Outside of the little fact that I lost my conference folder containing all my notes, Saint Paul's Journeys into Philosophy (Vancouver, British Colombia: June 4-6) was a wonderful gathering of people and ideas. It had a perfect balance between philosophical theologians and biblical scholars (reflected both in the plenaries and conference attendees), each interacting with recent philosophical appropriations of Pauline thought.
Of the four plenaries session, two were by theologians (Paul Griffiths and Travis Kroeker) and two by biblical scholarsh (J. Louis Martyn and Steven Fowl). Martyn's began the conference by arguing that Paul was asserting the way of Christ in salvation against the "2-ways" of ancient moral theory (the way of Live and the way of Death). Of all the papers, Lou Martyn's most sought to polarize theology against philosophy. Travis Kroeker explored 'messianic becoming' in light of the thought of Jacob Taube. Steven Fowl discussed Alain Badiou's 'indifference to difference' and a truly Pauline universalism. Finally, Paul Griffiths discussed Giorgio Agamben and the politics of messianic quietism. Outside of Martyn's paper, the conference on the whole was devoid of a polemic between theology and philosophy, and even more refreshingly it didn't get bogged down in methodological discussions of how one might relation theology and philosophy. All the papers (not just the plenaries) assumed a relation and noted it consequences.
Three persistent questions arose through the discussion during and after the presentations:
1) How does metaphysics and theology relate? Or, more to the point, how does eschatology and ontology relate? Often through the conference, especially in regard to Agamben, the 'messianic of becoming' would be situated against the 'world of being' pitting eschatology against ontology. But Paul Griffiths kept alerting us to the dangers of inscribing theology within the discourse of meontology in an attempt to overcome onto-theology. Griffiths kept asking if theology really should be opposed to ontology. Or, in other words, must we agree with Badiou that Paul is an anti-philosopher?
2) Relatedly, what is the priority of relation between theology and philosophy? Does one give the coordinates for understanding the other? Are they mutually interdependent? Some argued for the absolute priority of theology over philosophy, while others asserted that often atheist philosophers are the best Christian theologians. Often this question is answered according the how one answers the previous question.
3) Lastly, it became quite apparent that while interesting and illuminating, most often the exegesis Badiou/Zizek/Agamben/Taubes in relation to Paul is extremely incomplete, tending toward eisegesis. But just as, say, Badiou's interpretation of Paul is incomplete in his St. Paul: The Foundation of Universalism, so too is an interpretation of Badiou incomplete when it is only through this one book. And in fact, answering the challenges to Christian theology as posed in this book would miss the much more important critiques stemming from the corpus of his work.
Be that as it may, the piecemeal engagements like those at the conference, are still fruitful and productive because understanding and critique are always provisional affairs anyway, continually pressing in deeper and farther. Therefore it is my hope that such engagements will continue along these fronts.
to conclude, I would like to make one final reflection (switching from the academy to the church): One week after this conference, a young congregant of ours overdosed on meth (who was also my next door neighbor). In light of such a tragedy I found myself wondering if all this going to conferences, writing papers, hoping to be published isn't all just vanity. And in light of a looming global food crisis, it feels like all this really is just "academic". Isn't his all just a waste of time? (and I think I can hear my dad with a hardy 'Amen')
But it's not. These questions deal with how we as a church live and respond to death and suffering, both personally, corporately, politically. The tensions between philosophy and theology are the sames tensions between lived reality and the life of faith. It concerns how we affirm the salvation in Christ even amid a fatal relapse into meth addiction. It concerns how do we proclaim "Come Lord Jesus" in all its apocalyptic urgency while also affirming that "This is my Father's world" . It concerns how we praise the God who created the fields which gives us bountiful harvest year after year, even while that same food is horded and wasted while so many hunger and die? These are not merely spiritual questions, but also political questions, philosophical questions, and theological questions.
At the end of it, Paul might not be a philosopher, but he was certainly involved with politics. And if Agamben, Badiou, and Zizek (along with others) can help us remember and see that Paul and politics belong together, then pastorally we ought engage their thought.