Heart of a heartless world?

Another aspect of Terry Eagleton’s argument in Reason, Faith and Revolution (see previous post) that has made an impact on me is his discussion of Marx’s dismissal of religion as:

…the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions.

(Interestingly, Eagleton avoids directly quoting the sentence immediately following this, presumably because he considers it to have been hammered flat by overuse: “It is the opium of the people.”)

How can the Marxist Professor Eagleton reconcile this with his own warm words for the “thoroughly orthodox, scriptural, and traditional” (p.47) account of Christian faith as summarised in my previous post?

Eagleton begins by asserting that:

The advanced capitalist system is inherently atheistic. It is godless in its actual material practices, and in the values and beliefs implicit in them, whatever some of its apologists might piously aver. (p.39)

Within a society of “packaged fulfilment, administered desire, managerialized politics, and consumerist economics”, God has little function other than as:

ideological legitimation, spiritual nostalgia, or a means of private extrication from a valueless world.

It’s religion functioning in this way that Marx had in mind when he spoke of “the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions”. Eagleton gives as examples both New Ageism (“which is just the sort of caricature of the spiritual one would expect a materialistic civilisation to produce”) and Islamic and Christian fundamentalism.

However, it’s important to note that these phrases – “the sigh of the oppressed creature”, “the heart of a heartless world”, “the soul of soulless conditions” – are “not for Marx purely pejorative”. They “signpost a problem to which they themselves are not the solution”. Marx’s (and Eagleton’s) objection to religion is when it enables us to ignore or hide from or cover up the oppression, heartlessness and soullessness of the world – and our complicity in this.

Christian faith, however, “takes the full measure of human depravity and perversity”. It recognises – in words of St Paul that were called to my mind by Marx’s “oppressive, heartless, soulless” – that human beings are:

foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.

And rather than offering either spiritual escapism from these hard facts of human existence or culture-war confrontation with them, it offers only crucifixion and resurrection.

Or at least, it should.

In reality, this section of Eagleton’s book has challenged me on how much of Actually Existing Christianity is indeed “the heart of a heartless world”. A glance at the shelves of many Christian bookshops will confirm this. And I found it hard to disagree with the person who suggested on Twitter recently that many churches “basically function as middle-class absolution in service of the market economy”.

But as Eagleton also observes, it is not just religion that provides this opiate. For many, “it is culture, not religion, which is … the heart of a heartless world” (p.159). Another example that comes to mind is “ethical”/”green” consumerism, which can provide a comforting escape from our complicity in the systems that exploit human beings and wreck the planet.

Not that recycling or drinking fairtrade coffee (say) are bad in themselves, any more than going to the theatre, attending a concert or feng shui-ing your living room (if people still do that!) are necessarily wrong. On the contrary: the goodness of any of these things comes from enjoying them for their own sake, rather than using them as a means to avoid the “process of self-dispossession and radical remaking” with which we ended my previous post.


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