27 February, 2012Issue 18.4PhilosophyPolitics & SocietyReligion

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The Problem of Doing Something

Tom Cutterham

BritishSimon Critchley
Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology
Verso, 2012
288 pages
ISBN 978-1844677375


Simon Critchley, Carl Cederstrom, and Todd Kesselman
Impossible Objects: Interviews
Polity, 2012
180 pages
ISBN 978-0745653204


If we could only make brain scans more powerful, and collect enough data, then neuroscience could tell us everything we want to know about “meaning, morality and life’s larger purpose”. We could base our political decisions “on a sound understanding of what people are really like, not on some fairy-tale version of what we would like them to be.” So say Sam Harris and Douglas Kendrick in their recent books on “the moral landscape” and “the meaning of life”. These claims are understandable, however absurd they are. In the face of moral and political campaigns based on religious belief, it’s easy for these writers, as Gideon Lewis Kraus put it recently in the London Review of Books, “to feel they need something just as strong and certain to defend themselves, something like science.”

Simon Critchley is the extreme alternative: he aims to locate a response to faith in faith itself. “The left”, he writes, “has all too easily ceded the religious ground to the right and it is this ground that needs to be regained”. This religious ground doesn’t require belief in divinity; quite the opposite. He writes for those, like himself and like Harris and Kendrick, for whom God is dead and belief “is not an option”. The problem of faith, for Critchley, is not constituted by questions of truth and falsehood, but the problem of doing something, of bringing about change in oneself and the world. “What is at stake is not a question of the philosophical justification of the good, but rather the subjective motivation to act on the good.” Brain scans are not the answer. Instead, we have to look again at the experience of faith: a faith without belief, a faith of the faithless. Critchley is far from being the first to launch a foray onto this terrain. As he admits, “the return to religion has become perhaps the dominant cliche of contemporary theory.” His book, then, is, something between a synthetic, critical roster of thinkers who have gone there before—Schmitt, Heidegger, Badiou, Agamben—and a series of expository moves.

There are three primary facets to Faith of the Faithless, which shift our angle of vision around three sides of a trinity: politics, religion, violence. In the first part, we see through Rousseau the problem of forging a legitimate state and law. Our question becomes, given that no-one can bind me, how can I bind myself? Answer: through a “supreme fiction”; through faith. The second part shifts from political to religious law, and an exegesis of antinomian heresy that returns to Saint Paul. For Paul, we find, the law is within and faith is a form of conscience. In the third part Critchley returns to practice and to the present by raising the question of violence. How can we act politically and still heed the conscience-call, “thou shalt not kill”? Against Žižek on two counts, Critchley argues that we cannot sit and do nothing, yet we must reject the temptation of violence. Each of these phases, then, brings us to the impossible reality of Rousseauian self-binding and Pauline self-division. We are—have to be—both self-authorising and self-denying at the same time. “Action is guided”, Critchley writes after Derrida, “by taking a decision in a situation that is strictly undecidable, and where responsibility consists in the acceptance of an inevitable double bind.”

Even so brief a sketch will demonstrate that the return to religion that Critchley is taking part in with Faith of the Faithless is not what we imagine from the kind of cartoon image of religion that Harris and Kendrick have in mind. That is, it isn’t about easy answers or self-satisfied dogma. Instead, Critchley’s political theology is an exercise in phenomenology, looking through doctrine to analyse religious experience. His interest is in what is actually going on when we think, feel, and try to act. The scientistic drive for firm, rational answers to the questions of meaning and value only throw into sharper relief where things really stand: we have no objective foundations for our ethics or politics. We cannot persuade people to act by logically demonstrating the truth of our claims. The rub is, we cannot even persuade ourselves. “When it comes to the political question of what might motivate a subject to act in concert with others, rationality alone is insufficient.” Or, quoting Oscar Wilde, “Everything to be true must become a religion.”

All of this is very much a continuation of Critchley’s larger philosophical project. In Very Little… Almost Nothing (1997), he suggested a phenomenology of the infinitesimal: the hope that we have, he argued, the good we can do is very little, almost nothing, but crucially not nothing at all. Yet this infinitesimal hope must be stacked against an “infinite ethical demand” (Infinitely Demanding, 2007), much like the demand Jesus made in his Sermon on the Mount, “be ye therefore perfect”, a demand that is both “ridiculous” and compelling. Just as Derrida argued that forgiveness was impossible on the grounds that anything that was forgivable was not worthy to be forgiven, for Critchley “responsibility is either infinite or it is not responsible.” This line of thought is traceable not only in his books, but in the early interviews in Impossible Objects. Because of the editors’ decision to excise repeated themes, that volume gives the impression that Critchley’s thought drifted away from these concerns, toward Shakespeare and krautrock. Happily, Faith of the Faithless shows this is not the case. He is still struggling to articulate a philosophy that will answer what he takes as Neitzsche’s call “to refuse the nihilism of the present”.

Critchley has often said that “philosophy begins in disappointment.” Reading, however, always begins in hope. The reader of Critchley opening each new book may be particularly susceptible to the absurd hope that he might actually offer faith to the faithless, or answers that convincingly refute life’s meaninglessness. But again and again in Faith of the Faithless, he points out and rejects the desire for a messianic rupture, an “event”, an “exception” that will answer this infinite demand with a divine violence or an absolute newness. What is disappointing about his work, which cannot be said of Harris and Kendrick, is that he never does give answers. The politics of anarchistic resistance from Infinitely Demanding are developed only slightly here, emphasising the creation of interstitial spaces at a remove from government. Yet in this book more than ever, Critchley himself seems to become his reader’s conscience, “the inner ear that listens for the repetition of the infinite demand”, calling not for our “passive resignation from the world”, but for “the urgency of active commitment”.

Tom Cutterham is reading for a DPhil in History at St Hugh’s College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.