Review Essay: The Revolution Ate Its Children — Two New Essay Collections Address the Embodied Politic

“…[T]he Kingdom of God is within you.”
— Luke 17:21, New International Version

“…[T]he Kingdom of God is in the midst of you.”
— Luke 17:21, English Standard Version

[1] In the book Paul’s New Moment, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek paraphrases Karl Marx’s comments on the French Revolution, comparing “the sublime revolutionary explosion, the Event of freedom, equality and brotherhood” to the “miserable utilitarian/egotistic universe of market calculations.”1 And, immediately after, Zizek quotes the British Catholic G.K. Chesterton, who wrote of mankind’s desire for faith: “Alone among the animals, he feels the need of averting his thoughts from the root realities of his own bodily being.” This gap between our bodies and ourselves — echoing that between dismal economic realities and hopeful social movements — is the territory now being contested by two strains of contemporary theology influenced by progressive Continental philosophy.

[2] In one corner, representing the post-structuralist identity politics that proliferated in the disillusioned wake of another French revolution, the 1968 street battles in Paris between police and student radicals, is Apophatic Bodies, a collection of essays edited by Catherine Keller and Chris Boesel.2 Apophasis is negative theology, “unsaying,” the rejection of all earthly attempts to describe or comprehend divinity — the concept, as described by Maximus the Confessor, that “the complete silence declares God, and the outmost absence of knowledge makes Him known.” “Bodies,” used to denote humans without the baggage of humanism, refers to ideas of contingent corporeality developed in the theories of Gilles Deleuze and repeated throughout recent cultural studies scholarship, notably in the writing of Judith Butler. The fragmentary outlook such theory has effected in liberal theology is satirized gently by Keller herself in an aside: “Eco-social-feminist-euroamerican-postcolonial-poststructuralist process theology? Is that what ‘I’ do?”

[3] The book surveys an array of topics, all presenting an ephemeral theology focused on our unknowable embodiment and the rapturous futility of attempting to know holiness. Essays on immaterial bodies in early Christian hagiographies, monstrous bodies in Augustine’s City of God, bodies of light in the writings of Jewish Kabbalists and Dionysus the Areopagite, hysteric Review Essay: The Revolution Ate Its Children — Two New Essay Collections Address the Embodied Politic by Bert Stablerbodies in female medieval mysticism and French feminist psychoanalysis, all theopoetically depict spirituality as the continual striving of partial beings toward an ever-deferred object of non-signification. Apophatic Bodies emerges from a context of intuitive heterogeneity, descended from the erotic organicism of Deleuze, Jacques Derrida’s nominalist ideas on the absolute yet multivalent nature of language, the vitalist phenomenology of Henri Bergson, Martin Heidegger, and Alfred North Whitehead, and Jean-Francois Lyotard’s lay theology and his deprecation of cultural “grand narratives” such as religion and metaphysics.

[4] In his discussion of Soren Kierkegaard, T. Wilson Dickinson articulates the kind of negative approach Apophatic Bodies propounds in response to the crises in faith brought about by modernity. Kierkegaard, as the pseudonymous Pastor Judson, speaks of Jesus’ announcement of the punishment of Jerusalem in Luke 19:41–48, rhetorically asking whether such destruction “[d]oes not… have the power to make everything else unexplainable, even the explainable?” Dickinson expands on this to announce both the end of the divine and the human subject, and any rational metaphysics that attempts to systematize Providence and subordinate transcendence. “Rather than finding an absolute ground upon which one can know and affirm particulars…,” Dickinson asserts, “the self is opened within its situation and emptied in relation to God.” But what looks empty may, upon closer scrutiny, turn out to be a mirror. Kathryn Tanner straightforwardly sums up the volume’s fascination with the ineffability of our own bodies: “By attaching ourselves to the incomprehensible that has attached itself to us (by becoming incarnate for that very purpose — so that we might attach ourselves to it), we become in the strongest sense incomprehensible ourselves.”

[5] In the other corner, we have Paul’s New Moment, which focuses not on the body and mystery, but on collectivity and mission. In a reaction to the post-1968 reaction, the writers in this volume resonate with the more traditionally realist metaphysics of Alain Badiou. Badiou’s philosophy centers on the importance of the “Event,” which allows people (or bodies) to exist as unified political subjects, and allows an imperative toward enacting historical change. Paradigmatic examples of the Event for Badiou include the French Revolution, the Maoist insurrection in China, and Christ’s resurrection. In his book Saint Paul, Badiou dismisses the literal truth of the resurrection as a “fable,” but touts Paul as an “anti-philosopher” who provided a foundation for collective action on the basis of a shared view of history. Following Badiou, Paul’s New Moment considers political and ethical questions in the light of Christian communitarianism.

[6] While Keller’s book identifies its opponent as the legacy of Western humanism, Paul’s New Moment squares off against this postmodern backlash. Catholic theologian John Milbank criticizes Derrida’s view of unattainable and impossible justice, as well as Emmanuel Levinas’ idea of moral obligation arising on a mystical one-on-one encounter rather than in a context of collectivity and principle. Zizek exalts the Crucifixion not as a simple drama of guaranteed salvation but as the crisis of a divided and vulnerable God who makes the supreme gesture of trust in humanity, granting us complete responsibility for our actions. Effectively closing the gap between God and mankind, as posited by G.W.F. Hegel, Christ delivers an ultimate and universal mandate not to bow to authority, to blend into the pantheistic cosmos, but to shamelessly defy every worldly power in the name of truth. Negative theology for Zizek is not to be found in emptiness or excess, as in the Buddhist or New Age extremes of Apophatic Bodies, but in apocalyptic struggle spreading virally through the Holy Spirit, which he compares to the perversely regenerating monsters found throughout horror cinema. Milbank speaks of Paul as offering the possibility of an immanent solution to the brutal dilemma of an absolute Law on the one hand, and an absolute Lawgiver on the other, and he cites Paul’s insistence on an engaged community as the proper manifestation of the Holy Spirit, describing that community itself not as passive bodies, but as elements of one active body (1 Corinthians 12:21–27).

[7] Far less averse to order and conformity, Zizek et al. are nonetheless, I claim, more consistently radical, while Apohatic Bodies, with its lyrical rhetoric of self-effacement, asserts a more properly conservative position. The former favors the spirit immanent in the community of faith, the ethic of love, and hope toward progress, while the latter focuses on flesh, sin, transcendence, and alienation. Beyond mere optimism and pessimism, the political ramifications can be discovered in the two books’ respective attitudes toward the Enlightenment. Badiou’s definitive Event, the French Revolution, stands in well as a symbol for this period, with its triumphant egalitarianism and harsh centralized secularization of the early Republic leading to a gruesome colonial legacy that, in North Africa, has now given way to liberation movements and new conundrums for former colonial powers. The age-old weight of ancestry and land, versus the cosmopolitan abstractions brought about by dislocation and reintegration, are the terms that connect events current and historic with these two schools of thought.

[8] While leavened with suspicion toward the cynical deployment of human rights rhetoric to justify brutally enforced “free” flows of capital across dissolving borders, humanist principles from Plato to Thomas Aquinas to Hegel inform the socialist materialism that characterizes Zizek and Milbank’s writing in Paul’s New Moment. Collectivity, universality, and the autonomous subject (“Liberté, égalité, fraternité!”) are all elemental truths that these thinkers are anxious to defend — from the vantage point of a committed actor, however, rather than the shaky apologetic high ground of multicultural tolerance. Central to the arguments put forth by Badiou and his followers is the spirit of Galatians 3:28, in which Paul insists, “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

[9] Two of Europe’s first modern conservatives, Joseph de Maistre in France and Edmund Burke in England, defined their politics in shock and dismay over the bloodbaths of 1789. A romantic nostalgia for prelapsarian order and a narrative of earthly transcendence characterizes both figures. De Maistre’s idea of a lost perfect language, and Burke’s “sublime,” the ineffable experience of awe, prefigure similar concerns after 1968 among the alternately pessimistic, wistful, and mystical French nominalists from whose work the writers in AB draw their central themes. Like Burke and de Maistre, these post-structuralist theologians lament the ascendance of humanist rationalism as they exult a free, sensual “play” of pleasure and meaning predating the imposition of a scientistic “phallogocentrism,” the teleological masculine view of a strictly ordered cosmos. Escape from cerebral determinism is to be found in the marginal and the molecular, through moments of spontaneous spiritual arousal. To quote Lyotard on the Eucharist: “The most repugnant and the sweetest Christian mystery, infinity made flesh, bread and wine, is accomplished without the concept, next to the flesh, in a convulsion.”

[10] It may seem that the apocalyptic Crucifixion-inspired utopianism of Paul’s New Moment holds more promise of an engaged progressive politics than the ambivalent contemplations on the resurrected Jesus in Keller’s collection. But there are return volleys from the identity-politics camp. Roland Faber, in Apophatic Bodies, takes Badiou to task for his attempt to resuscitate a subject with political agency while ignoring “the poststructuralist’s affirmation of a body a priori as basis for identity and unity…unmediated by any deity.” Faber disputes Badiou’s fundamental notion of being as overly static and “egoistic,” preferring instead an open-ended and “orgiastic” universe. Graham Ward directly takes on Messianic materialist readings of Paul, citing Hegel’s “celebration” of the French Revolution not for the introduction of democracy but for its “negativity,” its historical inevitability, its “pure destructiveness and iconoclasm.” Ward draws a contrast between Paul’s anthropomorphization of the Church as a model for a freely arising, spiritually transformed, fundamentally heterogeneous body politic, with the unitary state sketched by Hobbes in Leviathan, begetting the rhetorical combination of organic social wholeness and authoritarian vanguardism spoken of not only by Mussolini and Hitler but by Lenin and by today’s leaders of neoliberal democracies (ironically, in other contexts, Zizek deploys a parallel accusation against the ancestral specificity implicit in this culturalist viewpoint).

[11] But the essays in the two books are not dogmatically at odds on all points. Creston Davis, writing in Paul’s New Moment, seeks an acceptance of paradox, a condition that philosopher William Desmond has termed the “metaxological.” Davis argues on behalf of the young Hegel, who stated that “genuine love excludes all oppositions,” versus the systematized antagonistic thought of later Hegel, in which the “security” of immanence is valued “in-and-for-itself.” Catherine Pickstock writes in the same volume on the significance of physicality in traditional Church liturgy, while citing its historical relationship to pagan ritual, but insists on the body as a mediator between the world and the soul, rather than an end in itself. And Milbank questions Badiou’s atheism, and his extolling of the Jacobin revolutionary massacres in particular, mostly drawing on Badiou’s own abstruse analysis of existence. “To speak of grace without God,” Milbank says, “can only mean to speak apophatically of God.” In Apophatic Bodies, Philip Clayton mixes references from Hindu and Christian scripture in defending the necessity of kataphasis, the reverse of apophasis, in which shared language and the present objective world are no less significant than mute contemplative experience as a vehicle for encountering the Divine; this would be to imitate what Chris Boesel calls God’s “radical relationality with creatures in the midst of creation,” realized in the Incarnation. Boesel, against Derrida, asserts the importance of risking the testimony of faith.

[12] And both volumes critique the post-Bastille regime of administered populations and mass policing theorized by post-structuralist Michel Foucault as “biopolitics.” Manifested in “a command shift from a centralized model to a distributed network model,” quoting Ward’s quote of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, biopolitics also includes what Giorgio Agamben (cited by Milbank) calls the “state of exception,” extralegal violence inaugurated by reigns of terror past and present, reaching its apotheosis in acts of domestic and colonial genocide. But a common imperial enemy does not erase all distinctions. In Christ’s time, conservatives like the Pharisees faced the temptation of purity, whereas radicals like the Stoics faced the temptation of totalization. Balancing the mundane and the ideal can still be a costly compromise. Obeying the inner Law that Philip Clayton terms “voluntary self-limiting” can be compared to the act of a God who became a servant and died a mortal death. Christ brought the sword that overturned tradition, but He did not bring war; He rendered unto Caesar that which was Caesar’s, but in doing so the extent of worldly sovereignty was defined.


1. John Milbank, Creston Davis, and Slavoj Zizek, Paul’s New Moment: Continental Philosophy and the Future of Christian Theology (Brazos Press, 2010).

2. Chris Boesel and Catherine Keller, eds., Apophatic Bodies: Negative Theology, Incarnation, and Relationality (Fordham University Press, 2009).

Bert Stabler

Bert Stabler is a Chicago public high school art teacher and a critic, curator and artist.