Last Tuesday I sat with about 600 others in the Fisher and Paykel Appliances auditorium at the University of Auckland to listen to a lecture by Alain Badiou, according to his introducer, the greatest living philosopher in the world today.
Obviously a lecture entitled "À la recherche du réel perdu / In search of the lost Real" was going to be a bit of philosophical challenge. It was that (and I did wonder how many of those at the lecture were philosophically trained). But it was also a real challenge for me to pay attention and catch the words: Alain Badiou spoke English with a thick French accent and initially every few words were interrupted by a rasping cough.
I stuck at it. What follows is what I understood him to be saying. But I could be wrong. His meaning could remain lost!
His thesis was that the real is the impasse (or impossibility) of formalisation.
That is, the real (reality) is unable to be formalised.
Clearly 'formalisation' needs defining.
It took me a while to work that out. This is the "I think this is what he means" definition of formalisation:
We experience reality then we try to describe it, to model it, to depict it, to understand it. So we might make a mathematical formula, produce a movie, draw a diagram, compose a song, even take a photograph. This is our formalisation: putting the things of reality in formal terms.
But this should not be mistaken for reality. Reality actually exists outside of formalisation, at the point where formalisation becomes impossible because it is not itself reality.
If I am correct then this has interesting possibilities to consider. For instance, every attempt to use words to engage with reality, whether at the simple level of "Look outside, it is raining" or the scientific level of "What we see is not the full depth of reality which is explained by atomic theory which in turn involves high complexity around almost undetectable small particles and energies" leaves reality itself as unknown to us.
Theologically this means reflecting on the limitations of our words to describe God. Whether we work with the precision of creeds, or the depths of biblical narratives, or the intricacies of Pauline complex arguments (let alone the sheer width of, say, Barth's multivolume Church Dogmatics) we do well to remember that God does not equate to the words we use or the words we read. The reality of God lies just beyond the words!
Yet the words are not unimportant. They help us negotiate reality, if not to understand it. Even God humbled himself as the Word became flesh. In some sense God became part of our formalisation!
Back to the lecture.
As I listened I felt that Badiou was offering a couple of ways towards the 'impossible' of God's existence. One way is that if philosophical discourse is a formalisation which attempts to describe the world without invoking the existence of God, is God the impasse of this formalisation?
Another way, and I am talking about a sense I had as hearer, was that it seemed as though lying beneath, or perhaps in parallel, to Badiou's words, I was hearing a presentation of the ontological argument for the existence of God.
No doubt this seems a bit incoherent to you because I feel I am at the 'impasse' of my own ability to formulate what I heard! I could blame the thick French accent for that, as much as my limited number of working brain cells ...
Except a few days later I read a new post by +Kelvin Wright on his blog Available Light. It seems to me that Bishop Kelvin understands precisely what Alain Badiou was saying. Reality lies beyond, not within the photograph; off the page, not within the words of a post or a poem.