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Brilliant but flawed
on 24 February 2014
This quasi- theological tract - and you can't do God, even in 'his' demise, without some degree of theologizing - is delivered with all Terry Eagleton's customary flair and panache. It is a cerebral performance, delivered more from the altar steps than podium and with more the air of a peroration than panegyric: he would persuade us that atheism is by no means as easy as it looks, that scepticism a lot less convincing than it pretends and that the cultural substitutes for belief never quite live up to expectation, nor fill the absence felt in the divine departure lounge.
The hypocrisy of some Enlightenment philosophes, the pretensions of German Idealism, the ambiguities of Romanticism are all witheringly exposed. Yet, despite this, the `culture' of Eagleton's title remains very much an elite preoccupation - the high kulture of the aufklarer, that emanates downward, with few concessions to populism. Though he makes much of the `double truth' thesis, in which the scepticism of the educated elite should not be allowed to unsettle the superstitions of the populace, he himself never seems inclined to descend to any proper consideration of the beliefs of the `swinish rabble' (as Edmund Burke endearingly described the citizenry).
We are left very much with the impression that `culture' is about nobs and know-alls. In fact there is little to suggest the ordinary people had much religious faith, as Engels noted of the new working class: "the workers are not religious, and do not attend church". Manufacturers complained that the Friendly Societies and Craft Guilds were overwhelmingly irreligious and godless. One child factory worker said of a Sunday school lesson, "Today I have learn't I am a sinner and must go to Hell." As if life itself was not hell enough! No consideration at all is given to influential popular movements whose millenarianism sprang from a deeply disturbed psychology - what E.P.Thompson, in his classic study of The Making of the English Working Class, called 'The Chiliasm of Despair'. These movements were a response to the disturbed and distressing conditions of the time and though they expressed themselves through the medium of biblical imagery their concerns were very different from the likes of Thomas Arnold, though no less valid for that. They also are a part of 'culture'.
Though Eagleton is brilliant on what he writes about one is still left with a feeling that this is not the whole subject. The 'culture' under consideration has a very Western preoccupation, with `the death of God' a very post-Christian sort of debate. In fact it is rather passe - very much a 1970's affair in the wake of Thomas Altizer's radical explorations - with the subject since being covered many more times than necessary. There seems to be an assumptiont that the 'Death of God' is coterminous with decline of religious belief which it is not - just ask a Buddhist. Nor is religious belief to be equated with religious practice, or the lack of it. Religion - 'religio' - is simply doing what one feels bound to do and, as W. Cantwell Smith showed in his seminal 'The Meaning and End of Religion', it did not originally refer to any particular set of beliefs at all - a very secular etymology of origins which Eagleton seems to ignore. There are also wide gaps in his consideration of where we are now and how we have moved on.
Particularly surprising is that no mention was made, for example, of Don Cupitt, who has spent a life time exploring this terrain and producing numerous penetratingly original works, nor of the Sea of Faith movement which he inspired and which continues to explore the nature of religion as a human creation - it is Life that has supplanted God: as Tolstoy wrote, 'Life is God, Life is everything.' In this tradition the radical New Zealand theologian Lloyd Geering provides a much more compelling overview of where we are culturally in this debate in his Tomorrow's God.
Even more surprising is the omission of any mention of Strauss, as in David Friedrich Strauss, whose work The Life of Jesus Critically Examined (1835) occupies a pivotal place in the growth of secularisation. It is perhaps easy to see why this omission occurs for central to Eagleton's critique is not only the assumption of a settled understanding of God - though even in the Age of Faith the growth of apophaticism, nominalism and mystical negativism indicate otherwise - he also seems to opt for the historicity of the gospels and reality of the Incarnation, to which he makes frequent reference. However interesting his thoughts may be on this topic it is in fact not an event but a concept - like Original Sin or Creation, metempsychosis or re-incarnation. Though some may find this contentious it is a confusion which destroys a central element of Eagleton's hermeneutics and invalidates much of criticism of others.
Strauss scandalised what was then still a solidly based Christian culture and his influence seeped into popular consciousness through such works as those of George Eliot, his English translator. What this work did was to trigger a textual and archaeological quest to prove him wrong, but which in the end only provided more and more compelling evidence that he was right -that the Bible, far from being an authoritative legitimating text, was a very flawed historical artefact largely mythological. In the end the archaeologist's spade and geologist hammer have contributed more to creating a secular milieu among the masses than the tomes of a coterie of cognoscenti, but there is no reason to think that the radical option for the poor of Albert Schweitzer (also not mentioned by Eagleton)nor his environmentalism is any less worthy of consideration than Nietzsche's egoistical, proto-Nazi Superman in the cultural evaluation of the Death of God.
For these reasons, and despite its stellar scholarship and stylistic brilliance, I am afraid I can only give this work a B-, or three stars