On Diaspora Book Event: Chapter 3 “The World in the Wake of Pauline Thought”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

22 thoughts on “On Diaspora Book Event: Chapter 3 “The World in the Wake of Pauline Thought”

  1. I unfortunately have not read Taubes. Is there any development of the imagery of Mt. Sinai as an ultimately unmarked space between slavery (Egypt) and promise (Israel). And further how the Tabernacle serves that groundless function as a sort of ‘pushed over’ and mobile mountain. Coupled with the prohibition of idolatry in the empty center of worship this all seems quite evocative for the work Barber is doing (in terms of images of differential) and in thinking about Paul and Moses and both of their eventual directions (though Moses dies outside of the land). I mean they literally had to pull down and set up their ordering of the universe while concretely passing through various other zones of influence both religious and political. It really seems like these resources are just as promising as either looking to Paul or creation/chaos, I just never see them come up.
    I know I am not as jaded as many folks here but it was quite a revelation to think about how Moses/Aaron did not hear a goddamn thing when they met face-to-face with God. There was just an empty space (particularly framed of course). For me this points to the sort of apocalyptic and responsible theology that I am thinking about.

  2. Thanks, Adam – this has really helped in my understanding of the chapter!

    “This chapter traces the path by which a political stance can be so uncompromisingly radical that it effectively becomes conservative.” This is probably deeply opposed to both how Dan and Adam understand what’s going on here, but this wonderful way of putting Dan’s point suggested to me that there might be, ethically, a kind of weird doctrine of the mean and theory of phronesis around here: inhabiting ‘in-betweenness’ in an inconsistent manner requires a kind of art or skill – not an ethics of rules, but one of judgement. It requires knowing how to decompose and recompose in the appropriate manner for an immanent politics. But what is ‘appropriate’ cannot be laid down in advance, a priori; it is a matter of experience and negotiation. Something like asynthetic phronesis in the name of liberation (referring back to Darren and Dan’s discussion in the previous post).

  3. Dan W, yes! what you suggest about phronesis is exactly what was running through my mind as i was responding to Darren’s excellent question. Definitely weird though — for while the mean / phronesis in Aristotle is tied to the law of excluded middle, the diasporic version would have to be one of *affirming* the differential middle. (this is definitely a problematic that returns in chapter 5, on the question of discursive tradition, and Yoder’s attempt to get beyond the binary choices created by excluded middle, etc.)

  4. Re: David Drieger’s point on Moses — Regina Schwartz makes a similar point in her contribution to Theology and the Political, though as I recall it remains more at the level of a proposal than a concrete elaboration of Moses as revolutionary figure. I think it’s something worth pursuing further, definitely.

  5. Without going too far afield from the book I want to just say a little bit about my sympathy for Gnositicism or, as I would prefer to simply call it, gnosis, since Adam mentioned this in the post and since this seems to be the place where Dan B and I maybe differ.

    Well, first, I guess I want to say that Gnosticism as some kind of organized “ism” is essentially a construction of orthodox Christianity and so when you present orthodoxy as the “least bad” of two options that are “both worst”, it gets to the heart of one of the things I find interesting about gnosis – it was a threat! Now most of the things I think that contemporary thinkers find distasteful about gnostic ideas, such as the radical rejection of the body, are not exactly to be found in the form they assume they would be and much of this is already in Paul and taken up in ways that are perhaps even more nefarious in someone like Augustine. So, for example, Augustine’s views on sex are familar to most of our readers I think such that procreative sex is acceptable as a kind of compromise with the sinful, fallen state of the World, but ultimately this gets coded into forms of theological govermentality that we’re all familar with now. The gnostic hatred of the body, which we can find within the harsh asceticism of 1st Century Christianity, had a very different form. It expressed, at least according to the people I like to read on these topics, a kind of hatred for gender, for a kind of ossified notion of sexual difference. It was a hatred for family and thus as a hatred for law.

    This plays on the other aspect of the development of gnosis that I like. It is the original (at least in the West) diaspora! There are so many different forms of gnosis that to collect them under the general term gnositicism commits the same (Christian?) violence we find in reducing all the religions of India under the one general term Hinudism. So with Marcion we do get this underlying anti-semitism, but under Ebionite gnosis we see an early attempt to avoid the Jewish-Christian schism. Both, according ot Christianity and orthodox Judaism, are heresies. (In a certain way, and I’m curious what Dan B thinks of this, the book could have been called “On Heresy”, no?) I mean, supercessionism is bad, yes, but isn’t it worse that there are no gnostics left because, as a form of life not tied to a tradition or settled community, they were all killed?

    But that said, I am not naive about the gnostic forms of thinking. I tend to agree with Laruelle, who first stoked my interest in gnosis, when he says that certain gnostic sects turned rebellion and revolt (the two things I think we have to affirm about gnosis, it’s a kind of reclaiming of Voegelin’s slur that gnostics “immanentize the eschaton”) into a “principle of sufficient rebellion”, or what Dan B is calling the deforming of liberation. How do we avoid turning even permanent revolution into the wrong state of things? I also am fully aware that there is a pernicious anti-judaism (I would argue it is not anti-semitic) at work in forms of gnosis, attributing the name Yahwah to the idiot/evil god of this world, etc.

  6. Anthony, I’m fond of “gnosticism,” particularly as I’m trying to develop work, presently, on mysticism. And Laruelle. I actually think i may be a gnostic. And i think calling the book *On Heresy* is a possibility, for sure. Though there is a strange, venn-diagram-like overlap between heresy and religion in the way early Christianity defines itself.

    All of this is to say that gnosticism is the direction i’m working on right now, particularly vis-a-vis conversion. A couple things, though, are that technically diasporic existence among Jews preceded that of Gnosticism (though maybe that was what was meant with your disclaimer about “the West”). Also, that I am a bit wary about the comparison between supersessionism and the disappearing of Gnostics. The latter needs to be thought about, though not in relation to the Holocaust, which if i remember correctly was done in *Future Christ*. I believe there was a line in there (again, if i remember correctly) to the effect that the Holocaust at least left ashes that could be memorialized, whereas there is nothing left of Gnostics. This seems, to put it mildly, a very bad move to make. And I worry that there’s a sort of elision in which, by making the question about Gnosticism primarily, the question of Judaism gets devalued, almost as if these two minoritarian religious tendencies are being played against one another, not unlike Christianity/secularism’s move w/r/t Islam and Judaism.

    Having said that, yes, I’m with you in what you’ve said in your comment. Indeed, it’s very much in line with what I’m trying to develop at the moment.

  7. And i’ll add — this is something being worked out in my Laruelle essay — that there’s a way in which his non-philosophy can be seen as working out a logic of something like diaspora.

  8. I’ll inevitably be doing more research on Gnosticism (let’s take it for granted that I know it’s not a unified movement, etc., but the single name for the general tendency is convenient) for my devil book, and I’ve grown more sympathetic (or at least interested) over time. Still, it’s probably clear that, with a gun to my head, I’d choose orthodoxy over Gnosticism on “at least it’s an ethos” grounds. I just don’t see how Gnostic speculation opens up a future in this world, and I honestly don’t understand why Anthony and Dan would find it appealling to adopt the label, other than as a provocation to the orthodox.

    I think it might also be misleading to talk in terms of Gnosticism being a “threat” to orthodoxy, as proto-orthodoxy was very much a minority tendency at the time — it seems to be more the case of the proto-orthodox clarifying their ideas in response to a more popular competitor, opportunistically taking some of them and rejecting others. To privilege the “threat” of Gnosticism to orthodoxy seems to fall into the trap of endorsing a kind of essential relationship between the two, i.e., of endorsing the first step down the road to scapegoating them as heretics.

  9. Also, I think it’s pretty clear that the Ebionites were not Gnostics in any recognizable sense — Irenaeus calls them “Gnostics” basically because that’s his catchword for all “heretics,” but I don’t see how they share the basic intellectual structure at all.

  10. Adam,

    Well, I don’t know what you think the basic intellectual structure is. I get the sense that for you it’s basically dualism, hatred of the body, etc, and I don’t really think that’s correct nor are those things understandable from within the South Park version of gnosis that Iraneaus and Augustine presented. For me, gnosticism is a rejection of the World presenting itself as the real reality. There is another reality to be known and to know which is a struggle (Norman Brown talks about this in his book on Islam, actually, another religion that is, from some Christian and Jewish perspectives, a heresy or derivation from their truth). For me, any “future in this world” has to be about figuring out what the real really is. It may be pointless, but I’m not happy eating meat, for example, and I’m not happy with the violence of everyday life. I have tried to explain in a few places what I find appealing about gnosis with regards to this world elsewhere, but essentially I don’t think you can look at gnostic communities and not be inspired. In Islam, the Ismaili’s ended the Law! They ushered in the Kingdom of Grace and actually did that as a community under military siege for decades. So, I mean, you know that the “at least it’s an ethos” line was said about the, you know, Nazis, right? Like its an absurd line and so say what you will about those who lack an ethos (I’m not actually sure this word works here, but whatever), but at least they didn’t kill 6 million Jews and 5 million others. And that’s sort of the point of my attraction to thinkers who are influenced by the gnostic lines of thought, they aren’t concerned with a future in this world as it is. Dan quotes that great Taubes line, which I had loved before I coming across it here and was glad to revisit it again, but “I can imagine as an apocalyptic, let this world go down. I have no spiritual investment in the world as it is.” And so that’s where I also affirm the neo-conservative critique against what they think it means – “immanentize the eschaton!”

    Probably not the best place to get in to this, but as you know I was really struck and challenged by your critique of Laruelle (which I hope you’re including in the essay). Nevertheless I still think Laruelle’s discussion of the Holocaust is good in a lot of ways. I see the danger there and I know I’m in danger of falling into wrong belief in a certain sense, but there was something about reading Laruelle on the ashes of remembrance after I had read Finkelstein’s The Holocaust Industry that meant maybe by rethinking the Holocaust (he always says Shoah, I think in part to focus on the particular experience of the Jews, since they were not the only ones murdered in the camps) from the perspective of its generic condition meant that it might be saved from being turned into a weapon against Palestinians. For me, I can’t engage with Judaism without dealing with its own failures via the State of Israel. Just like I can’t really engage with Shi’a Islam without thinking of the State of Iran as its own failure. In a certain way the Gnostics were freed from failure in being murdered so completely, to echo another Taubes line. But all of that said, these are issues I’m really unsure about and I’m kind of speaking from the hip here a bit, which is dangerous, but I feel I’m in a safe place. So correction if needed.

  11. That said… perhaps this is straying to far afield from the text under discussion. I think I was just a little provoked by the “I just don’t see how Gnostic speculation opens up a future in this world, and I honestly don’t understand why Anthony and Dan would find it appealling to adopt the label, other than as a provocation to the orthodox” line.

    Dan, I have wondered about your use of the term World throughout. Does the World name something like Deleuze’s One-All? Are creatures separate from the World for you? Related to discussions of tradition that have come up around your book, does the World name a We that an I is subsumed within? And then finally, can there be a diasporic I that does find itself defined by the World, but that nevertheless can constitute or redeem the World? Or does, in your account, the World even need to be “redeemed”?

  12. Anthony, I’m not sure I entirely get your question (so feel free to come back at me), but i would say that more or less the World is Deleuze’s One-All. I also have in mind the earth v. world distinction, and i liked using the world here just becuase it emphasizes signification, or appearance, as being not a fall from something else, not just a limiting reterritorialization, not just a failure to be negated, etc., etc. I don’t think creatures are separate from the world, though at the same time i don’t think we could define the world a priori and then adjudicate the degree of creatures’ reality. I’m not sure if i understand how you’re thinking about redemption — i am suspicious, though, of attempts to redeem the world. Though this does not mean i affirm the particular state of affairs by which the world is presently articulated. (i.e. if there is something to be destroyed here, it would not be the world but the state of affairs.)

  13. Anthony, I understand Gnosticism to be characterized by an extreme metaphysical dualism, wherein salvation is tied to a form of esoteric extra-worldly knowledge available only to an elite few. The body tends to be regarded as being aligned with the evil side of the dualism, and it’s something to be escaped. I don’t think this is a controversial view of what Gnosticism is, nor an obviously wrong or limited one that would indicate I’ve been brainwashed by Irenaeus’s propaganda.

    I understand Ebionites, by contrast, to basically be run-of-the-mill “Jewish Christians,” with none of the extra metaphysical trappings.

  14. I suppose I can understand embracing the radical negative gesture, because it’s pretty clear that the world as it exists totally sucks. Yet in terms of their positive doctrine, it’s about as appealling to me as New Age stuff.

  15. Adam, I don’t agree at all with your “it’s on the hands of the people with the weird opinion to explain to me how I’m wrong to hold the opinion I do”, so I’m frankly just not going to do that. But gnosticism can’t have both been “more popular” than Christianity and only about salvation for an “elite few”. It’s obviously wrong to my eyes: I mean I could say the same thing about Jesus and Paul. Goats and sheep, flesh/spirit, etc. And you would explain it all away on the basis of scholarship. I’m saying that the vision you present of the various gnostic traditions (which you lazily conflate out of convenience and then wave away, I mean come on) can also be explained away. And this is why you don’t understand Ebionite’s being included under the general form (it has to do with their sense of appearance and reality, but whatever). Perhaps we can move on before you start suggesting I’m an actively bad person for being interested in this stuff, because it’s “obviously” more weird than a religion that eats its God, thinks it is a monotheism but that God is three-in-one, and that God has a telos in mind for every single thing in creation.

  16. I’ll just show my cards up front on this one and say that I’m more in line with Anthony on the issue of gnosticism(s). I would, however, slightly modify the way the issue is framed. I think there is way to read gnosticism that doesn’t view the body as such as evil. Rather, the social construction of bodies/embodiment (e.g., sex and gender) is the issue. Here’s why I think a lot of this stuff gets misread: for most of the ancients, the social/political order reflects a natural order (e.g., Aristotle’s notion of slavery). Human organization and categorization were assumed to follow along lines already given by nature. Gnosticism seems to move beyond this by suggesting that (1) at least it is the constructed notion of the body that is problematic because it is oppressive/hierarchical and (2) to some extent even the notion of a natural body is called into question.

  17. Like I said, I’m going to be studying it more. The things you’re saying sound more interesting than the notion of Gnosticism I’ve had so far, certainly. I didn’t realize this was something you took so personally.

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