This review was originally published in June 2017.

This is a review of ‘What’s Missing in the Turn to Paul?: Identity and Difference in Postsecular Theology’ by Katharine Sarah Moody, in Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory vol. 16 no. 2 (Spring 2017), available to download for free here.

Katharine Moody has written a long and complicated critique of some of the theory of Pete Rollins, and I gotta be honest, I thought it was brilliant. I have spent a lot of time reading and listening to Pete over the last four years. I would count him among a handful of people whose work has most influenced me over the last decade, and I have spent what feels like a disproportionate amount of time defending his theories in many different contexts – and indeed continents! So it’s not a cheap line when I say that Moody’s critique is the first substantial challenge to Rollins’ work I have heard that I think actually sticks.

(For anyone reading this who follows Pete’s work closely, Katharine’s article is a development of the questions she raised in the Oct 2016 edition of Modern Believing (which she also edited) with ‘Neither Male Nor Female, Christian Nor Non-Christian, Oppressor Nor Oppressed: Pyrotheology’s Pauline Politics or Identity’. Which was also good, but this is much better.)

Bit of background: there’s this fairly recent (last 15 years) move in Continental Philosophy called ‘The Turn to Paul’, which is where, a bit unexpectedly, some major, supposedly secular European thinkers suddenly started to find the biblical letters written by the Apostle Paul really interesting. Paul famously had a very dramatic conversion, and went from hunting down and killing Christians to being the most influential Christian leader in the early church. As a result he fundamentally changed his relationship to the Jewish Law, a move which helped Alain Badiou theorise about set theory and, as a result, gave Slavoj Žižek language to express his anti-capitalist universalist theory.

For Žižek, so-called Identity Politics is a distraction from the material class divisions which are fundamental to contemporary globalised consumer capitalism – an imperialist system of hegemonic control. Under this oppressive system, says Žižek, the politics of identity – gay vs straight, female vs male, black vs white – cannot provide resistance. Only class consciousness can do that. In one well-known passage from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he writes that ‘There is no longer Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (3:28). This is the difference that matters, says Žižek, reinterpreting the ‘Christian’ distinction as a fundamental materialist cut that separates within other differences. The radical collective posited by the Apostle Paul erases these marginal ‘identity’ differences in order to preserve the fundamental difference of socio-economic reality. The only question that matters: are you resisting the system in its totality or not?

Pete Rollins, being heavily influenced by Žižek, develops his own universalist theory along similar lines. However, where Žižek draws the fundamental difference-that-erases other-differences on socio-economic lines, Rollins articulates it in terms shaped by Lacanian psychoanalysis. Everyone experiences life as lack, he says, and tries to fill that lack one way or another – by pretending things are certain, or trying to satisfy our desires. But life is found in embracing the lack, and living with our uncertain, unsatisfying existence. More fundamental than our individual identity, says Rollins, is the universal experience of lack and uncertainty. That is the cut that separates within other differences. Those that are ‘in Christ’ to reinterpret Paul’s language, are those who can live constructively and deliberately with uncertainty.

Rollins doesn’t just explore this as a theory. He has theorised a form of practice, something he calls Transformance Art. Developed in Belfast in the early 2000s through a quasi-religious arts collective called Ikon, Transformance Art seeks to achieve a ‘suspended space’ where every participant leaves their identity at the door and so opens the possibility of transformation. Ikon set out to deliberately destabilise identity markers – ‘to offend everyone and so to offend no-one in particular’, a favourite description. I have experienced Transformance Art with Ikon; it was beguiling, terrifying, comical and above all, irreverent. But I did indeed leave a different person than the me who entered.

There is a problem, however, with Rollins’ idea of suspended space, according to Moody. Saying that everyone can suspend their identity assumes that everyone’s identity carries equal power. However, given structural differences in power between men and women, white and black, straight and gay, etc. any equality in a suspended space is a fantasy. Non-identity will by default equal the identity of the most powerful. (Elsewhere she has argued that this is evidenced by the fact that pyrotheology, and the broader discipline of Radical Theology in which it is located, is dominated by White Men. Hard to argue.)

So, says Moody, we need to appreciate the intersectional nature of constructed identities. Intersectionality Theory recognises that a person’s concrete, material experience is affected by the intersection of their various identities with that experience. I intersect Straight and White and Male and therefore experience life in a very different way from someone whose identity intersects Gay and Black and Female. This is a structural reality that persists regardless of individual agency. Certain institutional and cultural privileges are afforded to me which are denied to her. In response to Žižek, Moody scoffs at the idea that political identities are adiaphora – matters of indifference – when compared to the materiality of socio-economic conditions. Identities intersect differently and this is a material reality, not just something psycho-social.

Now here’s where Moody’s article starts to get freakin’ brilliant. Because armed with the frame of Intersectionality she only goes and takes on the ‘Turn to Paul’ from within the domain of Biblical Studies! So blindingly obvious with hindsight. So not actually been done properly before. By critiquing the reading of Paul that these continental philosophers have used, she undermines the version of universality at the heart of their respective theories.

To cut a long story short, scholars for a long time talked about Paul in opposition to the Jewish people. It’s a classic Reformation line: the Jews wanted to work their way into heaven, but Paul proclaimed justification by faith, salvation by grace not works. So Paul good, Jews bad. Then, in the second half of the twentieth century, needing apart from anything else to respond to European anti-Semitism, the ‘New Perspective on Paul’ emerged. This emphasised Paul’s Jewishness, his training within Jewish religious tradition and his Jewish language and thought, even as he managed to appeal to the Gentiles. It still looked to an essential religious division between Jew and Gentile, however, on which to describe Paul’s significance.

In more recent years, though, postcolonial readings have reframed the context for Paul’s writing by pointing to the overwhelming Roman imperial reality that dominated all aspects of both Jewish and Gentile life. It didn’t matter if you were a Palestinian Jew in Jerusalem or a Phrygian Greek in Iconium, the political, religious and economic context were all dominated by the imperial cult involving emperor worship and military tribute.

Armed with this insight, Davina Lopez wrote Apostle to the Conquered, arguing that the nature of Paul’s conversion was a conscientization of his position as conquered subject. He had been pursuing domination of his adversaries in a destructive mimicking of Rome, but through his Damascus Road encounter with Jesus who was crucified he was faced with his own subjugation, which led to this form of conversion. Lopez goes on to describe Paul’s mission ‘to the nations’ as a mission of solidarity with other subjugated peoples – the Gentiles – who were oppressed just as much as his own Jewish people. The religious division, then, is nowhere near as important to Paul as the politico-cultural division the cut across the Roman Empire as a result of their imperial oppression. Paul is bringing people together in covert resistance to Rome through the unifying story of the crucified Christ, the symbol of the subjugated Imperial Other.

So far, so postcolonial. But then Lopez applies her own Intersectional analysis. Drawing on Roman sculpture and iconography she demonstrates how Rome visualised subjugation as female and domination as male. And then shows how Paul’s own language undergoes a gendered change through his conversion. When describing his pre-conversion life he uses masculine terms of domination and control; post-conversion life is more female, eventually shifting to describing his relationship to fledgling churches as a birthing mother.

This intersectional reading helps to illuminate a more gendered account of Paul. Moody goes on (drawing on Peter Tomson) to show how Paul deals in specific communications with specific churches in order to deal directly with the specific power relations they experienced; in Rome where the Jews are other he sticks up for the Jews, but in Galatia where the Gentiles are the other he sticks up for the Gentiles. ‘[T]he strong change their practices to accommodate the weak rather than asking them to give up their differences.’ (Moody, p.231)

This reading of Paul is fascinating on its own terms. But as a critique of Žižek it is genius. Precisely by attending to the material contexts of Paul’s letters and the communities they address, Moody deploys Lopez to undermine Žižek’s reading of Paul on Žižek’s own terms! If Žižek wants to stick to a materialist reading of Paul and use it to articulate a universalist revolutionary vision he must also acknowledge the material difference inherent in that reading. So Moody presses that conclusion for him. The cut that separates within other differences is not simply conscientization of capitalist hegemonic oppression, it is conscientization of the power dynamics that inhere in societal structure and their material relationship to capitalist hegemonic oppression. The universal anti-imperial collective is still possible with Paul, but it must acknowledge and respect, not erase, the power effects of identity difference.

Here’s a chunky quote from Moody to summarise:

“Rather than merely adding together these different identities as inessential to the struggle against Empire, Paul concerns himself with identifying the dynamics of privilege and power at work amongst the conquered nations under Empire; with the identity positions and practices that are possible between the nations; and with the context-specific identifications that can foster solidarities against Empire. Imitating Paul’s own practices of dis-identification with Empire (strong, heroic, penetrating, male), identification-as conquered (weak, defeated, penetrated, female) and identification-with other conquered others in conceiving of, birthing, nurturing and sustaining new communities of resistance and solidarity (labouring and nursing mother), the nations are to dis-identify themselves from the power structures of Empire, identify as one of the conquered nations under Empire, and identify with the others in solidarity against Empire.”

So what about Rollins? Well in following Žižek and emphasising a universal difference that erases other differences, Rollins’ idea of suspended space finds itself critiqued by the same move. The uncertainty – or more precisely, the undecidability – around which his account of human psychology turns, is invited into dialogue with Intersectional analysis. Moody does not press this further, but I inferred the following question: How, precisely, materially, does a full-bodied embrace of existential doubt manifest as it intersects with different identities? Undecidability for the Straight White Male is materially different than for the Gay Black Female. Although it is a theory of psychological desire, the material character of cultural structures makes desire more or less risky, depending on ones identity status’. Undecidability is psychologically easier for me to embrace as a Straight While Male precisely because the structures of society conspire to protect me from the cost. It is, to use one of Rollins’ own favourite ideas, as if they believe on my behalf.

I’m really grateful to Katharine Moody for this excellent article, just as I continue to be grateful to Pete Rollins for the impact of his work on my own life; it has helped me live infinitely more humanly in the world. My own response to this is not to reject either Žižek’s or Rollins’ account of the universal per se. What we need instead is an account of these fundamental divisions – of class consciousness, or psychoanalytic consciousness – that takes into account intersectional experience. What we find missing in the Turn to Paul is not the emergence of particularity (or singularity) in opposition to the universal; it is an account of the universal as attending to the particular. It is through listening to and respecting the material differences encountered by various intersectional social constructions of identity that enables us to navigate the universal collective as a site of resistance to ‘contemporary neoliberal, neocolonial, white supremacist, hetero-patriarchal, globalized capitalist imperial rule’.