Revelation and Revolution

Article excerpt

For Alain Badiou, the contemporary French philosopher of the radical Left, a subject is what is summoned into being by a response of persistent fidelity to an eternally enduring "truth event" which breaks disruptively, unpredictably, into the given in all of its irreducible, incommunicable singularity, beyond all law, consensus, and conventional understanding. Badiou would argue that ethics is not the singular revelation of truth, but an ongoing process, that is, the process of remaining faithful to that truth. As Terry Eagleton summarizes, "It is a question of 'persevering in the disruption,' a phrase which clips together both innovation and continuity, visionary crisis and dogged consistency, or what in Badiou's language would be the 'immortal' and the 'mortal' ... He wants, in short, to insert the eternal into time, negotiate the passage between truth event and everyday life, which is what we know as politics." (1) While Eagleton calls this politics, Badiou truth, and Levinas justice, surely it is a description of Revelation, that radical cut into the everyday by a transcendent call to a higher ethics. The difficulty of being faithful to the event--of being just--preoccupies both the rest of the biblical narrative after the portrayal of the revelation, and that difficulty has also preoccupied subsequent human history--in this sense, the revelation is indeed understood as a process, the process of struggling to remain faithful to the truth of the revelation.

While Badiou has no difficulty associating the truth-event with advent of Christ--he pursues the analysis in his book on St. Paul--he is notably less interested in the radical revelation that marks the Sinai event. And yet this revelation beautifully exemplifies his understanding: the narrative describes the creation of subjects who are asked to be faithful to the event--and it gives dire warnings of pseudo-events, fake truths, false idols. I hardly need to rehearse the aura of the exceptional that fills the narrative of the Sinai revelation, the radical break from the ordinary, from life as they knew it--with Moses leading them, not only out of Egypt, out of their habitual slavery, but also out of their camp in the wilderness to be suddenly subjected to a terrifying sound and light show: "now at daybreak on the third day there were peals of thunder on the mountain and lightning flashes, a dense cloud, and a loud trumpet blast, and inside the camp all the people trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God; and they stood at the bottom of the mountain. The mountain of Sinai was entirely wrapped in smoke, because God had descended on it in the form of fire. Like smoke from a furnace ... Louder and louder grew the sound of the trumpet. Moses spoke, and God answered him with peals of thunder" (Ex. 19:16-19). The form of fire is indistinct; the voice of thunder is unintelligible. This is not a deity who is easily reduced to a being, or for that matter, to any concept of being. The Truth has no place in the prior situation: under the terms that reigned prior to revelation, this is unintelligible, unnameable, unthinkable. The demarcation of the place of the event also points clearly to its break with the prior situation: "God said to Moses, 'Go down and warn this people not to pass beyond their bounds to come and look on God, or many of them will lose their lives ... Mark out the limits of the mountain and declare it sacred'" (Ex. 19:21-24). In the philosopher's language: A truth punches a "hole" in knowledges, it is heterogeneous to them, but it is also the sole known source of new knowledges.

The atmosphere at Sinai trembles with something else besides the shock of newness--with threat, with violence--but why? The people tremble before this God, begging Moses to intercede lest they die (Ex. 20:19). It seems that not only the message, but also the messenger is unbearable. Moses' face is radiant from his encounter with God, and he must veil himself for others to even be able to withstand the sight of him. …