Category Archives: Liturgy

Alain Badiou & The Event of Liturgy

Here is the previously promised paper I presented at Oxford last weekend. Still a bit rough at this point, I’m currently preparing a longer version, so comments appreciated.

When one begins to consider the oft-overlooked relationship between philosophy and liturgy, their first inclination is often not to explore the work of a self-described “militant atheist” who considers the life, death, and resurrection of Christ to be “precisely a fable”, as it relates to the Christian liturgy; but this work will attempt to do just that. In this paper I will argue that Alain Badiou, who is undoubtedly the most significant living French philosopher, is capable of offering some much needed insight to the church in regards to both the philosophical and political significance of the Christian liturgy. I will also show that while Badiou goes to much effort for the sake of avoiding an ontology of “the one”, which he equates with theology, this only leads him to the development of a secular ontology which subsequently acts as a groundless parody of the true liturgy.

Before moving on it is necessary that Badiou’s ontology be outlined and briefly explained. I will attempt to do this as concisely as possible, but it is necessary that one understand the contours of his ontology if they are to catch a glimpse of the relevance his work possesses for helping us to properly, and creatively, think about the liturgy. After this brief sketch of Badiou’s ontology, I will move on to exemplify the way Badiou can help us better understand the nature of liturgical praxis; finally I will show how a liturgical understanding of truth and reality can overcome many of the problems found within Badiou’s ontology.

The first thing that must be noted is that for Badiou, “mathematics is ontology”; thus for Badiou the foundation of being is to be located in mathematical discourse, and for him mathematics’ primary field of inquiry is that of being (ontology) itself. Badiou has located the system of math which best explores the nature of ‘being as such’ in post-cantorian set theory. Badiou has said, “mathematics articulates be-ing itself” and that “mathematics is the thought of nothing but pure being as be-ing”.

It would take far too much time to provide a detailed introduction to set-theory and the manner in which it is employed by Badiou to develop his ontology; but for the sake of the present argument a few things must be noted.

It is crucial to note that for Badiou  “the one is not”. Simply stated, the “one” is any singularity which is said to provide the “ground” for being. Badiou notes that the only philosophy of the one is theology, and it is useless because “God is truly dead”. This absolute prejudice against the one is a cornerstone of Badiou’s ontology, and is the impetus for many of his arguments. Peter Hallward has noted that in this way Badiou is “ontologically atheist”.

Now, because there is no “one”, and absolutely no God, for Badiou, there is only “the multiple”, and each set of multiples is only a multiple of other multiples and so on. Initially it can be seen that this creates the potential for an unending chain of multiples; which resembles the post-modern sophistry, and it’s lack of a ground on which truth can rest, that Badiou adamantly speaks against.

Badiou avoids this fall into “postmodern sophistry” by grounding this series of multiples in “the void” or “empty set”; which is another name for the point of absolute nothingness. (It must be noted that for Badiou the “empty set” is not the point of “nothing”, but of absolute nothing-ness, similar to the way this term is used by Sartre, one of his primary influences). Thus for Badiou every set of multiples comes from the empty set; which is equivalent to something emerging from pure nothingness, thus quite similar to the theological concept of creation out of nothing.

The next important move in the development of Badiou’s ontology is the way in which he conceives of truth. In Badiou’s ontology truth emerges from an “event”; and this event comes from the “empty set”, or void. These “truth-events” can be produced within four possible fields, or “generic procedures”. For Badiou the four fields, or conditions, for a truth’s emergence are Science, Art, Politics, and Love. A truth can only emerge through an event in one of these categories.

Another important point in Badiou’s ontology is his notion of ‘situation’. Each new inaugurates a new ‘situation’ with it’s own set of rules. Each situation has a ‘count’, and any element of the situation is a part of the ‘count’ of the situation. Thus, each element of a situation ‘counts’ as a part of the whole.

For example; the inception of Jazz music was an event that took place within the “generic procedure” of Art. The initial occurrence of Jazz music emerged from a void, which was nothing but the empty space existing in the absence of what would later come to be known as Jazz music.
The event of Jazz subsequently changed the situation in which it emerged; before its founding event Jazz simply didn’t ‘count’ as part of the situation, but after this emergence Jazz inaugurated a new situation in which it was included in the ‘count’ of elements within the situation.

For Badiou, truth and subjectivity are intertwined in a fashion quite similar to that of Kierkegaard; and each emerges from the founding of an event. Subjectivity takes place when an individual claims fidelity to an event; and the truth of that event is proclaimed in a subject’s “militant proclamation” of that event and the truth it has inaugurated.

The proclamation must be militant because nothing is ‘real’ or ‘settled’ in the situation, so a subject must make things happen, or make ‘shape’, of the situation. This can be seen in marriage. Although two individuals participate in a ceremony on a certain day and at a certain time, nothing truly happens. The next day each remains the same person they have been their entire life. Thus, they must live in a militant fidelity to the ‘event’ that was their marriage, and subsequently ‘make shape’ of their new situation through this fidelity.

Thus, at the inception of the music which would come to be known as Jazz, certain individuals witnessed the founding event, and were subjectivized through their witnessing and subsequent fidelity to this event. The “truth” associated with this new form of art emerges through the faithful proclamation of this founding event.

With this structure in mind, it comes as no surprise that Badiou’s prime example of the inauguration of truth and subjectivity in response to an event is the story of Saint Paul’s conversion and subsequent missionary journeys in which he “militantly proclaimed” the truth following from the “Christ event”.

To quickly sum up what has been said thus far; for Badiou truth and subjectivity are both tied to the emergence of an Event. This event emerges from the nothing-ness, or non-place, that Badiou names ‘the void’. Subjectivity is only gained through fidelity to the truth brought into being from this event. Each event must also happen within one of four generic procedures; Science, Politics, Art, and Love.

Now that Badiou’s basic ontological structure has been presented, we will consider the interaction and similarities of his philosophy with concepts present in liturgical discourse and praxis.

First, we must note the similarity between the function of truth in his ontology with the function of truth in the Christian liturgy. The crucial similarity resides in the idea of truth as encounter, which Badiou inherits from Lacan’s notion that “all access to the real is in the order of an encounter”; but whereas ‘encounter’ is the sole from of access to the ‘real’ for Badiou (and Lacan), in the liturgy the real is found in a non-encounter. We encounter the ‘real’ in the Eucharist by the very fact that we only perceive bread and wine, not the actual body and blood of Christ we are told is present. The Eucharist remains indifferent to our perception, and thus functions as a traumatic event, leaving us to either walk away from the table with doubt and unbelief or to live in militant fidelity to this (non) event. The truth found in the Eucharist is indifferent to our perception of it, so the ‘real’ of the liturgy actually is the bread and wine.

Another important similarity found between Badiou’s conception of truth and that of the liturgy is the interaction of truth and event. As was previously noted, for Badiou, truth emerges through a subject’s fidelity to an event. Once again, only an “event” can introduce a new truth. In Christian liturgy, Truth is also inextricably linked to an event, which is the death and resurrection of Christ. For Badiou an event must always be singular, with only those present at it’s original inception having original access to the truth offered by that event. In the liturgy, the truth producing ‘Christ-event’ is singular, but not in a strictly temporal sense. Whereas only those encountering an event’s original inception can have access to truth through subjective fidelity in Badiou’s ontology; the liturgy offers access to the original event repeatedly through the sacramental offering of the Eucharist, and thus each participant in the Eucharist has access to the founding event of the truth proclaimed in the liturgy.

It is crucial to note that the sacrament of the Eucharist is not a mere reenactment of an event that has already occurred and is thus forever relegated to historical memory. Each time the bread and wine are consecrated, access to the actual event of Christ death and resurrection is given, and the actual resurrected body of Christ is consumed by those partaking of the Eucharist.

We will now examine the way in which Badiou’s conception of subjectivity interacts with the liturgical emergence of the subject. We have previously noted that for Badiou subjectivity is only gained through fidelity to a truth-event. In the liturgy subjectivity has not only to do with fidelity, but participation. Before participation in the liturgy one is simply an individual, which William Cavanaugh notes is an “ontological category created by sin”, but through Christ appearance in the Eucharist, individuals are restored to the group; thus liturgical subjectivity involves a loss of individuation and a re-participation in a group. This is seen in the words of the congregation during the Eucharistic sacrament, “…though we are many we are one body; because we all share in the one bread.” Before the sharing of the bread one is merely an individual, but through the consumption of Christ’s flesh one enters into the subjectivity found in Christ’s body alone. Thus Catherine Pickstock notes, “…without the liturgy, there is no subject”.

To continue on the theme of participation, it is important to note the function of participation in the thought of Badiou. Whereas Christian theology, and the Liturgy in particular, offer participation in the divine plenitude of God through the ‘analogia entis’ (or, analogy of being); for Badiou each individual gains her subjectivity through a participation in an event founded on the pure multiple of nothing, which could also be named the ‘analogia nihil’ (or, analogy of nothing). Just as Christian theology offers participation in absolute plenitude, Badiou offers a participation in empty nothingness.

This leads us to the question of nihilism and nothingness; if Badiou’s ontology ultimately grounds being in the absolute nothingness of the “void” or “empty set”, does the Liturgy simply respond by offering the opposite; a being grounded in the overflowing plenitude of existence given (as gift) by God?

The answer to this question cannot be given with a simple affirmation or negation, as the Liturgy does not only offer “pure existence” in opposition to Badiou’s “absolute nothingness”; in actuality, the liturgy offers the only space of pure nothingness, thus showing that the problem with Badiou’s nihilism is that it’s simply not nihilistic enough!

The only way in which true nothingness can be seen is in the shadow of the overwhelming plenitude of God; pure darkness can only be perceived when one has first encountered absolute light. Jean-Yves Lacoste has noted, in his work Experience and the Absolute, that “liturgy is non-place”. This is striking when read alongside Badiou’s claim that the “void” is the “non-place of place”. Lacoste goes on to note that in the Liturgy there exists a “will to powerlessness” which is “deprived of any hold over the absolute” and instead “totally submits itself to the will of another”; this will to powerlessness thus opens up the space of liturgy as “nothing but an empty space.” Lacoste finally notes that the work of Liturgy is “indistinguishable from nihilism”.  In this way, the ‘event’ of Chirst resurrection as embodied in the Eucharist emerges from the absolute non-event of the Liturgy.

This non-event, or nothingness, found in liturgy thus acts as an “empty, but enabling, nothingness.” In this way the non-event of liturgy is like an empty canvas, such that the empty canvas is the necessary pre-condition for the creation of something new.

Thus it can be seen that while Badiou finds the “empty set” of the “void” the only place (or more properly non-place) capable of giving way to events; the Liturgy already accomplishes this, and to a much greater extent, by creating a space of absolute nihilism from which the absolute plenitude of God can emerge. This is why Robert Sokolowski notes, “the resurrection (which is encountered during the liturgy through the Eucharist) brings being and life not out of nothingness but out of the deeper nihilism of sin and death”. Only the liturgy has the power to make this “deeper nihilism” visible.

In conclusion I hope it has been seen that a liturgically minded reading of Alain Badiou does not only lead to a reconsideration of the function of radical truth and subjectivity within the practice of Christian worship; but also to the way in which much of Badiou’s philosophy can be seen as a secular and a-historical parody of the one true liturgy. Oddly enough, it seems as if a liturgical embodiment of the philosophy of Badiou is the only way in which it could ever come to the realized political potential it strives for.

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