Fundamental to the project embodied in Global Christianity, Global Critique is the issue of boundaries and borders, of what discourses may be entered, what ideological and epistemological chasms may be bridged. Setting a table for Alain Badiou, Slavoj Žižek, and representatives of the Friday Apostolics and the Urapmin of Papua New Guinea, the editors are conscious of the challenges involved in planning for a conversation that will not only flow but flower. Anyone who has thoughtfully arranged seating for a complex dinner party knows that a mediator skilled in translation is required.
Jon Bialecki acknowledges the challenges of this conversation when, in his Immanent Frame essay, he suggests that the Pauline turn of continental philosophers and the global diffusion of charismatic forms of Christianity “have, if not some kind of commensurability, then at least enough intelligibly contrasting elements to serve as the crux of a discussion.”
Elizabeth A. Castelli also names the difficult issue for such a diverse conversation, but without such a quick move to a win-win description of the problem. She asks: “what textual practices are legitimate, and who or what is the source of that legitimation?” For a dinner party, this is too sharp a question, but for a scholarly conventicle, it drives straight to the point of incommensurability, or, more generously, “contrasting elements.”
In the midst of the interdisciplinary enterprise that Global Christianity, Global Critique undertakes, I want to suggest that the challenge of interdisciplinarity—and, at the same time, the source of what value it may have—is the problem of locality, constraint, and limit. In other words, following Jean-François Lyotard (The Postmodern Condition), legitimation is local; it is a function of the language-game, which in the scholarly context means a function of the discipline. Read with the themes of limit, border, and locality in mind, these treatments of global critique and global Christianity reveal the prominence of this problematic.
The problematic is dialectical, in the sense that limitations are what constitute disciplines—and, indeed, conversations—and yet it is in testing, pushing, transcending, or emplacing them that the value of of scholarly work lies. As a scholar of ancient Christianity, I approach these questions from much the same intellectual ground as Castelli, who describes her own trajectory of scholarship as testing “limits and limitations of historical criticism,” often with explicit debts to literary criticism. This does not, however, prevent her from taking Alain Badiou to task for offering old theological clichés falsely dressed up as critical historiography. That is to say, interdisciplinarity builds out from disciplinarity rather than reducing one discipline in order to take on another.
Goldstone and Hauerwas’s article, “Disciplined Seeing,” proposes that the biblical Acts of the Apostles function as a model for, or at least a limit on, the anthropology of Christianity. Their article puts the “local,” in particular, at the center of their distillation of the later Wittgenstein’s objects of wonder-infused seeing: “small, local, various, and mundane.” In tension with this emphasis on the local, however, is their injunction to see “naturally.” For what lacks location are Goldstone and Hauerwas’s injunctions to read “felicitously,” question “competently,” and live “properly” with the things one sees; instead, it seems that these are natural standards. Practically, the implication seems to be that Christian theological standards are naturally the relevant testing grounds for each of these injunctions. This is clear from one of their worries (but not only one)—that scholarship will “engender explanations of Christianity foreign to the self-understandings of Christians themselves.” Their other concern is that Christians will not have enough self-directed input into the ways that Christianity is explained, repudiated, or instrumentalized.
According to Goldstone and Hauerwas, “What Acts shows us is that there might be questions that in order to ask them, or to ask them competently, may well require a transformation of the agent of investigation.” This is a complex statement, full of both pitfalls and insight. Since the standard of competence is undefined, there is no way to disagree head-on. An insider may of course question the competence of an analysis from an insider perspective, but this does not constitute an evaluation of the competence of analysis from within the standards of its discipline. Indeed, a certain incommensurability between an insider perspective and a disciplinary perspective is to be expected and is probably integral to the value of an analysis. That there may be questions that cannot be asked effectively is a given. That the “transformed” agent may address a different set of questions also makes sense, but this is where the limitations of a discipline have their relevance: the transformed agent may no longer be acting as a historian or an anthropologist. Certainly, it also works the other way: some questions are very difficult to ask competently from a historical perspective by acting as a Christian (or, mutatis mutandis, any other religious insider). Inquiring from a historical-critical or anthropological perspective may not—almost surely, will not—lead to “felicitous reading” by every standard, but that, then again, is just what “local” implies.
That readings may be produced that offend the sensibilities of subjects pictured in those readings should be no surprise to anyone who has noticed how the book of Acts portrays Jews (jealous, obstinate, violent, and rejecting the word of God). Moreover, Goldstone and Hauerwas are not simply advocating “Christianity” as a standard of anthropological and historical engagement. No such simple standard is available. Acts itself expresses a particular subject position within Christianity, So, too, does the construction of Christianity in the writing of Goldstone and Hauerwas.
Returning to Castelli’s characterization of Badiou’s interpretation as a “philosophical feedback loop,” we have a formulation that captures precisely the parochialism of Badiou’s interpretation, and of what is perhaps the necessary parochialism of any disciplinary articulation. The closed loop of Badiou’s Paul parades an impression of universality, but this is instead the intensity and completeness of closure itself masquerading as unbounded space. Again, every universalism is local, as is every language game, every discourse, and every manner of seeing—especially “disciplined seeing.”