Terry Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) 185 pp., hardcover.
Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010) 185 pp., hardcover.
Two of the most important contributions to theological discourse in recent years have come from the perhaps unlikely pens of a Marxist literary theorist and a novelist. We have Reason, Faith, and Revolution and Absence of Mind courtesy of Yale’s Terry Lectures, instituted, according to their deed of gift, to the end of “building of the truths of science and philosophy into the structure of a broadened and purified religion.” Past luminaries have included Paul Tillich, whose Courage to Be resulted from his residency, and Hans Kung, who produced Freud and the Problem of God.
Terry Eagleton’s volume, as the title suggests, is the more straightforwardly theological work. It is a frank and unrelenting attack on “The New Atheists.” Eagleton’s lectures are not a tour d’horizon of this genre so much as a particular interpretation of the philosophy and politics of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, whom he memorably collects under the name “Ditchkins.” Ditchkins, Eagleton argues, does not understand Christianity. The New Atheists treat religions as pseudo-scientific explanations of the origin and operation of the universe. “In this sense, he [Daniel Dennett, author of Breaking the Spell] is rather like someone who considers a novel a botched piece of sociology, and therefore can’t see the point of it all” (16). Eagleton has a gift for analogy when it comes to identifying the category mistakes rife in the literature of the New Atheists: “anymore than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects,” he says, God is not a distinct super-agent over against the world (8). “There is no more need for scientists to raise these questions [about the intelligibility of the world and the role of the human mind in grasping it] than for trapeze artists to do so” (13). Likewise, Christian religion is not primarily about cultivating virtue, much less upholding traditional hierarchies of power and privilege, and still less than that about blanketing the direness of the human condition with comforting denial.
For Christian teaching, God’s love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law. Which is to say that those who are faithful to God’s law of justice and compassion will be done away with by the state. If you don’t love, you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety…. Freud saw religion as a mitigation of the harshness of the human condition; but it would surely be at least as plausible to claim that what we call reality is a mitigation of the Gospel’s ruthless demands, which include such agreeable acts of escapism as being ready to lay down your life for a total stranger (13).
This briskness of style is the book’s chief strength, at least for the working preacher or theologian who needs to be armed against both the casual distortions of the New Atheism genre and the introverted ways of thinking that develop within the Church. There is plenty for an orthodox or even a conventionally heterodox Lutheran to take issue with here, but it is an account of Christianity that deserves consideration.
Eagleton’s project expands as the book continues, and it becomes clear that politics is at the heart of it. Eagleton does not admire the technocratic, Progressive mindset that undergirds much of the New Atheism, but rather sees in it an ideological justification for out-of-control capitalism and empire. In this context, Christianity offers a language and a worldview that can resist the malignant and dehumanizing forces that increasingly, in his depiction, define modern politics. Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate is ultimately a protest against the demoralized and deracinated ideologies that drive both left and right in the age of the War on Terror.
At first blush, Marilynne Robinson’s Absence of Mind, which followed Reason, Faith, and Revolution in the Yale series, could not seem more different. Robinson’s writing owes a great deal to New England Calvinism and the culture of the Middle West, where she has taught for years at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Eagleton, by contrast, grew up Catholic and forged his academic identity as a Marxist in the British university system. Eagleton’s raillery is loud and upfront, whereas Robinson skewers her subjects with a cooler style of irony. Eagleton addresses the broad polemics of the atheist headliners, while Robinson focuses on the specific claims of evolutionary psychologists who, on her account, have sought not just to establish the foolishness of religion but also to lay all the mysteries of human subjectivity open to their method.
For this genre, typified by Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell, Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works, and E.O. Wilson’s On Human Nature, Robinson coins the term “parascientific literature”:
By this phrase I mean a robust, and surprisingly conventional, genre of social or political theory or anthropology that makes its case by proceeding, using the science of its moment, from a genesis of human nature in primordial life to a set of general conclusions about what our nature is and must be, together with the ethical, political, economic and/or philosophic implications to be drawn from these conclusions (32-33).
This literature, whose logical and evidentiary failings she critiques in some detail, is only part of a long train of modern ideologies that have impoverished life not, she claims, because they have banished religion from the Western world but because they have excluded the mind’s own accounts of itself. This is the common theme among the otherwise incompatible ideologies of Marxism, Freudianism, behaviorism, and now evolutionary psychology. Theology has absorbed this parascientific worldview to a great degree, and yet has managed to avoid the self-extinction that would reasonably follow such an absorption. This suggests to Robinson that theology’s “real life is elsewhere, in a place not reached by these doubts and assaults” (35).
Of the book’s four chapters, the first two, on the parascience of human nature and on the modern history of altruism, are the most successful. This is so primarily because Robinson does not challenge the deep premise of evolutionary psychology — that the human mind is an evolved organ — but rather the applications of Darwinian theory to the obvious complexity of the mind. It is not a churlish book, in other words, and not nostalgic for an imagined age in which people had the decency not to ask certain questions. A third chapter on Freud is fascinating on its own but something of a detour. And the last chapter, “Thinking Again,” brings the reader to ground that many of us have explored with Robinson in her powerfully inward novels Housekeeping, Gilead, and Home or in her awe-filled essay “Psalm 8” from The Death of Adam. What we might in theology class call her constructive sections here are, at times, too impressionistic to offer to a fully realized alternative to the parascientific view, but her general point is well taken:
What is man? One answer on offer is, An organism whose haunting questions perhaps ought not to be meaningful to the organ that generates them, lacking as it is in any means of “solving” them. Another answer might be, It is still to soon to tell. We might be the creature who brings life on this planet to an end, and we might be the creature who awakens to the privileges that inhere in our nature — selfhood, consciousness, even our biologically anomalous craving for “the truth” — and enjoys and enhances them. Mysteriously, neither possibility precludes the other. Our nature will describe itself as we respond to new circumstances in a world that changes continuously. So long as the human mind exists to impose itself on reality, as it has already done so profoundly, what it is and what we are must remain an open question. (131)
Both of these books are challenging reads, and not only in their density of composition and allusion. They deal with questions of rather vast import, and by the nature of the enterprise they are less concerned with the truth of Christian claims than most of us are when we preach. But they are valuable to the theologian of pulpit or classroom for that very reason. These books are uninvested in the parochial disputes of the church but very deeply invested in the cultural milieu in which our debates play out and find either a resonant echo or dull silence. People in our pews and classrooms are exposed to the ideas of “Ditchkins” and the parascientific writers all the time, as often as not without knowing it. We need to engage with them, too.
Moreover, both books make a claim ultimately not for religion as much as for old-fashioned humanism. Both Eagleton and Robinson see a foreclosure of imagination — political, literary, psychological — in the literature of Ditckins and the parascientists. The hostility in this literature to God is just a baffle, one suspects, for the real target — a humanity that can describe itself, thirst for truth and meaning, and hunger for a righteous world and a redeemed existence. In this sense, it might be observed that the Terry Lecturers have taken a curious turn from the days of Paul Tillich. Where once the cutting edge of theological inquiry was eager to fit the content of theology in the form of culture, these two entries in the series urge us to remain unconformed to the smallness of the age.
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