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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Faith of the Faithless: Simon Critchley and Cornel West in Conversation

Here’s some fodder for the dinner table tonight: what’s really going on when we’re “being true to ourselves”? For the philosopher Simon Critchley, coming to BAM on February 7 for a conversation with Cornel West, it surely isn’t a matter of pragmatic acceptance—of deciding simply that the faults and flaws we see in the mirror everyday are okay after all. And it isn’t a matter of having a clear knowledge of one’s identity and fulfilling that identity through action. No, for Critchley, being true to oneself means entertaining nothing less than a leap of faith, and one just as radical as the most devout, idol-toting believer.

Why? Because much like religion, Critchley might say, being true to oneself involves having faith in a demand (“Be true!) that we place on ourselves, a demand that we must believe in without knowing whether or not it is actually realizable. The twist is that instead of coming from an external authority—from the ethical law of God, say—that demand originates from within. To be true to oneself, then, would be to live for (and thus have faith in) the other that we carry within ourselves (super ego, anyone?). It would be to live towards fulfilling an image of the self that one believes to be true.

Or something like that. It’s best to let Critchley himself explain, of course, which he’ll do in very good company as he joins the ever-eloquent deep-thinker Cornel West  for a conversation about faith in secular society, the rise of religious fundamentalism, and more. It should be a lively evening; both present a convincing case that faith plays a much larger part in our daily lives than the recent raft of literature on atheism (Dawkins' The God Delusion, Hitchens' God is Not Great) would have us believe. Critchley has just come out with a new book, The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology , whose title comes from a passage from Oscar Wilde. I'll include it here to entice:
When I think of religion at all, I feel as if I would like to found an order for those who cannot believe: the Confraternity of the Faithless, one might call it, where on an altar, on which no taper burned, a priest, in whose heart peace had no dwelling, might celebrate with unblessed bread and a chalice empty of wine. Everything to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith.

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