Paul and the three r’s

I’ve now listened to the introductory talk to Homebrewed Christianity’s new High Gravity class “Paul, Rupture, Revelation, Revolution” (£20 well spent, to my mind!) a couple of times and watched the live stream of the session on Jacob Taubes “The Political Theology of Paul”.

And I’m feeling oppressed, as Tripp Fuller suggests Daniel Kirk (author of “Jesus I have loved, but Paul?”) might be doing in the introductory talk. Actually, I’m feeling oppressed by Tripp as well as by Daniel, courtesy of some remarks about liberals and progressives and a lampoon of Borg and Crossan (hey, I’m a liberal, I’m going to like them!), and by Taubes due to remarks he makes about liberals. Tripp is hugely engaging when he goes off on one of this enthusiastic excurses, but I can’t go all the way with him. Assuming, that is, that he is not just playing a part (as I know he is well able to do). He may just be being jocular or provocative, or indulging an ongoing contest with Pete, but the repetition makes it difficult for me to treat it as just jocular. Perhaps, however, he is establishing a thesis to set against the antithesis of Pete, Taubes, Badiou and Zizek?

The thing is, I’m targeted by the term “liberal”. I really have little option about being identified as a theological liberal, progressive in at least some senses, with a radical edge (happily, no-one said anything nasty about radicals). The thing is, this is because I interpret scripture in a way typically seen as “liberal” and, to be fair, that’s the best description of my political stance in the UK as well, although it wouldn’t do in the States, where I’d probably be regarded as alarmingly leftist.

I don’t, for instance, consider that a physical resurrection is a remotely likely occurrence, not only on the grounds that biology and physics militate against anything like that happening (I’m methodologically if not quite ontologically naturalistic) but also on the basis that, wearing my hat as a retired lawyer and treating the gospel accounts as eyewitness, the conclusion I arrive at is that what they report experiencing is overwhelmingly likely to have been a set of apparitions. It’s possible that some of those may have been tangible apparitions, but I’ve experienced a tangible apparition (of Jesus) myself in circumstances in which I’m pretty confident there was no material body present – apart from my own. Daniel and Tripp both talked as if belief in this is really important. The best I can deliver in response is to say that I can’t absolutely exclude the possibility that their view is correct, but I consider it very unlikely – hardly a basis for “faith”!

I don’t see this kind of belief as important. I ask myself what it would mean to me for some random person to resurrect in circumstances in which the reports were incontrovertible, and whether there would be any difference between that meaning to me and the one resulting from my acceptance that there were apparitions. The answer is, basically “no”. I understand by resurrection a concept which is wider than any reanimation and which can apply to things other than people – although to them as well. After all, I’ve been resurrected in a sense myself (I spent some years severely clinically depressed, and when that lifted, I definitely felt “returned from the dead”). Similarly it makes no difference to me whether other physical miracles actually happened or whether that is just how the people of the day experienced them subjectively and incorporated them into their thinking. As Pete says, these are “radically subjective experiences”.

That is, in fact, not the limit of my theological liberalism. While, as a result of personal experience (of the peak unitive mystical variety) I tend to think that that-which-is-God is real (and immanent, and something akin to panentheist even if this is not quite an adequate description), I can similarly entertain the idea that the only place in which God is actually ever present is in the concept-space of my mind and those of others. (Possibly, it is only in the concept-spaces of thinking entities that anything which can reasonably be regarded as non-material actually exists, granted that what is material is in terms of current science not nearly so material as it appears – materiality is just another illusion, albeit one which we would be foolish to act against.) I am not even confident that regarding God as a “person” represents the ultimate truth of the matter, but I find that God can be and is sometimes experienced as a person.

I do not need God to be in Godself anything more than that. Similarly, for my devotion to Jesus to be operative, I do not need him to have worked any miracles, risen from the dead or have done anything more than have prophesied against the power structures of his day and laid down some principles which I can aspire to as an ideal but never meet`. As I demonstrated in some years of arguing Christianity against a set of very vocal atheists, this means that I can often talk to atheists without the need to argue any claim which is impossible for them to accept.

Granted, I have a permanent problem talking with anyone with a confirmed supernatural theist viewpoint, which probably includes Daniel, may include Tripp and definitely includes Paul. The nearest I can come to accepting this is to avoid actual dogmatism that that-which-is-God is not as they conceive Godself to be. Even if the resultant expectation that miracles will happen on a daily basis if you just believe strongly enough that they will is, to me,  in fact false, I can acknowledge that there are some provable advantages in adopting that mindset – though I do find that difficult to adopt with any deep conviction. My hope there is a long way short of confidence in things unseen.

I am, however, entirely on board with both Tripp’s and Peter Rollins’ attitude that it is pointless just to play with concepts and come to some compromises with the structures of the day (and I mention that in my experience, conservative and evangelical churches are just as guilty of this as are “liberal” or “progressive” ones). To my mind, both Jesus and Paul (who I admit I have not yet loved, although he grows on me) laid down some very radical principles on which they expected followers of Jesus/Christ to operate, and which are entirely inconsistent with the current wisdom of the world and its power structures, just as they were at the time they were teaching. I am as a result someone whose aims and priorities are politically and economically wholly out of line with those of my times, and this is what might allow me to lay claim to the title “radical” – unlike the portrait of liberals painted by Tripp and Taubes, I accept that I am called on to follow, and to act as nearly as possible in accordance with those radical principles. I may not be very good at it, but am not deceived by the economic and political orthodoxies.

Intellectual acceptance, in my book, is nothing like what is meant in the scriptures by “faith”, and it is insufficient to found anything. What is needed is action – it is implausible to claim that you actually believe something unless your actions speak to that, unless the ideas inhabiting your conscious concept space and which you voice actually produce your actions, unless the transcendent collapses into the immanent, much as a probability density collapses into something observable in quantum physics. Daniel refers to this from 2 Corinthians, in which Paul talks of observing actions not words.

But where does that leave us with our three authors? Taubes was Jewish, and quoted with some approval Nietzsche’s flaming criticism of Jesus; Badiou and Zizek are both atheists, and indeed Badiou adverts in his introduction to the fact that he just does not believe in the major facts which Paul very clearly did believe and which allowed Paul to challenge the structures and thinking of the day, and later has an excursus arguing that Paul was antagonistic to arguing from actual evidence in a logical way. Pete mentions the fascination of the atheists with the fact that Paul clearly “really believed” – how on earth can they appropriate any of Paul’s thinking without some similar belief of their own? Much is made in the introductory talk and discussion of Paul’s insistence that faith in/of Christ is the key to all of his thinking, the key to any breaking of the assumptions of Jewish exceptionalism on the one hand and Roman Imperialism on the other. How do the atheists attempt some form of faith? Come to that, how do I attempt it, given that what I can state I believe beyond reasonable doubt is massively short of what Daniel, or (apparently) Tripp, or Paul, or Jesus believed?

Are we looking here at justification not by faith in Christ, but along with some of the new Perspective on Paul writers, justification by the faithfulness of Christ (which can then be appropriated by following Him without, perhaps, the need to possess that faith yourself)?

To be entirely honest, Taubes book and what I have to date read of Badiou’s both give me the appearance of playing with concepts, of appropriating some ideas and structures from Paul and subverting them to their own agendas, reading them in the light of a much different basic narrative, much as Taubes (quoting Nietzsche) complains Christian authors did reading the whole Hebrew scriptures as prefiguring Christ, down to any mention of a wooden object (and some non-wooden ones) being taken as a reference to the cross. But then, from some standpoint what I have written about my own approaches above may seem to some to be a similar exercise – I am indeed accommodating how I think about these concepts to an overriding approach of naturalism, even if not to an acceptance of power structures and market economics.

That said, as Taubes points out, neither Jesus nor Paul was entirely innocent in reinterpreting the Hebrew scriptures against what anyone else in the time would have regarded as their meaning.

Perhaps Pete Rollins is on track, when he says that what he is interested in is not what Paul believed, but what he was doing in what he believed (to paraphrase). I can regard something as a narrative which it is open for me to live into irrespective of whether the narrative is factually based; “I do not know if it happened this way, but I know this story is true”.  Badiou, indeed, talks of truth revealed in a rupture, possibly acknowledging that he accepts a truth being revealed here, athough Badiou’s concept of “truth” is nonstandard, and I am not convinced I have yet grasped it. But then, Badiou flatly describes the resurrection as a lie.

Is it, perhaps, the case that whereas Tripp criticises people in churches who talk of faith in Christ but act as worshippers of Mammon (and I heartily agree), we are here looking at people who talk atheist but act like followers of Christ? After all, I know quite a few atheists who act Catholic!

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