Dr. Jonathan Widell, M.Div. ’18 candidate, holds a Ph.D in Law from McGill University. Born in Finland, Jonathan has lived in Canada since 2003 and was received in the Anglican Church at Saint John the Evangelist in Montreal in 2010. He speaks Finnish, English, Swedish, German, Dutch and French and is working on his Arabic.
I attended a conference organized by the Society of Scholar Priests at Trinity College in Toronto in early June. Most of the members of the Society are from the United States but in an effort to reach out to their Canadian confreres the conference was held this time in Canada. The Montreal Diocesan Theological College was also invited. I responded.
The theme was wise action. Most of the other panelists were ordained priests either in the Episcopal Church or in the Anglican Church of Canada. Their papers contemplated the theme in light of the practical work of a priest.
I had chosen another approach. Since I have been working for years on a work by the French philosopher Alain Badiou called Being and Event with a couple of friends of mine, I presented my take on Badiou’s philosophy as it relates to the life of the church. Bold. My paper was titled “Wisdom of Unwise Action”.
Badiou’s philosophy does not yield itself to an easy classification. My approach was to situate his philosophy in the context of postmodernism and portray it as a philosophy that turns postmodernism against itself. What is postmodernism if not the philosophy that asks “So what?”. We could pose the same question to postmodernism: So what? Can we not deconstruct postmodernism just as postmodernism keeps deconstructing everything else? Like postmodernism, Badiou is interested in discourse and context but, unlike postmodernism, Badiou is also interested in what takes place beyond that discourse. Badiou peers through the discourse in an effort to find the Truth. Also, like postmodernism, Badiou believes those truths are discordant. Unlike postmodernism, however, he does not believe even discordant truths cannot be true. If there are discordant truths, another truth, a bigger and better truth, has to be found to reconcile them.
Badiou turns to mathematics not only for inspiration but also to lay the methodological groundwork for his philosophical work. Juxtaposing mathematics with postmodernism yields interesting results. It is plausible to attribute the emergence of postmodernism to developments in mathematics. Everything is not so certain even in mathematics anymore. Everything is in flux. However, what postmodernism has discovered is just to state how things have always been: things have never been certain; everything has always been in flux. The special character of mathematics is that it still tries to find coherence beyond incoherence.
We can keep the world in place in a small way by maintaining fidelity to something we are passionate about. Others may follow but most likely they won’t. Fidelity is key. Badiou calls the moment when our fidelity bears fruit by the word Event. Event is when our fidelity changes the world around us. Until such time, one can be certain of only one thing: where there seems to be a void there is also infinity. Nothing is as empty as it seems. Badiou uses set theory to demonstrate that.
Does this make a difference for theology? Everyone who knows the Hebrew word hesed, “tender lovingkindness,” knows that it does. Hesed is all about fidelity. What does Badiou change? One insight among many would be this: just as mathematical truths exist before we discover them, so do theological truths. Things around us may seem discordant. However, that discordance does not preclude their ultimate overarching coherence.
This imposes one ethical requirement on us: we have to maintain fidelity and keep looking. Especially when there seems to be nothing where we look. That “nothing” is where God’s fullness is. Postmodernism may have banished God. In that void God may be found. That is the wisdom of unwise action.