Blog post

The Faith of the Faithless and Political Activism

Michael Bacal 7 February 2012

With the publication of Simon Critchley's Faith of the Faithless, the journal Political Theology has provided readers an excerpt from the book's introduction on its blog, and is planning on hosting a series of longer responses to it in the coming weeks. 

In Critchley's introduction, you can find the conceptual foundations of the book's larger argument and its clearest elucidation of its titular trope, "the faith of the faithless." Together, these set the groundwork for the book's striking "experiments" in political theology and inform its bracing readings of Rousseau, Heidegger, St. Paul and Agamben. As the book's opening salvo, it also explicitly delineates the political dimensions of religious belief and theology today, and suggests how they may be properly thought in relation to the eventual possibilities for self-realization and the formation of collective bonds of identity organized around "infinitely demanding" ethical and political responsibilities and action.

For instance, in the introduction, he writes,

The political question-which will be my constant concern in the experiments that follow-is how such a faith of the faithless might be able to bind together a confraternity, a consorority or, to use Rousseau's key term, an association. If political life is to arrest a slide into demotivated cynicism, then it would seem to require a motivating and authorizing faith which, while not reducible to a specific context, might be capable of forming solidarity in a locality, a site, a region-in Wilde's case a prison cell. This faith of the faithless cannot have for its object anything external to the self or subject, any external, divine command, any transcendent reality. As Wilde says: "But whether it be faith or agnosticism, it must be nothing external to me. Its symbols must be of my own creating."

Giving a powerful illustration of the kind of concrete political practicability that Critchley's seemingly abstract philosophical "experiments" can have in real life,
Bill Rose Thorn has written a lengthy reflection on how Critchley's work has allowed him to usefully re-think traditional notions of political activism and resistance in his involvement with Occupy Oakland.

Drawing on Critchley, he notes:

When Critchley writes "for me, politics is all about the movement between no power and state power and it takes place through the creation of what I call ‘interstitial distance' within the state", I see the same kind of politics arising from the Occupy movement. Remaining within the state and even the city, these protests break away from politics-as-usual in style and substance (collective decisions and community forging) refusing to play by the state's rules but refusing to leave it either. This sets up a site of confrontation between the powerful representatives of the people (who coordinate with predators) and the people themselves (the prey). The confrontation will yield battles (in the street, the press), the outcome of which remains to be seen. The force of these communes are weak compared to the multiple weapons of the state, but all genuinely new ideas and bodies of political significance start small, gaining momentum through the righteous energy of the ethical call.

Visit Bill Rose Thorn to read his essay in full, and be sure to check out Political Theology for the excerpt and for the coming responses to it in the future.