[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.”