Penetrating philosopher loves a paradox
The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology
By Simon Critchley Verso, 302pp, $34.95
ENGLISH philosopher Simon Critchley is not easy to pin down. His manner of philosophising, his writing style, his favourite topics, as well as the historical figures with whom he chooses to converse, defy all the usual conventions and convenient labels.
In a field that excels in linguistic obscurity and tortuous terminology, Critchley uses clear, penetrating prose. Going against publishing wisdom, he writes a book on death and it becomes a bestseller ( The Book of Dead Philosophers, 2009).
While most mainstream philosophers dismiss literature, Critchley feeds on Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Wallace Stevens. He is rigorous but values imagination; he raises issues of uttermost seriousness abounds in his work.
All this makes Critchley an unclassifiable philosopher — and one who as a result is all the more refreshing to read. His latest book, The Faith of the Faithless, fits this portrait to the last detail. In it he goes head-on against a number of assumptions prevalent in today’s philosophical culture.
First, methodologically, Critchley seems to think that, irrespective of whether a philosopher believes in God, an engagement with religious vocabulary, texts and traditions is crucial if philosophy is still to address, in any meaningful way, the ‘‘ big questions’’. The chapter in this book where he engages with St Paul is an excellent illustration.
Critchley writes: ‘‘ Thinkers whose company I have long valued, like Augustine and Pascal, raise exactly the right questions, even if I cannot accept their answers.’’ Such an engagement can only make philosophy a more meaningful intellectual exercise.
Philosophers may be forgiven if they challenge religion, even rebel against it; what
yet humour is unforgivable is to ignore it. The punishment, which always takes place in this world, is a philosophising that suffers from shallowness and, ultimately, irrelevance.
With this kind of methodological equipment, Critchley approaches the main subject of his book: the nature of faith. Ordinarily faith belongs to the religious vocabulary, but Critchley’s ambition is to offer a phenomenology of faith outside the religious context. Further still, he is fascinated with the faith of those without faith.
The question around which this book revolves is straightforward: ‘‘ What kind of thing is faith and can someone who is nominally or denominationally faithless, such as myself, still have an experience of faith?’’
To find an answer to this question, Critchley takes a long, slow detour through texts by St Paul, Oscar Wilde, Rousseau, Lenin, Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Heidegger, Slavoj Zizek and others. It’s a journey worth taking with him.
Critchley learns faith is constitutive to any human effort to live together and exist as a