My SBL Presentation

[The following is the text of my presentation at this year’s SBL, entitled “Philosophical Reading Beyond Paul: Jean-Luc Nancy on the Epistle of James.” Page numbers refer to Déclosion; translations are my own. (In some cases, antecedents have been supplied for the sake of clarity in oral delivery.) I am normally a “use the whole buffalo” kind of guy — i.e., don’t write something unless you can use it at least twice — but I don’t think this is publishable as it stands. It has been suggested that this paper needs some more explicit materials about what makes this reading of James specifically “Nancean,” which would perhaps make it more reusable. Further suggestions along those lines are welcome.]

As is well-known, in recent years certain figures in continental philosophy have displayed a renewed interest in the writings of Saint Paul. Stanislas Breton, Jacob Taubes, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben, Bernard Sichère, and Slavoj Zizek are among the figures who have devoted book-length treatments to Paul, and interest in these “philosophical readings” seems-perhaps surprisingly-to be growing rather than abating in the English-speaking world. Though some have tended to treat this interest in Paul as a surprising departure, in fact it is in continuity with a long tradition in modern philosophy, stretching back to at least Spinoza. Just as the early modern philosophers generally attempted to recruit Paul to the side of the modern secular state, so also contemporary readers have tended to envision Paul as a precursor of the modern revolutionary leader.

In both cases, there has been relatively little interest in parts of the New Testament other than the Pauline epistles. Several of these readers of Paul more or less explicitly explain why they do not address the later New Testament writings-Badiou, for instance, is interested only in Paul’s revolutionary subjectivity and not in its empirical results (i.e., Christianity), and Zizek views actual existing Christianity as a betrayal of its Pauline origins. I propose, however, that whatever the explicit reasons given, the underlying motivation for addressing Paul rather than any other New Testament writings is the sense that Paul is the only New Testament writer truly worth dealing with, the only truly formidable mind among the apostles. Beyond that, Paul’s letters-particularly Romans, which has tended to attract the most attention-seem closer to the genre of a philosophical treatise than do the gospel narratives or Revelation.

This bias toward Paul, while understandable, has in my opinion cut off certain promising possibilities. Contemporary scholarship recognizes all the New Testament writings to be grounded in particular Christian communities and has tended to understand those writings as survival strategies within those communities’ particular contexts. Thus, for example, the “household codes” in the deutero-Pauline epistles have tended to be interpreted not so much as expressing a divine preference for certain social structures, but rather as attempts to preserve a counter-cultural movement that was suffering persecution. Such strategies should certainly be of interest to those who are looking to Paul’s Christian collectives as a model for present revolutionary practice. Their authors may not be gifted speculative thinkers, but arguably neither was Lenin. Hence I have hoped for some expansion of the philosophico-political reading of Paul to the rest of the early Christian literature.

So far, however, philosophical readings of New Testament literature other than Paul have stemmed from another tendency in European philosophy: the so-called “religious turn” in phenomenology represented by figures such as Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Marion, and Michel Henry. Henry’s I Am the Truth is welcome in the attention it gives to a narrative text, but it is a reading of the Gospel of John, long recognized as the most “philosophical” gospel. A more radical departure can be found in Jean-Luc Nancy’s essay, “The Judeo-Christian: On Faith,” which treats a text neglected by philosophers and theologians alike: the Epistle of James, which Luther called “epistle of straw.”

The decision to write on James appears to have been fortuitous. Nancy first delivered the essay in a conference devoted to Jacques Derrida, the proceedings of which were later collected under the title Judeities. He then republished it in an essay collection on Christianity that is to appear in English later this year under the title Dis-Enclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity. Nancy takes as his point of departure Derrida’s essay “Faith and Knowledge: On the Two Sources of ‘Religion’ at the Limits of Reason Alone.” Where Derrida takes the two sources of “religion” to be-at the risk of simplifying-faith and the sacred, Nancy turns to the word that is often used to describe the historic religious tradition of the West: the “Judeo-Christian.” Beyond being a response to Derrida, Nancy’s text is also structured in a fairly typical Derridean way: a relatively brief opening section analyzes the central concept of the “Judeo-Christian,” and then the bulk of the text is given over to a reading of a text in which the concept is at play in an exemplary way-Grammatology and Force of Law are perhaps the most famous Derridean texts to follow this structure. Nancy chooses to focus his attention on the Epistle of James because the epistle-along with its supposed author-has long been understood as exemplifying “Judeo-Christianity.” Additionally, in the French translation, the epistle’s author is named “Jacques,” and Nancy makes several comparison between the thought of James and Derrida by referring to “the other Jacques.” (The underlying name is essentially “Jacob,” but the tradition of English-language translations has, for whatever reason, dictated that the same name be translated differently when referring to an Old Testament or New Testament character.)

Nancy’s interest in the Judeo-Christian, however, goes beyond a simple desire to pose a clever response to Derrida’s “Faith and Knowledge.” Rather, it stands as part of a broader ambition of deconstructing the intellectual heritage in the West, which for Nancy has increasingly meant deconstructing “Christianity”-in part because Christianity is what Western philosophy has defined itself over against. The “Judeo-Christian” names “a contrareity of the West in itself and for itself” and Nancy hopes to use the concept as leverage for his project of deconstruction. The hyphen in “Judeo-Christian”-which was previously highlighted by Jean-François Lyotard-“passes over a void, which it does not fill.” The question then becomes that of knowing “onto what can this void open?” A related question “is perhaps, potentially, a reflexion on composition in general-the composition of our tradition and in our tradition, that is to say, in the final account, the possibility of the cum [with] considered for itself” (68). That is, the question of the Judeo-Christian as the composite root of the Western tradition also touches on the question of being-with, which is the latest keyword in Nancy’s ongoing investigation of community (see Being Singular Plural).

With this complex of ideas in hand, Nancy turns to the task of situating the Epistle of James, and it is here that his argumentative strategy is perhaps unclear and potentially distracting. Though he makes reference to contemporary scholarship that complicates the customary image of first-century “Judeo-Christianity,” Nancy nonetheless relies overwhelmingly on traditional categories-for instance, he begins with a discussion of the term “catholic epistles,” then gives a brief account of the role of James (the brother of Jesus) in the book of Acts, whom he seems to identify unproblematically with the author of the epistle. He also traces over the traditional conflict between Paul and James, coming up with the standard answer that James simply meant to clarify certain sloganizing interpretations of Paul-and incidentally attributes all of Paul’s speeches in Acts and all the pseudo-Pauline letters, including even Hebrews, directly to Paul. The only modern scholar he refers to by name is Harnack, whose work is of course now nearly a century old. Even while doing all this, however, Nancy disclaims the task of a historian or scholar-which is actually something of a ritual gesture for Nancy-and examines “the internal logic of this letter” with no apparent reference to any of the dubious historical information he has supplied.

When I first proposed this paper, I had intended to argue that Nancy’s reading was more or less “detachable” from his unconvincing historical account. Given his apparent knowledge of more credible scholarship, however, I have come to believe that the use of the “naïve” traditional story of Christian origins is a deliberate strategy-since his goal is to use the “Judeo-Christian” Epistle of James as a wedge for deconstructing the Western tradition, he must first situate it within that tradition, which means tracing out the place the tradition has given it. In this case, attributing it to the same James who presided over the so-called Council of Jerusalem means positioning the Epistle as representative of a certain transitional moment of passage from “Judeo-Christianity” to a supposedly “universal” Christianity-as it were, treating the Epistle of James as the very hyphen in “Judeo-Christian.” Since, as I have already noted, for Nancy this hyphen “passes over a void, which it does not fill,” the Epistle of James is, by the tradition’s own account, a privileged way to uncover that foundational void-and what it might open onto. Accordingly, the decision to bracket the historical-critical reconstruction of “the background or implicit elements of this text” (72) and to attempt, as far as possible, to keep to “the internal logic of this letter” (73) becomes a way of showing what the founding moment of Christianity-the transition from Judaism to Christianity-may have covered over.

This same strategy determines the direction his reading of the text itself takes. Despite the fact that they occupy a more or less marginal place in the letter itself, Nancy focuses much of his attention on central Christian themes: the image of God, the nature of God, and Christ. Rather than filling these passing references with some content derived either from the tradition or from scholarly reconstruction, however, he lets their meaning emerge from their place within the logic of the epistle, though he will often clarify by reference to Old Testament passages James seems to be citing. The result is, for example, a picture of God who “is not the God of Israel in his jealous exclusivity-without being properly the God either of the Trinity or of love” (73). Instead, the God of the Epistle of James is defined as the source of “every good and perfect gift” (74)-and God’s gift is first of all light:

He gives not so much some particular thing as the possibility of the light in which there can alone be things. If the logic of the gift is indeed, as the other Jacques [Derrida] likes to scrutinize it, that the giver abandons himself in his gift, that is what happens here. In giving, in accomplishing the gift, he gives himself just as much as he remains in himself without shadow… To give and retain, to give oneself and retain oneself, here are not contradictory (74).

God’s gift of grace is understood according to this same coincidence of giving and retaining. When James rails against covetousness, he is critiquing a model of desire and pleasure centered on lack. What God’s gift offers in its place, however, is not simply fullness: “There is thus a logic of lack and of jealous appropriation, and a logic of the request in order to receive what can be received only from the gift or as a gift, that is, the favor of grace. This kharis is not the opposite of either desire or pleasure: it is desire and pleasure as receptivity of the gift” (75).

This logic of the gift is precisely what underwrites James’s critique of wealth, which, as Nancy notes, is one of the harshest in the New Testament-but at the same time, it keeps James’s ethics from being one of renouncement or asceticism. This distinct stance, “separated from envy as much as from renunciation,” is what James calls “faith” (76). James is of course most famous for his discussion of the relationship between faith and works. From the famous quotation “faith without works is dead,” Nancy concludes that for James, “Works do not fit into the order of an exterior manifestation or of a proof by the phenomenon. Faith does not subsist in itself” (76). That is to say, faith directly is works, faith “exists only in works” (77). This shift from the normal idea of faith “expressed” in works requires a correlative shift in the idea of works. If it is the case that James is clarifying rather than contradicting Paul, James’s “works” cannot be understood as a simple return to “works of the law”-that is, works that fulfill some external precept. Based on a close analysis of the Greek text, Nancy proposes a reciprocal relationship between faith and works, drawing in turn on Blanchot and Derrida:

If I wanted to transcribe this in a Blanchotian language, I would say that faith is the unworking that takes place in and as the work. And if I wanted to pass from one Jacques to the other, I would say that faith as praxis of poiesis works in poiesis the inadequation to self that alone can constitute “doing” or “acting” (either one of these concepts implying the difference from itself of every concept or the irreducible difference between a lexis [law] and the praxis that would effectuate it) (77).

From this, Nancy concludes that practice necessarily exceeds any concept, and therefore:

Faith would here be the excess of and in action or in operation, and it would be that excess insofar as it is ordered to nothing but itself, that is to say also to the possibility for a “subject” (for an agent, for an actor) to be infinitely more and excessively more than what he is in himself or for himself (78).

Therefore, faith cannot be a possession of the subject-it must be understood according to the logic of a gift that never stops being a gift. This is not merely because it is somehow “better” to treat faith as a gift, but because faith inherently cannot be possessed. Just as it renders all works inadequate and non-identical to themselves, so also is faith non-identical to itself in its very core: “there is at the heart of faith a decision of faith that precedes itself and that exceeds itself” (78).

For this reason, faith cannot be understood on the order of knowledge or of belief-faith “is in works, it does or makes them and works do or make it” (78). Here Nancy recalls a quotation from Nietzsche, who insists that the true meaning of Christianity is not belief, but rather practice-a point on which he is entirely in agreement with James, though perhaps not with Paul. For Nancy, the true difference between Paul and James is not on the question of works, but on the question of faith-Paul proposes a certain relationship between faith and knowledge or belief, whereas James skips over the question of knowledge altogether. This can be seen in the difference between their treatment of Abraham (an argument which is somewhat obscured by the fact that Nancy regards Hebrews as reflective of Paul’s position). Paul places the emphasis on the fact that Abraham believed and it was credited to him as righteousness, but “in a certain way, the Abraham of James believes nothing, doesn’t even hope” (79). It is precisely because Abraham does not “know” or “believe” that he has reasons for what he is doing that he is properly displaying faith.

This concept of faith underlies the three main topics of James’s moral exhortation: “the love of neighbor, the disfavor toward riches, the true and decisive word.” All three share in common “an exposition to what cannot be appropriated” (81). Nancy groups these three themes under the heading of the “law of liberty,” a term that Nancy suggests might be something of a hapax within the New Testament and that he claims resonates in certain ways with Stoicism-thus demonstrating “the implication of philosophy in Christianity in statu nascendi” (81). Unfortunately, Nancy chooses not to analyze any of James’s moral exhortations in any great detail. Though he cites the time constraints imposed by the conference at which his essay was originally delivered, the fact that he did not expand the essay after the fact may show that he shares with his fellow philosophers a bias against the practical concerns of organizing a community-that is, against anything more practical than the concept of praxis.

Nancy gives over the remainder of his essay to what makes the Epistle of James Judeo-Christian-references to Christ. Remarkably, James mentions Christ only twice. The opening greeting, apparently modeled on Paul, reads: “James, slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” A later verse asks his readers if they have “faith in our Lord Jesus the Christ of glory” (2:1). This minimal reference to Christ as the anointed one “remains in retreat from every Christology.” It is not a matter here of Jesus’s divine nature, his incarnation, or even of his salvation-the only purpose that the name of Jesus serves here is to clarify that the messiah has in fact come. Indeed, a naïve reader (as Nancy is attempting to be) would not even have any reason to believe that Jesus had died based on the information James gives.

Attempting to clarify the meaning of the “messiah,” Nancy focuses on the phrase “the messiah of glory,” which he claims is another hapax within the New Testament. His presentation of the notion of the messiah is more or less limited to an explanation of the offices of prophet, priest, and king, with particular emphasis on the royal aspect. The key word, however, is glory. Drawing on all he said previously about the link between God’s light and the notion of gift, Nancy argues that a royalty of “glory” must be distinguished from a royalty based in power:

Glory, purely and simply, gives itself precisely as that which is not appropriable-perhaps not even by the one from whom it emanates-but only admirable… Faith in glory or of glory … is faith in the inappropriable (84).

Jesus names nothing but the appearance of this glory: his name is “the proper name of the inappropriable… a name for every name, for all names, for the name of every other” (84). Thus, Nancy claims that James’s exhortation not to show favoritism for certain persons should also be extended to Christ himself-and at this point, he argues that he has touched upon the moment of “deconstruction before the construction, or during the construction,” a moment that necessarily trips up the search for the purity of origins that has repeatedly obsessed Christianity and the West (84).

The claim that a New Testament author thinks that “Jesus” should not be regarded as a special name does require some substantiation, of course, and Nancy attempts to provide it in a way that ties together all of the major themes he has drawn out of James’s letter. Contrasting the “glory” of the messiah with the glitter of gold, Nancy argues that “glory” must be understood as “the exposition of inadequation or incommensurability”-that is, it is a matter precisely of showing faith through works. Therefore, everyone potentially shares in this “glory.” Drawing on the locus classicus for the sacrament of “extreme unction” or “anointing of the sick,” Nancy argues that everyone is also potentially a “messiah.” Pointing out the emphasis on the forgiveness of sins over physical healing, he contends that

unction or annointing signals, not what one will later call an eternal life beyond death, but the way into death as into the finite parousia that is infinitely deferred. The way into incommensurable inadequation. In this sense, each dying person is a messiah, and each messiah is a dying person (86).

The parousia that is “becoming near” is therefore not some supernatural event, but represents the immanence of death within life itself. For this reason, faith “gives precisely death in its incommensurability: a gift that it is not a question of receiving in order to keep, no more than love, poverty, or truth (which are, at the end, the same thing as death)” (86).

In Nancy’s reading, then, James gives us a vision of faith without “sacrifice, or tragedy, or resurrection” (86)-a remarkably secular faith for an age in which, by Nancy’s account, the divine appears to be in retreat (85), in which the only possible parousia is death as that which opens up the possibility of existence, in which the only possible immortality is that of death itself (87). In this regard, too, Nancy is in line with his philosophical peers, who generally attempt to extract a kind of formal structure that is comprehensible apart from traditional religious claims-in this case, a very Heideggerian structure, such as many readers (first of all Heidegger himself) have found in the New Testament throughout the 20th Century. If this is the direction philosophical research into the New Testament and the later Christian tradition must take, then it seems to me that greater attention must be given to the ways in which these formal structures were concretely lived out. Notwithstanding the argumentative strategy underlying Nancy’s decision to disclaim any historical-critical work in this particular essay, such an investigation must necessarily move beyond conceptual analysis and into historical reconstruction. Nevertheless, it seems to me that a broadly “philosophical” reading of early Christian texts-that is, one that, like Nancy’s, takes the texts seriously as a product of rigorous thought that in turn invites and rewards rigorous thought-is absolutely necessary if those texts, like the Pauline epistles, are to take their place as texts that are of more than “merely historical interest.” The expansion of the task of “philosophical reading” to an apparently disjointed piece of wisdom literature is a promising step in that regard.

2 thoughts on “My SBL Presentation

  1. Sorry about that — looks like it was actually the ellipsis character. I had various “issues” getting this to post properly, and apparently there was also an encoding “issue” I wasn’t conscious of.

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