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Learning Theology from Terry Eagleton

Monday, 21 September 2015  | Geoff Thompson

Terry Eagleton is a leading British intellectual. Still going strong at the age of 71, he’s now Professor of Literature at Lancaster University. Unless they were already students of his writings on Marxism, Cultural Theory or Literature, many Christians became interested in his work through his famous 2006 review of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. The review became famous for several reasons, but none more so than its potent opening sentence. It’s hard to resist giving it another airing: “Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is the Book of British Birds, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology.” This sentence also gives you a rough idea of what it feels like to read Eagleton: his style is witty, pugnacious and daring.

After that review there followed a series of lectures, essays and books in which Eagleton challenged the New Atheists to lift their game. Along the way, in his own inimitable style, he invented a new word: Ditchkins. This enabled him cheekily to conflate into one signifier the ideological identity between Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. More importantly, however, he emerged as a somewhat unusual phenomenon: a public intellectual well-informed about Christian theology.

But he’s unusual in another sense also. Whilst clear about his Catholic upbringing, he holds the cards of his present beliefs close to his chest. His critique of contemporary atheism is not that of a Christian apologist. Neither is his advocacy of Christian thought. There are no altar calls at the end of his lectures. He is quite distinct from the Christian academics who become apologists for the Christian faith on the basis of being, for instance, scientists or lawyers or sociologists who also happen to be believers. For some reason their scientific, legal or sociological expertise is taken automatically to confer an authority on their faith and theology, even when the latter is quite undeveloped.

Eagleton is not—and doesn’t seek to be—a theologian. Nor does he write to edify Christians. He writes about theology only because he writes about culture, politics and the history of ideas for people who study culture, politics and the history of ideas. For example, in his recent book, Culture and the Death of God (Yale University Press, 2014), he explores the birth and development of modern culture. The book is a fast-paced overview of the various trajectories of thought that stem from the Enlightenment, especially as manifest in philosophical idealism, romanticism, Marxism and postmodernism. His basic claim is quite straightforward:

The history of the modern age is among other things the search for a viceroy for God. Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, Society, the Other, desire, the life force and personal relations: all of these have acted from time to time as forms of displaced divinity (p.44).

For the champions of modernity this story of displacement is a story of liberation from the political and intellectual clutches of Christianity. For Eagleton, however, the displacement of divinity has yielded cultural losses alongside cultural gains. And some of the losses, he says, stem from a failure of the founders of modern culture to understand what they were rejecting.

According to Eagleton, some modern thinkers, “too dewy eyed about humanity”, dismissed the doctrine of sin as demeaning. In doing so they surrendered the moral realism intrinsic to the Christian doctrine of sin. This doctrine can function as an invitation to take a “soberly realistic account of the tenacity of human egoism, the persistence of violence and self-delusion, the arrogance of power, the compulsive recurrence of conflict [and] the fragility of virtue”. For Eagleton, a culture that bypasses sin is a culture intent on “buying [its] cheerfulness on the cheap”. (For all these quotes see p. 92.)

Where modern thinkers transferred ultimate authority from God to humanity, what they handed over to humanity was an exaggerated, non-Christian view of divine authority, thus inflating humanity’s importance in its own eyes. Eagleton pounces on the theological error. “It is theological orthodoxy to hold that the sovereignty of God is not that of a despot, however benevolent, but a power which allows the world to be itself. It is thus a critique of human sovereignty, not a prototype of it” (p.143). Misreading the theology it was rejecting, modernity did not entirely insulate itself from despots.

Eagleton is just as willing to correct those Enlightenment thinkers who, not without a hint of condescension, were prepared to tolerate an intellectually less scandalous, de-mythologised form of Christianity because it could still function as the moral teacher of the unenlightened common people. This was a strategy to use a trimmed down religion to preserve social order. Eagleton’s riposte to this is to highlight another – less patronising – reason why religion might claim the allegiance of the masses; one that might subvert rather than maintain social or political stability: “[T]he Jewish Bible presents Yahweh as a champion of the poor and powerless, a non-deity who spurs religious cult, rails against fetishism and idolatry, refuses a title and image and sets his people free from slavery” (p.137).

Ultimately, Eagleton wonders whether the divinity which was displaced by modern culture, especially modern high culture, was little more than a fetish in the first place, a fetish helped along by the church’s distortions of its own faith. Eagleton reminds his readers of the God proclaimed in the Christian gospel:

[T]he God of Christianity is friend, lover and fellow accused, not judge, patriarch and superego. He is counsel for the defence, not for the prosecution. … For Christian faith, the death of God is not a question of his disappearance. On the contrary, it is one of the places where he is most fully present….[Jesus] is a sign that God is incarnate in human frailty and futility. Only by living this reality to the full, experiencing one’s death to the very end, can there be a path beyond the tragic (p.160).

Many will contest Eagleton’s reading of modernity as well as his understanding of Christianity. But it is refreshing to see Christian ideas projected onto an expansive intellectual and cultural canvas, and especially by someone with none of the usual ecclesiastical axes to grind.

Most of us learn and fine-tune our theology through our participation in the domestic theological disputes of the church. This is fine, but we risk learning to talk theology only to ourselves. Eagleton’s example reminds us that Christian ideas of God, salvation, creation, sin, hope and love can be communicated and articulated in public, and that those ideas can contribute to the formation and repair of culture. For Eagleton this is less a process of translation and more one of explanation. He doesn’t seek an idiom through which Christian ideas will (supposedly) become immediately intelligible to the uninitiated. He takes the time to explain them. He appears confident that they are not simply dispensable products of sundry ideological forces; they actually possess content worth understanding. He is also confident that they can be communicated and that their meaning can thereby be carried into contemporary discussions.

From Eagleton’s grasp of Christian theology, and his confidence to resist the cultural embargo often placed over it, there is much to learn. It may be one of the ways theology, and deep discussions about Christianity, become genuinely public.

Geoff Thompson teaches systematic theology at Pilgrim Theological College in Melbourne and blogs at Zenizonta: Strange Things.

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