The Biblical Personality Spectrum: 1. The Masculine

Paul, in his depiction of the various stages or possibilities for the human subject (building on the Old Testament), depicts four primary ways of being human or four ways for ordering human subjectivity. The primary poles around which he arranges these four possibilities are desire, language, and death. Each of these elements are interrelated, as desire has to do primarily with lack (lack of being, mortality, death, finitude, sexuality) and language or the symbolic order (law, authority, culture, religion, etc.) is the medium through which desire is channeled in dealing with lack. Each of the primary poles is linked (not exclusively but primarily) to an embodied cognitive capacity so that the auditory, the spectral, or the sensuous, are either privileged or subordinated in the four subject positions. In turn, the emotional spectrum (which is inclusive of all three poles and is not simply “feeling”) can be ranged from the root negative emotion of shame (in which lack or death holds sway through the spectral and sensuous) to guilt (in which the symbolic dominates) to love (in which the punishing effect of the symbolic is suspended).  For Paul, it is not simply a matter of being a Christian, as he will locate Christians in several places along the spectrum, but he does trace a developmental progression. In this short piece, I will describe the first of Paul’s four subject positions: the masculine.

In Romans 7, Paul lays out all four subject positions and in the first four verses he describes the general orientation by which we might name the first two possibilities. We can designate these first two along the sexual metaphor which Paul deploys (having nothing to do with gender and marriage, and next to nothing to do with sex): “masculine” and “feminine.” As Paul explains in the opening verse, “the law dominates the man for whatever time he lives” (David B. Hart’s translation). The man dominated by the law is actually illustrated through the position of a wife or woman – (so in this illustration the woman represents what is called masculine, in accord with Lacanian psychoanalysis, and further on in the illustration Paul illustrates the alternative to the masculine, the feminine, by reference to the husband).[1]

Paul explains the various ways law might dominate by employing a sexual metaphor:

“For the wife who is subject to a husband has been bound by Law to the living man; but if the husband dies she has been released from the husband’s Law. Hence, if she takes up company with another man while the husband is alive, she will be styled an adulteress; but if the husband dies she is free from the Law, so that in having taken up company with another man she is not an adulteress” (7:2-3).

Implicit in Paul’s illustration is the Hebraic tradition in which “knowing” is simultaneously a term for sexual intercourse (“Adam knew his wife Eve and she bore him a child”) and legal or ethical knowing (the “knowledge of good and evil”). The Law which Paul is addressing in chapter 7 seems to refer to the prohibition in Genesis while also including the Mosaic law (at least this is a common understanding among commentators, such as N. T. Wright). The fusion of Adamic and Mosaic law into a singular category is part of the extended argument of the first five chapters of Romans, and chapter 7 is illustrative of the summation that “all are unrighteous” in regard to the law (so that it does not matter what law may or may not be in view). Paul’s representative woman who would know another man speaks of two realms of knowledge that have come into conflict. She can know according to the law or the symbolic realm but this necessarily constricts desire, which would connect knowing with being (as in Genesis 3). She can choose the symbolic realm – the realm of law, language, the auditory, or the more immediate spectral realm of desire, being, and the sensuous.

The Masculine Subject

The woman, in Paul’s illustration, is completely defined by the status of her husband. The language which Paul uses, as reflected in Hart’s translation, is literally that she is under the law of her husband. As Paul develops his illustration it is clear that the husband is representative of the law and that the woman is completely defined by the law (literally, the law of her husband). Her reaction might be, even if it is the case that she loved another, to deny the possibility of any recourse outside of the law. The woman who would know only according to the law must of necessity dismiss the primacy of knowing on the basis of the act of marriage, knowing through love, or an embodied knowing. The masculine subject, which she represents, knows through language or law which are equated with being or life (life is in the law).

Paul illustrates this in his own life when he describes his pre-Christian status as a Pharisee.

“If anyone else has a mind to put confidence in the flesh, I far more: circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless.” (Php 3:4–6)

One is here dispossessed of the notion that keeping the law stands over and against sin as Paul describes himself as blameless before the law and a persecutor of the church (for which reason he will call himself the chief of sinners). There is a fusion between sin and the law so that Paul, at the time he was doing it, could not discern the sort of evil in which he is engaged. As he describes, in a parallel passage in Galatians, his zeal for the law and his advancement in Judaism were marked by his persecution of the church and his desire to destroy it (Ga 1:13-14). For Paul, the law was not a marker of sin and evil but was fused with sin such that he could not perceive his own evil due to his zeal for the law. As he advanced in law-keeping and in Judaism he simultaneously advanced in his participation in evil. It did not occur to Paul the Pharisee that there was a reality which exceeded the measure of the law. Clearly, Paul is not imagining that in this understanding he has rightly perceived the law; quite the opposite, as he dubs this orientation as “having confidence in the flesh.”

This is not the troubled, introspective conscience Paul depicts in Romans 7:18ff. In this state, Paul’s conscience is clear as he stands completely justified before the law. He has succeeded in fusing his sinful orientation (murdering and persecuting Christians) with his understanding of the law. The law is sin in that he is blinded to his own evil precisely due to his orientation to the law. The original question that Paul raises in Romans 7:7 has to do with confusing or equating law and sin. “Is the law sin” (Rom. 7:7b)? Of course not, Paul assures his readers, but the question arises because in a particular orientation to the law it seems that the law requires evil so that it might be established as law. Paul, and every masculine servant of the law, imagines that the law is completed or established through themselves. There is a simultaneous denial that anything is lacking and an effort to cover up what is lacking. In this perverse understanding, sin increases grace and transgression establishes the law as law and sin are two sides of the same coin. Law generates its own transgression – not because of the nature of law – but due to a perverse orientation to the law (that which is only asserted as law in relation to transgression).

It is originally Lacan’s point that perversion does not refer so much to abnormal sexual practices as to a structure in which the subject sides with the law in the attempt to escape its punishing effect and to partake of its surplus enjoyment.[2] Every individual, religious or not, who presumes to sit in judgment and to punish others in the name of the law, God, Jesus, the Nation, etc. is acting out the simple formula Paul epitomizes as the sinful orientation: the law is completed or established through sin. There is a denial of sexual difference and of death in what Žižek describes as giving oneself completely over to the symbolic without regard for finitude and mortality: “Perversion can be seen as a defense against the motif of ‘death and sexuality,’ against the threat of mortality as well as the contingent imposition of sexual difference.”[3]

The pervert lives in a fantasy world, which Žižek likens to that of cartoons in which one can “survive any catastrophe” and human sexuality is reduced to a game. The prototypical masculine daredevil and Lothario is not simply posturing or pretending – but is defying death and reducing sexuality to the symbolic as prime reality (think here of Kierkegaard’s seducers diary in which it is the diary and the numbers of women, rather than people which are of importance) as his world is free of death and sex as primary realities. “As such, the pervert’s universe is the universe of pure symbolic order, of the signifier’s game running its course, unencumbered by the Real of human finitude.”[4] The deception or illusion is to construe the law as a closure of identity which by its very nature – its absoluteness – excludes love.

It is not simply individuals (Paul Reubens (exposing himself in a theatre), Donald Trump (groping women), Burt Reynolds (“Marriage is about the most expensive way for the average man to get laundry done”) but philosophical schools and epochs which are perverse. Rene Descartes as a founding thinker of modernity (“I think therefore I am”) pictures thought or the symbolic order as a mode of being and this characterizes an age and Immanuel Kant absolutizes the law and is the premier thinker in German idealism which will entail a philosophical movement. Religious perversity might presume many forms but it will always be characterized by the same tendency to put evil in service of the law (e.g. the Calvinist “necessity of evil”). If it is understood that the pervert counts himself as completing the law and so he serves as the point of exception through which law is put in place (the exception which proves the rule) this accounts for Western societies’ use of torture in the fight on the war on terror; the United States support of a permanent war crimes tribunal and yet its opposition to being included within its jurisdiction; and the demand by wealthy countries that the Third World enact trade reforms while remaining unwilling to subject themselves to those same reforms.[5] 

The masculine subject, at least under this definition, though he may be a Christian is most likely to use religion as Paul used the law: as an instrument of oppression through which he would enact the law.

[1] It would probably not help the confusion at this point to note that this husband becomes the bride of Christ, which will be taken up next week.

[2] Žižek, Ticklish Subject, 247-51.

[3] Žižek, Žižek Reader, 117.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Žižek, The Universal Exception, 269-270.

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Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

One thought on “The Biblical Personality Spectrum: 1. The Masculine”

  1. Paul,

    It is interesting how human nature/old self always seems to justify what we do and, somehow, put ourselves in a position above the law or accountability. No wonder we are so messed up.

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