Pen­e­trat­ing philoso­pher loves a para­dox

The Faith of the Faith­less: Ex­per­i­ments in Po­lit­i­cal The­ol­ogy

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Cos­tica Bra­datan

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

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