Interview with Kevin Hart
Paul & the Reduction
of Philosophy and Scripture
JPS: Our discussion
today will revolve around the relationship between St Paul and philosophy,
but to provide a backdrop for this discussion I wanted first to
talk about your own work. Your writings, whether in prose or poetry,
seem to inhabit and navigate comfortably between the realms of literature,
theology, philosophy, and culture, to name a few. And, of course,
some of your major works, such as The Trespass of the Sign1
and The Dark Gaze2 address specifically the relationship
between philosophy and religion. How would you describe the way
in which this tensionif this is even a fair wordbetween
the disciplines plays out in your own work, especially the tension
between religion and philosophy?
KH: As a placing shot,
I'd say that what interests me in religion, philosophy and poetry
can be traced to what Husserl described as the epoché and
the phenomenological reduction. A poem begins when you bracket the
natural attitude, when you suspend your usual habits of perception
and convert your gaze so that the strangeness and wonder of the
world are restored. We can call this a "philosophical experience,"
if you like, so long as it's understood that this experience precedes
all the theses that form the basis of philosophical discussions.
Husserl was anxious to refine the reduction so that we can reflect
fully and richly on how the world is constituted by consciousness.
Only when we do that do we see with wonder. To my mind, he is overly
scrupulous in avoiding the attunements that can precipitate the
reduction. Heidegger developed some of these in his account of Befindlichkeit,
chiefly Angst and boredom, although I think that he overstated
the extent of Husserl's interest in being only as cognized being.
For Heidegger, Angst and boredom are forms of the epoché;
they prepare us for thinking. He is like Husserl, though, in that
the attunements lead to something other than themselves on the other
side. Angst and boredom lead us to grasp our being in the
world. I'm interested in those attunements that reveal themselves
in a heightened state on the far side.
Wonder is like that,
I think. In the Theaetetus Socrates says that a good deal
of philosophy begins in wonder, and Heidegger seems to agree. For
him, wonder puts us in touch with non-being and reveals the origin
of the question "why?" I agree only to the extent that wonder discloses
the fragility of the world. The wonder that prompts me to perform
the reduction is revealed in a heightened way after it. It might
lead to philosophizing or to poetry. The call is often the same;
the response is different. The early Christian experience of metanoia
or conversion can also be approached by the reduction. Paul Ricœur
speaks of the reduction making us lose the world in order to gain
it: it's a deliberate echo of Matthew 10: 39. And Eugen Fink in
the Sixth Cartesian Meditation evokes the "awful tremor"
experienced by anyone who undertakes the reduction. I think that
awe, like wonder, straddles the reduction, and that awe, more than
wonder, prompts a reduction that is at the base of much religious
thought and affect. Wonder leads us to ask questions; awe suspends
the asking of questions, though without supplying answers of a concrete
kind. That is the fundamental tension between philosophy and religion,
as I see it. Of course, there are slippages from wonder to awe and
from awe to wonder. I might begin by expressing wonder about something,
encounter wonder in a heightened form, and then be moved to awe.
A philosophical experience can lead to religious experience. Or
I might step back from an experience of awe and wonder about it.
If I do so with guided by scripture and prayer, I will set out on
a path called "theology." If I do not, I follow that other path,
JPS: The philosophical
and the religious are not heterogeneous, then?
KH: One can sometimes
pass from the one to the other before any theses are posited; thereafter,
disciplinary moves come into play for most people and you do philosophy
or theology. Highly creative theologians and philosophers are never
fettered in that way, though. I don't buy Heidegger's insistence
on "methodological atheism," which is a dogmatic claim to the extent
that it rules out of court the phenomenality of revelation. Husserl
spoke of the need to be without presuppositions when doing philosophy.
That means receiving phenomena without any conditions. Can this
be done? One can certainly try very hard to put aside the natural
attitude and what I call the supernatural attitude, the habit of
regarding God in terms of positive and negative theses. Marion has
rightly drawn our attention to invisible, paradoxical phenomena
that impose on us, and if we agree with him we have no right to
limit in advance what counts as phenomena. Belief in God does not
simply give answers, as Husserl and Heidegger thought; it re-orients
questions and makes them all the more difficult. If I say, "God
is love" I am not answering a question about the ultimate nature
of reality. Long before that could ever be the case, I am posing
a question: what does "love" mean here? We have no concept or set
of concepts to deal with that word in the context of "God is love."
A conversion to Christ is the reception of God giving Himself to
you in Christ without any conditions imposed by the one who comes
to belief. I can receive unconditional love only if I set no conditions
on receiving it. What I say of conversion is also true of prayer.
Each prayer is a re-orientation to God in Christ, a reductio
in mysterium. To be converted is something that is always ahead
of us as well as behind us.
JPS: The figure of
Saint Paul provides a point of departure for debates about the proper
relationship between religion and philosophy. Typically, Paul is
perceived as a sort of "anti-philosopher," and in The Trespass
of the Sign you classify Paul as one of those figures who claim
to be non-metaphysical "but which nonetheless find themselves entangled
in metaphysics." Should we see Paul as an "anti-philosopher" or
at least someone who failed to recognize his implicit reliance on
philosophy, or is this conception of Paul a mistake? Or, is it safer
to say that there are "many Pauls" insofar as Paul's message seems
to shift depending on his audience?
KH: I think there are
several threads here. I don't see Paul as philosophical in the way
that John is. Paul's background is profoundly marked by Pharisaism,
and unless we understand that we will never come to grasp what he
tells us about monotheism or election. Unless we recognize Paul
as a Jew we will never grasp the force with which he replaces Torah
with Christ. But, as I say, he is different from John. His Christology
has to do with refiguring Adam and Wisdom, with a vision of Lordship
and Messiahship, not with the pre-existent Logos. Its roots
are in Isaiah's and Ezekiel's teaching of the new heart, not in
Plato and Aristotle's reflections on the Good. When he calls himself
a "debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians" in Romans,
he is talking of his scope of his preaching, not his intellectual
Rabbinic Judaism of
the sort in which Paul was trained is plainly not metaphysical in
the sense that it concerns thinking of being as being, let alone
in Heidegger's sense of the word: there's nothing there to make
one think of Anwesenheit or Vorhandenheit. And it
can only be called philosophical if one stretches the word quite
far, taking it to mean the seeking of truth through argument. Rabbinic
argumentation is more akin to the Gentile sense of law than to the
Greek sense of philosophy. So if Paul is an anti-philosopher he
is so in a different way than les philosophes were or the
positivists were. He sets himself against both Jewish talk of signs
and Greek talk of wisdom, and it is the latter that lets us see
him as an anti-philosopher. Think of the opening of the first letter
to the Corinthians. The Cross, he says there, is "foolishness,"
and he quotes Isaiah, "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise." That's
a motif that was reset by Luther in the Heidelberg Disputation
and that influenced Heidegger in his understanding of Destruktion.
So Paul as "anti-philosopher" gets caught up in deconstituting the
history of ontology.
That said, Paul is not
simply outside the history of philosophy. Although his letters in
no way comprise anything like a systematic theology, his thinking
about redemption is organized by a sharp duality. On the one hand,
there is the negative sequence of law, flesh and sin; on the other
hand, there is the affirmative sequence of grace, spirit and righteousness.
Is this a metaphysical schema? I don't think it functions that way
in Paul's letters, although it does when it gets repeated, in a
more concerted fashion, in later theology that has been inspired
by Platonic dualism. Yet there are one or two moments when Greek
philosophy impinges on Paul's thought. The doxology of Romans 11:36
("For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things"), for
example, treats God as an instrumental cause.
JPS: What about the
issue of many Pauls?
KH: Well, like every
writer, Paul shows various facets of himself and his thought to
different audiences. The church at Corinth isn't the same as the
church at Rome or Philippi; each has its problems, and we see Paul
only in his responses to them. His "message" is surely the same
if one stands sufficiently far away from the circumstances of each
letter: there is only one Christ who was crucified and who has risen.
The closer one gets to the texts, though, the more one will find
differences: the mystical Paul of the second letter to the Corinthians,
the apostle of peace in the letter to the Romans, and so on. And
of course we have the image of Paul that is given to us from his
letters and the image of him that is given by Luke in Acts. These
things alone would be more than sufficient to give rise to many
Pauls. The last century alone gave birth to a good many of them:
the apostle of self-understanding (Bultmann), the preacher of God's
impossible possibility (Barth), the witness of God's apocalyptic
claim upon creation (Käsemann), to name just three. Unlike many
other writers, however, Paul has a plasticity that he explicitly
turns to the advantage of preaching the gospel. "I am made all things
to all men," he tells the Corinthians, "To the Jews I became like
a Jew, to win the Jews." We have in Paul a missionary who can cross
the border not simply into another country, and not merely into
another language, but into other ways of thinking. For him, all
ways of thinking are relative to the astonishing truth that God
has raised Jesus from the dead.
JPS: In your recent
book Postmodernism,3 which provides a very helpful
survey of this cultural and intellectual movement, you devote three
chapters to scripture, religion, and the gift. You give an account
of how postmodernism has opened up discourse in a way that allows
for a critique of secularism and a fresh exploration of religion.
Similarly, in a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education,4
Stanley Fish deemed "religion" to be the new "center of intellectual
energy in the academy." Given these two examples, do you see much
of the current interest in Paul to be a manifestation of the spaces
opened up by postmodernism? Secondly, is the current interest in
Paul an indication of a concomitant interest in religion for its
own sake? And, finally, what is your current assessment of the current
status of religious discourse in the places of higher learning?
KH: I wonder if there
has ever been a time when people were not interested in Paul? He
always seems to come at an angle to culture, to intersect it in
a way that makes us uneasy. Whenever he comes, he comes "out of
due time," although we usually try to make him more like us than
he really is. There was certainly interest in him among modernists,
and that has to be weighed when considering postmodern interests.
The "modern Paul" has had great force from Bultmann to Sanders,
and not just among New Testament scholars. Think of Heidegger's
course on Paul's letters in the winter semester of 1920-21.
I distinguish between
interest in Paul among people influenced by postmodernism, which
is a diverse series of responses to modernism, and interest in him
because of our situation in postmodernity. Take Alain Badiou as
an example of the former, a problematic example no doubt, but no
more so than any other. What interests Badiou is that for Paul the
truth is not a relation between language and reality or a function
of sentences or a matter of coherence but an event; it comes out
of the sky and knocks Paul off his horse on the way to Damascus.
It is therefore singular, and escapes all genera. The person who
acts on the basis of this singular event lives without a ground,
without a law. This antinomianism is attractive to postmodernists,
as is a secularized form of what follows from it. Only a completely
different sort of community, the Kingdom of God, can accommodate
this new person. Badiou talks of this in terms of "universal singularity";
it's his contribution to a debate that Jacques Derrida's account
of testimony and Jean-Luc Nancy's notion of "being singular plural."
Blanchot on the unavowable community, Derrida on the democracy to
come, and Nancy on community, are examples of postmodern attempts
to rethink the basileia without God.
When we shift attention
to postmodernity, another set of issues comes into view. Paul is
an exemplary figure of strong belatedness for many post-moderns,
and thus a way of trying to overcome anxiety with respect to modernity.
Paul comes after Jesus but (it has been argued) founds Christianity
by shifting the emphasis from the Kingdom of God to belief in Christ's
redemptive death. In making this move Paul eliminates in effect
everything to do with Jesus's life and teaching. If he knew anything
about the parables and miracles, he says nothing about them. Everything
turns on the redemptive death and glorious resurrection of Christ.
Now I regard the idea of Paul as the founder of Christianity as
a massive overstatement. He is a follower of Christ, not a founder
of a religion. But he is a man of such powerful intellect and conviction
that we need to be very careful because he can obscure the life
and preaching of Jesus. Paul seems closer to us than Jesus: a man
at home in cities, who travels from one culture to another. He is
a man who has refashioned himself, who perpetually overworks himself
and stretches himself in too many directions at once. So he is like
many postmodern men and women. Unlike most postmoderns though, he
talks with absolute certainty about the meaning and direction of
life. In trying to understand him, we are indirectly seeking to
understand how a highly intelligent, educated person can believe
something so counter-intuitive with such certainty and passion.
Perhaps it is one of the ways by which we indirectly reflect on
JPS: And religion
KH: For decades now
the secular world has exerted a rigorous censorship in American
colleges and universities and has done so by way of a firm rejection
of censorship. The contradiction is easily identified. On the one
hand, everything is tolerated and discussed; on the other hand,
Christianity is treated with disrespect and its discourses are relegated
to the fringe of the institution. Faculty will ridicule Christian
beliefs that they would sharply (and rightly) rebuke others for
doing if they were talking about Judaism or Islam. Unfortunately,
I find that this happens in some Departments even at the University
of Notre Dame where I teach. I think the situation is changing,
even in the secular universities, and not because a range of fascinating
and important philosophers have been grouped together under the
heading of "religion without religion." I don't find much sense
in trying to squeeze a drop or two of theology out of Adorno or
I've noticed that some
of the brightest students, undergraduate and graduate alike, are
showing strong interest in "religion and literature," not in the
thematic and comparative way it was done a generation or two ago
but in an analytic manner that draws from theology and philosophy
as much as from literary criticism. And I think the same is true
of philosophical theology, which has been strong for some time in
analytic philosophy but which is quickly gaining strength in phenomenological
and post-phenomenological thought.
JPS: Such issues
as the acting person, politics, and truth have brought Saint Paul
to the forefront of current debates between some of the heaviest
hitters in contemporary philosophy, namely Zizek, Badiou and Agamben.
What is your assessment of this particular debate between these
KH: I must say that
right now we live in a poor time for European thought: we've lost
so many of the great men who were such an inspiration to me when
I was a graduate student and a young professor: Gadamer, Ricœur
and Blanchot, Lévinas, Henry and Derrida. My list of our "heavy
hitters," as you put it, would differ from yours. Mine would feature
Jean-Luc Marion and Alasdair MacIntyre. Of the people on your list,
I've said something about Badiou. I've never found anything compelling
in Zizek. You must be thinking of some lectures that Agamben has
given on Paul that I haven't heard. When his commentary on Romans
comes out I'll read it; otherwise, all I know are scattered allusions
to Paul his other books.
The best people writing
on Paul are New Testament scholars, not philosophers: N. T. Wright
and E. P. Sanders. Wright, in particular, is impressive in that
he keeps exegetical and theological issues in tandem. I admire the
fact that he writes for both a scholarly and a popular audience.
The trouble with most New Testament scholars is that they focus
intently on the text, especially in attempts to reconstruct the
original audience of Paul's letters (and therefore the author's
intentions), and ignore the ideas that he communicates. This division
in theology between textual scholarship and systematics is a debilitating
one, and not only with respect to Paul.
JPS: In some of these
debates about Paul's contributions to philosophy and political action,
one might perceive a tendency to abstract a certain "Pauline structure"
from the Christian content of Paul's message. Do you see an abstraction
taking place and can this serve as a positive end? Or, is it even
possible to be selective in this manner without ultimately deforming
the original structure?
KH: Paul is one of the
great reducers of the western world. His Christianity turns on determining
the essential structure of the faith, which for him is the resurrected
Christ and the hope that this represents for us. If this essential
structure is abstracted from its historical context, there is indeed
a problem. It can become an instrumentum for interpreting
the whole Bible. Marcion did that in a highly consequential manner,
and it would be a mistake to think that the spirit of Marcion did
not survive him. Think of von Harnack's suggestion a century ago
that Christians have matured sufficiently not to need the Old Testament.
Paul's antinomianism can always reinvigorate Christianity but always
at the risk of distorting it. The idea of a "radical Reformation"
is at the heart of any authentic Protestantism. Once you start reforming,
there is always more reformation to be done.
The larger concern of
removing Paul from his context and using him to read the Bible and
present the faith is that his Christology is pre-Trinitarian and
therefore one-sided. To be sure, he talks of the Spirit fleetingly
in Galatians and I Corinthians, but the working out of the triune
nature of God was undertaken long after Paul.
JPS: I would like
to switch gears a little bit, and turn to the topic of style. As
a poet and professor of literature, you no doubt have a keen awareness
of rhetorical style and the use of language. It seems in many ways
that the writings attributed to Paul are crafted in a singular manner,
one that displays a distinctive intensity. How would you as a writer
describe Paul as a rhetorician?
KH: As you know, Paul's
style or stylesalong with his vocabulary and other benchmarksare
used to determine which letters are genuinely Pauline, which are
Deutero-Pauline, and which reflect the early Church as it interprets
itself by way of Paul (the pastoral epistles). Do we say that because
the formal style of Ephesians indicates that it is not likely to
have been written by Paul? Or do we say that a writer as masterly
as Paul could multiply styles as needed?
Paul is certainly a
powerful stylist, even when he refuses to write with "style." His
strength is paradox, which he uses in argument like a knuckleduster
in a street fight. Sometimes he gets so overwrought that he mixes
metaphors, but so does Shakespeare.
JPS: Can you identify
any ways in which certain Pauline themes or resonances find their
way into your own works, whether in prose or poetry?
KH: Just last year I
taught Paul for the first time. In one seminar we read the letter
to the Romans with Origen's commentary on one side, as it were,
and Barth's commentary on the other side. I would not have been
able to do that had I not been reading Paul for quite a long time.
I think two motifs in particular organize much of my work at a distance,
both of them in Philippians: the figures of kenosis and epectasis.
The self-emptying of Christ is a very powerful motif for me; it
is the preeminent figure of spiritual poverty, and Wallace Stevens's
line always resonates with me, "It is poverty's speech that seeks
us out the most." I take that line out of Stevens's poem for Santayana,
and think of it as a figure of prayer. To pray is to give oneself
over to poverty's speech: the poverty of the Christ, the spiritual
poverty of talking to God outside the sphere of experience, the
linguistic poverty of praying with no words and few images. I would
also say that the epoché and the reduction are an example
of "poverty's speech" in philosophy. The other figure that I retain
from Paul is epectasis: not in the athletic sense that Paul
uses it, a stretching out towards the future, but rather a stretching
out because one is called into the dark love of God.
1. Kevin Hart,
The Trespass of the Sign: Deconstruction, Theology, and Philosophy
(New York: Fordham University Press, 2000).
2. Id., The Dark Gaze: Maurice Blanchot and the Sacred (Chicago:
University of Chicago Press, 2004).
3. Id., Postmodernism: a Beginner's Guide (Oxford: Oneworld,
4. Stanley Fish, "One University Under God?", The Chronicle
of Higher Education, January 7, 2005 (http://chronicle.com/jobs/2005/01/2005010701c.htm)