30 June 2008

Law Versus Love

Filed under: Christianity, Psychology — ktismatics @ 12:09 am

[This post concludes a series of four on Saint Paul by Alain Badiou.]

“For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law. Or is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the grounds of their faith and the uncircumcised through faith.” (Paul in Romans 3:28-30)

God is One, not as an abstract Greek principle of Oneness but as the one God for everyone without exception. Israel is the exception, and the Mosaic Law marks its particularity. Law functions according to an economy of what is due, establishing conditions of righteousness on the basis of mutual obligations. The Christ event operates outside of law as an act of grace, a gift that exceeds all contractual and juridical exchange. Likewise participation in the Christ event entails no fulfillment of contractual rights or duties: this act of subjectivation takes place outside of law. The place of the universal, of the oneness of God, is to be encountered not in universal law but in the gratuitous event that surpasses Law. And it is through this unlawful encounter with the universal that the subject escapes from his static legal coordinates on the structural grid and emerges as a revolutionary agent of the unprecedented and the underdetermined. In surpassing the intricate structure of particularities prescribed by law, the gracious event of the resurrection opens up the possibility of difference on a universal scale.

The profound ontological thesis here is that universalism supposes one be able to think the multiple not as a part, but as in excess of itself, as that which is out of place, as a nomadism of gratuitousness. If by “sin” one understands the subjective exercise of death as path of existence, and hence the legal cult of particularity, one thereby understands that what is maintained of the event (which is to say, a truth, whatever it may be) is always in impredictable excess of everything circumscribed by “sin.” (Badiou, Saint Paul, p. 78 )

In other words, the law establishes a reticulum of obligations which defines violation and its consequences. It’s this whole system that turns the person into a dead object of impersonal systemic operations. Badiou contends that this whole economy of dead life is what Paul means by “sin.” The two subjective paths, death and life, whose nonrelation constitutes the divided subject, are also two types of multiplicity. The particularizing multiplicity of the law prescribes its own limits; the universal multiplicity of the event exceeds the legal limit, exceeds its own limit.

But why is law so closely associated with sin? Here Badiou picks up the complex theme of desire by exploring the labyrinth of what he calls Paul’s most famous, yet also most intricate text : Romans 7.

“If it had not been for the Law, i should never have known sin. I should not have known what it is to covet if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ But sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, wrought in me all kinds of covetousness. Apart from the Law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the Law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died; the very commandment that promised life proved death to me. For sin, finding opportunity in the commandment, seduced me and by it killed me.” (Romans 7:7-11)

Paul says that, before he became aware of the Law, he was alive: his desire was free and he was free to desire. So sin isn’t desire; rather,

Sin is the life of desire as autonomy, as automatism. The law is required in order to unleash the automatic life of desire, the automatism of repetition. For only law fixes the object of desire, binding desire to it regardless of the subject’s will. It is this objectal automatism of desire, inconceivable without the law, that assigns the subject to the carnal path of death. Clearly, what is at issue here is nothing less than the problem of the unconscious (Paul calls it the involuntary, what I do not want). The life of desire fixed and unleashed by the law is that which, decentered from the subject, accomplishes itself as an unconscious automatism. (p. 79)

The law defines prohibition; transgression takes place when the object of prohibition becomes the object of desire. It’s in this way that the law produces desire in the subject, regardless of what the subject wants. The subject loses his autonomy and instead becomes a dead object in the automatic operation of the law that links prohibition to desire. In order to break with the automatized death of the prohibition/desire/sin complex, Paul concludes that it’s necessary to break with the law.

“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing that I hate… So then it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells in me.” (Romans 6:16-17)

The extreme tension running through this text comes from the fact that Paul is striving to articulate a de-centering of the subject, a particularly contorted form of its division. Since the subject of life is in the place of death and vice versa, it follows that knowledge and will, on the one hand, agency and action, on the other are entirely disconnected. This is the empirically verifiable essence of existence according to the law. Moreover, a parallel can be drawn between this de-centering and the Lacanian interpretation of the cogito (there where I think, I am not, and there where I am, I do not think.) Let us generalize a little. For Paul, the man of the law is one in whom doing is separated from thinking. Such is the consequence of seduction by commandment. This figure of the subject, wherein the division lies between the dead Self and the involuntary automation of living desire, is, for thought, a figure of powerlessness. Basically, sin is not so much a fault as living thought’s inability to prescribe action. Under the effect of the law, thought disintegrates into powerlessness and endless cogitation, because the subject (the dead Self) is disconnected from a limitless power, that of desire’s living automation. (p. 83)

In Badiou’s reading of Paul, salvation is the empowerment of the subject when thinking is no longer divided from doing. Instead of being incapable of controlling the movement of autonomous desires that animate him like a zombie, the saved person knows what he wants and is able to do it. But thought can only be raised up to the position of power by something that exceeds static thought. “Grace” is the name of the excess; “resurrection” is the source of the power, and “love” is its name.

The Self is a closed form of the subject, divided against itself, impotent in its cogitations, animated by outside forces operating beneath conscious awareness, occupying the place of the dead. “Christ” is the name of the resurrected subject, open to the grace that exceeds all fixed boundaries assigned by the letter of the law. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:6, “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.” There is a law of the spirit (Romans 7:14), universal but nonliteral, that gives consistency to the life of the resurrected subject. The subject is faithful to the truth of the event that brings him life, and it is this faithfulness that is the unwritten law of love. Life itself becomes the universal law, a law of possibility made manifest in the unique trajectory of each subject who lives it.

Faith publicly acknowledges that the subjective apparatus commanded by the law is not the only possible one. But it becomes apparent that faith, confessing the resurrection of one man, merely declares a possibility for everyone. That a new assemblage of life and death is possible is borne out by resurrection, and this is what must first be declared. But this conviction leaves the universalization of the “new man” in suspense and says nothing as to the content of the reconciliation between living thought and action. Faith says: We can escape powerlessness and rediscover that from which the law separated us. Faith prescribes a new possibility, on that, although real in Christ, is not, as yet, in effect for everyone. (p. 88 )

“He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law,” Paul says in Romans 13:8. To love your neighbor as yourself is to apprehend the neighbor by faith and hope, according to the universal law of possibility, not as a dead self but as a living subject. In Paul’s thought, says Badiou, love is precisely fidelity to the Christ-event… love bears the force of salvation. The resurrection life is not a solitary one; it is relational, and militantly so. Love is the work we do together that actualizes the possibility of grace universally.



  1. In your reading of Badiou, have you run across any references he makes to Bultmann? Or Emil Brunner? They both emphasized the event element of the Gospel. It’s something that I think is neglected in Bultmann’s writings. Biblical scholars generally look at Bultmann as irrelevant as a scholar b/c of his cut-and-paste textual critical approach….others consider him outdated b/c he was Heideggerian; they see Bultmann as warmed over Heidegger…..but Bultmann had a good handle on the event and the moment of decision that I think would be worth paying attention to.

    This has been an excellent series of posts. I’ll get back to them when I have gotten enough sleep to think somewhat coherently.


    One thing that I would like to follow through on is the sense in which we objectify others and ourselves. You said, “The subject loses his autonomy and instead becomes a dead object in the automatic operation of the law that links prohibition to desire.” This definitely resonates with me; it is a significant point. In world of sexual desire, the woman is objectified as a sexual object for the consumption and desire-satisfaction. But in objectifying the woman, the objectify-ee actually objectifies himself as a part of the “automatic operation of the law.”

    You cite Badiou: “Sin is the life of desire as autonomy, as automatism. The law is required in order to unleash the automatic life of desire, the automatism of repetition. For only law fixes the object of desire, binding desire to it regardless of the subject’s will.”

    So, the will of the subject disappears as the “flesh” takes over. The subject with sexual desire begins to become defined in terms of a sexually desiring object.

    Another example: if one human being tortures another human being, there are two people being objectified. The victim of torture loses his/her humanity and dignity. Yet in the process of robbing another of their humanity/dignity, the one who tortures also loses his/her humanity/dignity. In the Nazi concentration camps, the oppressors were the first to lay down their subjective will and objectify themselves.

    Does this line of thought tie in with Badiou’s notion of becoming “a dead object in the automatic operation of the law that links prohibition to desire”?


    Comment by Erdman — 30 June 2008 @ 2:34 pm

  2. Badiou cites practically nobody but Paul in his book. I confess, Erdman, that I’m woefully ignorant of most systematic theologians and Christian philosophers. For that matter, I’m pretty illiterate on most secular philosophy. Heidegger had being-toward-death as intrinsic to the human condition, so I can imagine that a Heideggerian theologian would emphasize being-toward-resurrection. But I think Paul’s discussion of the cross really does point to it as an event more than a new ontological state of risen-ness that Christ has entered into. Does Bultmann sound like Badiou here?

    On the matter of objectification and desire the Lacanian influence is evident (Badiou event cites Lacan cursorily). And I think his position is compatible with the way we’ve been talking about Paul recently, wouldn’t you say? Lacan focuses more on the object of desire than the desiring object, so it would be interesting to see that theme in Lacan more clearly laid out. Maybe I’ll look into it tomorrow. It’s implicit though, when your desire isn’t under your control, when desire is instilled into you by law and prohibition, that the desirer is an object of the desire. The question on these things that come to mind is whether the objectified self retains responsibility; e.g., in your torture scenario. More later.


    Comment by ktismatics — 30 June 2008 @ 7:06 pm

  3. Now don’t hold me to this, Erdman, but I think it goes like this. For Heidegger the dual events of birth and death convey everything in between with meaning: Dasein, being there, is always both a being-from-birth and a being-toward-death. So “living in the present” is really the continual convergence of the past and the future, as marked by the beginning event and the end event as bookmarks bracketing the individual’s life. In this sense you never experience the big events directly — you’re not really present at your birth or your death — but these events infuse everything in between with their overlapping presence. So in a sense for Heidegger the event is immanent, continuous, important not in itself but for its effects.

    Deleuze follows Heidegger in the sense of regarding events as immanent and emergent. The continual flux of forces and objects inevitably brings about their collisions, interactions, mergers — each of these is an event. But the event is continuous with what came before it and sets the preconditions for events that will follow. In a sense all of history, all of life, is one big event unfolding itself.

    In contrast, Badiou sees the event as a radical disruption between past and future. The event is important in its own right, as the way in which something entirely new and unprecedented disrupts the old systems of meaning and sets the stage for new meanings. The event is the sudden appearance of a truth that can’t be explained by what came before it and that stimulates the work of trying to understand it in its aftermath.

    So when Badiou reads Paul he sees an apostle of the radically discontinuous. Jesus may have been Jewish, but the event of his death and resurrection cannot be explained by his Jewishness, by the systems of meaning that characterized the Jewish worldview. The Christ event changed everything, and Paul came along afterward to attribute meaning to that disruptive event. From the perspective of what came before the Christ event teeters on the edge of the void as something beyond understanding, almost outside of reality. But from inside this void a truth explodes, marking the boundary between what came before it — Jew versus Gentile, the Law, the flesh, etc. — and what came after — subjectivation, faith, love, etc.

    I think that’s what needs to be considered also in the theologians’ treatment of the event. Do they see the event as an ongoing condition of being and source of meaning, or as a radical space-time break outside of being that radically changes meaning in its aftermath?


    Comment by ktismatics — 1 July 2008 @ 4:56 am

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