The Christian Engine of Badiou’s Philosophy: Some Comments on Hollis Phelps’ Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology

During my recent trips I took along Hollis Phelps’ relatively new book Alain Badiou: Between Theology and Anti-Theology. Phelps’ thesis is that “Badiou’s philosophy contains an anti-philosophical core that coincides with theology (85).” Phelps’ book enters into a debate between those who, like Badiou himself, see Badiou’s philosophy as one of radical secularization and those who think that religion, specifically Christianity, is an important part of his philosophy. These groups could be grouped into two distinct camps: those like Žižek who argue for the importance of this religion from a largely outsider perspective and those like Paul J Griffths who argue from a Christian supremacist position that “the recent interest in Christianity, particularly Paul, among certain critical theorists and philosophers is best understood as ‘a pagan yearning for Christian intellectual gold [since…] our intellectual tradition is long-lived, rich, and subtle, and any attempt by European thinkers to do without it is not likely to last” (125).’ Phelps’ contribution engages with the arguments of each of these respective interpretations but deftly avoids the pitfalls of each, arguing for a much more subtle understanding of the theological aspect of Badiou’s philosophy. Phelps clearly has very little sympathy for positions such as Giffths or the crocodile tears for Judaism deployed by Daniel W. Bell Jr. in his criticism of Badiou’s St. Paul book as Marcionite (a criticism made in a far more convincing and less supremacist way by Adam Kotsko as Phelps notes) and so his reading cannot easily be tossed aside by those, like Hallward, who want to see in Badiou a kind of secular purity. His reading instead moves forward by creating a link between Badiou’s conception of anti-philosophy and theology. As anti-philosophy is part of the dialectical construction of philosophy it is necessary and acts like an engine for Badiou’s thought.

The move is quite ingenious. Arguments for Badiou’s particularly secular nature focus on the special relationship his philosophy has with mathematics as pure secularization. Mathematics is one of the truth-conditions for philosophy’s existence. However, Badiou also argues against the suturing of philosophy to a single truth-condition, casting philosophy as the domain that shows how compossibility of singular truths that arise out of the four domains of science, art, love, and politics. When philosophy sutures itself to a single truth-condition it ends in failure whether that be positivism or Stalinism. So, while readers such as Hallward argue for the pure secular nature of Badiou’s philosophy through this reference to mathematics, they have to ignore the use of terms like “resurrection” and “fidelity” or his references to historical Christianity in his reading of the Nicene Creed or the importance of St. Paul. As Phelps’ asks in relation to the importance of resurrection in Logics of Worlds, “If one wanted to avoid theology at all costs, would it not be better to simply avoid this obvious theological term (130).”

Phelps’ book is excellent as a short introduction to Badiou’s work as well as a kind of theological deconstruction of his seemingly anti-theological project. The book is also very useful for its summary of the existing literature on Badiou, but more importantly the use of that literature, for example using concepts in Oliver Feltham’s Alain Badiou: Live Theory and Bruno Bosteel’s work on Badiou’s conception of anti-philosophy, is impressive and an example of how engagement with secondary literature should look. This is no pastiche of random sources together in the attempt to show that one is everyone’s side or that one has read everything, sadly too common in Continental philosophy of religion, but a genuine engagement and crafting something new and useful from that material.

My only quibble with the book is the lack of engagement with the questions of religion and Christianity themselves. While Phelps shows, in my view, that theology remains an irreducible part of Badiou’s theology he does not offer any kind of evaluation of what that would mean. While this avoids the Christian supremacy of the readings of Griffiths, Bell, and Graham Ward, it does not offer anything in the way of a constructive casting or negative appraisal of what that would mean. Is Badiou’s engagement with Christianity an example of a creative philosophical work that can treat religion as a truth domain or is it another example of the imperial secular whose inner logic is ultimately taken from Christianity? In my estimation I would say that it is the second, precisely because Badiou goes to such lengths to repress the importance of Christianity for his project and because he fails to truly investigate the conceptual and material domain of religion. So, consider the all-too-French way with which he engages with Islam in Logics of Worlds. There he depends his theory of the subject as arising out of a response to a truth-event by discussing four different subject positions one may take. Islam is cast only as “political Islamism” and is used as the example of the obscure subject (a very bad thing, indeed) while the Christian St. Paul continues to stand as the exemplar of the faithful subject (a very good thing, indeed). And while this makes sense within Badiou’s own history, in that so-called “political Islamism” may be an example today of the gnostic drive found in the “ultra-leftism” of the French Maoists of the 60’s that Badiou cast as his ideological enemies, it is telling that groups whose goal is the complete overturning of the dominant order and who are subject to American biopolitics are cast as obscure while the founder of the complicit religion par excellence is cast as faithful.