In a conversation with Ola Sigurdsson some weeks ago I got intrigued but the question of how one could perhaps a ”cooperative” relationship to a subject of faith (an expression I chose after having first tried and discarded to ”object of faith”). The conversation was about Robert Pfaller’s Die Illusionen der anderen. This book contributed substantially to clarify and also transform an interpretive framework that was previously very much built in the work of Slavoj Zizek. In the conversation with Ola, suddenly a connection was opened to a quite other strand of books that I had also spent time with, but which had led its own life in my mental universe, quite separate from the theoretical intricacies of Pfaller and Zizek.
Ola pointed out that Pfaller’s analysis of faith (which Ola characterized as quite ”catholic”) seemed unnecessarily pessimistic, in that it seemed to operate with only two alternatives. On the one hand, Pfaller talks about what he calls ”belief”. It is superficial and ”seen-through” and strongly connected to the cultural phenomenon of play. When we believe in something, according to this interpretation, we ”pretend”, but in a serious way, that something is in some particular way – and often, we can derive pleasure from such play with imaginary constructs. Pfaller contends that such belief can be seen as a pleasure principle of culture; that all ”cultural pleasure” derives from some kind of (seen-through) belief.
On the other hand, Pfaller talks about ”faith”. As he puts it, we have faith in something when we take it seriously; when we ”stand for it”. As Pfallers argument goes, faith is (as I think one could put it) parasitic on belief. Belief is foundational for culture. Faith is not. It is something that can sometimes emerge, and has emerged very much in modernity, on top of belief. As beliefs are connected to practices, in which people act ”as if” the world was in some particular way – for instance as we do in Christmas -, entities come to exist in the world, as related to in practice. ”Normally”, as one could say with Pfaller (at least the 2002 version) we are not committed to truth claims as to the actual existence of such beings, or to their properties. Sometimes, however, something changes, in people and in cultures, and such entities – which have been brought into existence to practices taken place as-if – starts to be taken seriously, as ”actually existing”, as being actually present, as having real powers, that needs, seriously, to be somehow accounted for.
The crux of Pfaller’s theory is that he connects such faith – directly, one could say – with a mechanism of inversion. What happens, Pfaller contends (in the 2002 book), is that the feelings of pleasure that were previously related to the subjects of belief (e.g. Santa Claus) is transformed into feelings of pain, when their subjects have become transformed into subjects of faith, that is, when they have been given a new status of ”serious” and actually existing entities. Hence, for instance, mathematics anxiety. And hence, probably, Christmas anxiety when Christmas is taken to seriously.
Ola thought that this analysis was quite clarifying, but missing very important alternatives that he could see discussed in theological literature. What was missing was exactly the possibility to have faith but not fall into the ”trap” of inversion, that is, the trap of taking this faith, as one could say from this third perspective, too seriously. The missing alternative would be to find a middle path (if I understand Ola correctly) which is characterized both by some kind of ”playful” distance and commitment.
The existence of this possibility seems necessary, in a way, for there to be hope. Because as regards ”belief”, there is not really anything to hope for, just opportunities for pleasurable experiences, in a world which is just there; as regards ”faith”, certain objects or entities are certainly invested with hope for improvements, but misinvested, according to the analysis, because their object is just a kind of ”materialized imagination”, that only does damage when being appointed ”real” powers.
In a problematic way, Pfaller’s analysis seem to point in a similar direction as the philosophers of neo-liberalism. They too saw only bad things coming out of faith – faith in a better society, for instance; faith in communism, or in God. Popper and Hayek wanted to eradicate all such faith, and only allow, instead, for the dynamics of the world (in the form of the market of course; in Poppers case, the market of conjectures) to just play out, without anybody thinking that they, personally, know something that is worth taking seriously; have something to say about the world, what exists in it, and what could exist in it in the future, that deserves to be listened to. In a strange way, their vision of micro-mechanisms playing out without any persons have such faith by themselves as to try to change the direction of something bigger than themselves, seems similar to the world of ”belief”, where reflection is used for no other thing than ”seeing-through” and thus keeping practice going, at some distance.
I know that this is not really a fair account of Pfaller’s position, in particular as he in later texts tries to defend the university by talking about a ”faith” that is ”won” through hard work. But it is not completely clear how this kind of faith fits into his interpretive framework. I wonder to what extent it perhaps needs more fundamental changes than additions on the top.
I think the idea of a ”middle way” needs to be handled with a lot of care, because the risk is obvious, to me, that it can result in a too easy assimilation of the basic analysis, into already existing discourse, about the problems of ”scientism” and ”positivism”.
And to me it is not clear that it even exists any point ”between”, when it comes to the faith of modernity, that it is worth trying to have a cooperative relationship to. What, for instance, would be a cooperative relationship to mathematics? Why would anyone want that? I mean, this would be something else than my simple use of it, as a tool, because I do not relate to it as a subject of faith. To me it is nonexistent, and happily so. It is just a word. Nothing that I would let lead my existence and life, as a God. Is not Science to empty to ever become a guide for society and for persons in society? Is it not into its very core a result of an improductive flip-flop dynamics of belief and faith in the senses that Pfaller gives them – making the only ”third” alternative be a cooperative relationship, for sure, but not to these things that presently stand in the center of modernity – i.e. money/market and knowledge/science/education – but to something else that needs to invented or recovered.