The Nothing in Belief, Simon Critchley’s Faith of the Faithless p.1

Reading Simon Critchley’s latest book The Faith of the Faithless is like receiving some of the most relevant currents from past intellectuals for our problems today. Government and consent, autonomy and violence, faith and ethics weave together into a story informing the trajectory we are racing along, all the while the impetus to act responsibly with thought and careful reflection race along with us. The central concern to the book as I read it is to articulate the basis for a faith that we can believe in today, even amidst the seemingly insurmountable apathy and nihilism preventing a commitment to a positive future. Nihilism is not a mode of thinking to be rejected in favor of a happy optimism or a comforting belief but thought through. The pervasiveness of disenchantment with the state of the world, the rush of stimulation at the sight of the latest thinly-veiled fantasy apocalypse story followed by an “oh well, I got to go back to work”, is a serious concern not to simply attack but grapple with. Such is the over-arching motivation behind this work: to provide a theoretico-religious faith when faith is in such short supply and understandably so.

This is the work of painstaking commitment. To not condemn, to not write or proclaim the next messiah, to not command and determine action according to a ruler’s program; but to search the landscape for signs when added up point in a direction of hope. This can also be a work of immense joy and even ecstatic humor.
Taking a survey of the time we find ourselves in, feeling and observing organizations of power and the road they are taking us on can have the overwhelming effect of despair and disbelief. I’ve got a mind to think that many would rather avoid this thought and reserve it for “the artists” – if they aren’t busy with immediate survival and crushing debt. The despair and disconnect come from a general sense of powerlessness: the trembling in the face of a system that operates so smoothly that even one’s most uplifting moments still cannot rearrange its highly stabilized movements. But this powerlessness is precisely what Critchley seizes on in defining ethical relations: effective political resistance against a dominating power is created in fusing infinite demands into a local struggle allowing weak forces to exceed their *realistic* limitations.
The infinite demands so often mentioned stand for a call from beyond – somewhere else. The reserve from which a subject gets its energy to act responsibly (to one another, society, or country) comes from a fictional source. This fictional source transcends the local conditions of an environment and persuades the subject to act otherwise than what is expedient and immediately rewarding to it. It is all too easy for pragmatists, political realists, atheists, and nihilists to point to the fictional, fantastical, and incorporeal nature of these demands and turn instead to effects as they are felt immanently. And they have a good point; believing in something transcending what is viscerally right in front of you, weighing down on you in direct contact requires a leap into strange territory. At worst this can result in dogmatic attachment or a cultic following that abolishes all deviancy. But to ignore the power of the faith-based fictions circulating both now and in our history or outright combating them is to deny who we have become and how we got here. Our culture and history are saturated with symbols of otherworldly beings and imaginary constructions that people believe in wholeheartedly. To take an opposing tract and settle with non-belief, to only deal with *real* beings in *this* world, misses an essential point about what it means to believe and have faith.
That being stated, to believe in the era of information overflow means one must get through, step inside of, or at least consider the nothing of nihilism – the gap that persists in all acts of belief. That mystical facet reserved for many in a super-sensible world seems to have crashed into the physical world, organizing it with statistics and other formally precise symmetries making us feel trapped. Believability has become flexible, bending and stretching our commitments and pursuits across a wide spectrum yet inside a totalizer whole. To isolate a local place and allow for something infinite to combine with that place is perhaps *the* most pressing matter here on a planet under the threat of a global capitalism tightening its grip on a uniform measurement of wealth.
Again, this is no reason to throw oneself into whatever beliefs provide a momentarily inspiring spark: the nothing hanging over the shoulder of belief *must* be affirmed. Critchley’s brilliance is in affirming the nothing twice as a double nothing (he calls it meontology) that everyone is caught between. This highly charged zone between two nothings is actually what it means to believe, in contrast with a one-way attachment to a figure representing reality. The differing structure of an affirmative nihilism to hierarchical beliefs puts the subject in a tenuous spot where the only reprieve is a constant movement until a new self might emerge in conjunction with the infinite demand calling for it. This call comes from somewhere, as in the face of the other that confronts me, and the otherness of this place or thing *assures* all belief of a nothing. But this infinitely demanding belief is “a massively creative nothing” (p.245) which when affirmed in its nothing forms the groundwork for a critically uncompromising belief.
This is the work that prepares for a belief that does not fall into a apathetic laziness or a violent destruction of *the* system (which can be made to stand for anything and everything). Both of these positions risk feeding the systems that do predominate and in effect align with the beliefs anchoring those systems.
More to come on this later with deeper textual analysis.
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