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reason, faith, and revolution: terry eagleton revisited [Mar. 25th, 2009|08:47 am]
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I no longer remember who originated the tale of the town in Northern Ireland in which a local was showing a visitor around, and said, “And over there is the Catholic cemetery, and on that other side of town, that’s the Protestant cemetery.”

To which the visitor asked, “Where do you bury the atheists?”

“That all depends,” the local said, “on whether they were Protestant atheists or Catholic atheists.”

And indeed, as one of my professors pointed out to me long ago, there are Protestant and Catholic styles of being atheistic, without the necessity of the atheists having ever been either one; the one mode tends to be brittle, contentious, and coldly rational, the other rather sunk in the sensuous particulars of engagement in the human: perhaps Jean-Paul Sartre versus Albert Camus.

By those lights, Terry Eagleton is a Catholic atheist poking fun at the Protestant atheism of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens in his Terry Lectures, now published as Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.

Pointing out that the minimal courtesy one can give to a point of view that one is intent on demolishing is to get its arguments right, Eagleton presents the best case for a version of Christianity that has scarcely any adherents at the moment outside of a distinct minority of theologians and socially committed laypersons who have taken their Founder’s dicta seriously.

This is, perhaps, a point worthy of contention. If Ditchkins, as Eagleton mischievously conflates his adversaries, is inclined to negate and demolish the arguments of the least reflective, least consistent and least theologically literate members of the Christian community, the problem is that there are a good many of them.

But there are also (and this is not Eagleton’s argument, but mine, or whoever I stole it from) a good many more admirers of Harlequin Romances than of the great poets of the Romance languages, but nobody mounts arguments for the worthlessness of world literature on those grounds. (They mount arguments for the worthlessness of literature on other grounds, such as that reading it does not stop one from becoming a concentration camp commandant.)

It is more problematic that religion shares with art the difficulty of defining the definitive version. As friend and fellow curator/critic Lisa Tuttle remarked once regarding the commonplace remark, “I know what art is, and that’s not art,” nobody ever says, “I know what plumbing is, and that’s not plumbing.” (They do say, just as critics say about art, that that is a lousy job of plumbing or the best solution to a plumbing problem they have ever seen. And similar comments have been made about systematic theologies. Perhaps religion is like art, and theology is like plumbing.)

It would be useful to return to Eagleton’s argument. But Eagleton’s argument is as multiple and dialectical as my own digressions.

For after defending Christianity against its High Victorian cultured despisers (and of that adjective, more in a moment), Eagleton writes that “Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it is hard to think of a historical movement that has more squalidly betrayed its revolutionary origins.... For the most part, it has become the creed of the suburban well-to-do, not the astonishing promise offered to the riffraff and undercover anti-colonial militants with whom Jesus himself hung out.”

And with that, we are on to the “revolution” part of Eagleton’s title, but it is by no means an undialectical revolution. He acknowledges the actual accomplishments of nineteenth century liberalism, most notably its dissemination of “the scandalous truth that men and women are free, equal, self-determining agents simply by virtue of their membership of the human species” (a truth, Eagleton points out in passing, that had Judeo-Christian precedents), so that “In its heyday, middle-class liberalism was far more of a revolutionary current than socialism has ever managed to be.”

He then observes that unfortunately, actually existing liberalism also “fostered an atomistic notion of the self, a bloodlessly contractual view of human relations, a meagerly utilitarian version of ethics, a crudely instrumental idea of reason, a doctrinal suspicion of doctrine, an impoverished sense of human communality, a self-satisfied faith in progress and civility, a purblindness to the more malign aspects of human nature, and a witheringly negative view of power, the state, freedom, and tradition.” (The last phrase seems a bit overly condensed and puzzling to me.)

Thanks to its moments of crudity and its blind spots, this view of humanity made it possible for every document of civilization to be also a document of barbarism. “…The values of Enlightenment have ended up at odds with themselves… [and] the act of defending them has been at times indistinguishable from the act of flouting them.”

Having established the context within which Dawkins and Hitchens operate, Eagleton skewers both writers for their respective beliefs in the illusions fostered by their social environment. He is particularly hard on Dawkins: “What was long ago named by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno the dialectic of Enlightenment is a form of constructive double-think that Dawkins in particular, with his sanctimonious, High-Victorian faith in scientific progress, has apparently failed to grasp. He is unquestionably right to insist on the reality of progress. Only the kind of postmodernist who ought to get out more denies that. As we have seen, however, Ditchkins, like Herbert Spencer, G. H. Lewes, and any number of Victorian ideologues, appears to believe not only in progress but in Progress—as rare and implausible a doctrine these days as a belief in the imminent return of King Arthur.”

I have quoted to the very edge of the fair use principle, but I do so to lay claim to the combination of withering analytical assault and rhetorical delicacy with which Eagleton pounces upon the unfortunate New Atheists who are his particular prey. The kiddies in question never had a chance.

Of course, he is no more than halfway through his argument at this point, and as he goes on to examine the consequences of living in an age “divided between those who believe far too much and those who believe far too little,” he suggests that each of the two parties draws its sustenance from the existence of the other: “The age is equally divided between a technocratic reason which subordinates value to fact, and a fundamentalist reason which replaces fact with value.”

I shall leave it to the reader to discover Eagleton’s elegant unpacking of the largely involuntary elements of faith, though he insists that deep-rooted though our reasons for our beliefs may be, we are not “the helpless prisoners of them, as neopragmatists like Stanley Fish tend to imagine. ... It is just that more is involved in changing really deep-seated beliefs than just changing your mind.”

In other words, Eagleton carries us through a good many avenues of psychology as well as sociology en route to his suggestion that religions may have something useful to say on a conceptual level without requiring the uncritical adoption of their worldviews. One of his most elegant dialectical turns is his discussion of how the liberal, secular, universal values of “civilization” are regularly opposed to the local and often aestheticized politics of “cultures” (he cites actual usages of the word “cultures” that are not quite those of the anthropologists), but it is too elaborate to permit of easy condensation.

He argues, however, that civilized abstractions and cultural particulars need to be united in a systematic practice, and at the moment there are few enough candidates for a worldview with sufficient conceptual legitimacy to accomplish this on a major scale. The Marxism of which he has previously spoken highly has suffered “a staggering political rebuff” that renders suspect its “promise of reconciling culture and civilization ... sensuous particularity and universality, ...the free self-realization of flesh-and-blood individuals and a global cooperative commonwealth of them.” With Marx as inspiration effectively out of the picture, “one of those places to which radical impulses have migrated is—of all things—theology.” So he suggests, in something like the twenty-first-century flip side of Walter Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” that even in a world in which “theology is increasingly part of the problem, as Ditchkins so rightly considers, it is also fostering the kind of critical reflection which might contribute to some of the answers. There are lessons which the secular left can learn from religion, for all its atrocities and absurdities, and the left is not so flush with ideas that it can afford to look a gift horse in the mouth.”

But analytical theology is practiced by a small minority, as I observed in the beginning, and the frontiers of religion seem to be increasingly colonized by the kind of visionary heretics that Eagleton might find as discomfiting as would Dawkins and Hitchens, if they knew that such people existed. For all the horror these types may arouse even in champions of the literary imagination, the pioneering climbers of the mind’s mountains seem to be engaged in a would-be empiricism that has little to do with the certainties of their fundamentalist brethren. Fundamentalists, in fact, seem to have killed such folks with monotonous regularity.

But that is a topic for a subsequent post.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: utopyr
2009-03-28 01:00 am (UTC)

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I reckon that the sentence you quote with the phrase which strikes you as overly condensed is the answer to the catechetical question, "What is a right-wing libertarian, that is, the high-school debating club that in the US calls itself the Libertarians?"
[User Picture]From: joculum
2009-03-28 05:39 pm (UTC)

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Which of course descends from nineteenth-century liberalism, in a manner of speaking, and descends in more than one sense of the term.