For the editors of this issue of South Atlantic Quarterly, it’s a new philosophical interest in Christianity that draws their attention to Alain Badiou and his fellow “new Paulines” Agamben and Žižek, but also other continental philosophers who have recently engaged with “‘the resources of’ Christianity.” Reading through the lens of the ethnographic study of the extraordinary global wave of conversions to Pentecostal or charismatic Christianity over the past few decades, the editors suggest that a dialogue amongst anthropologists, theologians, and the “new Paulines” may provide conceptual resources for rethinking the relationship between Christianity and critique. As they announce in their post, charismatic or Pentecostal Christianity might be “a leading force of change in the contemporary world,” if not for leading the charge against Empire, at least for helping us think about the problem of emancipation and transformative action in new ways.
Certainly, we must be done with the pieties of secular reason, and with what I’ve called the secular apologetics of many social scientific approaches to religion. There is no doubt that anthropology needs new approaches for understanding dramatic change, a new way of figuring the relationship between structure and subjectivity (often abusively assimilated by anthropologists to consciousness or the individual person), which I take to be part of the gambit of the project of an anthropology of Christianity. There is also a real need for a renewal of critical thought on the problems of exploitation, oppression, injustice—on the devastating ravages of late neoliberal capitalism on the masses of the Global South, which are also the populations most engaged in the new wave of conversions. Nothing testifies to this more dramatically or poignantly than the recent wave of self-immolations that has swept across North Africa in the past weeks, nor, might I add, to the ongoing force of a sacrificial politics. But can we really claim that something called Global Christianity (a shorthand, here, for its Pentecostal or charismatic forms), if not able to provide a model for emancipatory action, might, in dialogue with the atheist, post-foundational left, give us something better to think with?
It is one thing to recognize, with James K.A. Smith, who, citing Saba Mahmood, argues that what “critical reason remains blind to is its own disciplinary formation, its moral and structural unconsciousness,” that this blindness makes it, like Christianity, a “stand-point project.” But it is another thing to claim, as Smith does, that, “as a standpoint-project, Christianity, then, approaches the world critically. The critique issues from both its ethical and its eschatological vision.” Surely this is true of any stand-point project? Smith is clearly aware of what this statement implies, because he qualifies his demand for “stretching the category of critique in order to include nontraditional discourses” which are “critical of the status quo and which enact measures to try and effect an ‘alternative social order’” to those discourses concerned with “justice and resistance to oppression.”
Whence the knotty question of how we might today rethink critique, both as a new mode of engaging and enacting these projects and as a form of ethico-political discernment—a thought that does not merely reflect the world but inflects it. This is precisely what the post-foundational turn in continental political philosophy grapples with, in the face of the withdrawal of all markers of certainty. The Paul books must thus be read as part of a broader project of radically rethinking politics and the political all the way down to a de-essentialized ontology as first philosophy. Yet, despite the talk about radical change, revolution, and empire, there is in this dialogue a curious lack of attention to these political questions, or to the recognition that, as Anidjar has recently argued, Christianity is a “polemical concept.” Robbins says explicitly that he has preferred not to dwell on the question of Pentecostalism and the political, which he refers to as a “level of debate, ” but rather seeks to make a case for the possibility of understanding change as evental. This is an important move, and I endorse the fertility of the thought of the event for social scientific analysis. But surely the central question, if we’re going to dialogue with Badiou, Žižek, or Deleuze, and employ terms like critique, empire, and revolution, is that of the political import of a project of fidelity to the event of Pentecost, in either its Biblical form or its current global manifestations. Indeed, beyond a celebration of the “event” and “evental change,” it’s unclear what the authors mean precisely by “event” in the context of Pentecostalism and what its relation to the current “state of the situation” might be. For the proposed dialogue to bear any significant fruit, we need to recognize that, far from being merely a “level of debate,” the political, or the ethico-political, is really the only register in which to read Badiou, Žižek, and Agamben’s Paul with any consistency.
As part of this exercise of “stretching,” some of the papers advocate an affirmation of the affective, the embodied, and the sensual, so central to charismatic forms of religiosity, thus emphasizing the subaltern term—in Gayatri Spivak’s sense of the subaltern as “the absolute limit of the place where history is narrativized into logic”—in a secular dialectics of progress and history. Pamela Klassen challenges this approach in her excellent post. I’d merely add that the new anthropological focus on affect, sensuality, and the body might be simply a reversal of the old dialectic, complete with its Christian overtones. As Nancy and Derrida argue, phenomenology has never been free from a certain Christian thought of the flesh, the suffering body, and the overbid of hoc est enim meum corpus. For the theologians in the volume, particularly Pickstock, these are not simply overtones. But surely the lyrical celebration of communion in the “body of Christ” can’t be what the anthropologists have in mind when thinking about the “coming community”? In any case, as Derrida and Spivak show us, it is not simply a matter of dialectically reaffirming the subaltern. What I want from the anthropologists in the volume who speak about “revolutionary change” and Pentecostalism as “fertile ground for thinking through what Deleuze and Badiou offer us when confronting empire today” is to critically engage with the “stand-points,” not only of their Pentecostal subjects, but also those of Pickstock and Smith, for instance, when the latter claims that “the Pentecostal vision of a coming kingdom that can both contest and loosen up the petrified imagination of a world culture bent on consumption, violence, and the pursuit of power and exploitation.” As Elizabeth Castelli warns in her paper, “the pneumatic is something to think with, perhaps, but poses a critical danger at the level of the political.”
Not all projects speaking in the name of justice and resistance to oppression are actually borne out as such, and not all “stand-point projects” are equal from a political and ethical point of view. Social change doesn’t imply emancipation; “revival” and “church” don’t map onto political mobilization and articulation; and spiritual community, or, in Pickstock’s words, Christian communion, shouldn’t stand in for political community. In fact, for post-foundational philosophers such as Badiou, Žižek, Agamben, Nancy, and Laclau, nothing could be more opposed to a thought of communism or community than “communion” and the Christic body. As Nancy argues, “both the theory and the practice of critique demonstrate that, from now on, critique absolutely needs to rest on some principle other than that of the ontology of the Other and the Same: it needs an ontology of being-with-one-another.” Or, as Laclau says, “So forget Hegel!” And forget theology, which Badiou calls the ontology of the One. For the “new Paulines,” then, it is not simply a matter of thinking about religion, or with religion, as the editors say in their introduction, but also, and perhaps above all, thinking in a new way against religion, or at least all the old figures of the onto-theological and the theologico-political. The engagement with the “resources of Christianity” is part of this project; hence the antinomian Paul as a resource in Agamben’s project for a political theory freed from the theologico-political aporias of sovereignty; Badiou’s attempt to extract from Paul “a formal, wholly secularized conception of grace from the mythical core”; or Nancy’s thought of the body beyond all figures of incarnation, in Corpus, and his discussion of James on faith, in Disenclosure: The Deconstruction of Christianity.
Robbins may be correct when he notes that the vogue enjoyed by the new Paulines today relates to a current loss of faith “in the present to beget the future” and the difficulty for many, especially on the left, “to imagine that the natural development of tendencies evident in the present will issue in a radically new and better kind of future.” But finishing with Hegelian and Marxian dialectics and their attendant eschatologies, whether Reason in History or an ultimate crisis of capitalism that will engender the revolution, and, as in 1 Corinthians 15:24, announce the end of politics as such, isn’t such a bad thing either. It entails recognizing the aporetic, as opposed to contradictory, nature of the various oppositions—transcendence/immanence, noumenal/phenomenal, inside/outside, essence/appearance, base/superstructure—that uphold a dialectical mode of critique: a new version of Benjamin’s “dialectics at a standstill.” It is the sustained attention to this abyssal founding moment in which the political emerges that explains the new philosophical interest in the event and the decision. As concerns critique, recognizing the failure or impossibility of any stable “criteriology” upon which one might base ethical and political distinctions or decisions by no means exonerates us from distinguishing and deciding. On the contrary, as Derrida argues, the impossibility of a just decision about justice is the very beginning of ethico-political responsibility.
The central objection to the most radical thinkers of the event is that, despite their radical militancy, they cannot give a concrete answer to the question “What is to be done?” But can rereading them in the light of the “real-life events” of Pentecostal conversion really “polish off the patina of unreality” or “wishful thinking” from these philosophies of the event that the left “has pinned their hopes on”? I, for one, remain entirely unconvinced. Not because, as Milbank somewhat cynically suggests in his post, Pentecostalism succeeds because it focuses on “cultural” aspects of people’s lives, which they can actually change, where Liberation Theology failed because it was based on a demand to change underlying conditions that ordinary people could do nothing about. If that’s the real explanation, then nothing revolutionary has ever happened or can ever happen in history! Pentecostals certainly wouldn’t agree, believing as they do in the possibility of the impossible. It’s not because I remain politically suspicious of any theologico-political configuration, even one which takes the form, as I’ve argued Pentecostalism does today, of a negative political theology similar in many regards to the one Taubes associates with Paul. In fact, if I can put it in these terms, my problem isn’t with the fact that Pentecostalism focuses on a “world beyond this world,” but rather with the specific form of its worldliness. I think Pentecostalism in its present–day, globalized manifestations is rather a failed foundationalism, or a failed transcendence—perhaps even a new sort of quasi-religious post-foundationalism. We must not confuse Pentecostalism’s capacity to assist in breaking down the old hierarchies and social structures, modes of subjectivation, forms of thinking and being in post-colonial societies of the Global South, and in liberating people from their constraints, with a revolutionary form of socio-political action directed against the violence of late neoliberal capitalism. Indeed, in this regard, Pentecostalism rather appears as the handmaiden of Capital and Empire, a possibility Bialecki admits of at the very end of his paper. All good Marxists remember Marx’s enthusiasm for capitalism’s capacity to destroy the old hierarchies, ushering in the possibility of modern politics and its principle of equality. As Badiou says, “It is obviously the only thing we can and must welcome within Capital . . . . That this destitution operates in the most complete barbarity must not conceal its properly ontological virtue.” So, for many subalterns among the subaltern, the “destitution” that accompanies Pentecostalism’s “new life”—“making a complete break with the past”—also informs what I have called the prophetic, “quasi-democratic” figure of Pentecostalism’s ambivalent political theology and is, perhaps, its onto(theo)logical virtue. The deployment of this figure in Nigeria accounted in no small measure for its dramatic success.
I have argued for the failure of the “Pentecostal revolution” in Nigeria, drawing attention to the ways in which Pentecostalism is a religion of the subject rather than the Law. The messianism and interiority of Pentecostal practices of faith, the centrality of grace and miracles, all perform an ongoing interruption of processes of institutionalization that might ground both sovereignty and community, and secure the connection between a new mode of self-government and the government of others, a new ontology or “ethology” of being-together. From its local parishes to its global mega-churches, there is a growing imaginary of charismatic unity in Christ—but this virtualized, spectacularized, globalized “church” has no unity, no orthodoxy, no proper place; its voices are closer to Babel than Pentecost. My colleague Nimi Wariboko, a theologian at Andover-Newton, elucidates theologically what I call Pentecostalism’s post-foundationalism in his forthcoming work on the Pentecostal Principle—a rigorous engagement with the same post-foundational left, which I encourage all those interested in this dialogue to read when it appears. He makes a fascinating case for a Pentecostal principle that would deny any form of closure to becoming and counter any claim that a finite or conditioned reality can ever have reached its destiny: Pentecostalism as “dialectics at a standstill.” He argues that its attitude to miraculous, divine grace is that of a child at play, which allows grace to float between the serious matter of saving the soul and ordinary, ephemeral, bodily, existential matters, relieving it of the weight of the ends of eternal life. Divine grace as pure means, means without ends. You will recognize Agamben here, and, as his careful reader Wariboko points out, the “bad news” is that the spirit of Pentecostalism today might be nothing more than the spirit of the latest phase of capitalism. He cites Agamben’s observation that late capitalism converts every object into pure means, in which spectacle and consumption are “two sides of a single impossibility of using,” amply demonstrated in the case of Pentecostalism by the prosperity gospel and its flamboyant spectacle, lifestyles of conspicuous consumption—and, like late capitalism, a power of profanation and violent forms of reterritorialization. He offers good news, too, and the thrust of his text is compelling. From my less pneumatically inspired viewpoint, however, what Pentecostalism’s current globalized, teletechnologized manifestations most reveal is its potentially violent auto-immunity. This understanding of grace may be what saves Pentecostalism from its other figure, the evangelical, exclusionary, and apocalyptic “global spiritual warfare,” a figure of what Derrida calls “the worst.” Nonetheless, the internal instability of its political theology may also give the evangelical and apocalyptic an unprecedented force, as in Uganda today, where “God’s will” translates into projects of legislation and acts of mob violence for the murder of homosexuals. In the words of Uganda’s minister of ethics and integrity, James Nsaba Buturo, a committed and vocal born-again Christian, “Homosexuals can forget about human rights.”
From the project of an anthropology of Christianity I want more than just the necessary critique of the discipline’s Christian genealogy and the vestiges of its ontology of stasis. But I wonder just what such a project might look like. An anthropology of “Global Christianity” must develop an acutely critical, but perhaps ultimately impossible, position with respect to its “object,” especially in this time of globalization—a time, Derrida tells us, “when Christian discourse confusedly but surely informs this doxa and all that it carries with it, beginning with the world and the names for its ‘mundiality,’ and its vague equivalents globe, universe, earth, or cosmos (in its Pauline usage).” Nancy argues that “Christianity or the Christian is the thing itself that has to be thought,” in order for some other possibility to emerge. I am not sure that the new anthropology of Christianity is up to this. Maybe it’s as Derrida the spoilsport whispers back to Nancy: such a project may be “as necessary and fatal as it is impossible . . . .” “Only Christianity can do this work, that is, undo it while doing it. Dechristianization will be a Christian victory.” Christianity “will still make the sacrifice of its own self-deconstruction.” Perhaps Pentecostalism (and a certain thought of it) is the latest manifestation of Luther’s destructio—Christianity falling on the Sword of the Pentecostal Spirit? In our careful consideration of the crisis of critique, can we avoid sacrificing what is still worth saving of it?