Reading Romans with Contemporary Philosophers and Theologians. Edited by David Odell-Scott
Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
© The author 2009. Journal compilation © Trustees for Roman Catholic Purposes Registered 2009
The Heythrop Journal
Volume 50, Issue 1, pages 150–151, January 2009
How to Cite
Turner, G. (2009), Reading Romans with Contemporary Philosophers and Theologians. Edited by David Odell-Scott. The Heythrop Journal, 50: 150–151. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2265.2009.00438_34.x
- Issue published online: 27 NOV 2008
- Article first published online: 27 NOV 2008
Pp.vii, 287 , T&T Clark , New York/London , 2007 , £25.00 .
This volume is the seventh in the enterprising series Romans Through History and Cultures (there should be eight by the end of 2008) which covers patristic readings of Romans, Augustine, ‘Israel’, medieval, reformation and gender readings. Here David Odell-Scott and his co-writers focus on modern philosophers, the earliest being Kierkegaard. The contributors are in reality all theologians commenting on other philosophers. Indeed Kathy Ehrensperger does not exactly inspire confidence when she begins her chapter about Levinas and Paul, ‘Reading Romans ‘in the Face of the Other’', by stating that she is not a philosopher, not a specialist in Levinas, Levinas has not written about Romans or any of Paul's letters, and the chapter is not about Levinas! It is a reading of Romans, as it were, through the eyes of Levinas.
The first section concerns Process Theology through John Cobb and David Lull who have cooperated to write a commentary on Romans. Process Theology was inspired by Alfred Whitehead and Hartshorne and tries to move away from an empiricism which sees the world as a collection of things (‘substance metaphysics’) to a dynamic view of the world as a succession of events, a world in process. In their interpretation of Romans, Cobb and Lull focus on ideas of ‘indwelling’ and ‘participation’ which fits well with Process Philosophy and with Paul. There is, however, a critical comment from the editor – to which Cobb and Lull respond – who accepts that Paul's talk of being ‘in Christ’ is not mystical but an alternative way of thinking, but who is equally clear that Process Philosophy does not offer a satisfactory way of understanding Paul's own idea.
At least Cobb and Lull know what they are talking about. The central problem in the following section of the book is that the philosophers being discussed are all atheists: Jacques Derrida, Jacob Taubes, Alain Badiou, Giorgio Agamben and the Slovak Slavoj Zizek. Nothing wrong with being atheist necessarily, we do not want to make the Pauline club hermetic. But most admit that they know next to nothing of recent Pauline scholarship, they do not always seem to be familiar with all of Paul's letters or even with all the chapters of Romans. They are incapable of placing Paul in his historical context and some of them actually admit they are not interested in the religious content of Romans (how much does that leave?) as though religious understanding was an irrelevant after-thought for Paul. What is puzzling is why these philosophers should have wanted to write about Paul at all. And what is equally puzzling is why serious readers of Paul should spend much time responding to writers of such intellectual capriciousness and, one might say, intellectual triviality.
These philosophers want to use Paul for their own projects in political philosophy. The authors here seem to regard it as a complement that his letters have become ‘classic texts’ that are given weight outside the Church and outside the theology faculty. It is, however, a dubious complement given the way the letters are used. Derrida, for example, as summarised by Theodore Jennings, does not supplement traditional readings of Romans so much as sweep them away when he claims that justification has previously been understood as anything but becoming just (in a moral, political sense) and in Reformed doctrine belief becomes ‘make believe’. So much for almost two thousand years of Christian culture; it is Derrida we have been waiting for for enlightenment on Romans.
These critical comments are directed against the philosophers who are represented here, not the contributors to this volume, who by and large offer sensible criticisms of their subjects, but they are more appreciative of their subjects than I would be when they praise them for the new perspectives they have opened on reading Paul. There is nothing wrong with this project in principle – Paul's meaning can be discovered in a multiplicity of perspectives – but in practice those seriously interested in understanding Paul are not likely to get much out of this volume. What would have worked – but maybe it is not seen to be ‘relevant’– would have been to set Romans against Paul's own history and culture, though a great deal has been written about that already, a body of literature about which our modern atheistic philosophers know nothing.