The Faithlessness of the Faithful

Essays

What is really at stake in this book are the differences, and similarities, between a faithlessness that disguises some form of commitment, and a faithfulness that is also more modest in its claims and cautious in working out its implications and practices. If this is the case, then the question, for me, becomes that of the nature and extent of the differences between these two forms of faith. What are the differences between (Critchley’s) faith of the faithless and the less strident forms of the faith of the faithful?

This is the second response to Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology.  

As the title of the book is a deliberate play on words, I want to continue the playfulness or experimentation. To say that there is such a thing as the faith of the faithless suggests two possibilities. First, one might be talking about those who are without faith of any description (the faithless). Second, and this is surely the whole point that Critchley is trying to make, there is a form of faith which is different from and yet possibly related to traditional, religious, forms of faith. What I want to do is to turn this around and ask as well about the faith of the faithful. Once again, I see two possibilities. First, a form of faith which is complete, whole, secure and all-encompassing (that of the “faith-full”), and second, a form of faith which is partial, provisional, in process and humble in the claims that it makes. I assume that the two extreme positions, being totally without faith and being totally consumed by faith, are not really of interest here – although there are the usual passing references to a resurgent religion that is more closely identified with extremist activity or violent revolution. What is really at stake in this book are the differences, and similarities, between a faithlessness that disguises some form of commitment, and a faithfulness that is also more modest in its claims and cautious in working out its implications and practices. If this is the case, then the question, for me, becomes that of the nature and extent of the differences between these two forms of faith. What are the differences between (Critchley’s) faith of the faithless and the less strident forms of the faith of the faithful?

At this stage, just identifying these differences and/or parallels might set the agenda for an ongoing debate. We need to note that the territory on which this is being conducted is that of political engagement and that this is the main focus of Critchley’s questioning.

If political life is to avoid sliding into a demotivated cynicism, then it needs some sort of authorizing faith which can create solidarity in a specific setting (P4). Such a faith of the faithless does not require any reference to an external divine command or transcendent reality. Critchley then refers to the “infinite ethical demand” represented by one understanding of Christ, and the call of conscience which recognizes that this demand can never fully be lived up to (P5). So what about the faith of the faithful? Could one argue that such a faith needs political action to achieve its articulation, and that unless it yields positive action on a more than personal front, it too can easily sink into demotivated routine? Is there also a form of faithfulness that does not fall back on some notion of an external transcendent or metaphysical reality, but finds itself through the response to the other in need? I only wish to raise the questions at this stage rather than offer answers.

Then there is the issue of political activity itself and the ongoing discussion about the role of violence. Critchley’s view is that “ politics consists in the creation of interstitial distance within the state and the cultivation of forms of cooperation and mutuality most powerfully expressed in the anarchist vision of federalism”(P17) It accepts the principle of non-violence, but also that under certain circumstances this may need to be compromised by unforeseen challenges. This first of these is a contested view amongst the “faithful” at the moment. It is not immediately clear how involved in the state Critchley intends to become. If one is talking about the space, the gaps in the system created by what has often been called civil society, the operation of NGOs and protest groups, then there is certainly common ground with the faithful who would prefer to keep their distance from the state and promote only internally focussed counter-cultural organisations. One might argue, however, that this is a somewhat idealised and idealistic position to maintain, one that refuses to engage where it really is possible to make a difference beyond that of setting the example of an alternative. If the principle of non-violence may have to be compromised, then maybe that of operating in the interstitial spaces may also have to be abandoned as and when it fails to challenge the established political structures? Life is more messy, blurred, entangled etc.

What about the actual motivation to take appropriate political (or moral) action? Critchley agrees with Rousseau that “when it comes to the political question of what might motivate a subject to act in concert with others, rationality alone is not sufficient” (P19). Reason has to be allied to some form of faith or belief in order to touch those deeper levels of human subjectivity. The faithful might be tempted to leap with joy and jump in at this point with “I told you so all along” etc. Unfortunately, the evidence of current political debates over such issues as the environment, welfare reform, economic and financial governance, let alone the levels of inequality exacerbated by the “age of austerity”, suggests that neither reason nor faith are adequate in themselves nor in combination, to  stimulate the required process of discussion. We lack a credible public discourse for the debate of ethical issues which can go beyond the purely financial or instrumental. Some of the more strident “faithful” would eschew any contact with reason, but those of us who strive for the combination that Critchley seeks recognise the need for something more than a simple reconnection. The language of both needs not just a revival but an imaginative revolution.

Almost finally then for this initial blog, I want to say that I have had a similar experience of reading this book as I had when I read Terry Eagleton’s “The Trouble with Strangers” a couple of years ago. There is some good theology here and a refreshing interpretation of important themes such as the loss of self and the realisation that one is ever only partially in control of either oneself or the world around, notably in Chapter 3 on Mystical Anarchism. Sometimes it takes an “outsider” (philosopher) to remind the faithful of what is in the tradition. But it is already in the tradition, even if often ignored by the mainstream or presented in opaque language. There seems to be little distance here between the “faithful” and Critchley’s “faithless”!

In addition to the above, themes that I would like the conversation to pursue include that of the notion of entanglement and the need to step back even within the process of fidelity and response to the infinite ethical demand in order to engage at a deeper level of detail with what Bruno Latour calls “matters of concern”. Both theologians and political philosophers are in danger of short-circuiting the necessary process of gathering or reassembling the empirical level of discussion required when we engage with ethical issues by introducing the language of the political or the religious prematurely. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that the parousia never did arrive and that, in the interim, we are left with inescapable complexity and compromise. I would also like to see an acknowledgement of recent study of religion which gives greater emphasis to practice, performance and the embodied materiality of religious life and less to the role of dogma and disembodied belief. Then, on the matter of God, perhaps it is time to question the idea that we, as the faithful, relate as subjects to God as some sort of object, metaphysical or otherwise, and consider instead the nature of the relationship as something always provisional, in process, and always ahead of us. A God who is “not yet” and a faith that is ever only “on the way” which requires of us not only a fidelity but also an appropriate humility which can recognize a “fellow traveller” when we encounter him or her.

 

John Reader is Rector of the Ironstone Benefice in the Diocese of Oxford and a Senior Honorary Research Fellow with the William Temple Foundation (University of Chester. UK). His first degree was from Oxford (Philosophy and Theology); then an M.Phil from Manchester University, and finally a Ph.D from the University of Wales, Bangor on “The Problem of Faith and Reason after Habermas and Derrida”. He has taught on a number of courses and been Director of Pastoral Theology at an Anglican theological college. His books include Local Theology (SPCK); Blurred Encounters (Aureus); Reconstructing Practical Theology (Ashgate) and Encountering the New Theological Space co-edited with Chris Baker (Ashgate). He is also a visiting scholar at OxCEPT based at Ripon College, Cuddesdon.

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