This is the first of several responses to Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology.
In Simon Critchley’s Wildean confraternity or consorority of the faithless, faith is a commitment, a proclamation of fidelity to an infinite ethical demand which enacts a new form of subjectivity. As such, faith is not related to belief in the existence of God but to an experience that is shared by agnostics, atheists and theists alike. Faith, we might say, is a/theistic, cutting across such distinctions.
However, Critchley also suggests that the faith of those without faith in a particular religious tradition ‘reveals the true nature of faith’ and that it is perhaps more faithful precisely because it is faithless. Such a ‘faith of the faithless’ lacks the sureties of institutional religion, or, as Oscar Wilde insists, of religion, morality and reason. Yet it remains true to – Critchley links truth to troth – ‘the rigorous activity of the subject that proclaims itself into being at each instant’ (18). Thus, he concludes, ‘it is perhaps the faithless who can best sustain the rigor of faith without requiring security, guarantees, or rewards’ (252).
But, we can ask, where does The Faith of the Faithless leave the ‘faithful’? In other words, how can religion be more faithless and, thereby, according to Critchley, ultimately more faithful? In what specific ways might a religious collective form political associations of the type Critchley imagines? For if faith is a/theistic, then communities of the new faithful (namely, of the faithless, of those with a faith without guarantees) must be both religious and non-religious; such communities must be ir/religious and faith/less, cutting across the distinctions between the theistic and the atheistic, the religious and the irreligious, the faithless and the faithful.
To ask these questions is to ask, can religion enact this political theology? Can religion take part in this experiment in political theology? Or does this task fall, as Critchley’s chapter on Mystical Anarchism suggests, to contemporary art and radical politics? And, if the answer to this last question is yes, then how far is Critchley from Slavoj Žižek’s own exclusion of religion from emancipatory politics when he writes that ‘the Pauline community of believers … is to be found today … not in churches’ but in the revolutionary political party or the psychoanalytic society?
Through presenting what I see to be the main thrust of Critchley’s argument for a political theology of what I shall call meontological association, I will frame a tentative answer to the question of how religious (or, rather, ir/religious) collectives might enact such a ‘faithlessness.’ For I believe that, within contemporary Christian discourse and practice, there are examples of an emerging political experiment in ir/religious meontological association.
Critchley suggests that what is needed today is ‘an art of politics that is capable of shaping new associations’ (33), ‘a domain where a new political subject comes into existence’ (37). He then connects anarchic politics with Christian mysticism. Gustav Landauer – who enjoins fellow anarchists, ‘Do not kill others, only yourself’ (cited 143) – writes of ‘inward colonization’ (cited 142), which Critchley links with the practice of ‘self-killing’ (143) or soul annihilation in Marguerite Porete’s The Mirror of Simple and Annihilated Souls. Porete writes that, ‘One must crush oneself, hacking and hewing away at oneself to widen the place in which Love will want to be’ (cited 125). In the name of love, the self or soul is annihilated, emptied, reduced to nothing, an abyss, ready to be filled by God.
While Critchley has reservations about the goal of beautific union with God, he summarises that such traditions conceive of love as a ‘disciplined act of absolute spiritual daring that eviscerates the old self of externality’ (250) – a process that he calls elsewhere the evisceration of ‘existing conceptions of identity’ (12) – so that ‘a transformed relation to others becomes possible, some new way of conceiving the common and being with others’ (153). In other words, love is the process, the ‘labor’ (165), through which existing orders of identity die and new forms of subjectivity are birthed.
It is here that Critchley moves to contemporary philosophical readings of Saint Paul in order to present the apostle’s ‘double meontology,’ his dual ‘account of things that are not’ (178). Paul writes that ‘God chose the things which are not to bring to nothing things that are’ (1 Cor.1:28). On the one hand, from the standpoint of faith, the things that are (ta onta) are nothing – ‘This is the nihilism of world politics’ (178) – but, on the other, the community of faith is also nothing (ta me onta).
For Critchley, this nihilistic community is both a community of nothings and nobodies (a weak, impotent, powerless remanant – what Žižek calls, following Rancière, the ‘part of no-part’), and a no-community, ‘a people which does not in fact exist … a fiction of association’ (40), an absolute community that ‘we know to be a fiction and yet in which we believe nonetheless’ (93).
Implied here is that no actually existing community is formed; remain as you were when you were called, Paul says (1 Cor. 7:17). But, through the labour of love, the subject of faith becomes part of ‘an imagined generality’ (40) who view the world from the subjective position of one who has been called, by faithfully living in the world ‘as if not’ (1 Cor. 7), ‘by attending to a call or demand that is not of this world’ (178-9). For Critchley, the institutional Church is not required as a marker of this community’s boundaries, just as it is not required by Žižek.
This community of faith’s ‘as if not’ comportment towards the world is the means through which Paul can write that, ‘There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female; for all are one in Christ’ (Gal. 3:28). For the subject of faith, these religious, political and biological identities have become nothing with the annihilation of old orders of identity and the creation of a new form of transformed subjectivity – a new identity which Paul refers to not as Christian identity, as Critchley notes, but as being ‘in Christ’ (158). For ‘[t]he key to any genuinely emancipatory politics consists in an openness to the possibility of a generalized struggle that exceeds any particularity or claim to identity’ (245). And this includes claims to Christian identity and community, which is why I write of the political potential of a/theism and ir/religion.
So perhaps Critchley is right in saying that ‘a return to Paul is usually very bad news for the established church’ (155), particularly if such a return implies the annihilation of Christianity as an identity. But is Critchley’s Pauline political theology not good news for a/theism, for a faith without guarantees that is therefore never without doubt? Might the faith of those with faith in a particular religious tradition become faithless, and thereby more faithful, through meontological association? And what might such an association look like?
I contend that, through Paul’s meontology, Critchley’s political theology connects with the notion of ‘suspended space’ in contemporary Christian discourse, a notion which builds upon philosophical interpretations of Paul by Alain Badiou and Žižek. Peter Rollins describes the emerging practice of suspended space as a ‘theatrical performance of that Messianic time when all will be equal,’ involving the cultivation of liturgical periods in which ‘we place our various identities at the door’, creating a ritualistic ‘space in our week where there is “neither/nor” [Gal 3:28]’.
For Žižek, Paul founds a community of believers that ‘suspends all ethnic divisions’ and other forms of individual and group identity. This means that when Žižek paraphrases and glosses Galatians 3:28 as, ‘“there are only Christians and the enemies of Christianity!” Or, as we would have to put it today: there are only those who fight for emancipation and their reactionary opponents; the people and the enemies of the people’, Rollins can in turn translate this antagonism into that between ‘those who lay all distinctions down and those who hold onto them’. He suggests that suspended spaces symbolically enact God’s kenosis, God’s self-emptying act – or, following Critchley’s use of Porete, God’s own self-annihilating act – of laying down identity, taking up the form of a slave, a servant, and becoming a nobody and a nothing (Phil. 2:6-8). In emerging Christian discourse, it is imagined that this practice of identity suspension will enable participants to ‘live out a radically different mode of social relation’.
So perhaps Critchley might find in the emerging practice of suspended space a potential site of political association? My own research will continue to examine this ir/religious practice and its capacity for social and political transformation.
However, might emerging Christianity find in Critchley’s political theology a critical contribution to its conversation with Žižek’s political ontology?
Žižek notes the way in which Paul enjoins the faithful to ‘participate in the world of social obligations through an attitude of suspension’. But, on Critchley’s reading, Paul’s ‘as if not’ becomes Bartleby’s ‘I would prefer not to.’ Thus, Critchley suggests, Žižek recommends not an active, lived, resisting ‘as if not’, but the non-action of passive refusal and withdrawal. This denial leads to both a ‘deadlock’ in practice and a philosophical ‘dream’ of ‘an absolute, cataclysmic revolutionary act of violence’ (213); to a political paralysis awaiting a total(itarian) break with the situation, with the state. Contra Žižek and Badiou, Critchley’s anarchic politics of resistance seeks to create an apostolic distance (of ‘as if not’) within the situation, ‘within the state against the state’ (233). It works to form a ‘social bond’ that ‘opens’ up an ‘interstitial distance, the making of space where – to all appearances – no space exists’ (233).
Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless invites important questions about how communities of faith might become political associations of the faithless. And I suggest that his notion of meontological association contributes to a conceptual framework for understanding the practices of emerging ir/religious collectives. But Critchley’s critical comparison between his own and Žižek’s politics raises questions as to whether the emerging meontological practice of suspended space finds more theo-political support in Critchley’s politics of resistance – which lives the revolution, as Rollins commends, ‘in the now’ as an insurrectionary force – than in Žižek’s politics of refusal, which dreams of a divine (violent) intervention.
Dr Katharine Sarah Moody works at the intersection of continental philosophy and the empirical study of religion. She is co-editor of Intensities: Philosophy, Religion and the Affirmation of Life (forthcoming, Ashgate).
 I have argued in a similar vein that Slavoj Žižek’s ‘community of believers’ must be a/theistic. See Katharine Sarah Moody, “Between Deconstruction and Speculation: John D. Caputo and A/Theological Materialism,” in Clayton Crockett, B. Keith Putt, and Jeffrey W. Robbins, eds., The Future of Continental Philosophy of Religion (forthcoming).
 Slavoj Žižek, “The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity”, in Slavoj Žižek and John Milbank, The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Creston Davis, ed. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2009), p.287; and Slavoj Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 2003), p.130.
 Peter Rollins, “The Worldly Theology of Emerging Christianity,” in Kevin Corcoran (ed.), Church in the Present Tense: A Candid Look at What’s Emerging (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Braxos Press, 2011), p.26. On the notion of ‘suspended space,’ see further Katharine Sarah Moody, “Retrospective Speculative Philosophy: Looking for Traces of Žižek’s Communist Collective in Emerging Christian Praxis,” Political Theology 13/2 (Apr 2012).
 Peter Rollins, The Fidelity of Betrayal: Towards a Church Beyond Belief (Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press, 2008), p.178.
 Rollins, “The Worldly Theology of Emerging Christianity,” p.27.
 Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf, p.130.
 Slavoj Žižek, First as Tragedy, Then as Farce (London: Verso, 2009), p.45.
 Peter Rollins, “An Economy of Nobodies and Nothings” (Feb 2010) http://peterrollins.net/?p=889
 Peter Rollins, Insurrection: To Believe is Human; To Doubt, Divine (New York: Howard Books 2011), p.140.
 Žižek, The Puppet and the Dwarf, p.111.
 Peter Rollins, “Retroactive Justification” (Feb 2011) http://vimeo.com/21315457
10 thoughts on “The Faith of the Faith/less?”
So practically what does this mean for political activism? We seek to transform the world from our associations of the faithless and seek solidarity with those different from oursleves because of the suspension of ‘identity markers’ that means we resist privilege and plays of power and seek to be change agents from the position of the non-existent-yeast in the dough. If I understand you correctly.
That’s exactly the question I’m asking. I’m currently writing funding bids to further explore what the potential of these notions might be for political activism, as well as for subjective transformation and social relations.
I’m asking, how might ‘suspended space’ or ‘meontological political association’ contribute to visions for the future and to practices of hope?
This involves trying to work out how to examine the relationship between the liturgical performance of ‘identity suspension’ and the transformation of social and political practices outside such ritual spaces.
Your project sounds really exciting and I hope you are successful in your funding bids. Some interesting questions for reflection.
I wonder what we can learn from ‘Occupy’ and other social movements as Žižek argues about the transformation of social and political practices? I shall ehjoy following and contributing to the conversation. Just a thought, maybe a symnposium with Pete Rollins and yourself at some point to reflect further on these themes, building on your blog interactions.
Yeah, I’m very interested in the apparent increase of participation in public activism, especially at the intersection of politics, philosophy and art. It seems to be signalling a desire for alternative modes of social, political and economic life. And I wonder what emerging Christian practices can contribute to questions about the future.
Dave True has been wondering about some further guest posts from Pete and me, and it’s an exciting thought to continue the conversation, but I do need to secure funding to make sure that this project includes empirical study of these emerging Christian practices.
We could have a think about how to stage a discussion of some of the philosophical, theological, political and social theories involved, ahead of any grant to carry out fieldwork. But I am hopeful that someone somewhere thinks that this project is worthwhile enough to fund! 🙂
Here’s timing: I just heard that I didn’t get through my 3rd and final possible attempt at getting British Academy funding for this project. Curses! 🙁
I really resonate with the project you are exploring here. I am currently working on a similar question for a small conference here called #OccupyEmpire. I come from an Anabaptist tradition, so my question is less about political activism as we usually understand it and instead looking at Christian practices as an alternative expression within a dominant Social Imaginary. Here I am less with Zizek and more deCerteau- a tactical practice subverting the strategies of Empire.
In my own work, this comes out in how I talk about Asceticism- practices which create new subjectivities, new social relations, and new social imaginaries. So liturgy then for me fits right into this alternative, tactical, and ascetical frame.
Thanks for commenting and making contact. It’s great to find out about your work.
Our interests do really seem to resonate well. I’m also exploring religious practices in relation to the dominant social imaginary, and examining the extent to which new imaginaries form new subjectivities, so it’s great to connect with someone else working in these areas. Your focus on de Certeau and new monasticism sounds intriguing.
I like Graham Ward’s presentation of the relationship(s) between religious practice and social transformation and Jamie Smith’s related work on cultural practices, both of which I imagine you’re familiar with.
Yet, as you can see from my focus on a/theism, faith/lessness and ir/religion in this blog post, I can’t uncritically follow them into their Radical Orthodoxy. I would argue, with Jack Caputo, that Radical Orthodoxy isn’t radical enough.
But I do really value their assessments of the ways in which what Graham calls ‘expressive acts’ configure subjectivity. I find that really useful in my work.
I also Googled the #OccupyEmpire conference you mention and it sounds fascinating. Here’s a link for anyone else who might be interested:
That reminds me of a recent article approaching the faith problem from a psychological perspective:
There is still much to learn.
Thanks for the link to the conference! I din’t have it handy as I was responding last evening.
Jamie’s Desiring the Kingdom is probably one of the best books regarding this conversation. Though I do admit to going down the RO road, yet that is much in part to my discipline of Patristics. I understand the a/theist argument like you have summarized here, and what Caputo and Pete Rollins present. I think that is a helpful foil and temper to an overly ambitious RO approach- something both Milbank and guys like David Bentley Hart often need.
Thanks for the great conversation!
A/theism would function as something like a Derridean spectre haunting any strong ontology, whether it was theistic like Milbank’s ‘ontology of peace’ or atheistic like Zizek’s political ontology, keeping them open to the event that haunts them both.
Comments are closed.