Politics, Religion, Violence, and Faith: Simon Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless Reviewed

Works Reviewed: Simon Critchley, Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology New York: Verso, 2012. 291 pp.

 When I think of religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine. Everything to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith. – Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

Penned within the dreary atmosphere of Reading Gaol, the dismal cry of the Irish poet has now been taken up by an English philosopher as the launching point for a series of historical and philosophical investigations into the interdependence of politics and religion. In Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology Simon Critchely argues that the religious dimension of the letter Wilde penned while in prison, and especially his interpretation of the figure of Christ, can helpfully illumine the “dilemma of politics and belief.” (3) This dilemma is not merely one confronted by those who identify as atheists, although that is the vantage point which Critchley chooses to adopt. At the heart of what makes Wilde such a captivating figure, for Critchley, is his resolute refusal to accept any misfortune as the occasion to accept an extraneous mode of salvation. Aware that he has ruined himself and squandered his artistic talents Wilde sees his condition as “the occasion for a fresh mode of self-realization.” (2) Wilde articulates this self-realization in terms of politics and ritual. That everything to be true must become religion, suggests Critchley, should be read as an affirmation of the necessity of ritual in the act of fidelity, or ‘being true to’ something.(3)

Can the need for ritual, for religious truth and a framework of ritual, coexist with a rigorous refusal of external commands or extraneous symbolism? Critchley notes the apparent paradox in requiring a religious framework to guarantee the credibility or authority of belief, and needing to be ourselves the authors of that authority. This paradox, he argues, is resolved in Wilde’s interpretation of Christ:

For Wilde, Christ is the supreme romantic artist, a poet who makes the inward outward through the power of the imagination. Wilde goes even further, saying that Christ makes himself into a work of art through the transfiguration of his suffering in his life and passion. Christ Creates himself as a sublime work of art by rendering articulate a voiceless world of pain… In his compassion for the downtrodden and the poor, but equally in his pity for the hard, empty hedonism of the rich, Christ is the incarnation of love as an act of imagination, not reason, the imaginative projection of compassion onto all creatures. What Christ teaches is love, and Wilde writes, “When you really want love you will find it waiting for you.” The decision to open oneself to love enables a possible receipt of grace over which one has no power and which one cannot decide. (5)

Critchley goes on to extrapolate from this an “infinite ethical demand” that functions as a horizon for human existence. Curiously in offering this thesis he postulates that Wilde’s articulation of individualism is not individualism at all, but rather a “dividualism” in which the “self shapes itself in relation to the experience of an overwhelming, infinite demand that divides it from itself.” (7) It is perhaps worth noting that many if not all of Critchley’s concerns regarding the importance of interiority and self-creation in the act of faith are articulated have been articulated, in one way or another, by voices in the Church, throughout history. This is not to suggest that Critchley has nothing new or substantive to offer. Highly aware of his position as a particular kind of atheist – and, of course, atheism and theism are always of determinate kinds – Critchley articulates his own position as “a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.” (19) This is, I think, a wise place to begin a theological conversation. After all, whose belief hasn’t been, at some point, disappointed?

There is, of course, an ulterior motive at work here. Critchley castigates the “return to religion” as the dominant cliché of contemporary theory. He goes on to argue that the theory is, in this case, nothing more than an exaggerated echo of a “political reality dominated by the fact of religious war.”(8) Given this standpoint it is easy to see why he would want to distance himself from a traditional religious community. However the question remains as to how accurate “religious war” is as an analysis of our age. Critchley offers several examples of the contemporaneous use of religious rhetoric to justify political violence. His categories range from the Islamism of al-Qaeda to the free-market theology of neo-liberalism, to the thinly disguised racism of social democratic conservatism. (80) Arguably all of these political agendas have a religious or theological dimension, but to understand them all principally as religious movements seems a bit of a stretch.

Critchley’s principle contention is not against religion as such, but against its dangerous intersection with politics, particularly when violence appears as a third term. Taking his readers through the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau he arrives at the paradox of sovereignty: law must be consistent with personal autonomy, and yet binding on all members of a social group. For Rousseau this leads to the fiction of the lawgiver, the one who legislates for society but stands apart from it. The fiction that allows for politics leads, in turn, ineluctably to the need for a civil religion. While Critchley ultimately rejects Rousseau’s solution of civil religion, he recognizes that politics evokes a religious dimension as part of its practicability. Politics cannot, he argues, become “effective as a way of shaping, motivating, or mobilizing a people” without some appeal to transcendence or externality. (24) In considering any political entity as a discrete and sensible unity involves a transformation, or sacralisation of that entity.

The upshot of this diagnosis, which from Critchley’s perspective is rather dismal, is that we need a new version of Jeremy Bentham’s “theory of fictions.” Essentially the problem with the religious dimensions of politics, as they are practised, is that the critical distance between fiction and reality is not maintained. If we fail to recognize that our governing fictions are fictions then we will impose them on others, and we will be prone to irrational outbursts of violence when our position is threatened. The role of criticism introduces a place for Critchley’s own role as a philosopher. What he seeks is a kind of ultimate fiction, which we will know to be a fiction, and yet still believe. Here Critchley finds common purpose with the French philosopher Alain Badiou. Following Badiou Critchley argues the political role of the philosopher is one of imagination. It is “the construction of the formal possibility of something that would break with the ‘febrile sterility’ of the contemporary world. There is a certain utopian impulse that is integral to the human approach of doing politics, it allows us to think alternate possibilities and allows us to articulate our desires and concerns into the political space.

Critchley goes on to examine this imaginative aspect of politics as it affects the actions and formations of particular political bodies. The German jurist Carl Schmitt argued that all modern political concepts are secularized theological concepts. Following this line Critchley explores the concept of original sin as it affects modern political theory. The concept of original sin, he argues, is used either to enforce some kind of political dictatorship or to quell any utopian impulses among human communities. To defend against these two impulses Critchley examines mediaeval mystical movements, in particular the Movement of the Free Spirit. What interests Critchley in these movement is what he sees as a “politics of love”, a politics which finds its life in experimental community. Not entirely satisfied with the secessionist character that often accompanies mysticism and anarchism, Critchley nevertheless views this tradition as an important political resource.

Critchley goes on to criticize a number of contemporary theorists, in particular those who have in some way advocated a return to St. Paul, as crypto-Marcionites. Critchley, it seems, even under the guise of atheism, wishes to remain within an orthodox Christian stream of atheism. His problem with the return to Marcion, echoing the concerns of early Church orthodoxy, is that Marcion’s dream of a pure beginning unmoors human reality from the real facts of the law and bondage to sin and renders faith meaningless:

Faith is only possible as the counter-movement to law and the two terms of the movement exist in a permanent dialectic. There is no absolute beginning and the idea of life without a relation to law is a purist and slightly puerile dream. (203)

This criticism builds to a confrontation with Slavoj Zizek over the question of violence in politics. Critchley is critical of Zizek’s reading of divine violence as a kind of dream which waits for a transcendental intervention while avoiding action as real political engagement. The debate between these two hinges around where exactly political action is supposed to take place. It is an enlightening debate, in some ways, although it is also extremely theory-bound. Nevertheless there are certain gems of insight into the nature of political action in this section:

Action is guided by taking a decision in a situation that is strictly undecidable, and where responsibility consists in the acceptance of an ineluctable double bind. What should be avoided is the principled abstraction of the commitment to nonviolence, on the one hand, and the pragmatic instrumentality of the use of violence on the other. (221)

The finale of the book returns us to the theme of parable. Through Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, Critchley calls our attention to the active aspect of Christian love. The parable under discussion is that of the Roman centurion who asks for the healing of his son, but does not feel worthy that Jesus should enter his house. Christ responds, “Be it done for you, as you believed.” The important part of this story is that in “his faith, the Gospel is first a gospel.” (249) It is a proclamation of faith that enacts life. This act of faith is inextricably connected to love and an admission of weakness:

Faith is the enactment of the self in relation to a demand that exceeds my power, both in relation to my factical thrownness in the world and the projective movement of freedom achieved as responsibility. Faith is not a like-for-like relationship of equals, but the asymmetry of the like-to-unlike…I have tried to describe…a subjective strength that only finds its power to act through an admission of weakness. (250)

The Faith of the Faithless offers a number of valuable insights into the nature of fidelity and action. Its central weakness is a too narrow view of politics and religion and the roles institutions and traditional communities play in those areas. Critchley offers Oscar Wilde as a parable for faith of those who find themselves unable to participate in traditional communities. At times Critchley assumes a necessary connection between the body politic of the church and religious violence.  In response to these weaknesses, I would like to end with my own parable of sorts. Oscar Wilde was bailed out of prison by an Anglican priest, Stewart Headlam, to the protest and anger of his colleagues and countrymen. Where Wilde chafed at the “sordid necessity of having to live for others” Headlam saw this same necessity as expressing a sacramental grace. Perhaps those who believe must hold those who cannot, for love and truth extend beyond the boundaries of ritual.

Joshua Paetkau is a father of two and is currently living and working in Winnipeg.  He holds a bachelor of arts in theology and social science.

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