A new language

Today seems a particularly suitable day to put these thoughts down. Good Friday: a day conflicted like no other; marrying abject suffering with the desire for complete and unbridled hedonism. Or at least it might have been at one time; now, incredulity in the face of being unable to buy alcohol – and a kind of belligerent rebellion in the face of this fact – sees the day spent mostly in work, unacknowledged, or indeed in a drunken stupor. Not too long ago, this would have been akin to an act of social hara-kiri, but Ireland is not the place that it once was. Religion is tired and floundering in the wake of the Ryan report, and, more than this: a general and vague disinterest pervades. The inner conflict that might, at one time, have accompanied the day, has been flattened utterly. Myself, I’m just mildly annoyed about being unable to get a decent cup of coffee.  

However, what I am interested in is the phenomenon of actual rebellion. On this particular day, the path of dissent is that of alcohol, and even if we don’t actually want to drink, there seems to be a tiny but forceful voice urging us to do so. Of course, not everyone feels this way, but I am pretty sure that if you checked alcohol sales from half-nine to ten yesterday evening, sales would be way up. People feel obligated to get some, just to be safe. I was one of those, popping in for a bottle of Chianti, which may or may not be consumed today. But I am not interested in these people. Rather, what intrigues me is the wilful engagement with sacrilege by a population of which eighty seven percent described themselves as ‘Catholic’[i]. Something just isn’t adding up.

Now I am not for one moment admonishing this behaviour, or rallying a return to a kind of fifties ‘No-meat-on-a-Friday’ Ireland. What strikes me as strange is the discrepancy between how we think of ourselves – mostly, it seems, as Catholic – and how we choose to live that identity. Why not just tick the box that says ‘No religion’? No one’s looking! Furthermore, today is, because of the widespread transgression of the laws given by this day – namely, that one should not consume alcohol – in a strange way more acutely religious. Religion becomes oddly omnipresent in declaring its absolute irrelevance. What I would argue is that if a true dissent is to be staged in opposition to religion, religious institutions or backward customs, it cannot be done so in the same register as that which it argues against. To act counter to its demands is still to acknowledge those demands. The individual, who acts counter to catholic expectation today, seemingly in an act of atheistic transgression, still acknowledges the frameworks that they aspire to negate.

A parallel might be applied to the ubiquitous ‘rise of religion’ in contemporary philosophy. Last week, I attended a seminar given by Simon Critchley, which dealt precisely with this point. His latest book, ‘Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology’ is very much of the moment: it seems at this stage as though basically everyone[ii] has written something derivative of religious concepts or figures, albeit in a pointedly atheistic manner. What Critchley suggests is that there might be a kind of faith for those incapable of belief, paraphrasing Oscar Wilde’s comments in ‘De Profundis’ (1905), which I will quote fully:

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 of empty wine. Everything to be true must become a religion. And agnosticism should have its ritual no less than faith[iii].

Now I am not sure I agree with the notion that for ‘everything to be true [it] must become a religion’, and I am pretty convinced that it is a bit of a leap to make, by Wilde, by Critchley, or whoever. Why must that which is true become a religion? For me, the acceptance of this logic is the legitimation of religion through the continued use of its vocabulary. It appears as acquiescence. I am not for one moment suggesting that there is no use in other works more poetical in their appropriation of religion, but Wilde’s Confraternity appears to me at best counter-productive, and at worst, potentially brutal.

If we might say that art is one avenue or means to a truth, or even a truth in itself, does it mean by Wildean logic that it should become a religion? Witnessing a range of artistic practices and works that borrow the vocabulary of religion, perhaps this has already been set in motion. But didn’t Marx say something about art being kind of useless in that respect? A low-grade opium, if you will. In any case, Critchely’s seminar was deliberately addressed to an art audience. Artists or creative people encompass a lot of the people who will read his book, or all the other titles that generally proclaim the redemptive core of religion. What I am hesitant about is the transferral of these ideas into the realm of art, as one such means to a truth. Using the language of religion – and this is a common practice as far as I can see – still alludes to religiosity. If anything it makes the religiosity of art more apparent, not less so as might be intended. Theodor Adorno, in his essay ‘Theses Upon Art and Religion Today’ (1945), argues for the complete estrangement of art and religion:

[A]rt can keep faith to its true affinity with religion, the relationship to truth, only by an almost ascetic abstinence from any religious claim or any touching upon religious subject matter. Religious art today is nothing but blasphemy[iv].

The art that best approaches an objective or positive truth, in much the same way as religion, is the one that pointedly disavows this claim. Adorno calls this the ‘spell[v] of art; that which must be disavowed in salvaging. By making any claim to the positive objective force of religion, art sacrifices the ‘imprint of its magical origin[vi]’, and thus, oddly, any access to truth. It is this that I am fearful of: art’s appropriation of religion, following philosophy: the insidious advent of metaphysics in the language of rites and rituals. I for one am pretty certain that we do not need religion any more, but do we need a new language to replace it. 

[ii] Giorgio Agamben, Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou have all written quite extensively on the subject. Even Alain De Botton, as Critchley sheepishly pointed out, has a book out on the topic.

[iii] Wilde quoted in Critchley ‘Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology’ (2012) Verso: London & New York, pg. 3 (italics my own)

[iv] Theodor Adorno ‘Theses Upon Art and Religion Today’, Kenyon Review (Fall 1945) pg. 237

[v] Ibid, pg. 239

[vi] Ibid, pg. 238


4 thoughts on “A new language

  1. Hi Rebecca, very well written, as always, and lots to think about here. However, I would have to acknowledge that I find the notion of such apparently widespread descent into apathy or ‘a drunken stupor’ on Good Friday, primarily as an act of ‘rebellion’, to be profoundly depressing. I, for one, know numerous people (young and not-so-young) who would have acted quite differently yesterday, and not necessarily have gone to Church, though surprising numbers will have done that also and been deeply moved by the experience. There is a profoundly hopeful message to be found in the Easter story if people would expend the same effort investigating and (most importantly) quietly contemplating it that they apply to rebelling against it. But it also holds a challenge and asks hard questions of those who seek the message and I believe that is what causes the rebellion.

    I also would ask for whom do you speak when you write that “we” do not need religion any more? In its purest form and its everyday application, religion offers what every individual needs most: hope and a loving community, both essential for quality of life. Hope, that is, when to hope seems ludicrous. It also offers a model for living that promotes selflessness and care for others, again ideals that very few could honestly argue against.

    Where I believe the Church as a body has most profoundly failed is in the communication of the innumerable riches to be found in the study of scripture, the contemplation of God, and the ordinary everyday living out of an individual’s faith, whatever ‘religion’ it comes from. These riches are absolutely applicable to every situation in the modern world and offer unimagined solutions to seemingly impossible problems. If any “new language” is to be found, that is the one I would wish to speak.


    Marie Soffe.

    • Hi Marie, thanks for your comments.

      I would agree with you that this ‘rebellion’ is a bit depressing. However I would see it in this light not because of the rebellious act per se, but because of the nature of that ‘rebellion’. The rebellion is voiced in opposition to organised religion, and thus legitimates its continued presence.

      When I said that I thought that ‘we’ might be able to do without religion I say this from my own point of view. There are obviously others that would disagree. And yes of course, you’re quite right in saying that the basic tenets of religion are unarguable. But perhaps ‘religion’ isn’t the word for this anymore. When we reduce ‘religion’ down to its core values (which furthermore are interpreted in a subjective manner), is it still ‘religion’, or something else? If we interpret the values of Christianity at their barest we might come up with something like this: love thy neighbour as yourself. This is obviously a challenge, but it is a challenge of this world. At no point does it prefigure the figure of God, or institutional Religion per se. I suppose it differs from person to person as to what the purest application of Christianity constitutes.

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