Politics and Paul: Reviewing N.T. Wright’s Political Apostle – By Michael Thate

Michael Thate on N.T. Wright’s Paul and the Faithfulness of God

N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Fortress Press
N.T. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Fortress Press, 2013, 1,696pp., $89

“There is […] an elusively expansive cultural revolution curled up, as if still sleeping, within narrations of Christian origins.” (Ward Blanton)

“Authentic Christianity is not behind us: it is in front of us.” (Stanislas Breton)

Origins, Politics, and the Theological

Over the course of the past several years, a fascination with originist accounts of early Christian politics has established itself with no small polemical edge within the guild of Pauline studies. Much of the material appears to be a kind of refashioning of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule. The pieces remain the same (e.g., Paul, the assemblies, the imperial cult) as do the questions (e.g., are similarities and differences between Paul and “empire” representative of borrowing, subverting, or tacit acknowledgment?). Strong stands have been made on both sides of the dividing lines when it comes to the relevance of empire to Paul’s theological matrix. Among the more eloquent spokesmen for a counter-imperial reading as a significant thread within Paul’s “gospel” is N.T. Wright. In his recent monograph, Paul and the Faithfulness of God, Wright extends his previous material in suggesting that Paul’s confession of Jesus as Lord is an offensive against empire’s confession of Caesar. As opposed to critiquing Wright’s exegesis or swapping historical narratives with him, I want to read his political Paul as part of his project of Christian origins within contemporary philosophical currents of origins, politics, and the tensive boundaries between the secular and the theological.

Perhaps no scholar has lent more clarity on how the project of Christian origins is a messy and complex participant within the emergent and merging spheres of the secular and the religious than Ward Blanton. In his most recent release, A Materialism for the Masses, Blanton conceives of Paul as a touchstone offsetting the apparatuses of power which not only use the necropolitical as sovereign threat but recalculate and reconceive of death as profitable for its agendas. It is these “apparatuses,” for Blanton, which “often seem so much more alive, vibrant, and resilient than the ‘living’ who try in vain to resist them.”

Blanton’s project is an attempt to “snatch an undying life from imperial apparatuses which have, somehow and much to our horror, become more living than the living.” They have become a new kind of monster — an evolved zombie — no longer simply undead but imbued with a hyper focalization of life which lives off the life of others. Blanton sees in Paul a possible way to “curl up inside the apparatuses themselves, hollowing out within their irresistibly effectual machinations the space of something like a downfall, something like an end, a kind of strangely invested or vibrant suspension of the machine or power in question.”

Paul as a comparative touchstone amidst the threat of these apparatuses affords a space “by which to think about a kind of excess of life (a ‘surplus of immanence’), an irreducible excess in life itself, an openness or freedom within things which is not without important philosophical, therapeutic, and political consequences.” In this respect, be it the work of the so-called materialist return to Paul in all its multiform guises, or those works which brand themselves as the purely “historical,” each are positioning themselves as the readers of what Blanton calls the Pauline signature: “those instances of an effect that is neither merely historical nor merely conceptual but some quasi-transcendental apparatus putting both into operation at one go.”

Paul as a touchstone within philosophical and conceptual reflection, of course, is not new. Jacob Taubes noted that Nietzsche, for example, that genius of transvaluation of all values, discovered a generative spark in Paul’s “critique of the concept of law.” Paul factors heavily within Taubes’ own political theology in his appropriation of the as-if logic in 1 Corinthians 7:29ff. and Romans 13:11ff. Hent de Vries, for one, is not surprised by the “philosophical renaissance of interest in Paul” and its coincidence “with the return of a certain specter of Marxism […] as well as of Capital to dominate the geo-political scene.” He goes onto state:

We are witnessing various forms of direct democratic action—revolts, revolutions, popular insurgencies, national uprisings, civil disobedience—that elude modern forms of parliamentary representation and ideological affiliation. The impossible turns out, surprisingly, to be possible, as civil courage and acts of heroism lead to events that seem nothing short of the working of miracles. It is in this context that the writings of Paul seem newly relevant for philosophy and philosophers.

I think de Vries is correct. The return of the “impossible” has introduced fissures within our constructed rationalities and their supporting political, philosophical, and theological apparatuses. And from these fissures an openness to miraculation has occurred. This openness was perhaps prefigured in some measure in Taubes himself. He asked rhetorically in a letter to Armin Mohler: Was ist heute nicht “Theologie (ausser dem theologischen Geschwätz)? What, today, is not “theology” (apart from theological chatter)?

But Taubes, of course, is not a theologian as such. He “ask[s] after the political potentials in theological metaphors, just as [Carl] Schmitt asks after the theological potentials of legal concepts.” The move here by Taubes is an important one to get straight. He is not asking about the presence of the political in the theological as such. He is after the potential of the political in the theological. This is a distinction between the analytic and the descriptive. The former introduces an adjective, be it theological or philosophical or political. The latter is descriptive of what is there.

The Pauline Signature, the Originary, and the Political

Regardless of what one thinks of Taubes here, an important distinction emerges in his reading for the political potential within theological metaphors that might shed light on much of the current work on Paul and politics within contemporary Pauline and biblical studies. The distinction is this: are current discourses of Paul and politics within biblical studies operating out of a movement of reading for the political potential within the historical material? Or is it reading for the political that is present within the historical?

No one doubts the political potential that emerges from the similarities between Pauline and imperial language. To repeat from Blanton, the Pauline signature allows us to “curl up inside the apparatuses themselves, hollowing out within their irresistibly effectual machinations the space of something like a downfall, something like an end, a kind of strangely invested or vibrant suspension of the machine or power in question.” Reading after the political potential of the Pauline signature strikes me as quite fascinating in terms of the current modes, moves, and moods within current forms of political theology as well as continental philosophy.

But to suggest that the political is there in Paul himself is another move altogether. We might well flip Taubes’ aphorism and ask, in some perverse allusion to Thomas Mann, Was ist heute nicht “Politik” (ausser dem politischen Geschwätz)? What, today is not “politics” (apart from political chatter)? What, then, does it mean to suggest a politics of Paul that was present within Paul himself? Political implications, again, are one thing, but questions of access to the “politics of Paul” need to be pressed. We do not after all have any explicit position statements or democratic voting records. What, therefore, does it mean for Paul to be political? Or, perhaps better, in what ways was it possible for Paul in fact to be political?

The answer to this question, I suspect, reveals one’s own politics. Much of the political chatter surrounding Paul’s “politics” within biblical studies takes an apologetic form, fashioning the wax nose of the man from Tarsus to play along the edges of our current episteme. This is the struggle over narrating the originary between those placing origin stories of Christianity within the spheres of the egalitarian and tolerant, the universal and the politically progressive, or the conservative and authoritarian. This is not a judgment on either side, but the positions taken here demonstrate what Blanton sees as the “elusively expansive cultural revolution curled up, as if still sleeping, within narrations of Christian origins.” Interpreters are branding their politics in the politics of Paul.

Paul, God’s Itinerary, and the Birth of Early Christian Political Theology

It is within the longitude of Blanton and latitude of Taubes that I would like to locate Paul and the Faithfulness of God, N. T. Wright’s latest volume in his Christian origins series. In particular I am curious about his evolved reading of the political Paul within his tale of Christian origins and the question of God. Specifically with respect to the “question of God,” it is in this volume where God is named, as it were. In the first three volumes of Christian Origins and the Question of God, “god” remained left to be defined and hence not capitalized. With Paul, however, “god” becomes “God,” as Paul not only names and speaks of God “in a way nobody had done before”, but announces and embodies the “reconciliation […] of Christian Origins and the Question of God”.

It is interesting in this respect to read of Wright’s anxiety not to be classed as writing a New Testament theology or a New Testament history. He wants a “dialogue” and “synthesis” between the two, and in effect relocates theology and, with Paul, turns it into a “different kind of thing.”

I find this move not only quite intriguing but promising, too — so long as it is clear what is going on in Wright’s movements. For him, the “question of god” is in “constant and complex dialogue with the question of ‘Christian origins”. The movement from “god” to “God” in volume four, and not in volume two or three, thus places Paul along and within a major phase of what Régis Debray has brilliantly phrased God’s itinerary.

Though “Paul remains a decidedly and determinedly Jewish thinker” for Wright, Paul nevertheless “developed something we can appropriately call his ‘theology,’ a radical mutation in the core belief of his Jewish world”. Paul thus “invents something we may call ‘Christian theology’”. Again, Wright maintains that “Paul’s native Jewish world” set his theological agenda, but also that this world was “transformed […] in light of the cataclysmic revelation that the crucified Jesus had been raised from the dead”. Monotheism, election, and eschatology were “rethought, reworked, and reimagined” around Jesus and Spirit.

Wright’s use of Paul’s “native Jewish world” here sounds dangerously close to colonial speak of the so-called “enlightened native” progressing through Colonial apparatuses of power. But it is fascinating to consider the approach to (or positioning of) Paul as a major point within God’s itinerary specifically as it relates to his generation of what Wright calls, again somewhat unfortunately, “a primitive Christian theopolitics, a radical mutation of the Jewish view of pagan empire exactly in line with Paul’s radical mutation of Jewish theology as a whole.” Paul is placed at a key moment of God’s itinerary, the foundation of “Christian theology,” as well as a “Christian political vision.” But what is this “political vision?”

Emperor Claudius. Image via Wikimedia Commons
Emperor Claudius. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Wright’s Political Paul

I am not quite sure we get an answer to this question from Wright. He is absolutely correct in suggesting that we need to think more specifically about “Paul’s engagement with his various worlds,” and, when it comes to his politics, with Rome. But what precisely is Paul’s engagement? Wright leaves this term “deliberatively vague” in order to coordinate an integrated complex of borrowing, parallel thought, and a “rich mixture of affirmation, denial, derivation, confrontation, subversion, transformation, and a whole range of possible ‘yes-but’ and ‘no-but’, or perhaps ‘yes-and’ and ‘no-and’, relations.” This is all well and good, but nowhere do we get a picture of what it means for Paul to engage (in whatever form) with empire.

Again, quite rightly, he suggests doing away with “childish antitheses” and instead embracing “the deeper, more multiplex world to which his letters actually point”. But could we not return the serve of Wright’s rhetoric here and suggest he himself might be stuck in his own “childish antithesis”: viz., religion and politics were firmly bound together, so, of course, Paul was political otherwise he could not be theological? Moreover, does not this assume that Paul is in fact “deeply counter-imperial” when he may in fact be recycling colonial speak for a global protection-racket of his own? Here Wright may well fail his better wisdom of steering clear of easy declarations of “for” or “against.”.

Granting Wright his own reconstruction of the possible interaction between Paul and Rome, or awareness of Paul and imperial claims on the ground, there are but two givens. First, Paul confessed God as cosmic authority. Second, Roman presences had entangled themselves throughout the empire in nearly every provincial setting conceivable.

What remains problematic for Wright is that these two givens do not automatically or necessarily conflict with one another. Paul walked along Roman roads through lands ruled by Caesar, and the majority of cities to which he traveled “constituted a monumental visual lesson about the relationship between the city, the gods, and the emperor.” Moreover, it is difficult not to hear resonances with Paul’s language and the imperial deification of Fides, Spes, Victoria, Libertas and Iustitia. And, let us even grant Wright that “August was the name that was found, literally, on everybody’s lips”. But we strain to find this name on Paul’s lips. Another name was there.

This is actually where I find Wright quite helpful in locating the political potential within the theology of Paul. As he suggests, the “new symbolic praxis which stood at the heart of his renewed worldview was the unity of the Messiah’s people”. The gospel of Jesus as the Messiah “created and sustained a particular community”. And, moreover, Paul’s political theology is borne from an apocalyptic framework which communicates “an alternative frame of reference […] an alternative narrative to that which the world’s power-brokers are putting out, an alternative symbolic universe to reshape their imagination and structure their worldview”. This leads Wright to suggest that Paul “believed in a different empire, a different kind of empire”. And though I hardly share Wright’s conviction that we can know what Paul “believed,” nothing here demonstrates the level of “significance” of Caesar for Paul, nor requires “reasonably constant engagement” (whatever that means!) between these two magisteria.

Wright suggests that as Paul wrote to the assemblies in Corinth about “many gods and many lords” (1 Corinthians 8:5), “he could not have forgotten, and would not expect them to forget, the imperial temple that had recently been built at the west end of the Forum”. He might be correct — though, of course, major events and buildings and personages are blissfully forgotten in communication all the time — but as even he states, “there are many varieties of political comment and action”. But what kind of action and comment is present when there is no naming of the name that Wright claims was on everyone’s lips?

The political potential in the theological claim of a “united and holy community” rallied around a revolution that had already occurred in the “death and resurrection of Israel’s Messiah” is indeed rich. But, historically, how can this “constitute a challenge both to the implicit assumptions of communities in the ancient world and, more specifically, to the empire of Rome” when, a) there were certain communities which would have been off limits or unknown to early Christians; and, b) the “early Christian community” was hardly so stable an entity? Was not the building of this stable imaginary the project with which Paul was busying himself?

Paul’s constructed community involved great travel both within and without, travel which he attempted to police, as evident from the paraenetic sections in his letters. The early Christian community was a construct of Paul through which he fashioned early Christian communities out of a negotiated relationship with other communities that ate food sacrificed in pagan temples, paid and extracted taxes, and lived within a vast assortment of social bonds.

So much of what Wright says in Paul and the Faithfulness of God is helpful nuance to the overstatements out there on Paul and Caesar — some of which, it must be said, are found in his own popular writings on the subject. “There are many varieties of qualified support, and many varieties of qualified critique” when it comes to Paul and Rome. Paul’s political theology was “something much more subtle than either a ‘pro-Roman’ or ‘anti-Roman’ stance as commonly imagined.” There was a “lightness of step about Paul’s political critique. […] There is much more to the gospel than opposition to empire, whether Rome’s or anyone else’s.” And that “Paul’s teaching and theology cannot […] be reduced to some kind of ‘anti-imperial’ rhetoric.”

But it is puzzling, after all this well-crafted nuance, to hear his charge of “a particular sort of deafness” operative in those who do not to hear allusions to Caesar in Paul’s writings. Despite these careful concessions, somehow the parousia of Jesus and the parousia of Caesar are in a bidding war, Paul’s gospel of Jesus outflanks the gospel of the emperor, the gospel of Jesus becomes an “upstaging, outflanking, delegitimizing and generally subverting the ‘gospel’ of Caesar and Rome.” And, strangely, the founding of Rome is somehow a parody of the story of Abraham and “a rather exact mirroring of what Paul was up to.” Yes, loyalty to Caesar may have been in some form among “one of the major features of life.” But this leaves a lot of life in which the regular pressures of food, family, finances were equally, if not more, pressing concerns. Moreover, regardless of the degrees to which Caesar may have impressed himself as one of the major features of life, Paul appears to have busied himself with his philosophy of undying life made possible by a new excess of life in Christ.

The Political Wright

Readers of Paul and the Faithfulness of God might well be forgiven the cynical suspicion that these concessions amount to little more than trying to wiggle off the hooks of his critics, notably John Barclay. But I think it is more the case that Wright conflates the potential with the actual and situates his own politics within the politics of Paul. This should be hardly controversial as he has written eloquently on the authority of the Bible for life and practice. As he baldly states, he is after “twenty-first century answers to first-century questions.” And he reflects well what he sees in Paul’s political theology of “transformation” as opposed to the “abandonment” of current realities through much of his writing on Christian mission and his public speaking to Christian students at rallies on major American universities.

But one must ask what would the “transformation of present political realities” look like for the first-century Paul? What would the transformation of Caesar and the apparatuses of empire look like? Again, I find Wright quite helpful here. Paul was onto a “different kind of revolution. A different kind of ‘subversion’”, a “different fulfillment; a different kind of victory; a different kind of political theology.” Paul was not advocating “the normal sort of revolution”. But what kind of revolution or for what politics did he advocate?

When it comes to the political potential of Paul’s theology, Wright is correct that it is time to “integrate political ideas with philosophical and theological paradigms”. In this respect, he is more in line with the current philosophical readings of Paul than he perhaps realizes. The political consequences of Paul’s theology may well mean, to paraphrase Stanislas Brenton, that Paul’s politics are not behind us, but in front of us. In other words, we must become and make Paul’s politics. But as historians we must be prepared that there may simply be no twenty-first century answers (or questions!) for what Paul was doing.

Ironically, in Wright’s political tale of “The Lion and the Eagle: Paul in Caesar’s Empire,” there may be more spiritualizing happening than he might care to admit. If Paul could claim that the “Messiah himself was already ruling the world” he had to have meant something other than what was clearly happening in Rome. Whatever manner in which Jesus’ rule “constantly relativized all human claims to absolute power” these spheres of rule operated at the same time — though perhaps not in the same way.

Here Wright’s own reading of apocalyptic comes full circle. It may be better to think of these spheres not in conflict but in asymmetric indifference. When does the lion concern itself with the eagle? Perhaps only when the eagle lands. But discerning these historical landing points in Paul is difficult in that Paul himself makes little explicit mention of them. But within apocalyptic texts, even when there are landing points, a perspective of a different plane emerges which, as Wright points out, is a point of deep transvaluation. Placed along the coordinates of Blanton and Taubes, then, Wright’s narration of Paul’s place within Christian origins and the question of God, and his development of an early Christian political theology produces a wry historical irony. Talon and beak are not locked in conflict with tooth and claw; lion and eagle do not, after all, interact.