REASON, FAITH, AND REVOLUTION:
Reflections on the God Debate
By Terry Eagleton
185 pp. Yale University Press, $25.00
Terry Eagleton opens his defense of humankind’s God-search with “Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs.”
Be you evangelical, fundamentalist, mainline Protestant, Orthodox Jew or Reformed Jew, Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox, or even a theo-centric Muslim, you might sigh and wonder what sort of ally has enlisted in the defense of the divine.
No need to worry. By page two, Eagleton says “ ... I may know just about enough theology to be able to spot when someone like Richard Dawkins or Christoper Hitchens, a couple I shall henceforth for convenience reduce to the single signifier ‘Ditchkins,’ is talking out of the back of his neck.”
That’s the impetus for this short book: a response to two popular tomes authored by the evangelical atheists Dawkins and Hitchens. Only a few pages in, a reader begins to see the author’s least favorite of the pair is Dawkins, a man whose opinions he apparently cannot tolerate, and finds gleefully easy to denigrate.
“ ... let me draw a contrast between the stylish, entertaining, and splendidly impassioned, and compulsively readable quality of the former’s God Is Not Great and Dawkins’s The God Delusion, which merits absolutely none of these epithets.”
In a few short pages, though, Eagleton reveals he also is willing to pillory the righteous, which he finds most prevalent in American Christianity, in most of its forms.
Jesus was a social, cultural, and political revolutionary, the author writes, and an apocalyptic one at that. Eagleton’s theology posits a true follower of the Nazarene carpenter must live out the Truth of God: love and mercy; justice and compassion. Eagleton believes understanding and accepting that the holy truth message left Jesus a flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary is central to living in faith.
Eagleton writes plainly, but his arguments are a tightly knit garment woven from threads of mysticism and strands of liberation theology. The book is an adaptation of lectures he gave at the invitation of Yale University as part of the Dwight Harrington Terry Foundation Lectures on Religion in the Light of Science and Philosophy. It is presented in four parts: The Scum of the Earth; The Revolution Betrayed; Faith and Reason; Culture and Barbarism. The author joined good company, for the Terry lectures have featured Paul Tillich, Erich Fromm, and Carl G. Jung among others.
Eagleton is a literary critic, but his style here incorporates the unsheathed blade that entertains us when CSPAN televises the activities of the British House of Commons. That can occasionally come across as too witty by half, as if the author might be extending a point merely to inflict one more cut. Deep into Eagleton’s argument, the appellation of “Ditchkins” even begins to wear on a reader, becoming almost a schoolyard taunt.
Despite its slim size, the book is inordinately thick with intellectual concepts. Eagleton sees Jesus as the divine presence of God on earth, and he preaches Christ’s message in a tightly reasoned liberation theology-cum-socialism. Much of the author’s argument requires the reader to stop, re-read, and even close the book in contemplation. The power, complexity, and originality of Eagleton’s apologia will find an eager audience only among the intelligent, the open-minded, and the curious.
This is especially so when a reader is confronted with matters such as Eagleton’s view of the truth of the Christ’s life and message.
The New Testament is a brutal destroyer of human illusions. If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do. The stark signifier of the human condition is one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains.
With that, the reader finds the heart of Eagleton’s argument, albeit one few fundamentalists or evangelicals or Protestants or Mass-attending Catholics or Eastern Orthodox will share. Why? Because Eagleton seems to show little concern for a Jesus who walked on water or turned water to wine. Eagleton sees Jesus and his revolutionary message of love and justice as miracle enough, especially when compared to Hitchens’s and Dawkins’s faith in mankind’s progress through the mechanics of secular humanism, the great machine that produces antibiotics and stem-cell research, the integrated circuit and the internet, free speech and assembly and racial integration.
He refers to Hitchens and Dawkins as “ ... astonishingly tight-lipped about the cock-ups and catastrophes of science ... “
One of the more straightforward and closely reasoned arguments against the liberal establishment’s position that Islam (as a religion) is at war with the Enlightenment.
“It is rather that, without the vast concentration camp known as the Gaza Strip, it is not all out of the question that the Twin Towers would still be standing.”
Eagleton then traces anti-western sentiments to the CIA’s part in bringing the shah to power in Iran and to our support for Wahhabbi feudalism in the Arabic pennisula. Why? Perhaps we can point to a colonial-like search for raw material and markets.
“Advanced capitalism is inherently agnostic ... Modern market societies tend to be secular, relativist, pragmatic, and materialistic.”
This side of the Atlantic we add religion to the mix whenever we want to spice up an argument. Evolution? Intelligent design? Is it a baby or simply a fetus? Eagleton thinks little of that sort thing.
“This brand of piety is horrified at the sight of a female breast but considerably less appalled by the obscene inequalities between rich and poor.”
For me, the most difficult segment was “Faith and Reason.” I quickly grasped his argument that atheists and agnostics have too much faith in reason; or to state it conversely, reason requires faith. But then Eagleton presents a thesis that God is “not a possible object of cognition,” and “that faith is for most part performative rather than propositional.”
Does that mean that we prove God exists by acting in love and compassion, justice and mercy? The issue is further dissected when the author discusses “knowledge” and “belief,” and suggests the “reduction of belief to positive knowledge” destroys the truths to be found in faith.
Readers interested in He Who Was Before the Big Bang and She Who Lives Beyond the Universe’s Edge will find the author’s work is erudite and powerful and will profit from reading and thinking about his thesis.