Monday, November 4, 2013

Critchley's Atheistic Faith & Mystical Anarchism

The English philosopher Simon Critchley is chair of philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York, and author of many books, including his latest (and the topic of this post), The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology. He works within the continental tradition primarily on ethics, political theory, and religion. He also moderates for and contributes to The Stone, a weekly New York Times opinion series by thinkers on a wide range of issues, including art, ethics, and popular culture.

Although an atheist, Critchley joins other leftist philosophers like Zizek in utilizing theology to enliven anti-capitalist projects while deeply criticizing the evangelical atheism of Dawkins. For Critchley, Christianity “offers a powerful way of articulating questions of the ultimate meaning and value in human life in ways irreducible to naturalism, ” even if he cannot accept its answers. He starts from the perspective that “philosophy begins in disappointment”, both religious and political disappointment. The former raises the problem of meaning and the threat of nihilism, while the latter raises questions about justice and the need for coherent ethics.

Simon Critchley
Positioning his argument in our context of ongoing religious violence that shapes global politics, Critchley asserts that effective politics today requires a deeper motivation to cooperate that neither a purely atheistic rationality nor traditional theism can provide. What is politically required “in order that citizens might pledge themselves to the good” and live for others is an “atheistic conception of faith”. His phenomenology of faith can be understood in terms of the self being constantly called and divided against itself by fidelity to an infinite demand, which is thus “all about the experience of failure” although “in failing something is learned [and] experienced from the depths."  He argues that such a faith of the faithless is truer because it is not supported by dogma, institutions, or metaphysics. Only when reason is connected to such faith can an alternative politics take shape, avoiding “demotivated cynicism."  Again, this faith is not belief in God but “the rigorous activity of the subject that proclaims itself into being at each instant without guarantees or security, and which seeks to abide with the infinite demand of love." This connection between faith and love will become more important in what follows.

To see how Critchley further develops his political theology, I will be concentrating on the “mystical anarchism” of the Beguine mystic Marguerite Porete in Chapter 3. Critchley concurs with philosopher Carl Schmitt in his argument that “All significant concepts in the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.” In the liberal state, Schmitt sees the theological triumph of deism: just as deists deny the possibility of miracles, liberalism refuses to break with the constitutional norm to make political decisions. But this cripples political action when it is most needed, leading him to argue for the sovereignty of the state. Thus the state intervenes to override any legal norm as necessary. Critchley agrees with the diagnosis of liberalism as anti-political but is critical of Schmitt’s justification of dictatorship.

He also agrees with Schmitt’s view that original sin forms a dividing line for two major alternatives to liberalism. If human nature is wicked, as authoritarians like Schmitt affirm, then there is a constant need for a corrective at the level of state to save humans from themselves. Anarchists do not deny that humans are often evil, but believe this need not be the case because social mechanisms are what make them evil and must be replaced with autonomous self-governing communes. Critchley writes, “if the force of life itself is not repressed by the deathly repressive activity of the state that operates through the force of law, then it will be possible to organize society on the basis of mutual aid and cooperation…anarchism is the political expression of freedom from original sin…”

Yet another alternative to liberalism that relies on a naturalized concept of original sin is philosopher John Gray’s Darwinian political realism. He argues that since humans are essentially “killer apes,” they cannot transform the world towards any utopia. The solution is to abandon utopianism, recognize evil in humans, and cope with reality as best we can.

Marguerite Porete
But to move beyond authoritarianism, political realism, and liberalism, Critchley explores the possibilities of mystical anarchism through a reading of Porete’s The Mirror. While his own neo-anarchist position pulls back from this more radical mystical anarchism, he nevertheless finds it compelling. New political possibilities may come to light when original sin is overcome, as in Porete’s theology.

He notes that revolutionary millenarian movements throughout history tended to attract the poor, to advocate a radical social transformation by a mythical return to the Garden of Eden pre-original sin, and hold basically communist views. The most famous revolutionary millenarian movement was the heretical Movement of the Free Spirit, of which Porete was a part. Critchley describes it as a highly mobile and “secret network of small activist groups linked together by powerful bonds of solidarity and love.” A key theological conviction for them was that the Lord’s Spirit is within the self rather than external to it. This ultimately means for them that “the soul is free and…there is no difference between the soul and God…[and therefore] no need of the agencies of the…Church, the state, law, or police."

Within this theological perspective, Porete described the soul’s process of overcoming original sin in seven stages of self-deification, where it annihilates itself through the work of love to become the place for God’s infinite self-reflection. The end result, she writes, is that “there is nothing but he…when I become nothing, I become God."  She is more radical than many mystics in that she is not merely talking about a contemplative union with the One, but surpassing her own humanity to become God. 

Porete’s overcoming of original sin brings about radical human freedom. Critchley notes the following political consequences of her thought: all conceptions of private property are demolished since “the only true owner of property is God, [whose] wealth is held in common by all creatures without hierarchy or distinctions."  And because Porete sees the work of love as the audacity of the Soul’s annihilation, “there can be no higher authority than divine love, which entails that communism would be a political form higher than law."  Finally, morality flows only from our freedom derived from the Free Spirit held in common rather than from external constraints.

Critchley admits that Porete’s idea of becoming God goes too far for him, but she nevertheless offers something valuable: a politics of love. The act of love is the “attempt to extend beyond oneself by annihilating oneself…to give what one does not have and to receive that over which one has no power.” This mystical insight enriches his notion of faith as openness to the infinite demand of love, in the face of which we necessarily fall short and never reach a kind of divine perfection. Critchley sees this as the way into a new subjectivity that can transform our relation to others, opening up new anarchic potentials and conceptions of the common. He concludes, “Anarchism can only begin with an act of inward colonization, the act of love that demands a transformation of the self."