Faith of the Faithless

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* Book: Faith of the Faithless. Simon Critchley.


How Politics is Rooted in the Spiritual

By STIR magazine's Jonny Gordon-Farleigh:

"For me, I’ve never been a particularly secularist thinker and I’ve never had a strong faith in the ideas of secular modernity. I’ve had a huge interest, as long as I’ve been aware of such things, in religious thinkers like Paul, Pascal, Augustine and many others. It seems to me that if you start from some idea that philosophy or theory has to do without religion then you are cutting yourself off from that incredibly useful archive of possibilities. So, I think that philosophy is inconceivable without religion, or shouldn’t be done without religion as it shouldn’t be done only with religion. I am not a theist in that sense. It means using the best and most powerful ideas in that tradition for other ends. Of the people who have gone back to using religious sources to think about politics, then I would say that Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul is the most powerful.

The question for me is two-fold. Firstly, it is diagnostic: to understand the nature of political forms is to think of them as different forms of sacralisation. In my view, I have this idea that the history of political forms — fascism, liberal democracy, Stalinism — is different forms of the sacral. There is always some sacred object: the nation, the people, the race, or whatever it might be. So, rather than seeing the history of politics as the movement from the religious to the secular, I see politics as a shift in the meaning of the sacred.

For me, that is an incredibly useful diagnostic tool when you are, say, looking at political forms in a country like the one I am living in (the US), where an incredibly powerful political theology exists in terms of American civil religion which is able to exert a unusual power over citizens and using that to find out how that works. So, there is a diagnostic category that is very important, and then there is a more normative one.

Politics for me, to put it in a crude formula, is “association without representation”. I adapted this from Rousseau. The notion of association for me is not just, but nonetheless still, a religious idea. Religion is linked to the idea of Renegare who asks what is it that binds fast? What is it that binds fast an association? For me, that is a question that the left has been grappling with for the last couple of centuries. So, I don’t think you can just slough off the religious tradition or say it’s just nonsense. That is a philistine gesture that is counter-productive in all sorts of ways.

S: Many of Terry Eagleton’s forays into political theology have been to argue that faith is performative rather propositional. Does this chime with your claims in the book about the nature of faith?

SC: I am very close to Terry’s concerns and maybe as time goes on I will get even closer to them. His trajectory is one where he started off as a radical catholic and then became a Marxist. In a sense, nothing has really changed because the object of critique is the same: liberal democracy and the secular theology that underpins it – human rights, freedom, individuality, and so on.

Faith, for me, is not theistic. It does not require a belief in some metaphysical entity like God. Faith is a subjective proclamation. It is a proclamation in a relationship, in my jargon, with a demand. It places a demand on you so that you can bind yourself as an ethical or political subject. That is the way it works.

Now, if we have a strange situation where there are people, like myself for example, who are faithless but have an experience of faith in relationship to an infinite demand, say, the prohibition of murder or the furthering of equality. Then there are people where that faith is underwritten by some theistic reality in their worldview. My view is that it makes no difference at the subjective level: the belief in God is neither here nor there. It is a useless distraction. It does not matter what you believe but rather how you act. I am interested in all of those religious projects that are concerned with doing, action and practice like Black Christianity in the US, for example.

I agree with Terry that faith is on a performative plane rather than a propositional plane — I believe in X and so on.

S: In Jean Luc Nancy’s Dis-Enclosure he turns to James rather than Paul for a militant figure. Instead of the fragility of the will that we find in Paul, Nancy turns his attention to James where he says, “Faith without works is dead”.

SC: It is an idea that keeps popping up. It is what the Janists believed in seventeenth century France and who were a totally persecuted religious minority. They were faith as action in the world.

There is a distinction to make between faith as action and spirituality. There is an ideology of spirituality that has grown-up in various forms around what we can broadly see as new age belief. Where, in a sense, spirituality becomes that turn inward in order to find something blessed or divine about yourself, which you can cultivate in a world that is horrible, chaotic and blowing itself to pieces. For me, faith turns outwards and spirituality turns inwards. I’ve written about this on Philip K. Dick and Gnosticism, where I argue that there is an ideology of Gnosticism when it is accepted that the world is shit, a kind of matrix: a dream factory that is governed by evil corporate powers or whoever it might be (gnostics called them the archons), but that there is a pure divine spark within us.

I think all interesting forms of spirituality are forms of passive, nihilistic withdrawal from a world that seems to be out of control. So, I am opposed to that but also think that we need to understand it because when you are dealing with different forms of spirituality, the most general form is the one that has no belief at all. This is why Buddhism seems so amenable — you don’t have to believe in anything. You can cultivate practices of perfection or vacationing and it allows you to deal with the world that is out of control. I don’t just dismiss that. I think passive nihilism makes sense as a response to world, but I think it is the wrong response and that there is a lot of it about.

S: In The Faith of the Faithless you quote Gramsci as saying: “For socialism to overcome Christianity, it has to become a religion”. What does it mean for a political endeavour or project to become a religion? and why is it important for its success?

SC: It is important for its success because it can be that thing that touches people whose interests are not directly affected by the problems of a movement. It could touch them and motivate them to act in a certain way. By religion, I am thinking about what it means to bring human beings into association, into a common front.

Now, Gramsci as a figure has always interested me, more than Marx and more than many contemporary Marxists who still have their over-weaning belief in the socioeconomic. Not that the socioeconomic isn’t important, that would be ridiculous, but for politics we have to learn common fronts, or what Gramsci called the activity of hegemony, where people with divergent interests and commitments can come together into a common front, a historical bloc as Gramsci called it. If you exclude religion or religious people from that, you’re missing the point. In Gramsci’s day what he is talking about, for the most part, is that the Catholic Church is a retrograde reactionary force, but it’s a left Catholic tradition that can be activated; but more generally, to baiting people into a sort of commonality. It is the formation of some kind of structure that is poetic or religious in that broad sense. It requires an activity of political imagination.

In The Faith of the Faithless what I talk about is in relationship to what I call the supreme fiction, namely that we live in a world where the realm of politics is a realm of fiction. It’s a realm of what Hobbes called the artificial man and the artificial soul. But to expose those fictions as fictions — so the fiction of popular sovereignty, the idea that we the people actually govern things or that we don’t live in a plutocracy or an oligarchy — it doesn’t mean we go from fiction to fact but that there can be this other idea of which I call a supreme fiction, which we knew to be a fiction yet we still believe. That in many ways is a way of formulating what might be a kind of political, poetic, and religious project.

There are two elements: a kind of romanticism, and also a kind of pragmatism. The romanticism is the idea about the supreme fiction; the pragmatism is the idea that movements are formed not by exclusions or by the cultivation of vanguards but by a construction of an association that motivates people to join it. I think that’s one of the things that we can say Occupy did for a period of time — there is the open question of what is happening with that right now." (