Badiou and the Philosophy of Religion

Arts and Letters Daily has this piece on Alain Badiou. Badiou theorizes that there are four conditions of philosophy: science, poetry, love, and politics, and as many of his early adopters have pointed out, there’s a clear bias against theological or religious truth in his work.

Mr. Badiou also took considerable interest in a question about why religion was excluded from the areas that he identifies as sites for the work of philosophy. He said that the question of why he had limited such areas to four came up often, and “my answer is that I don’t find another.”

He said he had concluded that religion was “a fable about an event, and not an event.”

Badiou basically takes the Heideggerian critique of onto-theology as given. That is, he expects that his audience will agree with him that theologians are just bad metaphysicians, trapped by dogma. On this view, the work of the scholastics is entirely predicated on a simple mistake: all God-fearing thinkers will ultimately assume that Being is a being. They will find themselves speaking of God simultaneously as ‘all that is,’ the creator of ‘all that is,’ and the very ‘is-ness’ of ‘all that’. In this moment, they short-circuit the ontological difference, an easily identified mistake in most cases, but hard to pinpoint in this ineffable realm. We know that this red apple is different from ‘redness,’ and moreover, we are generally intelligent enought not to go looking for the ‘Red’ from which all ‘red’ springs. Yet when it comes to ‘Being’… we feel that there must be an actually existing entity responsible for the creation and maintenance of all beings.

Now, in various disciplines, ‘phenomenologists’ (whose actual titles have varied from priests to psychologists to neurologists, but all focus on an experience, so we’ll stick with the ‘phenomenon’) have suggested a number of entries into theological experiences. Conversion experiences and mysticism, for instance, are right up Badiou’s alley, insofar as they point to a moment of novelty, the ‘creation of newness.’ The real question would be: do these experiences in fact have religious content? I have tremendous respect for those who, like Martin Luther King, Jr, use religious language to accomplish truly revolutionary things in the political sphere. But how religious is desegregation, really? He often mentions that segregation models the theological conception of sin: ‘separation from God.’ I think this is beautiful, poetic, even. But did it ’cause’ desegregation? Did the country become convinced of the truth of that analogy, and give up its sinful ways? Or is this just a specific mode of the ‘suture’ by which King brought a poetic truth (racism is ugly) and a political truth (racism is unjust) into conjunction, and thus created something new?

Sin supplies another interesting possibility for philosophical content: we all recognize badness, after all. At its best, sin seems to be a particular metaphysical account of badness, a conceptual regime of discipline mobilized in the service of personal relations (love) and social stability (politics). Insofar as love supplies the crucial metaphors of fidelity, (to the event of ‘falling in love’) from which contract theory derives its legitimacy, we might even say that all ‘sin’ is basically an extenstion of the truth conditions of love. It seems ‘sin’ could only supply an alternative modality of truth if we could recognize something as sin which violated the promises and expectations of neither the private nor the public sphere. I’m at a loss to think of a sin that qualifies.

Perhaps I’m being too reductionistic. The most impressive spiritual achievements I’ve encountered have been attributed to a grand concept, unnoticed by scientists, unmatched by politicians, misunderstood by poets, and inadequately matched by love. ‘Faith,’ they call it. It’s what separates the truly spiritual from the simply religious. And I must admit, I’ve encountered a number of charismatic and serene individuals who definitely had something special going for them. Could it be something undreamt by Badiou’s philosophy?

The thing about faith is that it isn’t really a philosophically interesting concept. Certainly it can be described logically, using the structure of intentionality or as a critique of certain epistemological frameworks, but it’s not a concept that bears as much scrutiny as the scholastics and latter-day theologians seem to think. “Don’t know, believe it anyway.” Is there much more to it than that?

Even Kierkegaard, who used a notion of theological singularity to puncture much of the pseudo-Hegelian metaphysics of the late nineteenth century… does his accomplishment really count as theology? Often, I have trouble differentiating the trappings of religion from the philosophical content beneath. This is why I find Aquinas so distasteful. But with Kierkegaard, it seems clear that the content of Christianity is much less important than the metaphysics of singularity. The man’s greatest influence was Socrates, and his best work is on the inward turn of love. Most of his accounts of Christendom seem to have a political sweep to them: they are a call to arms to the boringly secular Danes, who have lost the intensity that Christian faith might supply. Ultimately, Kierkegaard confirms for me that the most important spaces claimed by religion are better expressed by set theory and psychoanalysis: in other words, by science and love.

Edited to add: it occurs to me that Badiou would describe the intensity of faith as a type of militancy. Thus, religion is easily parsed into his four conditions: theology is bad metaphysics, so it belongs to science; faith is misplaced fanaticism, so it belongs to politics; virtue (or sin) is strangely obligatory model for friendship and fidelity, so it belongs to love; scriptural exegesis and mystical experience both belong to poetry (art).

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