April 19, 2009
This fashionably battered-looking book contains a series of lectures on faith and reason given by Terry Eagleton at Yale University (the video below is the first of the four part series). They address, in a loose way, the current trend of liberal humanist atheism, which as Eagleton rightly observes, has made the violent proliferation of the capitalist enterprise possible and reduced religion to a sentimental placeholder. The flipside (or antithesis) to this reductive dismisal is of course the recent crop of new age spirituality that has replaced, or at least bastardized, much of Western Christianity. Indeed, this is what Marx was getting at when he referred to Christianity as an mass opiate. How fitting, then, that this lecture was given at Yale. Using the New Testament, Eagleton attacks American evangelical obsessions family values, sexual conservatism and even takes a jab at Obama's "Yes we can."
Among Eagleton's wittier contributions to the debate is a decision to treat the "couplet" of Richard Dawkins and his former friend/colleague Christopher Hitchens as a bland sythesis named "Ditchkins." God, Eagleton notes, is a perpetual critique of instrumental reason; and on this level, "Ditchkins" is quite right. Creation, in the Judeo-Chrisitan tradition, is utterly pointless and altogether unnecessary.
Does Christianity breed fantasy and escapism? Hardly, observes Eagleton. Christianity is (almost) disappointly materialistic and unglamorous. Practices of sacrifice and acceptance are at the heart of Christian discipleship. Though it may at first sound solipsistic, Christianity turns out to be its own best critique - which is to say, things turn sour (or untheological) precisely when Christianity is a convenient or comfortable option, as it is for most affluent North Americans. In this way, God turns out to be the enemy of religion.
This isnt' the first time Eagleton has stolen from the resources of the Judeo-Christian tradition to further his own critical Marxist enterprise. As he admits in his lecture, he grew up out of the Catholic tradition and like his (formerly Marxist) contemporary Alasdair MacIntyre, was a student of the great Catholic theologian, Herbert McCabe. Surprisingly enough, Eagleton gets most of his theology quite right (except for the comment on Christ's lack of historical forsight, but we'll forgive that one for now).