All quiet on the Journal Eastern front for a few weeks – I’ve been on solitary retreat. One of the perhaps too many books I read whilst away was philosopher Simon Critchley‘s exquisite – and timely – book The Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology.
The starting point for the book is an attempt to make sense of current times in terms of politics, religion and violence. Critchley claims that ‘religiously justified violence is increasingly employed as the means to a political end.’ The blurb for the book says that ‘the return to religion has perhaps become the dominant cliché of contemporary philosophy’ and that ‘the secular age has given way to a new era where political action flows directly from metaphysical conflict.’
The events of this week seem to bear this out, with the start of the trial of Anders Breivik, the man who killed 77 people in Norway last July. Breivik described himself on Wednesday, his second day in the witness box, as a “militant Christian”. He said he would ‘rather be executed than receive Norway’s “pathetic” maximum punishment of 21 years in jail’. (Guardian) ‘He contrasted his “operation” with the… Baader Meinhof gang, who he said were atheists who did not want to die because they “didn’t believe in the afterlife”. He added: “That’s what’s unique about both militant nationalists and militant Islamists … we do believe in an afterlife, at least many of us [militant nationalists] do, because we are Christians.”‘ (Guardian)
Critchley contrasts active and passive nihilism in Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. ‘In the face of the increasing brutality of reality, the passive nihilist tries to achieve a mystical stillness, calm contemplation: ‘European Buddhism’. In a world that is all too rapidly blowing itself to pieces, the passive nihilist closes his eyes and makes himself into an island. The active nihilist also finds everything meaningless, but instead of sitting back and contemplating, he tries to destroy this world and bring another into being.’ (‘European Buddhism’ is a reference to Nietzsche’s take on Buddhism in The Will to Power.)
Critchley defended non-violence in Infinitely Demanding. In The Faith of the Faithless, however, he modifies his position, saying that to prejudge all political struggles ‘on the basis of an abstract conception of nonviolence is to risk dogmatic blindness’, and that his previous defense of nonviolence ‘suffers from this dogmatism’.
What is our response to all of this, given the first Buddhist precept: nonviolence? One response that I have would be to refer Simon Critchley to Robert Morrison’s wonderful Nietzsche and Buddhism: A Study in Nihilism and Ironic Affinities, which addresses Nietzsche’s misunderstanding of Buddhism as nihilistic. Another response is to write a longer review of The Faith of the Faithless, which I hope to do before too long. One response for you could be to come along to the LBC this Saturday at 230-4pm to discuss Buddhism, violence and nonviolence in the light of these issues: I’m running a Buddhism and current affairs discussion group for the next eight Saturdays, with Ambaranta and other friends. Do join us, if you can, for these ‘Experiments in Political Buddhology’.