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).

Related articles