‘The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology’ reviewed by Frank Ruda

The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology

Verso Books, London and New York, 2012. 302pp., $24.95 / £16.99 hb
ISBN 9781844677375

Reviewed by Frank Ruda

About the reviewer

Dr Frank Ruda is researcher at the CRC 626 (Free University of Berlin), Visiting Lecturer at the …


According to Marx’s well known saying, religion is the opium of the people. This is also why the criticism of religion is the prerequisite of all criticism: first one needs to suspend its effect before starting the real business of critique, because comprehending the nature of religion leads to insight into why it acts as an opiate in the first place. Religion is a (contradictory) product of the contradictions of capitalism. On the one side, it functions like opium generating a delusion about the real state of things. Even if the real word is contradictory, high on religion we still feel good about it. On the other side, religion nevertheless bears the mark of this real world, since without it there simply would be no religion. Religion exists as Marx diagnosed because there is no true “realization” of equality, freedom and justice. Human beings create a fictional realization, lacking a real one. But religion functions like an opiate because it forecloses the very insight from which it originated. It exists due to contradictions, yet its existence obfuscates its own origin. Human beings create religion to deal with real contradictions, but it is only the fiction of resolving them without actually resolving them.

This fictitious nature explains why Marx called religion an “inverted consciousness” which nonetheless entails a “general theory of the world”. It contains a theory of the world in which there is religion because there is religion. A world without religion would imply a different manner of treating contradictions. Religion comprises a general theory of a contradictory world in which these very contradictions create a need to obfuscate them. Thus for Marx the believer knows that there are contradictions in the world (otherwise there would be no fictitious realm of religion) but he nonetheless does not know what he knows (religion is inverted consciousness or unconsciousness). The believer believes in a fiction that he does not know to be a fiction and this is why he believes in it. It is this fiction (that resolving contradictions of the world without resolving them in the world is still a way of resolving them) which enables him not to believe in what he knows but to repress it. Religion is a way of believing (in a fiction) without truly believing (what one knows) – it is a manifestation of a drive not to know. This is why for Marx we first need to believe what we know.

After Marx and the recent renaissance of interest in Saint Paul (by Agamben, Badiou, etc.) Simon Critchley’s new book is yet another that turns to “something of and in religion”. It attempts to argue for an emancipatory political potential of faith; for a faith of those who neither believe in God nor in any substitute for him; for “a religion – as that force which can bind human beings together in association – without God.”(20) But Marx’s analysis is still valid and the faith that Critchley’s has in mind is not a faith in an unrecognized fiction. It is a faith in “a fiction that we know to be a fiction, yet one in which we still believe.” (10) Why do we need such a faith today? For Marx religion was a means to leave the world as it, for Critchley it becomes a means to change it. The recent return to Paul already indicated a “vision of faith and existential commitment that might begin to […] face down the slackening existence under […] liberal democracy […] motivated by political disappointment.” (157) But the problem with it is that despite its motivation it leads to “a politics of abstraction” forgetting the real world, i.e. to another kind of religion. For Critchley the criticism of religion is still a critical prerequisite but one needs to include in it all emancipatory projects with unacknowledged religious substructures. “Is politics practicable without religion? … I do not think so” (24) – but it has to be mobilized in a proper self-conscious manner.

Now, what is Critchley’s diagnosis of the world that in it emancipation needs such a religion without God? He argues that we live in a world in which “dictatorship … is the generalized form of contemporary government” (66), there are “new religious wars” (24) and it has “become a vast and spectacular surface of simulacra” (53) with Obamas or worse everywhere (70). This catastrophe is also a subjective one, as we are living through “a long anti-1960s” (144) which makes most of us into “passive nihilists” (116) who believe that there is no need to believe in anything anymore and “resign ourselves to liberal democracy” (152), even without believing in it. The recent return to Paul is read as a symptom of this world, as faith always “announces itself in a situation of crisis where a decisive intervention is called for […] in a situation of struggle” (161f) It is a symptom of a struggle for “the meaning of the future and the exact extent of the shadow that the future casts across the present” (162). What is at stake is the question of whether the end of history has already come. Do we already live in our own future (having abolished the present), or can there be a true future (and thus a present)? But the re-reading of Paul is also symptomatic of the crisis as its proponents fight for the right thing in the wrong way, and become part of the problem – attempting to resolve the contradictions of the world without resolving them (for example Critchley attacks Žižek for defending an all-or-nothing-politics, that represents the “general subjective structure that holds us captive” (236)). So, how to avoid the wrong way of conducting the right struggle? Critchley answers: “All we possess” to understand politics “is history” (82). What does it tell us?

The answer is one of the ideas structuring the book – from a chapter on Rousseau and the link between popular sovereignty and religion, an analysis of Carl Schmitt, the mystical anarchism of Maguerite Porete, the nihilism of John Gray, the “meontology”(178) of Paul, a re-reading of Heidegger’s Being and Time, a criticism of Marcionite readings of Paul, up to a chapter on Žižek and the question of violence (defending Levinas and Benjamin) – on its way through modernity the book deals in passing with Agamben, Badiou, Kierkegaard and others. The central thesis is: “modernity” is nothing but “a series of metamorphoses of sacralization” (10). That is to say that any modern political form(ation) makes use of something sacral, of a belief in divine sovereignty – be it popular (“God the monarch becomes God the people” (55)) or anonymous (e.g., “the markets are not satisfied”) – in its rituals (such as parliamentary elections), in the constitution (107), in the “magic” (85) of political representation (88)), etc. All this leads Critchley to claim that “in the realm of politics, law and religion there are only fictions.” (91)

What this means is that our times are so dark because modern politics has been a gigantic misunderstanding of its own fictitious nature. Modernity is driven by a specific resistance to know (i.e. religion) – and more dialectically by a religious drive not to see the religious dimension in politics (“secularism, which denies the truth of religion, is a religious myth” (111)). This is why “these fictions need to be exposed for what they are” (90) – say: “popular sovereignty is a lie” (86) – and “the philosophical analysis of politics” becomes “a labor of demythologization” (90). Against this background, Critchley argues that we need a new conception of the stuff that makes political communities stick together, a new conception of the fictitious, “religious dimension which is found in the life of every people” (68). This is why the main “concern of the book is with the nature of faith” (161). Its nature is fictitious but linked to a “rigorous activity of a subject” (18). These two – theory of political fictions (faith) and subjective ethics – are the elements of an “ethical neo-anarchism” (114).

This anarchism, aiming at “how one lives now” (155), is not opposed to organization (232). It rather “advances in the name of […] free organization, self-determination, collaboration, cooperation […], association” (232). The basic claims behind it are that: 1) one needs to believe what one knows through history, i.e. that there are only fictions; 2) one needs an “art of politics” (92) to still believe in acknowledged fictions, i.e., believe in them although one knows (and one still believes what one knows); 3) if one still believes in them, one becomes radically responsible for (not) following them; 4) ethical responsibility is concrete and not abstract. Even the (fictitious) divine commandment not to kill, cannot be turned into an abstract principle: the responsibility to uphold one’s faith in it takes place in concrete situations (even when one violates it) – there are no pre-given answers. 5) The main aim of this ethics is to generate “new associations” (92). For, any association bound to a fiction has to renew its commitment in concrete situations and thus to renew itself. 6) This means: there is a subjective ethical “responsiveness and responsibility for what is unlimited in a situation” (244, my emphasis), i.e. for the association itself. 7) This is why for Critchley ethical neo-anarchism implies a “politics of love” (12). As love “demands a transformation of the self” (153), but also fidelity to ensure the consistency of the subject. This ethics is an ethics of infinite demands in which “faith without love is a hollow saying” (153).

Ethical neo-anarchism relies on the faith that the world can be changed if we find something unlimited in it and if we accept the “weakness” of having nothing at our disposal but fictions. Thereby the weakness becomes “a possible strength” (91), a “powerless power” (251) that enables the “fictitious constitution” (40) of a political collective endowed with an “openness to the possibility” (245) of always newly finding something unlimited in the situation. This procedure is immanently infinite – structured by an “infinite demand” (117) – and can never be realized once and for all. This ethics of “overload” (220) implies a “guilty heroism” (243) that accepts that “the imperfect is our paradise” (221), i.e. leads to accepting that every fulfillment is never truly fulfilling, as the very idea of fulfillment is a constitutive fiction.

I want to end by articulating two series of questions: 1) Critchley’s conception of a fiction we know to be one we still believe in is like a poetic fiction. For it is poetry that, according to him, has the “critical task … to show that the world is what you make of it” (91), and that there can always be a “work of collective self-creation” (4), there can always be emancipation. For Marx, science generated emancipatory knowledge of the world, for Critchley it is art, poetry. Here he sides with thinkers that argue for a fundamental interrelation of aesthetics and politics. My question is: why does this art of creating self-conscious fictions not still follow a religious structure in Marx’ sense? Why do we not over and over again create the fiction that the world is what we make of it, because we know it will remain the same and the fiction is precisely what prevents change from happening? How to avoid the risk that the “supreme fiction” (23, 81, 91, 93) is the fiction of change itself – one that we believe in only because we know it to be a fiction? Might not the danger of such “Christianity without God” (Badiou) be that the fiction of change turns change itself into nothing but fiction?

2) Critchley argues that a self-conscious collective fiction can have consequences. These manifest as collectively created “interstices”, spaces for political association and self-determination that work “within the state against the state” (233). These interstices are timely manifestations of something unlimited. They may be lost, then an infinite demand demands to generate new ones. And the fictions we believe in encourage us that this must be possible. Although these creations rely on demands that are impossible to fulfill once and for all, I wonder how to distinguish this practice from another practice relying on unlimitedness and unfulfillment: the unlimited expansion of the possible which is one feature of the contemporary market? How to avoid a “nothing is impossible ” (Nike) position and the threat of what Badiou once called a “disaster of unlimitedness”? Does one not come dangerously close to the very operation of capital?

Critchley’s book presents a powerful and rigorously systematic argument for a renewal of political emancipation. The risks and dangers that I see are multiple and fundamental, and I have my doubts that faith alone will help here.

3 September 2012

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