Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Truth Lies Somewhere In Between

I've started reading Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale, 2009), after dragging my feet because there were so many other things I needed to read. But now it's due at the library in a couple of days, and I've run out of renewals, so it may be a while before I finish it. (No way am I going to spend money on it.) I have read the first 25 or so pages, though, and while I agree with some of what Eagleton says, much of it is wackery. He reminds me slightly of Philip Kitcher, whom I wrote about here before, because of his attempt to distance himself both from religious conservatives and the New Atheists -- especially Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, whom he schmears together with donnish humor as "Ditchkins", hur hur hur. So, I reject religious conservatives and I reject the New Atheists, but I also reject those who try to split the difference like Eagleton, Kitcher, and Chris Hedges. Where does that leave me?

For those who don't know, Eagleton is a Marxist literary critic of Irish Catholic extraction at Oxford University, a former student of the great Raymond Williams. I believe I tried to read one of his books, perhaps his attack on postmodernism, but for various reasons never finished it either; it might have been the one I'd seen reviewed in The New York Times, where Eagleton evidently raved about the barbarians at the gates of academe with their dirty French philosophies. He's cute, but cute don't get the job done.

The more I read, the more it seemed that Eagleton is not really an atheist, but a Christian. He says not, though he mentions having been influenced by liberation theology in his college days. Still, he writes (or rather talks -- the book was originally a set of lectures, very chatty in tone) like a fighting liberal priest who's not afraid to talk to the young. For instance:
There is a document that records God's endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible. God the Creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it. ... The Creation is the original acte gratuit [8].
Eagleton's existentialist roots are showing here. But, of course, the Bible is not a "document" but an anthology of documents; if it depicts Yahweh's "endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion", it also shows him setting up that organized religion he's struggling with, right down to the dimensions of the Tabernacle and, eventually, the Temple; that's when his engineering side comes into play. Sometimes he pretends he's not interested in sacrifices (the sweet smell of burning fat in which he delights), but at other times he complains that the cattle are scrawny, blemished, and not numerous enough. (As I've said before, the Bible is the ultimate source of the Borscht Belt joke about the food here being terrible -- and such small portions.) He's not even averse to sacrificing the occasional virgin. And overall there's the pity party for Yahweh, poor little guy, he gets no respect, sometimes it gets him down.
The world thus belongs to that exceedingly rare class of objects which, in a way that would have delighted the heart of Oscar Wilde, exist entirely for their own sake and for no drearily utilitarian end -- a category which along with God includes art, evil, and humanity. It is part of the world's sharing in God's own freedom that it works all by itself. Unlike George Bush, God is not an interventionist kind of ruler [9].
Just to nitpick, it doesn't sound like his class of non-utilitarian objects is really all that "rare," since it would have to include everything in the world as well as the world itself. But how do you like that timely bit about George Bush? However, Yahweh as depicted in that "document" the Bible is very much an interventionist kind of ruler, quite hands-on in fact: walking around the Garden of Eden at dusk, kicking out Adam and Eve when they disobey, killing everything in the world because he was peeved at humanity, visiting Abraham and opening Sarah's womb, sending plagues on Egypt, rejecting Saul in favor of David, and neither last nor least, sending his Son to die on the cross for the sins of humanity.  No sparrow shall fall, and the hairs on your head are numbered, bitchez. To this day he's cooking up tsunamis and earthquakes, famines and viruses, just to keep us on our toes. The doctrine of Yahweh as not just creator but sustainer of the world is found in the Bible as well as in later theologians. That he is "interventionist" is a pillar of modern apologetic theology: Yahweh intervenes in history, unlike those pagan gods who just run around in cycles.  With his Thomist background (and he has quite a boner for Aquinas), Eagleton must know all this, but he's got all this fine blarney to unreel for our entertainment.
For theology, science does not start far back enough -- not in the sense that it fails to posit a Creator, but that it does not ask questions such as why there is anything in the first place, or why what we do have is actually intelligible to us. Perhaps these are phony questions anyway; some philosophers certainly think so. But theologians, as Rowan Williams has argued, are interested in the question of why we ask for explanations at all, or why we assume that the universe hangs together in a way that makes explanation possible [13].
Funny, in my experience it has been precisely philosophers who asked such questions, including philosophers of science. The theologians I've read usually don't write about such interesting stuff, they're usually trying to reconcile the Bible with Plato or Aristotle or Heidegger or Charles Schulz. In general, Eagleton seems to talk about "theologians" when he means "philosophers," but it sounds like he's still stuck in the era of logical positivism, when a clique of mostly British philosophers did claim that such questions were bogus, and that was around the time when Eagleton was in college. But things have changed since then.
The morality Jesus preaches is reckless, extravagant, improvident, over-the-top, a scandal to actuaries and a stumbling block to real estate agents: forgive your enemies, give away your cloak as well as your coat, turn the other cheek, love those who insult you, walk the extra mile, take no thought for the morrow [14].
While Eagleton was revisiting the Sermon on the Mount, he should have noticed the bits about cutting off your arm and plucking out your eye to avoid sin, lest your whole body be cast into Hell. But that's not quite compatible with Jesus the Warm Fuzzy Hippie, I guess, so he leaves it out, along with becoming a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven and observing every jot and tittle of the Torah, the lesser commandments along with the greater.
Jesus probably preached this kind of ethic because he thought the end of the world was just around the corner, which turns out to have been rather a grave miscalculation. His sense of history seems to have been a little awry. ... Even so, it is not quite the kind of morality one associates with chartered accountants or oil executives [15].
Oh, that's all right then. But I don't go along with the bogus loaded alternatives Eagleton posits here: either take no thought for the morrow, or become an oil executive. That's the sort of fake choices I most associate with religious believers, though I admit they're not the only ones guilty of it. And it is entertaining when Eagleton quotes Hitchens fuming like a Dickensian miser or an American Teabagger about Jesus' lifestyle choice: "The analogy of humans to lilies ... suggests -- along with many other injunctions -- that things like thrift, innovation, family life, and so forth are a sheer waste of time". But it doesn't appear that Eagleton is any more interested than Hitchens is in actually emulating Jesus in this respect; he doesn't live on pure thoughts and the kindness of strangers, he's a hardworking professor and a prolific author (forty or so books, and recently a visiting faculty at Notre Dame University). He goes on (and on and on):
Because God is transcendent -- that's to say, because he doesn't need humanity, having fashioned it just for the fun of it -- he is not neurotically possessive of us [15].
Really? We're talking about Yahweh here, remember, Yahweh the jealous god, his name is Jealous, and you shall have no god but Yahweh, or he shall strip you naked before your lovers, et cetera, et cetera. "Neurotically possessive" is just how I'd describe the god of that "document" the Bible. Like most theologians and religious laymen, Eagleton makes up a god he likes to think about, and projects it onto the Bible, even though his fantasy clashes in many obvious ways with the picture of Yahweh most readers find there.

Eagleton does say in the Preface that he's just trying "to 'ventriloquize' what I take to be a version of the Christian gospel relevant to radicals and humanists[;] I do not wish to be mistaken for a dummy" (xii). But since he accuses 'Ditchkins' and their ilk of "writ[ing] off a worthless caricature of the real [New Testament], rooted in a degree of ignorance and prejudice to to match religion's own" (xi), he's casting the first stone in a glass house. Except that Eagleton clearly isn't ignorant: he's disingenuous.

Eagleton claims that
the Jewish and Christian religions have much to say about some vital questions -- death, suffering, love, self-dispossession, and the like -- on which the left has for the most part maintained an embarrassed silence [xii].
I don't think so -- that is, I don't think that the left has "for the most part" been silent on such issues; it's exactly the left that has dealt with them in ways that made sense to me; and I don't agree that the Jewish and Christian religions have much to say about those vital questions. Or rather, they do have a lot to say, but what they have to say is usually inhumane, irrelevant, and downright wrong. Sure, some Jewish and Christian writers have contributed useful ideas to my worldview, but they were not, as far as I can tell, representative of their faiths. (Most of the numerous Jewish writers I've learned from were aggressively non-observant.) Which reminds me, at one point Eagleton tries to adduce Spinoza as a "key theorist of toleration ... a Jewish rationalist who was also a mystic" (18), conveniently neglecting the facts that Spinoza's god was not the God of the Hebrew Bible, and that Spinoza was thrown out of the synagogue for his heterodox views.

Finally, there's this popular evasion:
For it is of course always easier to buy one's rejection of a belief system on the cheap, by (for example) triumphantly dismissing a version of Christianity that only seriously weird types, some of them lurking sheepishly in caves too ashamed to come out and confront the rest of us, would espouse in the first place [5].
You know what I'm talkin' about -- Christians love to complain that critics of the faith are either attacking a totally fabricated straw man, or are stereotyping all Christians on the basis of a few bad apples like Fred Phelps or that marginal guy with the pointy hat in the Vatican. The trouble with Christianity as far as I'm concerned lies in the New Testament itself (though it can of course always be reinterpreted to mean whatever one likes) and in versions of Christianity that are held by millions of ordinary believers. Dismissing them as "seriously weird types" is a popular way to try to distract critics from the real problems, but it's 1) dishonest and 2) doesn't work with me. I always ask the people who use this tactic which version of Christianity I should go by, then, and that's how I developed my rejection of that belief system -- not on the cheap, but by doing quite a bit of study, more than most Christians do. So I can say pretty confidently that the version of Christianity that Eagleton is "ventriloquizing" here is espoused only by a few seriously weird types, not lurking in caves but, like Eagleton, in Oxford and the Notre Dame campus. It's based on a shamelessly selective reading of the Bible generally and of the gospels in particular, which means that Eagleton is relying on the ignorance of his audience and their readiness to believe the best about Christianity, whatever the facts may be.