Monday, January 2, 2012

Reason, Faith, and Revolution

Any Good Books

Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate
Terry Eagleton (2009, Yale University Press)

I’m late to the party--Terry Eagleton delivered the lectures on which Reason, Faith, and Revolution is based in 2008, when Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens were making headlines with the so-called God Debate. Most prominently among a handful of high-powered scientists and social critics, they had published books (The God Delusion and God is not Great, respectively) proclaiming the imminent triumph of Reason and Science over Religion, which they characterized as necessarily superstitious and evil, something of which no good could possibly come.
Eagleton is not a believer himself, but he knows enough about what the Gospels say to vigorously contest that assessment. Mixed as the history of religious belief may be, it surely includes some good, and it’s only fair to acknowledge it. “Insofar as the faith I have described is neither stupid nor vicious, then I believe it is worth putting in a word for it against the enormous condescension of those like Ditchkins, who in a fine equipoise of arrogance and ignorance assert that all religious belief is repulsive. That a great deal of it is indeed repulsive, not to speak of nonsensical, is not a bone of contention between us.” (Conflating Dawkins and Hitchins as ‘Ditchkins’ is a rhetorical convenience. Eagleton does make distinctions, such as considering Hitchins the better writer, but heinously wrong in his support of the Iraq war.)
Eagleton easily makes his case that the militant atheists are arguing the wrong questions: “Science and theology are for the most part not talking about the same kind of things, any more than orthodontics and literary criticism are. This is one reason for the grotesque misunderstandings that arise between them.” Orthodox faith would actually agree with Ditchkins that God is not an entity to be looked for in the world, and hence the question ‘Does God exist?’ is the wrong question; but Ditchkins has not looked into the matter seriously enough to see what’s wrong with it.
In the real world, some people of faith are mindlessly dogmatic and others are not, and this is true whether what they are faithful to is God, science, or reason itself. The zealots, of whatever stripe, tend to resemble each other: “Hitchens dislikes people who ‘know they are right’ but most of the time he sounds very much like one of them himself.”
Eagleton himself is commendably willing to entertain exceptions to his arguments, and he gives due credit to dogma, in its place. “The liberal principles of freedom and tolerance are dogmas, and are none the worse for that. It is simply a liberal paradox that there must be something close-minded about open-mindedness and something inflexible about tolerance.” Whatever positions we hold, whatever dogmas we embrace, it behooves us to remember that we can’t prove them all: there’s no logical reason to suppose that logical reasoning can make sense of everything in the world. Nor is there any reason to suppose, with Ditchkins, that human beings are growing in moral stature faster than we’re developing the means to commit mayhem.
Eagleton’s own quarrel with Christianity is, all in spite of himself, a more passionate matter. In his reading, the gospel story is about a world turned upside down, where justice prevails and the hungry are fed. God’s presence on earth is presented as “homeless, propertyless, celibate, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, ...and a scourge of the rich and powerful.” A religious culture that pays obsessive attention to sexual purity and personal salvation has, in his view, gone sadly off the rails.
The notion of Christianity as the putative standard of the capitalist Free World is, if anything, even more of a travesty. “Apart from the signal instance of Stalinism, it is hard to think of a historical movement that has more squalidly betrayed its own revolutionary origins. Christianity long ago shifted from the side of the poor and dispossessed to that of the rich and aggressive.” In fact, says Eagleton, “Advanced capitalism is inherently agnostic.” But we don’t like to admit it. We don’t want to live as though the bottom line were the last word; dogmatic religiosity is one natural reaction.
But we are living in a time when our hope lies in facing our situation authentically. It’s more than possible that we will not be able to solve our problems by more aggressiveness on the one hand, or more cogitation on the other. “In the end, only love (of which faith is a particular form) can achieve the well-nigh impossible goal of seeing a situation as it really is, shorn of both the brittle enchantments of romance and the disheveled fantasies of desire.”
This book is a feast; there is far more richness its 170 pages than I have room to tell you about. The author of some forty books, Eagleton is as erudite and witty as he is prolific. If I’m ever tempted to try to read about literary theory, or Marxism, I’ll be sure to start with him; he brings valuable insights to the subjects I already like.

Email January 2012