The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology

April 19, 2012

Simon Critchley is a leading British "Continental" philosopher. Hegel said that philosophy started in the East and moved to the West: so with Critchley. He began in Essex and now teaches in New York. This biographical detail is relevant because this book is fascinated and amazed by America, as if he were coming to terms with the move from UK politics (where "we don't do God") to the religious/political hotbed of the US. But the subject is crucial because, as he writes, perhaps with a hint of melodrama, "we have entered nothing less than an epoch of new religious war". The book is supposed to be a "general reader" book of philosophy: but despite the very accessible introduction and occasional joke, it isn't. It is an advanced engagement with a large range of complex ideas about the relationship between politics, religion and violence in contemporary philosophy.

The idea at the core of the book, however, is not complex. Critchley (and others) argue that politics is not a different realm from the world of religion, suddenly brought into being by an Enlightenment process of secularisation: rather, "modern political forms" are a "series of metamorphoses" of the sacred. Critchley argues that we can see this in, for example, US politics, in Obama's melding of the "rhetorical force of religion" with "a defence of a classical constitutional American Liberalism" (his slogan, of course, "Believe"). But it occurs in other, more intricate forms, too: in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's belief in a sort of civil religion, in Carl Schmitt's belief in something like "original sin". Each of the four essayistic chapters, sinuously written, examines facets of this.

The book amply demonstrates Critchley's many strengths as a thinker and teacher. Where the book is exegetical, it is strikingly clear, despite demanding a lot of previous knowledge: this is the case in the long first chapter on Rousseau (although the various digressions, which can be charming and interesting in a spoken talk, are rather distracting on the page and could have been cut). Even better, the book displays Critchley's skill as one of the very best close readers of philosophical texts we have: the chapter on the nature of faith, with insightful readings of Heidegger, is deeply impressive in this regard. The book also illustrates his ability in direct argument. Usually, in a more pedagogic vein, he draws out subtle and important differences between himself and other thinkers (Alain Badiou, John Gray, Giorgio Agamben), but in the final bravura chapter, on "Nonviolent violence", he attacks Slavoj Žižek's work and political position, taking it seriously and then utterly demolishing it.

But the book isn't limited to these more academic virtues. After making some crucial point, Critchley's work always asks "what does one do with this insight?", and turns to the everyday world for answers. Much of what he writes here, and earlier, has affinities with the Occupy movement and with other political causes.

There are weaknesses in the book, too. There is a sense of something thoughtful going on beneath the surface: the issue of love emerges several times but, like some subterranean animal above ground, it keeps disappearing before you can look at it properly; the idea of the "supreme fiction" that Critchley has taken from one of his long-standing touchstones, Wallace Stevens, crops up, too, but needs more exposition. That these things need more examination is not to demand a Summa from Critchley but to suggest that this fascinating and important book traces, as it were, a trajectory of his thought and is not an end in itself.

The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology

By Simon Critchley. Verso, 302pp, £16.99. ISBN 9781844677375. Published February 2012.

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