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A bibliography for The Faith of the Faithless

A bibliography for The Faith of the Faithless

The Faith of the Faithless is a series of experiments in political theology that tries to think through the dangerous intrication between politics, religion and violence that defines our so-called secular age and - without embracing any theism - find a meaning to the idea of faith, a belief for unbelievers like me. It’s a laugh a minute, I promise you.

Mark Thwaite bemoaned the absence of a bibliography in the book. This was intentional as I didn’t want to expose my chronic lack of reading. However, in an effort provide some clues for those curious to follow the book’s byways, there follows a Faith of the Faithless top ten. The book consists of four long essays, framed by two parables: the first on Oscar Wilde, the second on Kierkegaard.

1. Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

This is Wilde’s sole text written in captivity in Reading Gaol. It is a stunning text for many reasons, but what took my breath away, and provided the idea for my book was the following quotation:

When I think of religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine. Everything to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.

It is the phrase, ‘Everything to be true must become a religion’ that is most striking. What might ‘true’ mean? Wilde is clearly not alluding to the logical truth of propositions or the empirical truths of natural science. I think that he is using ‘true’ in a manner close to its root meaning of ‘being true to’, namely an act of fidelity that is kept alive in the German treu: loyal or faithful. This is perhaps in Jesus’ phrase when he said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’.(John 14:6) Religious truth is like troth, the experience of fidelity where one is affianced and then betrothed. What is true, then, is an experience of faith, and this is as true for agnostics and atheists as it is for theists. Those who cannot believe still require religious truth and a framework of ritual in which they can believe. At the core of Wilde’s remark is the seemingly contradictory idea of the faith of the faithless and the belief of unbelievers, a faith which does not give up on the idea of truth, but transfigures its meaning.

2. Soren Kierkegaard, Works of Love

On my reading, what is being called for by Kierkegaard is a rigorous and activist conception of faith that proclaims itself into being at each instant without guarantee or security, and which abides with the infinite demand of love, the rigor of love. Faith is the enactment of the self in relation to a demand that exceeds my power, both in relation to what Heidegger would call my factical thrownness in the world and the projective movement of freedom achieved as responsibility. Faith is not a like-for-like relationship of equals, but the asymmetry of the like-to-unlike. This is what I try to describe in The Faith of the Faithless as a subjective strength that only finds its power to act through an admission of weakness: the powerless power of conscience. Conscience is the inward ear that listens for the repetition of the infinite demand. Its call is not heard in passive resignation from the world, but in the urgency of active engagement. It has been my contention in this book that such an experience of faith is not only shared by those who are faithless from a creedal or denominational perspective, but can be experienced by them in an exemplary manner. Like the Roman centurion of whom Kierkegaard writes, it is perhaps the faithless who can best sustain the rigor of faith without requiring security, guarantees and rewards: ‘Be it done for you, as you believed’.

3. Rousseau, The Social Contract

I must be briefer in this top ten countdown. The first 100 pages of The Faith of the Faithless are devoted to Rousseau. There is just too much to say here, but my aim is to free Jean-Jacques from the prison of both liberal and totalitarian misunderstandings of his work. For me, Rousseau is the most important leftist thinker in the modern period and a much more consequent political thinker than Marx. His formula for egalitarian politics is very simple: association without representation.

4. Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millenium

God, this 1957 book is a real page-turner. I was turned on to it by John Gray years back. As perverse thanks, I give Gray a hard time in the book, though I have learned much from his work. Cohn plots Millenarian political theology in Northern Europe in the middle ages, but the book is really a critique of various forms of political apocalypticism, which still show no signs of dying away. It was through Cohn that I discovered the so-called Heresy of the Free Spirit and the next book.

5. Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple and Annihilated Souls

Porete was burnt at the stake for heresy in 1310. The heresy is simple: she argued that human beings could overcome the condition of original sin and unify with God. This led to forms of itinerant communist insurgency across Europe that was violently suppressed by the Catholic Church.

6. Reiner Schürmann, Meister Eckhart

My reading of Porete, with the help of amazing scholars like Amy Hollywood, renewed my old interest in mysticism, particularly Eckhart, who I read as an undergraduate at Essex and fell in love with. Eckhart’s most brilliant and heretical writings are his German sermons and Schürmann’s presentation of them is unsurpassed. When I turned up in New York in 2004, I was given Reiner’s old office, which still had his name on the door. I found this very intimidating.

7. Adolph Harnack, History of Dogma

True story: with the help of Lars Iyer’s ‘W’, I liberated seven volumes of Harnack definitive account of the history of Christian dogma from the University of Essex library in 1983. I read them all. Nearly 30 years later, I found a great use for it in my account of Pauline theology in The Faith of the Faithless.

8. Adolph Harnack, Marcion: Gospel of the Alien God

Yes, the king of liberal, protestant, Wilhelmite political theology has two items in my top ten. Harnack spent his entire life working on this book and only published it in 1925, I think. Along with Hans Jonas’s The Gnostic Religion, it is the major source on how the Gnostic heresy took shape after Paul in Marcion, who saw himself as Paul’s true apostle. Basically, although I can’t go into it here, the solution to the Christian problem of reconciling the orders of creation and redemption is the postulation of two divine sources: a true God, revealed through Christ, and a false God of this world. Ontological dualism. In other words, this world is Krapp and salvation lies with an alien God, which is an intuition I am now using to read Philip K. Dick in a long piece that will come out in a month or so in The New York Times.

9. Heidegger, The Phenomenology of Religious Life

Everything that valuable in the existential analytic of Dasein in Being and Time is contained in Heidegger’s lectures on Paul and Augustine from the early 1920s. We are spared the transcendentalizing agonies of Kantianism and the oddities of Heidegger’s Aristotelian reading of Husserl and go to the beating heart of Heidegger’s project: the existential enactment of life in relation to a calling over against a facticity in and for a community of waiting, a Messianic community.

10. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics

Although I have run out of space, let me say that the last part of The Faith of the Faithless is concerned with the relation between an ethics of nonviolence and a politics of violence. Bonhoeffer is exemplary of the argument I try to make. I am thinking in particular of the way he was eventually driven to drop the pacifism he adopted in the 1930s and participate in the attempted tyrannicide of Hitler and failed coup d’état against the National Socialist regime that led to his brutal execution shortly before the end of the Second World War in 1945. Bonhoeffer’s ethics does not rest on absolute, law-like principles, but on a freely assumed responsibility that, in extreme situations and as a last resort, is willing to act violently. The extreme necessities of a critical situation, Bonhoeffer writes, ‘appeal directly to the free responsibility of the one who acts, a responsibility not bound by any law’. But such a conception of ethical action would not lead to the sort of celebration of violence endemic to fascism, National Socialism, but an infinite responsibility for violence that, in exceptional circumstances, might lead us to break the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’. Responsible action involves what Bonhoeffer calls a ‘willingness to become guilty’ (‘Bereitschaft zur Schuldübernahme’): this is the price one pays for freedom. Would such a strategy of resistance have been successful? In Bonhoeffer’s case, we know that the attempted tyrannicide failed. But the point here is that I am not preaching nonviolence in all political cases, and no more am I arguing for some easy ‘clean hands’ retreat from the state, as Zizek contends. On the contrary.

-- Simon Critchley (30/03/2012)

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