Eagleton approaches Christianity

Just before Christmas, in a fit of last minute reading before the proposal went in, I read Terry Eagleton’s most recent book called Reason, Faith and Revolution. Some of the material is available in question and answer format here and although this post is not a review of the work, an email from Gavan last week reminded me that the book may be more roadmap than polemic.  It is a series of four lectures which criticises Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (or Ditchkins) for selling their rationalist critique of faith and religion too cheaply. Dawkins, a natural scientist, and Hitchens, an essayist, publicly proclaim their atheism with all of the zealotry of preachers. In doing this, Eagleton says, they undermine the basis of their rationalism and feed neo-conservative politics and a narrow liberalism with fodder. Eagleton is clever in his depiction of their respective positions and writes humbly about something he professes to know little about – Christian theology. I liked the book so much, I bought a another copy of it and gave it as a gift to one of my family. That’s the kind of proselyting family we are: no use extolling the virtues of a particular writer, you have to read the book.

Theo Hobson’s review of the book at Cif Belief says that Eagleton’s book is an attempt at Christian apologetics. Notwithstanding my own limited understanding of this monicker, it would never have struck me during my reading of it that Eagleton is nothing short of a reconstructed Marxist who has let go of the notion that world is composed of iron laws and material manifestations of market value. But Hobson ends with a question:

Why is he so cagey about his Christian sympathy? I just said that he is like a student, in a good sense, of being still a sort of seeker. But perhaps he also resembles a student in that he can’t quite bear the uncoolness of allowing the Christian label to stick to him.

The characterisation of Eagleton as a student who cannot bear the uncoolness of the Christian label (as opposed to the ahem, Dior label) is apt all the same. There’s a lot of it about  at the moment but Eagleton is perhaps the most prominent English-language apologist. Ireland is not short of them either with professedly-secular progressives approaching  Christianity with fresh eyes, albeit warily. Others like Karen Armstrong might inform them that religion is in the practice, not just in its professions of faith. Iris Robinson is doing her best impression of Tammy Faye Messner, helpfully putting much needed breathing space between integrity and hypocrisy. While I don’t expect to see Fintan O’Toole being doorstepped at Christ the King just yet, 2010 might be a year where we stop using that awful term lapsed Catholic. There’s a Census in 2011 and if a few hundred thousand more people tick something other than ‘Catholic’, it won’t panic this researcher of religion. Then at least the word Christian might get some more intellectual space to be re-evaluated.

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6 thoughts on “Eagleton approaches Christianity

  1. Eagleton is a literary charlatan and a dishonest polemicist to boot! He constructs a strawman of an argument (a species of christianity that no one believes in – not even himself), and a fictitious adversary (Ditchkins)and gives a series of lectures peppered with over clever sideswipes to an American audience to whom he probably appears as a witty eccentric Englishmen (Irishman?).

    See the following for a much more articulate rebuttal than I could muster.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/05/the_eagleton_delusion.php

  2. PZ Myers needs to stop taking cheap flights that are more prone to delays. It seems he didn’t like the book much and I know this because of the number of exclamation marks he uses.

  3. PZ Myers’s review is bone-headed nonsense.

    I read Eagleton’s book a few months back and liked it a lot. However I don’t know what you mean by reconstructed Marxist; there was nothing in the book that necessarily contradicts a Marxist politics. He was concerned with the specific conditions that generated the sort of vulgar atheism that Hitchens and Dawkins are able to find such a willing audience for.

    For Hobson to declare that ‘Marxism is not compatible with the idea of fallenness’ strikes me as indicating that he’s not familiar with Marx’s theory of alienation, as explicated by István Mészáros, among others.

    If you have had the misfortune to read Žižek and Millbank’s The Monstrosity of Christ, or less unfortunately, Žižek’s The Puppet and The Dwarf, you’ll know that Žižek is clearly sympathetic to Christian theology, but there is no chance of him getting described as Christian. Even though Eagleton has a religious background, it may just be that he doesn’t believe in God anymore, which I would imagine is a prerequisite for calling oneself a Christian. As for Eagleton being the most prominent English-language apologist, I’d compare the sales for Reason, Faith and Revolution by with Cornel West’s Brother West (who does call himself a Christian). OK, so Brother West is not a work of apologetics as such, but it gives a sense of the relative prominence of both.

  4. Hugh, thanks for your comment. By reconstructed I mean that he believes in something other than just the labour theory of value and false consciousness. I’m not familiar with Mészáros but I take your point.

    As for the Milbank / Žižek book, I was sent a copy before Christmas and am trying to get through the Davies chapter in order to ease myself into it. It’s not an easy read but allegedly it is worth it. ‘Belief’ in a Christian God is certainly not a prerequisite for an understanding of theology and I’m not even sure it is for a profession of faith in Christ but last autumn I asked the question if there’s such a thing as postmodern theology. I regret asking that question now.

    Davies describes ideology as the gap between belief and understanding in that first chapter of The Monstrosity of Christ and it is from here that I’m beginning to see how postmodern theolog(ies) might work.

  5. Eoin, I suppose I should clarify what I meant by belief in God – I was dealing with the particular theological sense that Eagleton himself ascribes to the term, where (somewhere) he notes that the grammar of ‘belief in God’ is not the same as belief in the Loch Ness Monster. In the case of belief in the labour theory of value, perhaps one can believe in it in the same way as one believes in God, but I think it would be of the same order of belief as belief in the Loch Ness Monster, i.e. belief in the definite existence of a particular object that cannot be easily apprehended by empirical observation and deduction.

    The MoC is tough going indeed. To be honest I thought the introduction by Davis promised far more than the book revealed, and Žižek’s contributions were bizarre and Milbank’s were (to my sensibilities anyway) scary in their neo-feudalist implications.

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