Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate is an engaging, witty, and largely successful critique of the new atheists, especially Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great) and Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion), whose delusional grandiosity earns them the hybrid nickname Ditchkins. The text of his Terry Lectures at Yale, Eagleton’s book has received smart, generally warm reviews in recent days from Andrew O’Hehir at Salon and fromStanley Fish on his NY Times blog, Think Again. The book certainly merits our attention both for its hilarious send-up of the pompous Ditchkins and for its less successful attempt to infuse revolutionary politics with the spirit of the gospel.
Eagleton’s devastating critique focuses on Hitchens and Dawkins’ theological illiteracy, ignorance of how science works, and naive faith in rational progress. The crisis of Enlightenment reason, which was apparent to secular philosophers long before it became part of the popular Christian response to modernity, is little noted in Ditchkins. Having exalted himself above nature and placed himself at the high point of history, Enlightenment man falls prey to the chief “bourgeois fantasy,” that of the “self-authorship.” He can “extract from the world only the values he has placed in it.” The deracination of traditional sources of meaning in our increasingly rational civilization sends citizens scurrying to the realm of culture. The privatization of sex, art, and religion has freed these up as sources of cultural meaning independent of politics and as weapons of political critique, but at a great cost. Their “isolation from the public world causes them to become increasingly pathologized.”
Civilization, Eagleton insists, never fully leaves barbarism behind; purely instrumental, technical reason, having no roots in anything other than itself, can easily generate barbarism. Even science has roots; following a host of contemporary philosophers of science, Eagleton argues that science is built on assumptions, on a certain kind of faith. Even as it bestows enormous benefits—political, scientific, medicinal—modernity occludes from view certain incorrigible features of the human condition. Ditchkins is forced to treat the non-religious political horrors of the twentieth century as mere blips in the unfolding of evolutionary progress.
The only rational response to modernity, in Eagleton’s eminently reasonable view, is an emphatic yes and no. Narrow polemics force Ditchkins into dogmatic cheerleading, a dogmatism that generates the other of fundamentalism, whose irrationality only serves to confirm the original dogmatism.
From Ditchkins, one would never know that there are forms of Christianity reducible neither to fundamentalism nor to effete Unitarianism. There has been a sustained Christian tradition of scriptural commentary that acknowledges the autonomy of science and is quite self-conscious about its own hermeneutics.
Ditchkins reduces God to a sort of Loch Ness Monster for whose existence there is no convincing evidence. As Eagleton clarifies with help from Thomas Aquinas and contemporary interpreters such as Herb McCabe, God is not the big, bad daddy in the sky, “the largest and most powerful creature.” Neither is theology intended to explain the operations of nature. But it does respond to questions concerning “why there is anything in the first place, or why what we do have is actually intelligible to us.”
Of course, some contemporary Christians are easy targets for Ditchkins. They are not spared Eagleton’s wrath: the comic irrationality of the “young earth” movement; the theological despair of those who care more about securing a religious America than about their own religion; and the advocates of a Gospel of Success that skips Good Friday and turns Easter Sunday into a shopping spree at an upscale mall. By contrast, what Eagleton sees in the gospels are a persistent reminder that the “truth of history” is a “mutilated body” of a “tortured innocent.” There is “no self-fulfillment that is not a self-divestment.”
In response to naïve beliefs in progress, Eagleton notes that Christian theology affirms the “possibility of transforming history without the hubris of the idea of Progress.” The grand narrative of redemption will be seen only “retrospectively.” He quotes Benjamin, “Only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past.” But here we come to the problem that plagues Eagleton’s entire project: the failure to face squarely the truth claims at the heart of the gospel. Indeed, on this question, Ditchkins is at least more forthright than Eagleton.
The culminating work of final judgment and redemption, whose appointed hour we cannot know, is that of the providential author of the whole of history, not of capitalists or even—as Eagleton wants to believe—socialists constructing the promised land. The “mutilated body” is the truth of history in the gospels precisely because of whose body it is, not merely because it is yet another instance of the oppression of the marginalized.
The question is where all this leaves us politically. What we need, according to Eagleton, is culture and civilization—“sensuous particularity and universality, worker and citizen of the world, local allegiances and international solidarity, the free self-realization of flesh-and-blood individuals and a global cooperative commonwealth.” Eagleton admits that this Marxist vision has suffered a political rebuke, but he celebrates the migration of such a vision into contemporary theology. But what are we to make of that, especially for politics? On this decisive issue, Eagleton is decidedly fuzzy. Having offered a sobering account of modernity and of the deeper meaning of the gospels, he leaves himself entirely too open to the charge of naïve romanticism. Although he is acutely sensitive to the problems afflicting instrumental reason, he is much less concerned with the reduction of religion to a symbolic structure instrumental to political change.
Eagleton himself is not immune from trendiness. He is so busy trying to alter received views of Scripture that the result is sometimes unintentionally comic. On his version of the Decalogue, the prohibition of work on the Sabbath is not about “going to church,” but a sort of “health-and-welfare requirement” that we “take a break from labor.” He turns the commandment against adultery into a sort of Seinfeld rule that we not “exploit our sexual charm to break up other people’s relationships.” The underlying difficulty is that Eagleton cannot make up his mind whether he loves Jesus because he is who he says he is or because he remains the most inspiring symbol for revitalizing a socialism that is no longer defensible on its own terms.
Thomas Hibbs is the distinguished professor of ethics and culture and dean of the Honors College at Baylor University.