“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Experiments in Political Theology and Dialogical Blogging

The first clause in the title of this post is the subtitle of Simon Critchley‘s newest book, The Faith of the Faithless (2012). Critchley is a deep ethical thinker who had until a week ago managed to fly under my radar. This isn’t all that surprising, since the admittedly still diffuse research methodology of my dissertation is rather like wandering backwards through an ancient and ever-growing bibliographic labyrinth of academic and para-academic publishing. Every week or so, I trip over one of the books tossed about on the floor, have a look, and discover another author whose thinking seems to be converging with my own. It’s not like these texts are randomly arrayed: I’ve been following a thread that I can see knots together those texts I’ve already read; it’s just that I’ve been walking backwards as I pull it.

Critchley’s book is, as he describes it, an experiment in thinking the strange and scary relationship between politics and religion. It is a relationship, much like that between religion and science, that is fraught with controversy and spilt blood. It has always been this way, and remains so today despite our modern pretensions to enlightenment and rational discourse. Emotional polemic is the name of the game in this arena, the teams neatly divided into the evangelical atheism of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, PZ Myers, and Sam Harris and the fundamentalist theism of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ken Ham. I mostly watch this game play out from the stands, but every once in a while one of my sideline protests is heard and I get drawn into the field of debate (never with any of these individuals themselves, but with their wider community of supporters). I much prefer conversation and dialogue to polemical debate, but it has proved extremely difficult to have a civil or philosophical discussion about the relationship between politics, religion, and science. My forays into PZ Myers‘ blog Pharyngula have, on the face of it, proven completely fruitless, as have attempts to dialogue with Levi Bryant at his blog Larval Subjects. I say “on the face of it” because I remain optimistic about the effects of these conversations on those who may be reading silently in the background. Blogging is a public forum, one of the few remaining political sites for a democratic people to work out their self-authentification and self-governance. The Internet remains a virtual environment, but in our catastrophic epoch of the post-human and post-natural, reality itself is increasingly endangered, making virtuality a necessary haven of withdrawal. Those explicitly involved in these online arguments aren’t necessarily the only significant nodes of mutual influence. It seems to me that most often, it is those remaining silent who are influenced most significantly by the dialectic unfolding on screen. Even if their thoughts remain at the level of pre-discursive feeling and imaginal strain for the time being, the stress of silence acts as an alembic forming truly new thoughts that will no longer be trapped in the tug-of-war of old polemics.

All of us who blog religiously have a mission, that is, a religious mission. We are seeking to instigate political transformation. From Critchley’s perspective, politics may be conceivable without religion, but it will never be practicable. He justifies his claim by looking into the political thought of Rousseau, who “arguably provides the definitive expression of the modern conception of politics” with his 1762 treatise The Social Contract (p. 8). At first glance, Rousseau’s political theory seems to provide

an entirely immanent conception of political legitimacy…an egalitarian conception of association rooted in popular sovereignty (ibid.).

A deeper look at the composition of Rousseau’s Geneva Manuscript (later renamed The Social Contract) reveals that he made a rushed edition to the text just before sending it to the publisher in 1761, “scribbled in an almost indecipherable hand” despite the rest of the manuscript’s perfect penmanship (p. 28). The edition was a chapter titled “On Civil Religion.” Rousseau ends up seeming to contradict his immanentist account of political formation by pointing out the need for what Critchley calls the “fictional force” of a political religion.

Rousseau acknowledges the motivational inadequacy of a purely philosophical account of politics and offers the picture of a political religion…there is a need for fictions other than philosophical in order to unite the general will with the interests to act on that will… (p. 34).

“Philosophy,” in this context, should be understood to mean the rational, dispassionate discourse expected of modern, enlightened individuals. Rousseau recognized that logical argument alone was not sufficient to persuade a people to behave in the interests of the common good. Something else was required to overcome individual alienation, something like faith. The faith of a political religion is not about blind belief in the externally imposed doctrines of a priesthood, but rather concerns remaining open to the possibility of “a transformation [in our own] manner of existence,” or what Rousseau referred to as a “change of [our] nature” (p. 39). Critchley describes the transformation brought on by the enactment of faith as one of mystical love, an “act of spiritual daring that attempts to eviscerate the old self in order that something new might come into being” (p. 20).

Rousseau’s “social contract” is a very strange kind of contract, since unlike every other kind of contract, the freely acting independent parties involved don’t even exist until after the agreement. Prior to the contract, the freedom required to justify its legal authority has not yet been created. The contract, at the time of its formation, is essentially a fiction. It is a fiction that the subsequently formed free individuals must conspire together in an act of mutual faith and trust in order to realize. This mutual act of faith–the”rare but ever-potential force…to give oneself in an act of association with others”–is the basis of any civil religion and so self-governing society. It follows that the primary purpose of engaging in political activity is not to persuade people, but to form a people in the first place. The formation of a people depends upon an experience of mystical love, an experience that begins as a fictional force but ends in a new communal reality.

Critchley’s is a civic faith without religious creed, based not on

the abstraction of a metaphysical belief in God, but rather [on] the lived subjective commitment to an infinite demand…a declarative act…an enactment of the self…a performative that proclaims itself into existence in a situation of crisis where what is called for is decisive political intervention (p. 13).

Critchley’s “infinite demand” emerges out of his study off Levinas’ ethics of otherness. Rather than the individualistic ethos of liberal modernity, Critchley’s ethical theory is rooted in what he calls “dividualism,” the existential process whereby

the self shapes itself in relation to the experience of an overwhelming, infinite demand that divides it from itself–the sort of demand that Christ made in the Sermon on the Mount when he said: ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you’ (Matt. 5:44) (p. 6-7).

Critchley’s experiments in political theology draw upon a rich history of radical mystics and religious revolutionaries, but he begins the book by unpacking what he calls “Wilde Christianity,” the faithless faith articulated by Oscar Wilde while in prison for two years (~1895-97). Wilde could not bring himself to believe in any church religion, but the symbol of Christ nonetheless remained compelling to him. Critchley reads Wilde’s imaginative engagement with the figure of Christ as a kind of “soul-smithing,” where through the fires of sin and suffering, one forges a new identity. We are to imitate Christ’s ultimate creative and artistic act: “the incarnation of the inwardness of suffering in outward form” (p. 5).

“To the artist,” writes Wilde,

expression is the only mode under which he can conceive life at all. To him what is dumb is dead. But to Christ it was not so. With a width and wonder of imagination that fills one almost with awe, he took the entire world of the inarticulate, the voiceless world of pain, as his kingdom, and made of himself its external mouthpiece (quoted by Critchley, p. 5).

Politics, then, is as much a religious as an artistic endeavor. Religious in that it requires an act of self-giving akin to faith, or mystical love; artistic in that, as Wilde put it, “its symbols must be of my own creating” (p. 4), smithed in the caldron of my own soul rather than received externally.

Critchley continues:

Christ is the incarnation of love as an act of imagination, not reason, the imaginative projection of compassion onto all creatures (p. 5).

A political religion is a religion based on the fictive force of love. Love, whatever its potential power, is hard to come by in this world. It is indeed mostly a fiction. But on those rare occasions when authentic political activity is allowed to emerge, it can only be the result of this fiction becoming a reality.

I’ll have more to say about Critchley’s experiments in political theology in subsequent posts. I found it a happy coincidence that he was brought to my attention just before Bryant’s inflammatory response to me regarding the role of religiosity in public life. I didn’t recognize myself in his “response to a new age nut,” nor do I think I’ve mischaracterized his Lacanian-Marxist perspective on religion and politics. I am not sure what exactly threw him into such a rage… maybe if I were more studied in Lacan, I’d be able to offer a psychoanalytic explanation. But I’m not. When I look at how religion has actually functioned in the world, I see a far more complex picture than Bryant does. I agree with a commenter at Larval Subjects that the detestable violence and oppression of the past cannot so easily be pinned on “religion,” since in that case we may as well blame “science” for the horrors of the 20th century industrialization of war. Yes, some religious institutions have and continue to violently oppress people, but perhaps this has more to do with the symptomatic evils of institutionalization itself than it does with something intrinsic to religious faith. But rather than trying to directly respond to Bryant, which seems pointless, I thought further fleshing out where I am coming from would be most productive. That’s what I’ve attempted to do here.

*[Update]*: Bryant just posted a response to another commenter that further clarifies his own position:

My criticism of your claims is not that beliefs, behaviors, and attitudes are irrelevant, but that you’re working at the wrong level of analysis and are not discerning the nature of the system at issue and why it functions as it does. I think this poor analysis arises directly from your background in phenomenology and Kierkegaard that emphasizes the subject and belief and that is therefore blind to large scale systems and how they function. It’s also noteworthy that all the things you suggest can be changed in these systems (hearts and beliefs) ***and*** the system can still function exactly as it did before. Why? Because hearts and beliefs weren’t the cause of this functioning in the first place.

Bryant has a point, of course. My own desire to experiment with political theology is not the result of being blind to this sort of Marxist analysis. It emerges because, after the revolution, I don’t think it will be possible to re-construct a people or a world for them to live in out of the ashes of neo-liberal capitalism without engaging with what have traditionally been religious issues. Yes, capitalism is largely a structural issue and it must be dismantled on that level. But if we succeed in dismantling it, there remains the project of composing a public, what Critchley calls a “work of collective self-creation where I am the smithy of my own soul and where we must all become soul-smiths” (p. 4).

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19 responses to “Experiments in Political Theology and Dialogical Blogging”

  1. Levi Avatar

    The point is very simple. When you acknowledge how religion is functioning on behalf of oppressive power throughout the world today and how it has functioned on behalf of such power throughout history, then a discussion is possible. This is the first and most basic thing that needs to be seriously addressed. The second thing that needs to be addressed is how you intend to move beyond that and provide an alternative. In our current historical moment, religion has been predominantly opposed to emancipation, not the reverse. It has provided rationales for capitalism, assaulted women and GLBT, attacked science (as you like to do), and played a key role in climate change denialism. I think Critchley is just deeply deluded.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I agree that religious institutions have so functioned in the past, and that many still function so in the present. I would add that many supposedly secular and even scientific institutions also have and do function to support oppressive power structures. I would argue that the problem is not with religiosity per say, but with how institutions themselves are prone to abstract self-justifications and power grabs, making them blind to concrete human suffering. In attempting to provide alternatives to neo-liberal capitalism and techno-industrialism, I draw upon the example of the many politically radical religious prophets, mystics, and activists who litter the history books and continue to fight intolerance and oppression today. Often, they don’t belong to institutions or have been excommunicated, though they still make use of religious symbolism. It seems to me that your out of hand rejection of religiosity is based on something other than an impartial look at its social and political effects, which are not at all as one sided as you claim.





      1. Levi Avatar


        This is a red herring. Nothing I’ve suggested denies that there have been abuses by scientific institutions. This isn’t a “religion vs science debate”. The point is that the history of religious institutions has been bloody, violent, and oppressive, and continues to he throughout the world today. Just look, for example, what’s going on in Pakistan and India right now. I’m well aware of the alternative forms of religiosity you cite in your links. I’m glad they exist! However, the fact of the matter– and it is a fact –is that these traditions have never been dominant. The dominant traditions have endlessly been associated with apologia for state power, oppression, and violence.

        It’s all well and good to talk about *ideal religion* (“but Jesus says this! Isn’t that wonderful!”). It is wonderful, but it’s beside the poi t. You have to look at how these *institutions* actually function and what they *really* do in the world. That’s what you’re not addressing and is what you’re ignoring, and that’s what makes your apologia so problematic. You spend a lot of time attacking materialism and mechanism (equating the former with the latter in a series of straw men), when the far greater brutality and horror arises in your own back yard. Your defense of religion could be taken far more seriously if you were spending your time fighting that brutality and horror, but instead you choose to defend it saying “it’s not really that, no this horror is motivated by something else outside of religion!” For those who are real victims of these horrors and this brutality, it’s not difficult to see why apologies such as yours generate such disdain. You’re thoroughly dismissing the wrongs they suffer and continue to suffer.

        Am I saying religion is the only evil in the world? Of course not! There are state horrors, the horrors of capitalism, secular borrow such as Stalinism, abuses by eugenics, etc. It is true, however, that religion is today one of the central pillars of the ideological state apparatus and predominantly functions to prevent addressing many of these other issues.

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Part of what I am hoping to participate in is the replacement of the oppressive forms of religiosity with the liberating forms. I do recognize the historical and ongoing oppression you speak of. I just don’t blame this oppression on faith. I don’t think there is an alternative to religion for human beings. We’ve never been secular, never been modern. Modern forms of political organization are just secularized theologies. From my perspective, oppressive power structures that use religious dogma as a cover can only be critiqued from within the sphere of religion itself. There is no neutral ground to stand on from which a critique of religion would be possible. I think talking about the possibilities of ideal religion are extremely important, no less important than talking about the ideal possibilities of political revolution.

      3. thodgman Avatar

        I have a few questions about the concepts you’re using and the way you’re using them. If you’ve written about these issues at length elsewhere, feel free to just link me to them.

        I suppose I find the claim that there isn’t an alternative to religion a little troubling, as an agnostic interested in spiritual practice. I tend to distinguish spirituality from theology and see both as elements of religion. I understand religion most simply as believing in God, and see spirituality and theology as elements of religion but not only found within it. My understanding of the spirituality and theology comes primarily from Foucault’s “Hermeneutics of the Subject,” which defines spirituality as:

        Spirituality postulates that the truth is never given to the subject by
        right. Spirituality postulates that the subject as such does not have right
        of access to the truth and is not capable of having access to the truth. It
        postulates that the truth is not given to the subject by a simple act of
        knowledge (connaissance}, which would be founded and justified simply
        by the fact that he is the subject and because he possesses this or that
        structure of subjectivity. It postulates that for the subject to have right of
        access to the truth he must be changed, transformed, shifted, and become,
        to some extent and up to a certain point, other than himself. The truth
        is only given to the subject at a price that brings the subject’s being into

        He then later defines theology as:

        This theology, by claiming, on the basis of Christianity of course, to be rational reflection founding a faith with a universal vocation, founded at the
        same time the principle of a knowing subject in general, of a knowing
        subject who finds both his point of absolute fulfillment and highest
        degree of perfection in God, who is also his Creator and so his model.
        The correspondence between an omniscient God and subjects capable of
        knowledge, conditional on faith of course, is undoubtedly one of the
        mam elements that led Western thought—or its principal forms of
        reflection—and philosophical thought in particular, to extricate itself, to
        free itself, and separate itself from the conditions of spirituality that had
        previously accompanied it and for which the epimeleia heautou was the most general expression.

        Do you mean that atheism isn’t really possible, that secular societies aren’t possible, or that belief is unavoidable? And how do you understand the concepts religion, spirituality, and theology?

      4. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Atheism is a negative descriptor, so it doesn’t tell us much. What I’m suggesting is that atheists are still religious in a different sense. To the extent that they are citizens of a republic, they participate in a civic religion. To the extent that they (consciously or not) buy into the myth of progress and the perfection of the human through science and technology that came along with the Enlightenment, they are still orienting themselves to social reality in a broadly religious way. His Nazism aside, I agree with Carl Schmitt when he writes that “all significant concepts in the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” Or as Critchley summarizes this point, “secularism, which denies the truth of religion, is a religious myth.” I’ve argued with Bryant in the past about the role of myth in human societies, which may make my position more clear: https://footnotes2plato.com/2011/11/08/what-is-enlightenment-a-response-to-levi-bryant/

        My take on the concepts of religion, spirituality, and theology might be cleared up for you in this post (as well as in the related posts linked at the bottom of this page): https://footnotes2plato.com/2012/02/07/religion-and-philosophy-thinking-feeling-and-willing-the-absolute/

  2. franiel32 Avatar

    I’m looking this sereies on political theology. Got to start reading some more Critchley. Need to read more Levinas as well.

    1. franiel32 Avatar

      Sorry, “liking this series”.

  3. mary Avatar

    The gap between the individual and the large scale systems does indeed narrow significantly with the praxis of living an ethical analysis of the powers and the intentions of those powers, whether they be religious institutions or secular; one could get into an endless regress of whose atrocities trump whose, which deteriorates any philosophical exchange. Just as Levi is outraged at the long history of the injustices in the name of God, I tend to mourn, sometimes in the angry phase of mourning, for the world, over all sorts of ethically primitive scenarios….it has long since ceased to make any difference what banner flies above these deeds…. it could be any horror at all, any thing from the idolatry of the sciences that has led to Fukushima, or the idolatry of holy logos texts that leads to a retro justification of apocalyptic thinking. Levi may not appreciate my seeing in him the same outrage that impelled Christ to drive the money changers out of the temple. I would like the philosophers to drive the military out of research in a like manner:

    Please note that they think it a successful experiment that one could recognize targets faster with a bit of brain stimulation. …At first I thought of the Stanley Milgram experiment: I truly expected the test subject (human being) to hesitate and question the ethics of becoming skilled at accelerated killing (human beings), but it never happened. Yet the test was a success. The funny efficient cap worked.

    I am just as befuddled when I hear my Baptist neighbors resent the impoverished, and attend neighborhood development meetings out of fear of Section 8 housing, or a halfway house for the disabled. I say I thought Jesus said …”give him your cloak also….”
    Ah, Critchley’s infinite demand…. There is no place to hide, no refuge in abstraction masquerading as the tepid affection for wisdom,… the lesser initiation, the hegelian floating schema. It will have to be the ever present attention to a living truth. I would want a Levi watching my back; the universal vigilance that would speak up, not unlike Daniel Berrigan did when he stood with new age hippies protesting the war in Vietnam:


    And Chris Hedges’ article about him:

    Chris Hedges is competent at all levels of analysis, and yet he comprehends that hearts and beliefs do indeed have a causal role in the health or toxicity of the momentum of institutions and communities.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for your cogent thoughts, Mary. I’m reminded of Cornel West’s comment when he shared the stage with Critchley about the difference between Socrates and Jesus: Socrates the philosopher loved wisdom, while Jesus the Christ loved people.

  4. Levi Avatar


    Responding to your most recent comment to me, I think the issue is extremely complicated. First, a point of agreement: I share your view that religion is not defined by the *content* of a position. I approach religion in *structural* terms. This means that I attend to the relations between elements in understanding religion, not the content. It is a particular structure– transcendence/sovereignty –that is at issue for me. I have an article coming out on this in the next issue of Speculations, as well as a collection coming out with U of Minn. Understood structurally, it is not whether someone that believes in God or the supernatural that constitutes a structure of sovereignty, but rather whether a structure is based on a transcendent term that functions as an exception to the immanent order. In this regard, Stalinism, social orders organized around a charismatic leader, nationalisms, ethnocentrisms, as well as theistic religions like Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, all share the same structure. They are structurally isomorphic forms of sovereignty. They are all forms of patriarchy. My thesis is that these structures ineluctably and necessarily lead to violence for structural reasons. The violence and oppression of these systems is not an *accident*, it is not a glitch, but a *feature*. I cannot outline why this is so here, but have done so elsewhere.

    Where do I disagree? I disagree with your thesis that these structures are ineluctable for human beings or that there is no alternative. There are, for example, social structures based not on patriarchy or the transcendence of a sovereign, but based on immanence without transcendent term. There is the possibility of anarchical social orders. The proper distinguishing difference is not “religion/secular”, nor “faith/atheism”, but rather “transcendence/immanence”, “sovereignty/anarchy”. The issue isn’t one of belief in the divine or supernatural, but of a particular kind of social structure and structure of thought. Notice, for example, that many of the pagan religions fall on the immance-anarchy side of these divisions, despite believing in the divine and supernatural. There are even *versions* of Christianity that fit the immanence-anarchy model: those versions that hold that 1) Christ was *just* a man like Buddha, 2) that God literally died on the cross and *was not resurrected*, 3) that Christ taught us that the patriarchal God is dead, and 4) that “the holy spirit” is *nothing but* a poetic way of expressing an anarchical community based on love, not love (communism).

    If, in this discussion, there has been particular focus on religion, then this is because today, in the United States, Christianity is the dominant form of the logic of transcendence/sovereignty. It is what dominates in our historical moment and is therefore a particularly potent site of engagement.

    There are also empirical reasons for doubting your claims about the ineluctability of religion. Throughout many parts of Europe, for example, belief has dropped precipitously, such that believers are a small minority. There we have not the sort of callous disregard that folks like Tim suggest are the outcome of the absence of religion, but quite the reverse. You might wish to suggest that these people just follow a secular religion, yet it’s difficult to see how you’re not just bending terms for the convenience of your own position.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar


      I reject the transcendence/immanence dichotomy. I think there are other ways of thinking about the relationship that you’ve left unexplored. We’ve hit on this issue in our past discussions about Whitehead’s divine function. His theology doesn’t seem to me to fall victim to your critique of transcendence, since God is as dependent on the world as the world is on God. The tension between transcendence and immanence, or eternity and time, is what allows novelty to emerge in the world-process. This tension is what keeps the mystery of existence withdrawing from all attempts at essentialism or totalization. We can intuit the Whole, but as an infinite Whole, it escapes all attempts at totalization.

      There is a form of faith that can destroy the autonomous, self-interested ego in order to make room for a love that transcends my own individual interests. I grant your ethnographic analysis of the way religion has functioned in the past and is functioning today as a means of oppression. But I think the most effective way to upset these oppressive structures is by radicalizing and re-vitalizing the core message of these religions themselves. Those supporters of capitalism who call themselves Christians need more Jesus, not less. It just seems more practical to me to work within the frame of reference that they understand, especially considering the revolutionary potential of the message of figures like Jesus, Paul, and others within the tradition. The challenge is to overcome the worship of these figures as more than human. Don’t praise Jesus, become like Jesus.

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  6. larvalsubjects Avatar


    I think we’d really just have to see how a Whiteheadian religion would work in practice to know what sort of formations it gives rise to. I seldom find theologies to be the problem as they tend to be fairly divorced from living religion. Most of the theologians I meet are good folks who have beliefs that I have little objection to. It’s the living practices that are at issue. Nor, as I tried to make clear in my post, do I see this as simply an issue of religion. It’s an ineluctable result of any structure organized around a transcendent, exceptional instance. This has been exceptionally well documented by both history and in the social sciences. The greater the push towards identity and the stronger the identification with a master-term or signifier, the more antagonistic relations emerge and the more there is the production of a sacrificial other requiring elimination.

    The question is therefore how to get around this problem. Or, at least, that’s the problem for me. We need to form collectives. Collectives require a name. Yet the moment we formulate a name, we create a logic of inside/outside. Since every logic of the inside/outside leads to an undecidability as to inside and outside because the boundary defining inside and outside belongs to both inside and outside, every group identity necessarily experiences itself as threatened and casts about for an enemy or outsider to name that threat. The tragic paradox of this situation is that it’s not an outsider that threatens the identity, but the very logic of boundaries that threatens the system. The more we try to be identical to ourselves, our movement, our group, etc., the more we will experience ourselves as persecuted from the outside, precisely because every identity is necessarily beset by this undecidable boundary logic. The question is that of how to overcome this, and whether we can at all. I’ll try to write more on this.

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  9. […] what I think I believe. Writing, in any form, is meditative for me. I also try to keep in mind what Matthew Segall has pointed out in regard to blogging and online […]

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