Terry Eagleton’s vision of Christianity

I’ve just finished reading Terry Eagleton’s response to the “New Atheism”, his book Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.

Prof Eagleton is not a Christian, but he is (a) highly sympathetic towards the account of Christian faith he first encountered as a student “with the aid of a few maverick Dominicans [such as Herbert McCabe] and rather more pints of bitter”, and (b) at least equally hostile towards the “nineteenth-century liberal rationalism” of the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens.

These two passions drive Prof Eagleton to write a book that combines a frequently-hilarious demolition of “Ditchkins'” arguments with a vision of the Christian faith that is often so inspiring it’s hard to believe Eagleton doesn’t believe it himself: one in which God created the world “as gift, superfluity, and gratuitous gesture” (p.8); in which Jesus preaches a morality that is “reckless, extravagant, improvident, over-the-top, a scandal to actuaries and a stumbling block to real estate agents” (p.14); in which the true freedom of our dependence on God (“the power that allows us to be ourselves”) is contrasted with “the great bourgeois myth of self-origination” (pp.16f.); in which “you shall know [God] for who he is when you see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent away empty handed” (p.18); in which salvation is found in the everyday work of “feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants, visiting the sick, and protecting the poor, orphaned and widowed from the violence of the rich” (p.19); but in which “the only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal” (p.23).

As Eagleton observes, what Jesus inaugurates is “not a prudently reformist project of pouring new wine into old bottles, but an avant-gardist epiphany of the absolutely new” (p.23) in which:

God’s love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalising little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world upside down. (p.22)

Eagleton has some interesting perspectives on specific texts. For example, Jesus’ “notoriously enigmatic injunction” to “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”:

[W]hatever it means, it is unlikely to mean that religion is one thing whereas politics is another, a peculiarly modern prejudice if ever there was one. Any devout Jew of Jesus’s time would have known that the things that are God’s include working for justice, welcoming the immigrants, and humbling the high-and-mighty. (pp.19f.)

Or one of Jesus’ most difficult statements, Luke 14:26, which Richard Dawkins “greets … with chilly suburban distaste”:

Such a cold-eyed view of the family can suggest to him only the kidnapping habits of religious cults. He does not see that movements for justice cut across traditional blood ties, as well as across ethnic, social, and national divisions. Justice is thicker than blood. (p.31)

But the fundamental appeal of Christianity, as Eagleton sees it, is that “it places love at the centre of its vision of the world — even if, as we have seen, its version of love is peculiarly unlovely” (since, done properly, it involves getting crucified!):

That love is the focal point of human history, though everywhere spurned and denied, has a convincing enough ring to it in one sense. In another sense, however, it is a hard recognition — partly because in reality love is so palpably not the focal point of history, and because we live in an age in which it has effectively been privatised, which is no doubt one reason among many why the Christian faith makes no sense to a great many modern men and women. (p.32)

For Eagleton, the Christian gospel leads us to an understanding of love that has political and social dimensions denied to it by liberal-capitalist modernity, where love has been “almost wholly reduced to the erotic, romantic, or domestic” (p.32), and where “words like ‘grace’, ‘fallenness’ or ‘redemption'” are greeted with the same “bemused silence” as a word like “emancipation” (p.45).

In short, Eagleton sees Christianity and his own socialism as standing on the same side of a divide between the “liberal humanism” of capitalist modernity and a “tragic humanism” in which the “free flourishing of humanity” can come about “only by a process of self-dispossession and radical remaking”  (p.169).