From the drafts folder: Terry Eagleton on Thomas Aquinas

Terry Eagleton and Thomas AquinasAs I’ve said before, Terry Eagleton seems to have a better understanding of theology than many Christians. He also has an affinity with Dominicans that is as strong as his aversion to the “New Atheists”. So I was glad to read his review last year (£) of Denys Turner’s book, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait (a book I’ve since read).

At the time, I copied and pasted a bunch of quotes from Eagleton’s review, intending to turn them into a blog post. I never got round to knocking the post into shape, though, so here are most of the quotes with some quick comments from me to string them together. The result may be a little disjointed, but there’s some really good stuff from Eagleton here.

Eagleton’s main theme (as it is for Turner) was the idea of Thomas as a materialist:

Like Marx, Aquinas got into hot water with the authorities for being a materialist. It was not that he held the boring view that there is nothing but matter. His materialism was not some kind of brutal reductionism, any more than Marx’s was. On the contrary, as Denys Turner points out in this superb study, he understood that ‘there is a lot more to matter itself than meets the eye of today’s average materialist.’ His criticism of the materialists with whom he was acquainted was not that they were bad on the subject of mind or spirit, but that they weren’t very good on the subject of matter.

This then influences Thomas’s understanding of the soul (which, gratifying, ends up sounding not a million miles from this blog post I wrote in 2011):

Aquinas believed in the soul, as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins do not; but one reason he did so was because he thought it yielded the richest possible understanding of the lump of matter known as the body. As Wittgenstein once remarked: if you want an image of the soul, look at the body. The soul for Thomas is not some ghostly extra, as it was for the Platonising Christians of his time; it is not to be seen as a spiritual kidney or spectral pancreas.

Always good, too, to be reminded that Thomas’s doctrine of word and sacraments have quite a Lutheran flavour to them – especially in seeing the sacraments as a vehicle for the Word:

Behind this belief lay a theology of the incarnate Word, and of the eucharist in particular, in which that Word is present in the workaday stuff of bread and wine in something like the way that meaning is present in a verbal sign.

Thus the Christian message is “materialist” in that it is concerned with stuff: the body; the incarnate Word; water, bread and wine. As Eagleton puts it:

Christianity concerns the transfiguration of the body, not the immortality of the soul.

Eagleton then turns to Thomas’s understanding of God:

God is not in Aquinas’s view some kind of being, principle, entity or individual who could be reckoned up with other such entities. He is not even some kind of person, in the sense that Piers Morgan is arguably a person. God and the universe do not make two. Whatever other errors believers may commit, not being able to count is not one of them. They do not hold that there is one more object in the world than there actually is. God for Aquinas is not a thing in or outside the world, but the ground of possibility of anything whatsoever. If we were to fall out of his hands we would lapse into nothingness; and faith is the trust that however obnoxious we are to each other, he will not let us slip through his fingers.

Eagleton also has a better handle on the doctrine of creation than do many Christians:

The idea that God sustains everything in being by his love is known as the doctrine of Creation. Whatever the new atheists may imagine, it has nothing to do with how the world got off the ground. In fact, Aquinas himself thought it perfectly reasonable to hold with Aristotle that the world never got started at all, but existed from all eternity. He was not of this opinion himself, since the Book of Genesis seemed to rule it out, but he saw nothing inherently implausible about it. The doctrine of Creation is not bogus science, as old-fashioned 19th-century rationalists like Dawkins assume. As Turner argues, it is really about the extreme fragility of things.

Finally, here is Eagleton on Thomas’s view of “the good life”:

It follows from Aquinas’s view of being that the good life is a flourishing, richly abundant one. The more a thing is itself, the finer it becomes. The saints are those who are supremely successful at the exacting task of being human, the George Bests and Jacqueline du Prés of the moral sphere. Morality is not primarily a question of duty and obligation (Turner points out that the Thomist moral lexicon contains scarcely any such terms), but of happiness or well-being. Why we should want to be happy is in Thomas’s view the very prototype of a silly question.


Have atheists hijacked the word “humanist”?

God's Philosophers, by James HannamI’ve just started reading God’s Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science by James Hannam, inspired by this superb review by Tim O’Neill.

In the review, O’Neill (himself an atheist) applauds Hannam for dismantling “the myth that the Catholic Church caused the Dark Ages and the Medieval Period was a scientific wasteland” – a myth popular among (but by no means confined to) atheists, and whose roots lie in a “festering melange of Enlightenment bigotry, Protestant papism-bashing, French anti-clericalism, and Classicist snobbery”.

Even if you don’t read Hannam’s book, you should read O’Neill’s review – I learnt a lot from it, and am looking forward to learning more from the book itself. But I just wanted to respond to one of Hannam’s “quibbles” about the book, where he writes:

On a rather more personal note, as a humanist and atheist myself, there is a rather snippy little aside on page 212 where Hannam sneers that “non-believers have further muddied the waters by hijacking the word ‘humanist’ to mean a softer version of ‘atheist’.” Sorry, but just as not all humanists are atheists (as Hannam himself well knows) so not all atheists are humanists (as anyone hanging around on some of the more vitriolically anti-theist sites and forums will quickly realize). So there is no “non-believer” plot to “hijack” the word “humanist”. Those of us who are humanists are humanists – end of story. And “atheism” does not need any “softening” anyway.

It is heartening to find a secular humanist asserting so clearly that “humanism” does not imply, or require, atheism. I’ve written before on Clive James’s vision of humanism as a preference for the eclecticism of human intellect and creativity over the rigours of ideology, and Terry Eagleton’s preference for a “tragic humanism” (within which he includes Christianity, especially Catholicism) over the “liberal humanism” of capitalist modernity. In short, I would happily describe myself as a humanist in these senses – and I’m glad that O’Neill would agree that “Christian humanist” is no oxymoron.

However, someone really ought to tell O’Neill’s fellow humanists, many of whom do seem to see humanism as a strict subset of atheism. The British Humanist Association’s “Are you a humanist?” quiz has this as its opening question:

BHA "Are you a humanist?" quiz question 1

I’d previously attempted this quiz but found myself unable to complete it, as almost every “theistic” answer was a wild caricature of what Christians, and those of other religious faiths, actually believe. However, I decided to give it another crack just now, and got this result (itself “rather snippy”, I’d say):

Humanist quiz result

Charmed, I’m sure!

The BHA’s “What is humanism?” page starts as follows:

Throughout recorded history there have been non-religious people who have believed that this life is the only life we have, that the universe is a natural phenomenon with no supernatural side, and that we can live ethical and fulfilling lives on the basis of reason and humanity. They have trusted to the scientific method, evidence, and reason to discover truths about the universe and have placed human welfare and happiness at the centre of their ethical decision making.

Today, people who share these beliefs and values are called humanists and this combination of attitudes is called Humanism.

In the light of that, I don’t think Hannam’s claim that the word “humanist” has been “hijacked” by atheists is altogether unfair. I repeat, though, that I am glad to find an atheist humanist who would presumably agree with me that the BHA has failed to capture the true meaning of humanism. I’d go further, and suggest that the BHA’s approach risks turning humanism into precisely the sort of ideology that Clive James sees as the antithesis of true humanism.

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.

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).

Comfort vs Calvary

There is a common perception of religion as a “comfort”, which is summed up in these words from Flip Chart Fairy Tales’ latest (and otherwise rather interesting) post:

We all like to think that there is some order in the world. That’s why religion is comforting and why some people believe in conspiracy theories. It’s preferable to believe that someone, even an evil someone, sees the big picture and is pulling all the strings, than to acknowledge that much of what happens in the world is messy and random.

This is what Marx had in mind when he described religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions … the opium of the people”. As Terry Eagleton observes in Reason, Faith and Revolution (pp.40ff.), there certainly are manifestations of religion which conform to this. He suggests as an example the New Age spirituality that “offers a refuge from the world, not a mission to transform it”.

However, authentic Christianity is radically different:

For Christian teaching, God’s love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal.

It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law. Which is to say that those who are faithful to God’s law of justice and compassion will be done away with by the state. If you don’t love, you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you.

Here, then, is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety. Here is the fantasy and escapism that the hard-headed secularist pragmatist finds so distasteful. Freud saw religion as a mitigation of the harshness of the human condition; but it would surely be at least as plausible to claim that what we call reality is a mitigation of the Gospel’s ruthless demands, which include such agreeable acts of escapism as being ready to lay down your life for a total stranger. (p.22)

Terry Eagleton on modernity as advance AND nightmare

Terry Eagleton, in Reason, Faith and Revolution, writes of the “two contrasting narratives” of post-Enlightenment history that “are secretly one”:

One of the best reasons in my view for still being a Marxist, apart from the gratifying exasperation it sometimes occasions to others, is that no other doctrine I know of claims that the liberal Enlightenment … has been at one and the same time an enthralling advance in humanity and an insupportable nightmare – the latter tale, moreover, as verso of the recto of the former, the two colliding histories structurally complicit rather than contingently cheek by jowl. (pp.69f.)

Hence, for Eagleton, “the radical answer to the question of whether modernity is a positive or negative phenomenon is an emphatic yes and no”. “Modernity” means both freedom of thought, civil liberties, democracy and so on, and Hiroshima, the Holocaust, exploitation and environmental devastation. Francis Bacon was both a founder of modern science and a supporter of torture. You can’t pick and choose to which bits you assign the term “modernity” (whether you do so as a badge of honour or of iniquity).

But I don’t think one needs to be a Marxist to see that paradox at work. It goes right the way back to Genesis 4:17-24, where it is the line of Cain that is responsible for founding civilisation, including cities, agriculture, music and technology. The roots of civilisation are thus bookended by murder: Cain’s murder of Abel, and Lamech’s murder of an unnamed man. “Enthralling advance” and “unsupportable nightmare” within the same family line.

One error that people can make, therefore, is to overlook or ignore the crimes of modernity in favour of the “progressivist euphoria” of the “liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world”. (The corresponding error is the “elegiac gloom” of those who treat the whole of modernity as a “ghastly mistake” – which can include both patrician conservatives and post-modernists.)

It is this “brittle triumphalism” of liberal-capitalism which, for Eagleton, accounts for the loss of Christian faith in the west. As he says in an earlier chapter:

What is the point of faith or hope in a civilisation which regards itself as pretty well self-sufficient, as being more or less as good as it gets, or at least as a spectacular advance on what went before? It is hard to see what role faith could play, other than a sheerly ideological one, in a Western world which some of its inhabitants see as nothing less than the very consummation of human history, lacking nothing but more of the same. How could such a form of life accept that there is something profoundly amiss with our condition – that it simply does not add up, that it is in several respects intolerable, and that one of the chief signs of this incoherence and intolerability is the plight of the poor? (p.45)

9/11 and the New Atheism

Interesting video (via Latte Labour) of Terry Eagleton talking about Christopher Hitchens and the political dimension to the “New Atheism”, which Eagleton links to 9/11:

That fits with my own private theory about the rise of the New Atheism: that 9/11 led (obviously) to a concern about radical Islamism, which was then conflated with Islam, which in turn (partly, one suspects, out of a desire to avoid the charge of “Islamophobia”) led to a more general critique of “religion”, which in practice (given the cultural and religious backgrounds of the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens) led to books whose main concern was to attack specifically Christian conceptions of God.

I know there’s more to it than that, but that seems to be one of the dynamics involved.