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The Poison and the Cure – Experiments in Political Theology: Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless
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Simon Critchley’s The Faith of the Faithless makes an important contribution to current debates on the increasing presence of religion in political theory and practice. This is a timely subject if ever there was one. The return of religion in politics has become one of the most hotly debated topics in contemporary theory over the past few years. Recent publications such as Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundation of Universalism (1997), Jacob Taubes’ The Political Theology of Paul (2004), Giorgio Agamben’s The Time that Remains (2005), John Gray’s Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia (2007), Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution (2009), Slavoj Žižek’s Living in the End Times (2010) and numerous writings on the political theology of Carl Schmitt by the likes of Agamben, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe are just some noteworthy studies in this area. Critchley adds doubly to this growing body of work. On the one hand, he offers a superb set of synthetic readings of developments in theologico-political theory and numerous insights into intrications of religion and politics from the medieval period to the present. This is the diagnostic aspect of Critchley’s study, which is timely and compelling. On the other hand, Critchley takes a strong, if not altogether convincing, position on the importance of theologizing politics in order to motivate the faithless nihilists of the world. This is the normative side of the book, which seems at times to run counter to the incisive diagnosis Critchley proposes in the analytical portions of his study. These two strands – a critical analysis of the role of religion in political theory and practice, and an attempt to theologize politics – are intertwined throughout Critchley’s book. For heuristic purposes, I propose to examine the work first as a critical commentary on the raging politico-theological debate, then as a position piece that situates itself within it.

Critchley’s book is divided into four main chapters. The first one, entitled “The Catechism of the Citizen” after an expression used by J.-J. Rousseau in a letter to Voltaire, takes as its point of departure Rousseau’s “On Civil Religion,” a chapter scribbled in a nearly illegible hand at the end of an otherwise clearly penned manuscript draft of The Social Contract. Critchley argues that this chapter on civil religion, appended seemingly as an afterthought to The Social Contract, contains the impossible solution to the political problem Rousseau was trying to solve in his book. This double affirmation – that a tagged-on treatise on religion offers the solution to Rousseau’s political problem, and that this solution is impossible within Rousseau’s system – marks the first in a series of décalages, displacements or disjunctions, in Rousseau’s text that Critchley painstakingly maps out. The idea that Rousseau’s text is a machine à décalage comes from Louis Althusser, to whom Critchley refers throughout his chapter. But the décalages Critchley focuses on are different than the one that most concerns Althusser. For Althusser, the primary internal contradiction that both structures and undermines Rousseau’s system entails his failure to think through “the real,” by which Althusser, the last in a long tradition of French Marxist theorists, means the dialectical relationship between the forces of production and the relations of production. For Critchley, by contrast, the slippages that render Rousseau’s system both possible and impossible, and which he finds directly relevant to thinking through our current conjuncture, pertain to intrications of religion, politics and law.

Critchley patiently teases out these décalages in Rousseau’s political system through detailed analyses of key passages in both the manuscript version and the published version of The Social Contract. I will briefly highlight two of the most important dislocations Critchley brings to light. The first occurs within Rousseau’s concept of sovereignty. Although Rousseau proposes an immanent conception of political legitimacy based on popular sovereignty and the general will, he also maintains that a transcendent presence is required to legitimize the laws that the polity creates. The self-authorized law needs to appeal to an external authority, embodied by the fictional figure of the “legislator,” who stands outside of the...

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