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Home arrow Religion arrow Art and the Church: A Fractious Embrace: Ecclesiastical Encounters with Contemporary Art

Miracles Do Happen!

Throughout his writings on the event, Badiou draws a distinction between the event itself and the truth-event which is its consequence. To take a relevant example, the primary Christian event (Zizek repeatedly plumps for the crucifixion, Badiou for the resurrection) becomes a truth-event when it leads to the constitution of a community of believers, singularly and collectively faithful to that event. Just what kind of community that is will be subject to few if any guarantees. The truth-event may take several paths. Thus, there is an important difference between the event itself and its consequences. The conversion of Paul presents us with a paradigmatic example, transmuting a dramatic encounter with Christ into Christian doctrine and practice. The event itself is the initial encounter, described by Badiou in suitably sacramental terms as a moment of ‘laicised grace’ (Badiou and Hallward 1998: 124). But the event is destined to disappear almost as soon as it appears; what remains are the traces of its appearance and its subjects, concretised through naming and perpetuated through fidelity or, as Badiou says elsewhere, through a declaration of love (2008: 188). For Paul, the Damascus event, an encounter with the risen Christ as an act of divine grace, is over as quickly as it appears, but it marks him bodily with sudden blindness and spiritually with the revealed truth of the resurrection, to which he and future believers will testify by their fidelity to it. If it is the event that produces the Christian subject, it is its naming through a declaration of love, namely fidelity, that constitutes the emergent community. Fidelity is both the ethical-practical labour of the subject, their perseverance in a process of truth, but also the consequential shaping of subjectivity, both singly and communally, in accordance with the demands of that truth. Nomination of the truth-event is what allows a movement from singular experience to collective, even universal, experience (as many would claim apropos of Paul’s ministry). Naming inevitably actualises ephemeral experience. This is not to be lamented, since every event reworks the situation to which it belongs; it renames the terms by which it is understood in order to articulate its own truth and sustain its continuity. To do so, at some stage the radical choice or decision made by a subject becomes formalised.

From the rupture of event to the fidelity of the subject who gives assent to its demands, we arrive at the signs of that fidelity. How can we differentiate between an event and its consequences, between the evental irruption of the unnameable encounter and its eventual reincorporation into the known and nameable? Alongside the recurrent theme or condition of faithfulness to an event, there arises the tricky question of nomination and signification. By what name and by what signs can this fidelity be recognised? In many ways this is what is at stake in the birth of the Christian Church itself. As Jacob Taubes stresses in his late work on Paul’s ecclesiology, in the Epistles we see a moment prior to the turning point that marks out a recognisable community with a definite identity. The criteria that govern notions of what makes a congregation are yet to be established and are often contentious. Indeed, even the nominative term ‘Christian’ does not yet exist for Paul, in whose world what is Jewish and what is Christian has yet to be decided (Taubes 2004: 21). At this stage in its life, the Pauline ekklesia, not yet established, not yet legitimised, is an illicit, subterranean faith gathered in crypts, catacombs and private homes, built upon its fidelity to the miraculous event of the resurrection. Yet this new discourse remains without nomination within the recognised discourses of its time; it cannot be named and cannot be assigned a definitive identity. For Badiou’s Paul, the discourse of the cross is a skandalon: a stumbling block to Jews and a scandal to Greeks. It is precisely a truth that fails to fit the situation of its time, falling outside both the Jewish discourse of law and the Greek discourse of knowledge, reducing to nothing the things that are and bringing into being things that are not (1 Cor 1:28). Thus, as Paul’s testimony elucidates, the event is a matter not of ‘verification or demonstration, but of conviction and proclamation’. Those who declare the truth of Christ ‘constitute themselves as subjects in his name’, their subjective fidelity making of the event ‘the ineffable basis for a new beginning’ (Hallward 1998: 93—94). In the church’s historical shift from these early assemblies to its formation as ecclesiastical, concretised in Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the official religion of the empire, what is at stake for many is the disparity between the radical revolutionary potential of this new beginning (what we could call the Christ-event) and the institutionalisation and orthodoxy of the established church.

This is, in many respects, the crux of the Badiouian event. In his schema, politics, science, art and love are not truths but truth procedures; they are ways to the truth of a revolutionary cause, scientific discovery, artistic creation or amorous passion. The danger then lies in how this procedure proceeds and herein lies the potential failure of an event, since in the realm of truth one always runs the risk of falsehood. Badiou outlines three particular risks to be avoided — betrayal, simulacrum and disaster — namely whatever betrays truth, masquerades as truth or totalises truth, thereby precluding all possibility of future events. Accompanying every event, therefore, is the necessity for perseverance in the face of compromise or betrayal of the truth it discloses (including the disavowal of that event as having occurred at all), discernment to see through its imitators, and diligence against the temptation to indiscriminately enforce that truth wholesale (Ingram 2005: 566). In ecclesiological terms, faith as an enunciation of fidelity is reduced to dogma, codification, law or tradition. In artistic terms, art’s possibilities are compromised, or they rely upon a derivative rehashing of old ideas, or they enforce a new paradigm. Badiou has himself been accused of a kind of betrayal in his appropriation of St Paul for materialist ends. Critics have upbraided his dismissal of Pauline theology as a purely formal paradigm without content — illuminating the formal conditions of a truth-process without itself being true — as a form of bad faith towards his subject. Yet, ironically, it does not seem too eccentric to propose theology as the ghost in the crypt of Badiou’s Pauline construction, a disavowed yet evident subterranean presence whose viability as a fifth procedure of truth is assured by its surprising entrance in Badiou’s magnum opus, Being and Event. Here we find substantial evidence for this supposition, with Badiou’s own inclusion of religious exemplars into the series of truth procedures, ‘religious’ included alongside political, scientific, artistic and existential conditions for truth (2005b: 393-397, 399).

Such possibilities aside, it is certainly the case that Badiou stands apart from many of his contemporaries in proclaiming the very possibility of a truth-event Where a standard ‘postmodern deconstructionist’ position advocates the failed encounter, the encounter ‘to-come’, where truth remains an always-deferred moment, Badiou works with the proposition that ‘miracles do happen!’ (Zizek 1999: 135). Nevertheless, there are no guarantees, reliant as these ‘miracles’ are upon a subject’s commitment to the possibilities created by the event, and vulnerable as they are to being forgotten, ignored or overlooked. But at the very least, the concept of event indicates a new world of possibility (indeed, of an ‘impossible’ possibility) able to reshape the contours of its world. Such agendas are never certain in their outcomes, but offer at best an enlargement of the world, something that Rowan Williams persuasively argued in the catalogue to Presence, an exhibition of contemporary art in British cathedrals:

Any artist is going to be in the business of showing the world differently . . . The question is always how that showing creates an environment, a continuous world, in such a way that it makes still more difference possible in the world it started from. Or, in plainer English, how it communicates sufficiently to enlarge the world.

(2004: 7-8)

This was the hope that drove church modernisers like Couturier to declare, in the pages of Le Figaro, ‘I believe in miracles’, an attitude that enabled him to persist in the face of highly reactive ecclesiastical opposition (cited in Samuel and Linder-Gaillard 2013: 33). As we recall, he fought a long and difficult battle with his superiors over these issues, at a time when Vatican strictures on the use of art were severely pronounced. Anything deemed to be potentially hostile or damaging to Christian piety, in form or content, was strictly censured.4 Later official pronouncements on art were considerably more lenient, yet even these would be unrecognisable compared to the Vatican’s attitude today, as exemplified by the Vatican’s first Venice Biennale Pavilion in 2013, which made no stipulations of belief on its selected artists. Indeed, the Vatican made it clear that artists no longer need to be even nominally Catholic to be eligible for inclusion.

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