discourse of the Son is a discourse of rupture, since God’s sending of the Son “signifies primarily an intervention within History, one through which it is, as Nietzsche will put it, ‘broken in two,’ rather than governed by a transcendental reckoning in conformity the laws of an epoch. The sending (birth) of the son names this rupture. That it is the son, not the father, who is exemplary, enjoins us not to put our trust any longer in any discourse laying claim to the form of mastery” (43).
There is, as I say, much wrong here. Paul’s central announcement is “Jesus is Lord,” which sure sounds like a “form of mastery,” and the “apocalyptic” tendency of Badiou’s explanation of Paul needs to be balanced by a “covenantal” emphasis on continuity. Badiou opts for permanent apocalyptic: “Christ is a coming; he is what interrupts the previous regime of discourses, Christ is, in himself and for himself, what happens to us” (48).Well, no, he’s not.
But for all his formalism, Badiou gets at some aspects of the political and cultural power of Paul’s gospel. If we need to supplement the apocalyptic element of Paul (and we d0) we don’t want to lose it.