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Paul, but without Paul’s God

21 May 2012

Andrew Davison on a project the reverse of Bonhoeffer’s

The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in political theology
Simon Critchley

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SIMON CRITCHLEY begins with Oscar Wilde and the call for faith with no God to believe in: “Every­thing to be true must become a religion.” With others on the Left, Critchley agrees. They have ceded religion to the Right, and must recover it. His proposal wrests the practices of faith from the hands of believers; it also wrests the atheist agenda from the hands of the New Atheists, whose “triumphalism” Critchley considers to be based on ignorance.

The practical need for such an agenda is laid out in the second chapter. Rousseau features promin­ently, with his sense that there can be little popular legitimacy for politics without something like religion, and the visceral engage­ment that it fosters. Throughout the book, there is something of the French Revolution to Critchley’s proposal for a non-theistic religion.

The third chapter, on “mystical anarchism”, takes its lead from the grandfather of political theology, Carl Schmitt. We see here why Critchley wants to stir things up theologically. The sort of liberal capitalist settlement he deplores is based on a theology: it relies on a god no more disruptive than that of deism. Schmitt, in contrast, gives us the idea of “the exception”, a move as politically dangerous for liberal­ism as is a miracle for deism. The rest of this chapter, on the political consequences of radical mysticism, is insightful but rather weakly tied to the rest of the argu­ment.

St Paul is the subject of the next chapter. The return to Paul among Continental political theorists is the most spectacular recent repristina­tion of theology among secular thinkers. This should give Christians only limited comfort. Attention to Paul is not an endorsement of the theological consensus, but a call for reformation (as so often with returns to Paul). Critchley offers perspectives that will interest any­one concerned with the apostle, not least preachers. Particularly striking is the association of Paul with the wretched of the earth, and the observation that a position on Paul always requires a subsequent position for or against Marcion and his cessationist heresy.

The last full chapter concerns Žižek and how to resist violence. It is one more slug in a protracted argument between Critchley and the Slovenian philosopher. The question is whether it is legitimate to resist an immovable injustice when there is little hope of success, or whether that constitutes a form of co-operation, in face of which inaction is less of a betrayal. Žižek favours passivity. Critchley is all for action, meaning that the paradox of a violent non-violence presents itself.

As a communitarian, Critchley recognises that religion is what (in its very etymology) binds us to­gether. He therefore proposes not Bonhoeffer’s “God without religion”, but “religion without God”.

Critchley’s assessment that politics and political theory need to engage the loves of the heart as well as the ideas of the mind is clearly correct. His account of faith, how­ever, offers as many perplexities as insights. Crucially, he recognises that faith is trust: an oath or pledge. But for Paul — on whom he com­ments so perceptively — it is faith in Christ. In this book, however, the figure of Christ is eclipsed: Christ who inspires so much active building of community, i.e. politics.

For Critchley, the message of Christ can be summarised as an “infinite ethical demand” that is beyond fulfilment: “ethics is all about the experience of failure.” Christ is both a great deal more religious than this, and a great deal more practical. His ethical demand is devastatingly possible: it is the command to wash feet. And behind those demands is the love of his Father. We find guilt in this book, and a great deal of duty, but — painfully — there is no source of mercy.

The Revd Dr Andrew Davison is Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge.

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