Events of Grace

The only possible answer is that the event is the event of grace. This is exactly what Badiou declares, and he is forced to see the event of the advent of Christianity as one crucial paradigm of the event as such; this is set out in his book on St. Paul (Badiou 1997).

Yet of course this is grace without God; an event of grace which delivers its own grace and yet only arrives by a grace that seems to exceed its merely empirical or mathematical instance as a member of a pregiven set or situation. One may well find such a conception contradictory, since if an event in order to be a universal event must bear an excess over itself, the notion of an "elsewhere" seems inescapable. In line with such a consideration would be a further question: Does Badiou ignore the fact that the event of the Incarnation was not just a supreme instance of an event, but rather the first event of the arrival of the field of events (singularities that inaugurate a new universal) per

If Badiou commendably escapes from the infinite/finite dialectics of "folding," and refreshingly points out that Heidegger's Being/beings and Deleuze's virtu-ality/representation schemata are simply variants of traditional metaphysical dualisms and monisms, and not "post" anything whatsoever, then all the same he seems to offer instead a stark neo-Cartesian and Sartrean dualism without mediation. If we may applaud the refusal of that postmodern despair which sees every rupture as doomed to retotalize, we may nonetheless stand aghast before the adolescence of a perspective which thinks there is a neat distinction to be made between politically repressive "situations," on the one hand, and liberating "events" supposedly without any antecedents, on the other. If, indeed, Badiou genuinely lacks civility, he merely offers us an unredeemed rudeness, which at times aspires to a kind of liturgy but does not fully envisage it. All too readily one surmises that followers of acclaimed "events" would demand absolute universal submission to the implications of those events of which they would regard themselves as the privileged avant-garde interpreters.

Indeed, the pluralist criterion to prevent a slippage into evil only opens again the postmodern prospect of potentially unmediable difference, this time between possibly rival universals. While clearly Badiou will view the event of Incarnation as a falsely self-absolutized event, could not this be to fail to ask whether it is just the event which seeks to be open to all events in audaciously offering to them, not the perspective that subsumes them, but rather the impossible idiom of their co-belonging? Without such an event of events, it would seem that Badiou's laudable desire to restore universality in the face of lamentable fixation upon diversity cannot possibly be accomplished.

Badiou's insights into the possibilities of a liberal totalitarianism should therefore not blind us to the stark opening to an old-fashioned illiberal totalitarianism in his own philosophy, whose reverse face is itself a continuing postmodern liberalism.

We have seen that postmodern politics offers variants of modern civility, if sometimes in the negative mode of incivility. Can there be a more substantive mode of civil blending that goes beyond the formal distance of polite respect?

In accepting the postmodern sense that all is simulacrum, we still need to be able to distinguish a fake from a true copy and in this way to locate Badiou's event of universal import. The way to do so is to suppose that there may be non-identical repetition without rupture, and thus at times some instance of a positive relation between the virtual and that which the virtual provides. In this way there would be no folding back of the event into the virtual that would entail its cancellation. But by the same token one would not countenance Badiou's absolute contrast of event and situation: every creative event would rather be seen as developing the hidden and repressed seeds of a largely diabolical past, just as the New Testament is taken by Christianity as fulfilling in an unexpected way the fragments of antiquity.

To say this is not at all to deny that often, or even most of the time, Deleuze's and Badiou's diverse pictures do not correspond to historical reality. For the most part, history, including the history of the church, is indeed the violent interplay between stasis and movement, or the alternation between fixed situations and revolutionary breaks (though Badiou's picture is the less realistic one). The point, rather, is whether this historical reality reflects the ultimate ontological situation, and whether, if it does not, there can at times, if fleetingly and frag-mentarily, be historical processes which disclose other, nonagonistic possibilities. It may be that such rare sequences of events are, for all their paucity, more "compelling" than the overwhelming weight of terror, in rather the way that Badiou intimates.

If they are so compelling, and if true events are not in total discontinuity with situations, then this requires an ontological grounding. If general situation and singular event can occur in harmony, it must be the case that there is a higher ground for both these aspects of higher reality. This higher ground cannot be the neo-Platonic One, nor the merely virtual, realized in what it cancels, but rather a plenitudinous, infinitely actual Being that is expressed in a certain measure in the finite being that it provides or lets be.

This notion of participation in the source of all situations and events which is an infinite unified multiple implies that what truly emerges as event is a gift since it is good in its harmony, and as good expresses toward us a good will -since how can we detach the notion of goodness from the notion of an intention of beneficial providing as coming toward us? For this reason, participation requires that the event be the event of grace. At the same time, however, it also requires that the mystery of the source be preserved, since in seeing that the event is a gift from a higher source we recognize that source only in its self-manifestation as inexhaustible by us and infinitely reserved. Participation is always of what cannot be participated in; grace declares to us the unknown god.

By comparison, postmodern thought is unable to hold together grace with the via negativa. Characteristically, it seems to search for secular equivalents to theological themes. Thus Levinas and Derrida present us with a secular negative theology; Badiou with a secular account of grace. Yet, as we have seen, the former delivers a formalism of civility that is more formalistic than the Kantian formalism of rights, and can equally serve as a mask for terror. Inversely, the latter subscribes to a mystique of avant-garde self-grounding that renders grace a mask for pure human affirmation without possibility of redress, or analogical mediation or appeal to a higher authority.

Could one not say that one requires both grace and negative theology? Then political ethics could cease to be reactive and we could accord primacy to the projects of the human imagination that combine appearing bodies and do not just futilely acknowledge invisible subjects. But equally we could retain suspicion of these projects as only partially and inadequately displaying what we can never fully command, while also acknowledging that that mystery was somewhat present in human beings never reducible to players in civic processes. The secular equivalent of both grace and the via negativa would in this way think beyond either the idolatry of the humanly instituted, or the more subtly idolatrous hypostasization of the unknown "beyond being." It would rather conceive the appearance of the withheld or the withholding within appearance. This thought also requires the liturgical practice of searching to receive as a mystery from an unknown source that grace which binds human beings together in harmony.

But to think such a thing is to think theologically; the "secular equivalent" fades into the thinking of incarnation and deification, and the search for a liturgical practice that would allow for the continuous arrival of the divine glory to humanity. It transpires that the postmodern secular theologies were never anything so grand. They were partial theologies after all.


I would like to thank the following for their criticisms and comments on this essay: David Burrell, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Fergus Kerr, John Milbank, Robert Sokolowski, and Thomas Harrison.


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