Anno Domini MMXII

Simon Critchley, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, Verso, London and New York, 2012. 302 pp., £16.99 hb., 978 1 84467 737 5.

‘A sustained and fascinating reflection on the place of religion in political discourse’ – as per the review by Rev. Giles Fraser over at the New Statesman – this book is not. Nor should it be taken on credit when David Winters, down at the Los Angeles Review of Books, says that Critchley ‘provides a powerful vision of what our politics ought to look like’. Now, ‘fascination’ is a personal matter, a question of susceptibility or taste, so we must let the Rev. Fraser be fascinated as and when he can. But ‘sustained’ is a weightier term. It implies grit and drive, a methodical rigour which is simply not in evidence in Critchley’s new work, where what Critchley calls ‘experiments’ could better be called ‘encounters’. There is no use in cataloguing the crew that we catch sight of in this book, but the fact that it opens with a glance at ‘love’ in Oscar Wilde – that incorrigible sybarite – and closes with a nod at ‘love’ in Søren Kierkegaard – that incurable celibate – is indicative. The links are often weak.

Meanwhile, Winters’s choice of ‘powerful’ is curious, since Critchley harps on what he calls – already on page 7 – the ‘powerless power of being human’. Here, at the first appearance of this negatived ‘power’, it signifies ‘conscience’. And it is to this, ‘conscience’, that Critchley promises to ‘return throughout this book’. But the operative phrase then sinks out of view until page 160, where – rather than conscience – it is ‘the power of being in Christ [that] is a powerless power’. (We are not meant to identify ‘conscience’ simpliciter with ‘being in Christ’, however, and whatever that could mean.) Not much farther on, it is Critchley’s new term ‘faith’ that is ‘a powerless power, a strength in weakness’ (this is St Paul, roughly), while upon its next – and on my reckoning, last – appearance, it is ‘Messianic power [that] is always weak – [that] is the power of powerlessness’. So Winters could not be faulted for mistaking the reference of Critchley’s ‘power’ – it could just as well be ‘vision’ as conscience, being in Christ, and so on – but that this ‘power’ is negatived is impossible to miss.

And this is why Critchley’s eventual return to ‘conscience’ is yoked to a ‘logic of the call of conscience [in the early Heidegger] and its essential impotence’. Of course, ‘essential impotence’ is a contradictio in adiecto. But the analytic incapacities this results in were likely foreseen, since incapacity is the idea here. And it is precisely this wilfully inert formula that Critchley would like the political to reflect and, indeed, confess. Thus he says, with reference to Heidegger (though this is not Heidegger): ‘It is the impotence of Dasein that most interests me … [and] it is a double impotence.’ And again, no less tendentiously: ‘Impotence – finally – is what makes us human … It is the signal of our weakness, and nothing is more important or impotent than that.’ And no, the last clause is not mistyped. With this much established, then, I trust that I cannot be accused of cruelty or misconstrual when – rather than ‘powerful’ and ‘sustained’ – I suggest that The Faith of the Faithless is not only an impotent, but a doubly impotent book. This is to say nothing more, on Critchley’s terms, than that his is a distinctly human piece of work.

We will come back to impotence momentarily. I would first like to stress that this is also a sad book, for after Critchley opens with a lively précis of Wilde’s De Profundis, it is hard not to infer – when we read the following – that The Faith of the Faithless is something like Critchley’s own ‘De profundis’:

have come to this conclusion with no particular joy. We are living through a chronic re-theologization of politics, which makes this time certainly the darkest period of my lifetime, and arguably for much longer. At the heart of the horror of the present is the intrication of politics and religion, an intrication defined by violence, and this is what I would like to begin to think through in this book.

And again: ‘Our world … is [defined] by a series of nightmarish intrications of politics and religion: politics of religion and religions of politics, where we have entered nothing less than an epoch of new religious war.’ This, then, is the backcloth of The Faith of the Faithless: the ferocity of sectarian wars, and the visibility of cultish persecutions.

As I write this, headlines at the Guardian announce: ‘Bail hopes dashed of Christian girl in Pakistan blasphemy case’. While in the report itself, we are soberly reminded that ‘desecration of the holy book’ – this delusional offence with which a Pakistani girl of 13 stands accused, though it is not her holy book – ‘is regarded as a particularly grave form of blasphemy and can easily spark violent public reactions’. And while this girl-child faces capital charges from clerical thugs in Islamabad, a trio of the Pussy Riot girls are being shipped to labour camps on the Russian steppes. Islamic thuggery, Orthodox thuggery. And while this is by no means the worst of it – we have the recent slaughter of apostates in Algeria, Syria’s descent into hell, and so on – a humane sceptic is entitled to recoil. Yet it is here that Critchley’s impotence, or ‘double impotence’, comes into view. For while he admits that a ‘return to religion has become perhaps the dominant cliché of contemporary theory’, and deplores, at once, the grim energy of re-politicized religion and the fact that ‘theory often offers nothing more than an … echo of what is happening in … a political reality dominated by the fact of religious war’, Critchley then stages his own ‘return to religion’ (a first impotence), and proceeds to echo – in a muted and oblique way – the blasts of a ‘religious war’ that mar the geopolitical landscape (a second impotence).

The first impotence of The Faith of the Faithless is displayed in a shallow appropriation of Wilde’s aestheticist sentiment: ‘Everything to be true must become a religion.’ It is this that inspires Critchley’s project. But it is precisely the inverse of this statement that – from Plato to Feuerbach – inspires any project which can lay claim to the name of ‘philosophy’. For anything to become true, and to attain the concept of ‘truth’, it must cease to be a religion. And this is uncontroversial. Even ‘philosophical theology’ is philosophical to the precise degree that it is irreligious – methodologically faithless, at very least. Plato, for instance – relative to the pre-Platonic philosophers and Sophists – is a theological reactionary, and succumbs, particularly in his last dialogue the Laws, to the morbid and coarsening allure of theologistic laws. But even this last Platonic effort takes its rise from a critique of every ‘civil theology’ then existing. Thus, in the Laws – a work that Critchley does not quote here – Plato savages his interlocutors’ putatively ‘divine’ law-codes and the social orders they instituted at Sparta and Crete. And it is precisely this – an unremitting critique of ‘divine’ law-codes – that is still needed at present.

But Critchley wavers. He cedes that ‘Christianity, which requires universality of belief, has led to little else but religious wars for much of the last millennium’, but then expresses ‘little sympathy’ for the late Christopher Hitchens, despite the fact that Hitchens’s broadside against Christendom was similarly – and no more subtly – framed. Critchley wants to hold, against Hitchens, that what the old-school devotees shed blood for is at once the purest ‘fiction’ and a mode of highest ‘truth’. This may indeed require a faith, but if so, it is bad faith: it merely signals his abandonment of the possibility of a politics of truth. And predictably, the agitators and anti-philosophers swarm in: St Paul and St Augustine, Luther and Kierkegaard, a half-Christian Heidegger, and so on. Even the second-century heresiarch Marcion comes to prominence, while Critchley feels obliged – it is scarcely believable – to condemn a ‘crypto-Marcionism’ in Heidegger, Agamben, Badiou, the Invisible Committee, and so on. We are warned that ‘Marcionism must be refuted’, and that ‘If we throw out the Old Testament, then we imagine ourselves … without stain or sin.’ I say: god forbid that this sort of obscurantism can still pass as philosophy in twenty years’ time (though Critchley, tellingly, titles his book a ‘theology’).

The second impotence of the book is that Critchley presents no resistance to the faith which kicked off the very ‘re-theologization of politics’ that he loathes. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Russian patriarchs, et al., may have begun to bare their teeth in imitation – a trend Hitchens denounced half a decade back – yet, manifestly, this faith is Islam. And there are echoes of it here, as when he foists the term jihad on Europe’s Crusades. Yet Critchley skirts the brutish fact that his ‘epoch of new religious war’, while heralded by the ayatollahs’ coup in 1979 and the fetid Rushdie fatwa in 1989 (reinstated in 2005), was ushered in by the 2001 attacks, which signified, if not nothing then nothing good. These attacks introduced us – so Critchley writes, in passing – to ‘what some provocatively call the “Islamo-Jacobinism” of al Qaeda’. And ‘Islamo- Jacobinism’ is indeed a slur. Whatever the Jacobins’ homicidal excesses, at least ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ name an estimable – a genuinely radical, and philosophical – ideal. Divine law – a servile fiction – is never radical, and revolution in its name is eo ipso still reaction.

Critchley should be praised for dismissing ‘the mannerist nostalgia for revolutionary violence in thinkers like Žižek’. Yet while Critchley sees past Žižek’s Leninist raptures, and while their attempts to rehabilitate St Paul are equally inchoate, Žižek, at least – unlike Critchley – is willing to conceptually dismantle the faith which, to a unique degree, still insists on a regressive ‘intrication of politics and religion’. Critchley’s power to resist this faith – and, indeed, faith tout court – is, as he would have it, powerless. Doubly impotent. And until he replaces The Faith of the Faithless with The Truth of the Faithless, we can hope for little, or nothing more from him than powerlessness.