19 Aug

With enemies like this . . .

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 08/19/09

The spurt of books published in the past few years by fervent, fundamentalist atheists has seen a predictable sequel in a crop of titles by the critics of the critics of religion. The most stimulating of these critiques may have been written by a man who makes no claims of personal Christian commitment.

Alister McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion (InterVarsity Press, 2007) was a brief point-by-point refutation of claims made by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion. In Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale, 2009), David Bentley Hart focuses on the most outrageous claim made by the "New Atheists," that the history of the West was more cruel and ugly because of Christianity than it would have been otherwise. "Many of today's most obstreperous critics of Christianity," writes Hart, "know nothing more of Christendom's two millennia than a few childish images of bloodthirsty crusaders and sadistic inquisitors, a few damning facts, and a great number of even more damning legends; to such critics, obviously, Christians ought not to surrender the past but should instead deepen their own collective memory of what the gospel has been in human history." Such a deepening is what Hart's book succeeds in encouraging. (My interview with Hart about his book will be heard on volume 98 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal.)

Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale, 2009) presents the lightly manicured texts of four lectures given last year in which Eagleton—a brilliant literary critic and unabashed Marxist—offered a blistering dismissal of arguments made by Dawkins and by Christopher Hitchens in God Is Not Great. This artful shellacking was a continuation of the 2006 review ("Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching") that Eagleton fired at Dawkins's book in the London Review of Books, a review which memorably began, "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."

Eagleton's witty deconstruction of the two-headed "Ditchkins" (the Dickensian persona he employs to signify these two authors and their genus) provides the impetus for this book, but not its substance. In the Preface, Eagleton writes that he has a larger goal than simply rebuking the "ignorance and prejudice" of Ditchkins. "If the agnostic left [among whom we assume Eagleton is numbered] cannot afford such intellectual indolence when it comes to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, it is not only because it belongs to justice and honesty to confront your opponent at his or her most convincing. It is also that radicals might discover there some valuable insight into human emancipation, in an era where the political left stands in dire need of good ideas. . . . [These] scriptures have much to say about some vital questions—death, suffering, love, self-dispossession, and the life—on which the left has for the most part maintained an embarrassed silence. It is time for this politically crippling shyness to come to an end."

Contrary to what some might be led to infer from this claim, Eagleton is not ransacking the Bible for superficial sources of political leverage. His interaction with Christian thought is much deeper than that and is marked by some remarkable insights into the meaning of faith, reason, creation, love, and sacrifice.

Take, for example, Eagleton's treatment of the relationship between faith and reason. Early in the book, Eagleton observes that "Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on in neither of those places." Later (in a chapter called "Faith and Reason"), Eagleton observes: "We might clarify the relations between faith and knowledge here with an analogy. If I am in love with you, I must be prepared to explain what it is about you I find so lovable, otherwise the word 'love' here has no more meaning than a grunt. I must supply reasons for my affection. But I am also bound to acknowledge that someone else might wholeheartedly endorse my reasons yet not be in love with you at all. The evidence by itself will not decide the issue. At some point along the line, a particular way of seeing the evidence emerges, one which involves a peculiar kind of personal engagement with it; and none of this is reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them."

While he is a staunch critic of cocky postmodern irrationalism, Eagleton is eager to make rationalists feel the pressure that "[i]f we are to defend reason, we must be inspired by more than reason to do so." And as to the notion that science is simply the exercise of pure reason, Eagleton quotes Charles Taylor, who points out that "to hold that there are no assumptions in a scientist's work which aren't already based on evidence is surely a reflection of a blind faith, one that can't even feel the occasional tremor of doubt." Science is about faith, but faith in Eagleton's view "is not in the first place a matter of choice. It is more common to find oneself believing something than to make a conscious decision to do so—or at least to make such a conscious decision because you find yourself leaning that way already. This is not, needless to say, a matter of determinism. It is rather a question of being gripped by a commitment from which one finds oneself unable to walk away. It is not primarily a question of the will. . . ." Eagleton offers here an aside about the "cult of the will" that characterizes the United States: "Negativity is often looked upon there as a kind of thought crime. Not since the advent of socialist realism has the world witnessed such pathological upbeatness. This Faustian belief in Man's infinite capabilities is by no means to be confused with the virtue of hope. As long as it exists, however, belief will continue to be falsely linked to so-called acts of will, in a voluntaristic misunderstanding of how we come by our convictions."

Earlier in the book, Eagleton offered a summary of the Christian understanding of the doctrine of Creation, insisting that God "made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it. . . . he made it as gift, superfluity, and gratuitous gesture—out of nothing, rather than out of grim necessity. . . . He created it out of love, not need." This theme of gift-ness returns when Eagleton observes: "The difference between science and theology, as I understand it, is one over whether you see the world as a gift or not, and you cannot resolve this just by inspecting the thing, any more than you can deduce from examining a porcelain vase that it is a wedding present."

Faith, in Eagleton's view, resonates with the giftly character of Creation. "The Christian way of indicating that faith is not in the end a question of choice is the notion of grace. Like the world itself from a Christian viewpoint, faith is a gift. This means among other things that Christians are not in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in God. But neither is anyone in conscious possession of all the reasons why they believe in keeping fit, the supreme value of the individual, or the importance of being sincere. Only ultrarationalists imagine that they need to be. Because faith is not wholly conscious, it is uncommon to abandon it simply by taking thought. Too much else would have to be altered as well. It is not usual for a life-long conservative to become a revolutionary because a thought has struck him. . . . Because certain of our commitments are constitutive of who we are, we cannot alter them without what Christianity traditionally calls a conversion, which involves a lot more than just swapping one opinion for another."

Eagleton is as critical of the optimistic project of liberal humanism as he is of glib rationalism. At the end of the book, he identifies himself as a "tragic humanist," one who believes that the goal of human flourishing can only be pursued "by confronting the very worst" in the human condition. Tragic humanists hold "that only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking can humanity come into its own." Holding such a conviction, Eagleton is understandably ready to find the story of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection a compelling and revealing one, more ready perhaps even than many believers.

Posted by Ken Myers on 8/20/09