Badiou, addressivity and Prophetic speech

Saint Paul the Apostle by Pompeo Batoni

Badiou’s ‘Saint Paul’ offers a provocative reading of the Pauline epistles.  Badiou’s purpose is to find in Paul the foundation for Universalism amidst the proliferating differences of late capitalism and contemporary identity politics. By drawing attention to faith (conviction), hope and charity (love), Badiou offers some important insights for how Mormonism should relate to Paul’s theological impulse. Badiou’s Saul is made Paul through an event which radically alters his subjectivity. This new subject is a gift, given by grace, and is available to all. As such, Paul is compelled to declare this new subjectivity both Jew and Greek, Male and Female, Bond and Free. This is, for Badiou, the Love of which Paul speaks. It is not necessarily a call to greater kindness but rather an impulse which declares the possibility of this new creature; it is public attestation that this gift is for all. Using Paul to consider the intersection of love with proselyting and also with being faithful to the gift of our new self are fruitful ways to engage with Paul’s theology and yet there is something else in Badiou’s work, something not fully explored in the book itself, that is the motivation for this post. Badiou’s attempt to establish a universal through Paul traces the way in which Apostolic discourse engages, in some instances, in a different form of addressivity than other forms of speech/text.

This aspect of Badiou’s work is most clearly seen in one of his critics. Paula Fredricksen participated in a colloquia dedicated to the work of both Zizek and Badiou on Paul. In her paper, Fredricksen argues that Badiou’s effort to position Paul as a contemporary is incommensurable with the historical method because it allows a presentist bias to disfigure the person who is being studied. There are three key points to her argument that I want to explore. First, for Fredricksen, there is a need to acknowledge that there are significant differences between ‘us and the objects of our inquiry’. Second, historical interpretation accedes priority to the ancient context and attempts to understand the words of the person in the context of their own time. Third, that philosophical or theological readings attempt to systematize the unsystematizable while Historians must allow the internal contradictions within an individual to be manifest.

It appears that Fredricksen has missed, I think, an important part of Badiou’s argument which concerns the Universal. Badiou’s claim, one which Fredricksen does not dispute and which others seem to confirm (cf. E.P. Sanders & Dale B. Martin), is that Paul himself saw his message as Universal. The event is not located only within Israel. If Paul’s message of the Universal, addressed as it was to specific groups in the first-century CE, is in fact Universal then, so Badiou seems to claim, it (the Universal truth) transcends both space and time. In other words, Paul’s claim of the Universal Truth are addressed as much to our time as to his. Badiou wants to take this claim seriously while re-reading Paul. Badiou tries to negotiate the inevitable gap which lies between Badiou and Paul by reading him in light of contemporary concerns.

This brings me to Fredricksen’s second criticism. If historical interpretation proceeds by accepting the priority of the particular context in which a figure (Paul) lived then ‘they [the contemporaries of the figure], not we, were his audience’. Yet, if, as observed above, Paul’s claims to Universal Truth are taken seriously, as Badiou believes they should be, then drawing such a sharp dichotomy between us and them (whether they are temporally or spatially separated) seems to ignore the character of the Universal Truth as Paul saw it.

In fact, I would argue that one of the distinguishing features of Prophetic speech is the interlocutors to whom the speech is addressed. In short, prophetic speech is directed toward the Universal and is therefore speech (or text) which addresses itself across time and space. Certainly not all those who have been called prophets have addressed those who are not their temporal or spatial contemporaries. Failing to engage in Prophetic speech does not necessarily exclude you from being a Prophet (as a social role) just as drawing on this form addressivity does not make you a Prophet either.  Rather this category serves to identify those types of speech that share this particular quality. For example, the Book of Mormon is filled with individuals who speak both to those who are their contemporaries but also to those who will read their record. Nephi and Mormon are two classic examples of Prophets whose transhistorical consciousness results in their speech being addressed to multiple groups.  More than simply being transhistorical, Prophetic speech might also be characterized as speaking Universal truth which is by its nature transhistorical. Thus to think about these figures only within their own context misses an important group to whom the are addressing themselves.

This brings us to the final criticism that Fredricksen raises concerning Badiou’s approach to Paul. Fredricksen is concerned with adequately recognizing the difference between us and those of the past. This is a concern that those who engage in Prophetic speech also share. They recognise, like good historians, that their words (although addressed to an Other who is not only unknown but who also is radically different, both temporally and spatially, from themselves) will be unintelligible to the Other because of the inevitable traces that are found in their texts.

Badiou, too, observes this in Paul. For Paul writes using Jewish metaphor and from a particular location; and yet he writes of the Universal which cannot be contained with that same locality nor within the confines of those metaphors. Prophetic speech exceeds metaphor through claims to Universality.  As such, the Book of Mormon Prophets call their readers to a particular form of generosity and care while reading their texts.

What Badiou’s work highlights is the problem of interpreting historically a form of speech that is constituted by a particular addressivity. Prophetic speech is not ahistorical, it certainly cannot be separated from its context, and yet propehtic speech will not be wholly reducible to context.  Prophetic speech asserts its universality primarily through the particular form of addressivity by which it is characterized.


  1. Thanks for this Aaron. Not much time to respond right now, but you should know that Joe Spencer has put Badiou and Mormonism together in a very good article from BYU Studies, “The Four Discourses of Mormonism”:

  2. Thanks, Jacob. I should get hold of that article.

  3. Adam Miller says:

    Nice, Aaron. Joe Spencer’s article is fantastic. And [smile] don’t forget my “Earthen Vessels” and “Love, Truth, and the Meaning of Marriage” essays in Rube Goldberg Machines: Essays in Mormon Theology for some more Mormon work with Badiou. Though my first book was also about Badiou and you might be interested in that while your at it: Badiou, Marion, and St Paul: Immanent Grace.

  4. Adam, Rube Goldberg is sitting on my shelf at home and I am very much looking forward to your book on Latour. Thanks for the recommendations.

  5. Yes, thanks. These are very nice responses to a certain dismissal of Badiou (and others)—and they’re not without importance for those of us trying to formulate a Mormon theological project in a crowd dominated by historians….

    Since we’re all listing our own works on Badiou and Mormonism, I’ll mention also my “Nephi, Isaiah, and Europe,” in Reading Nephi Reading Isaiah (available online here for free) and “Mormonism and the Enlightenment,” in SquareTwo (available online here for free). (I’ll note also that you should ignore the abstract for my “The Four Discourses of Mormonism.” I didn’t write it, and I think it’s inaccurate.)

  6. Jonathan Green says:

    Thinking of the prophetic texts I’ve studied, I’d have to disagree, unfortunately. I don’t find many cases of ahistorical addressivity in the medieval and early modern texts I’ve looked at. What I see instead, in nearly all cases, is ahistorical reading and rewriting by later recipients.

    It’s hard to claim that Paul is addressing an audience that is not entirely situated in his own time when we know so little of his personal context, and when we know his writings only from multi-generational descendants from the originals. Every act of copying will introduce changes – mostly subtle and unconscious changes – that shift the message away from Paul’s context and towards the contemporary one. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does make it probably incorrect, I think, to try to define prophecy by the author’s original intended audience.

  7. Nice Jacob.

    I think the problem of universality is a big one. After all just because Paul saw his message as universal it doesn’t mean that the way Paul expressed it was universal. (Which I take to be the point of contention) You then get into a debate about what is universal in Paul and how. But can we make that next move without engaging in a careful historical analysis?

    In a sense it’s just an other debate over what is essential or accidental in theology. A topic that is probably important to Mormons given that the translation of the Book of Mormon involves a large use of reference to and quotations from Joseph’s environment (especially the KJV Bible). But it’s also topical given the strong masonic elements in the early temple ceremony and even various aspects of early Mormon religious thought. As the temple ceremony has, over time, been de-masonized one might see this as a move towards more universalism. Or one might instead see it as the very problem of how one grafts a universal truth into new contexts.

    That is one might say an universal truth can be spoken the same way in all contexts. Or one might say the universal truth can’t be said except in particular contexts in which each new expression of the truth must be cast in an unique way. Which gets at the Badiou debate again. (Obviously I’m injecting a little Derrida in here but trying to avoid getting too technical) Put an other way perhaps we have the same Church as in primitive Palestine but at the same time the form it takes would be somewhat different and perhaps even unrecognizable to some.

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