The Political Theology of Ecclesiastes

Why is the Teacher so depressed? When I was a teenager, the existential angst felt natural and obvious. Returning to the text as an adult who will be teaching it in class, I felt less secure. It seemed almost like an American arthouse film from the 70s, with everyone railing against an unspecified “phoniness” to which there nonetheless seemed to be no alternative. Compared to what is everything “vanity”? This is the only world, the only point of reference we have — what would it even mean for it to be meaningless?

And then it hit me: this isn’t the only point of reference, because this very “secular” text makes strategic reference (unlike Esther, for example) to God. Ecclesiastes is the lament of a man who can never be God, who lives in a world that God set up to remind you that you can never be God. The more he seeks for power, wisdom, and permanence, the more obvious it becomes that he can never be as all-powerful, as all-knowing, as eternal as God is. Indeed, the more he pushes the boundaries of what is possible for human beings — it is no accident that this text is traditionally attributed to Solomon, the pinnacle of human achievement in the Hebrew biblical tradition — the more reminders he gets.

Hence the continual advice that we should eat and drink and enjoy our toil. It’s not that those things are great or enjoyable. We are not dealing with an edifying message that we should “live for today.” The reason we should embrace fleeting pleasures and make the most of our subordination is that then we will not have to live with any painful reminders that we are not God.

In The Prince of This World, I claim that the political theology of the Hebrew Bible sets up a rivalry between God and the earthly ruler, and Ecclesiastes is arguably the only place that we see that rivalry from the first-person perspective of the ruler himself. Hence if Pharaoh is the primal root of the figure of the devil as God’s permanently humiliated rival, the Teacher of Ecclesiastes is the root of the philosophical despair of Milton’s devil, who knows for a fact that he can never defeat or replace God, but nonetheless feels compelled to keep trying — because for all his diagnoses of vanity, we never hear that the Teacher follows his own advice and abdicates the throne to become a simple laborer.

No one who has seized upon that hopeless hope can ever give up the quest to be God. Once that insane, impossible thought has entered one’s mind, there is no choice but to embrace the futility and humiliation and pain as a protest that becomes its own pleasure and satisfaction. Better to rule in hell than to serve in heaven — and better a world in which I can cast God as an illegitimate, arbitrary despot (in the very canon of Scripture!) than a world in which I cannot be God.

The Bible will not save us

The Hebrew Bible and New Testament both say very unequivocal things in favor of helping the poor and excluded, welcoming the stranger, and a host of other topics immediately relevant to our political environment. But unfortunately, all of the people who should be receptive to those teachings have been systematically inoculated against them. The Bible is not a challenging word for any mainstream Christian, but rather a license for conformism. The existence of a few oddball radicals who actually take the biblical demand for justice seriously only serves to highlight the inert mass of Christians counting on a fix of cheap grace.

The situation is much worse on the conservative side. I grew up in that environment and remained in it as an alienated college student, and there is one thing about conservative Christian culture that is absolutely certain: if you mention the moral teachings of Jesus, they will literally laugh at you. I have seen it a hundred times. Presenting Jesus’s teachings as an actual guideline to what you should actually do is the mark of a theologically naive rube — all the more so if you believe it’s a guide to specifically political action. On issues of social justice, the guiding concept is the “necessary evil.” Oh sure, it would be nice to be able to welcome everyone into our country, but in this fallen world, etc., etc. By contrast, on issues of sexual morality (and here I include abortion), no compromise is possible — no one talks about managing the abortion rate or trying to support the less promiscuous and risky forms of homoerotic practice as lesser evils. Anything that enables me to judge and lord over others is non-negotiable, whereas anything that might challenge my right to seek the maximum for myself and my family is hand-waved away.

On the liberal side, I think they are closer to the truth. The problem comes when the radical demand for justice in the Bible is simply collapsed into a traditional liberal-progressive laundry list. This produces a complacent conformism of a different kind — a less toxic and destructive kind, but still a problematic one. My complaint isn’t so much on the level of content, because it is clear to me that many of these biblical precepts really do sound a lot like liberal-progressive priorities, while the conservative position is obviously a convoluted perversion of the plain demand of scripture.

What the liberal Christian position is missing is precisely the sense of judgment that is so toxic in the hands of the conservative Christian. When you equate the gospel to what you hear on NPR, you’re missing the sense that this is a divine mandate that may be dangerous — indeed, that you might go to hell for failing to live up to. Saying that Jesus wants us to be nice and tolerant to each other is laughably thin — here I do maintain the instincts my conservative upbringing inculcated in me — but saying that, for example, Donald Trump is an Antichrist whose followers will be joining him in hell might be something worth taking seriously.

In typical liberal fashion, though, the liberal Christians lodge their objection to the conservative Christians on the formal level — conservative Christians are too judgmental, too hung up on sin, etc., so we should cast that stuff aside. But the real problem with conservative Christians is that they are perverting the divine demand for justice and thereby calling God’s judgment down upon themselves. They are exchanging the truth of God for a lie and holding God’s truth captive. The problem with James Dobson and Jerry Falwell, Jr., and all the rest of them isn’t that they’re too intolerant or too mean, it’s that they are preaching a demonic doctrine. And from a theological perspective, maybe God really is using Donald Trump — to show all the world their absolute theological and moral bankruptcy, to show that their only real value is cruelty and spite, to make them a byword and a curse among the nations.

But in American Christianity, that is a message without a messenger and without a community ready to receive it.

Radical Interpretations of the Bible

There’s a new issue of the journal Postscripts out: a special issue on radical interpretations of the Bible, edited by Michael J Sandford. It’s got a piece by Sandford on whether we can understand Jesus as a Luxury Communist, one by Robert J Myles on the Jesus of John’s Gospel as a reactionary aristocrat, one by Wei Hsien-Wan on 1 Peter and imperial models of time, and response articles by me and Caroline Blyth. You can access the issue here.

Where the humanities come from

In my previous post, I claimed that “the humanities are good for contextualizing and interpreting texts and other text-like human artifacts, particularly artifacts that are regarded as especially authoritative or masterful and that belong to an identifiable intellectual or artistic tradition.” Clearly people have been engaging in activities of this type in a variety of settings for as far back as we have written records. Yet I want to suggest that there is a common root or model for most if not all of the humanities disciplines as academic discourses, a kind of Ur-discipline: namely, modern biblical scholarship as it existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

(Now before anyone freaks out, I don’t mean to say that humanities disciplines are “secretly religious” in any simplistic way — I’m referring to modern biblical scholarship specifically as a secular discipline. Nor do I mean to say anything about contemporary biblical scholarship, which has changed a lot since the period I’m highlighting.)

The primary goal of modern biblical scholarship during its classical period was to undermine and disqualify traditional theological claims based on Scripture as corruptions of their true historical meaning. Continue reading “Where the humanities come from”

Gender and the Nephilim

Tony Baker writes the following in his ill-considered post on gender:

Let me attempt to bring my gender constructions out of the subflooring of the argument and into the proper living space. The fall narratives, from Eden to Babel to the origin of the Nephilim, are about the disorder than comes of too much taking. In the latter case, the Sons of God find the daughters of men desirable, and “take” them as wives (Gen 6). The “Sons” are pure activity here, and the “daughters” are so passive that the text implies a Sabine-like rape.

There is here, as in my Prometheus reading, an association of boundary transgression and gender. Masculinity is associated with active violating of “kinds,” and the feminine is a pure receiving. The important thing to notice, though, is that this is precisely what invokes God’s displeasure, and becomes the set-up for the flood cycle. Archetypal gender bifurcation (though not gender itself) belongs only to the fallen form, for Christianity, not to our proto- and eschatological versions. If both woman and creation are “feminized” in the narrative while the earthly and heavenly “sons” are masculinized (Cain, Nimrod, David’s “taking” of Bathsheba), this is a split archetype that belongs to our broken form.

I have written frequently in comments that I find it disturbing that he uses what he regards as a rape scene as the paradigm for masculinity and femininity, which supposedly contains a grain of truth that is revealed through the parallels with the consensual passivity of the Virgin Mary (immediately after the passage I quote). That is a core point that I simply cannot let go — if your account of the meaning of masculinity and femininity is derived from a rape scene, something has gone badly wrong, something that requires not “clarification,” but repentance and conversion.

Yet there are a lot more questions to ask about his use of this passage. Continue reading “Gender and the Nephilim”

The appeal of the idiosyncratic

Preparations for teaching have brought me into contact with two new translations: Robert Alter’s rendering of Genesis and Joe Sachs’s version of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Though the underlying texts could not be more different in style and genre, I think that the impulse behind the two translations is similar: to cut through a translation tradition that has impeded understanding, but more than that, has rendered the texts in question boring.

It is a gesture that I find profoundly attractive, a kind of “Protestant principle” of translation. Part of the appeal is probably the individualism of it, which sits well with someone like me, since I flatter myself that I have “charted my own way” without accumulating an approved pedigree. More than that, though, I think the attraction of this kind of radical retranslation is the sense that it’s not just possible to say something new about some of the most commented-upon texts in the Western tradition, but to see them again for the first time.

Genesis, for instance, is obviously one of the most familiar texts in the world to me, and yet Alter’s translation made it feel brand-new. I can’t say I’ve studied Aristotle anywhere near as closely, but the contrast between Sachs’s translation and the jargon-laden near-nonsense I struggled to work through before could not be clearer. I now want to read every translation both authors have done of their respective body of texts — which is especially striking in the case of Sachs, since I’ve previously had no particular interest in Aristotle.

Do others know of similarly iconoclastic translations of other major works?

Biblical studies and radical theology

Over the last couple years, I’ve worked through about half the New Testament in Greek, and in the last week or so, I’ve been working on an article I agreed to do on the resurrection accounts in the NT. In addition, I will be teaching Robert Alter’s translation of Genesis this year, a translation that made Genesis completely new to me.

After all this work with the Bible, it strikes that it’s a real shame that theologians are so hesitant to work with biblical texts. In part, that may be the fault of the biblical studies guild itself, which often acts as a perpetual “wet blanket” when anyone tries to make constructive claims building from the biblical text or even make overly strong claims about the meaning of a given text. Yet I detect in much recent biblical studies work a certain chafing against the disciplinary paradigm: they always get right up to the point where they obviously want to make an interesting theological claim, but they can’t quite let themselves…

On the other side, it seems to me that many orthodox theologians are much more comfortable with the stability of the tradition than with the radical heterogeneity of the Bible that two centuries of critical biblical scholarship have made almost impossible to ignore. It feels safer to just “skip ahead” to the generation of the Apostolic Fathers, where the hierarchy and the sacraments are already reassuringly in place.

This may be changing to some extent, given the recent series of “theological commentaries” on books of the Bible by figures like Jenson and Hauerwas — but I think the real opportunity here is for radical theologians, because they have the freedom necessary to genuinely respond to the critical work of modern biblical studies. They are unconstrained by the need to make sure that the Bible winds up saying basically what we always thought it did (even though it is now clear that that wasn’t the only thing the Bible could have said nor even the most obvious thing it could be construed as saying).

Kant and biblical studies: On deactivation

This week, my philosophy of religion course is reading Kant’s Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone, whose preface anticipates his arguments in Conflict of the Faculties in favor of viewing the “philosopy faculty” (something like the “college of arts and sciences”) as superior to the other faculties (basically professional schools). In specific, he claims that although the philosophical theory of “pure religion” seems narrower than historical religions, it nonetheless has the right to judge and assess them insofar as it is higher and more universal than them. Kant does wind up claiming that Christianity is uniquely in line with the ideal “religion of reason,” but that claim of Christian superiority is undercut insofar as it is Kant qua philosopher who is entitled to make that judgment.

It seems to me that this move on the part of Kant can shed some light on the place of biblical studies in the university. Biblical studies did historically make claims for Christian superiority just as Kant does, and postcolonial critics have pointed out the ways that critical biblical studies wound up underwriting imperialism, etc. Such things don’t happen as much anymore (at least not openly — for that we need to look to theologians like Milbank), but biblical studies does still claim the authority of the Bible and arguably does so in the interests of the liberal state. It does this by claiming biblical authority only to deactivate it.

Broadly speaking, biblical studies sets itself up as a new magisterium regulating the use of the Bible. And ultimately, it turns out that all possible uses of the Bible in contemporary life are somehow wrong, as indeed all previous historical attempts to use the Bible have been.

Continue reading “Kant and biblical studies: On deactivation”