Terry Eagleton is a literary theorist and cultural critic, someone who reflects on the nature of literature, what it accomplishes in individuals, reading communities, and culture, as well as how various forces (from the psychological to the political) shape it. This activity became prominent in literary studies about thirty years or so ago, and Eagleton played a leading role in its development. His book An Introduction to Literary Theory, written in 1983, has been massively influential. Theory has proceeded down a track that is largely relativistic and has little interest in Christianity, except as a historical artefact. This exception is itself ironic, since one of the great insights of theory is that we look at history through coloured lenses; those worn and proffered by most literary and cultural theorists leave historic and traditioned Christianity so distorted as to be virtually unrecognizable.
All of this makes it even more ironic that Eagleton should have become a witty defender of theism and of crucial tenets of Christian belief. True, Eagleton was raised Catholic, but his Catholicism was easily overlooked in the early days of his influence as a theorist. In Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), the cultural theorist takes on one of the great debates of our time, arguments about the existence of God and the viability of religion in the light of scientific knowledge. Richard Dawkins is an icon of the atheistic assault on religion and Eagleton launches a counterattack with a review in a cultural magazine of the scientific popularizer’s The God Delusion. His essential point is that Dawkins displays about as much engagement with theology as someone armed only with the Book of British Birds could with biology.
Reason, Faith, and Revolution meditates on the utter transcendence of God. “Not being any sort of entity himself, he is not to be reckoned up alongside these things, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects” (8), Eagleton observes. The doctrine of the complete separation of Creator from the creaturely realm renders senseless arguments for causality and anxieties about origins, which Dawkins and others seem to imagine Christians are concerned to make and which they attempt to rebut. This separation can produce an emphasis on the limits of what humans can know, or it can lead to reflection on the nature of the love of God. The work of the Creator cannot be need-based. Rather, it is utterly gratuitous and establishes everlastingly the limitation of utilitarian thinking. God does not need yet acts and creates; our being cannot be comprehended by any calculus based on purpose. As the medieval mystic Julian says, “love was his meaning.”
Such a state of affairs can leave one to think we are the random playthings of an arbitrary God. The loving nature of God is crucial. Eagleton reminds us that God becomes the ground of our freedom:
For orthodox Christian doctrine, it is our dependence on God that allows us to be self-determining, as it is our dependence on language or history or culture which allows us to come into our own as persons. God for Thomas Aquinas is the power that allows us to be ourselves, rather as the love of our parents allows us to be ourselves. (16-17)
There’s something here for those who imagine that we need to rid ourselves of the notion of God to enter into the land of freedom and for those (perhaps thinking that Eagleton would stay closer to his roots in literary theory) who think that language is arbitrary, available for our uses though always smashing differences.
Eagleton also braids in reflection on the nature of rationality, given that for many sceptics science and religion are utterly incompatible in such terms. Using Einstein’s observation that “the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible,” Eagleton muses:
There are those for whom the spectacular successes of science have rendered religion redundant; and there are others for whom those successes spring from a fundamental fact – that our minds seem somehow attuned to the fundamental stuff of the world – which is itself a cause for metaphysical reflection. (12)
This “attunement” suggests again something already given, a relationship between Creator and rational creature more paradoxical than our models of atomized beings and utilitarian relations allow. Rationality is affirmed but enfolded.
Eagleton makes the bulk of his funny and disarming argument against the culturally noisy chorus of Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and others in short order. While comfortable with theism and deeply engaged with the body politic, he does not persuasively put himself within the Christian tradition of theological reflection and commitment. Yet his clear grasp of the way utilitarian thinking vitiates such thinking makes this foray into “the God debate” a valuable and pleasurable resource for the Christian reader.
St Jerome’s University
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