Friday 4 December 2009

Meekness in the face of the great big unknown

Reason, Faith and Revolution, by Terry Eagleton, (Yale University Press 2009)

Twenty years ago I would not have believed that, come 2009, God and Terry Eagleton would be in bed together. Back then God was straight; he was true blue; and strictly on the side of the establishment. Eagleton by contrast was hanging out with the godless Socialist Workers Party and leafleting the local car plant. Today, it seems, God is a bit more relaxed about that sort of thing, and his civil partnership with Eagleton looks perfectly OK. So, curious to find out who made the first move, I read Reason, Faith & Revolution expecting a kiss-and-tell confessional, and only later realised its philosophical significance.

God, it must be admitted, had been showing certain tendencies for a while. No longer satisfied with waiting in for Sundays to come around, He had been venturing out into the secular world, so much so that His domain began to extend beyond anything we might call a soul and, in recent years, has touched on the issues of women priests, AIDS and third world poverty. So it surely was inevitable that God and Eagleton would eventually hook up.

But the running was not all God’s. Eagleton himself has made some kinky moves during the course of his career, occasionally speaking out against the establishment which had nurtured him, and at times attacking the academic discipline of literary criticism which for so long he has represented. Underlying all this, of course, was his Marxism, but in retrospect even this begins to look suspect. Despite the left-wing rhetoric and the placards, his tendency to return again and again to questions of literature, and very often to see political problems as problems of theory, could well have served to bottle up real difficulties which have now erupted in an outpouring of faith.

Faith in what exactly? Well, not God in traditional sense. This is not one of your old-fashioned marriages wherein Eagleton kisses God as He leaves for the 8.25 in the morning and greets Him with pipe and slippers on His return. The relationship seems altogether more modern, so that by the end of Reason, Faith and Revolution I was left wondering whether Eagleton actually believes in the God I used to think exists: the benevolent being, somewhere ‘up there’, who created the world, and to whom we answer on our departure from it. Eagleton is rather elliptical in his remarks and his statements of faith are a touch too esoteric for your average Bible-basher. God is the ‘condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever’ (p7) he declares early in the proceedings, leaving the reader slightly mystified as to what this makes God. Later on Eagleton fleshes this out and we find that his idea of God corresponds to that feeling of certainty that underlies our more confident reasoning: ‘Justifications must come to an end somewhere; and where they generally come to an end is in some kind of faith’ (p124).

Reading Eagleton’s book one begins to suspect that Eagleton would like to believe in the traditional deity of his Roman Catholic Irish ancestors, except his university-acquired reason and rationality prevents it. So instead he examines the nature of that reason and rationality and is pleased to find them heavily laden with belief of an almost religious nature. Herein lies the importance of the book, and this examination of reason forms the basis for Eagleton’s attack on the ideas of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (to whom he refers jointly as ‘Ditchkins’) in their respective books The God Delusion and God Is Not Great.

Having read The God Delusion from an atheist’s perspective and wincing on almost every page, I read what is, in essence, Eagleton’s extended review of it with some relish. Dawkins’ sweeping damnation of religion and all who set store by it really is unadulterated misanthropy, and the flaws in his arguments stand in great need of exposure and ridicule. Clearly Dawkins’ misanthropic conclusions must have raised Eagleton’s bile, yet it is the atheist’s all too rational premises that come under the heaviest attack. So by the end, although Dawkins has received his well-deserved drubbing, we are left wondering whether reason itself hasn’t also been seriously wounded by Eagleton.

To Eagleton, Ditchkins are very much of the scientific and rational Enlightenment and all the worse for it. They embody that philosophy that placed man at the centre of everything and in doing so rendered man ‘frighteningly alone in the universe, with nothing to authenticate himself but himself’ (p82). They have adopted a view of reason that knows no bounds. In their hands human reason is a ruthless instrument designed to destroy any belief which does not rest firmly on demonstrable evidence. In many respects I admire this view; it is redolent of the pronouncements of the great iconoclasts Holbach and Diderot. Indeed, Eagleton’s quote from Hitchens – on ‘the need to transcend our prehistory and escape the gnarled hands which reach out to drag us back to the catacombs’ (p85) – seems straight out of the eighteenth century, unflinchingly challenging every prejudice.

Well, not quite every prejudice. Eagleton sees that this ultra-rational approach to life suffers from the biggest prejudice of all: the belief that belief is grounded solely in facts. Being a critic he undoubtedly knows that the search for truth begins and ends not with facts but with belief. Facts in isolation are quite unmoving. To acquire meaning they require a context of human belief, embodying certain values. Of course, any old belief will not do; the evidence has to be uncovered and marshalled in support of it, and below a certain evidence threshold beliefs tend to become untenable. But burrow deep enough into any argument and beneath the facts you hit a non-factual personal conviction.

One recalls the events of four hundred years ago when the Copernican model of the heavens was offered up by Galileo as a successor to the Ptolemaic system and rejected by the Papal authorities. Neither side in this clash of convictions really disputed the astronomical observations (even though it was Galileo’s improvements to the telescope that allowed these). Both sides knew that there is more to truth than evidence alone. In Eagleton words, ‘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’ (p116). This new way of seeing is experienced as a personal conviction, the truth of which feels more fundamental than the truth of any specific fact or observation gathered as part of the evidence. In the face of these conviction-truths the arguments of Ditchkins appear to be missing something crucial.

I suppose you could describe Eagleton’s religion as the point at which these conviction-truths meet with his post-Enlightenment attempt to re-authenticate man. In other words, religion nowadays is that mysterious place (not necessarily in a church) where human values are validated by something supposedly extra-human, something bigger than mere mortals. Hence the significance of Jesus Christ, who in Eagleton’s view lived a good socialist life and who, as a consequence, paid the ultimate price. However, unlike, say, Rosa Luxemburg or Karl Liebknecht, who also were (arguably better) socialists and who also paid a similar price, Jesus was actually born to die. The significance of Jesus’s life was Jesus’s death, whereas the deaths of Luxemburg and Liebknecht were merely dirty contingencies that might have been avoided had the class struggle in Germany developed differently. But being doomed to die from the start, having all our ambitions brought to nought, seems to provide Eagleton with a spiritual trig point for our moral orientation, and it is through such a ‘tragic humanism’, he claims, that ‘humanity can come into its own’ (p169). Eagleton does not specify what ‘humanity’s own’ might be, but loss and death have a lot to do with it.

Such meekness in the face of the great big unknown is Eagleton’s sticking point. It limits the validity of the human values which he sees underlying reason. His values may be ‘socialist’ but he gives the reader no good explanation (other than their being ‘Christ-like’) of why these should be the key values holding up the entire edifice of human reason. Eagleton’s socialism is by his own philosophy merely a personal conviction, with nothing stronger or more objective to support it, and providing no moral signposts for the rest of us.

So how should we decide which values should guide our more instrumental transactions with the world? The philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre, in his seminal 1981 work After Virtue, shed some light on this by locating the source of our moral feelings in the activities which we as humans collectively undertake. Our sense of what is right and wrong is dictated not by conviction alone but by the task at hand, which is so much bigger than the individual and set by the wider community, be this establishing a new political party or building a hospital or fighting a war. However, in an argument that anticipated Eagleton by some 28 years, MacIntyre argued that our sense of community and collective activity, and thereby our morality, had been undermined by the Enlightenment with its ultra-rational destruction of tradition and dispersal of the communities based on traditions. He therefore called for a return to the 12th century values of Thomas Aquinas, wherein the purpose of everything is embodied in popular traditions and moral dilemmas are consequently unproblematic.

Eagleton too calls for a return to Thomism, albeit using a different terminology. The meaning embodied in community tradition becomes in Reason. Faith & Revolution the tragic meaning derived from not being fully in control of events. Like farmers who lived in the pre-scientific Middle Ages, we must respect the object of our enquiries and perform the rituals that such a respect requires. Of course, Eagleton doesn’t quite put it that way: he sees ‘the encounter between subject and object not as a confrontation but as a collaboration’ (p78) and asks that we ‘try not to … reduce the object of knowledge to a narcissistic image of ourselves’ (p122). But the reader is still left with an image of Eagleton’s ideal farmer perhaps preferring fertility rites over fertiliser.

Could such respect for the object of our enquiries really provide the strength to uphold both reason and morality? The answer is no. Ever since early man thought he recognised human features in the full moon we have had a ‘narcissistic’ view of nature. In our investigations we invariably find human needs at the bottom of the objective world: the weather challenges us to predict it; natural barriers invite us to traverse them; diseases demand we find cures; human society requires organisation; and so on. The further we dig down, the more subtle these human needs become, but they never vanish entirely. In this set-up, then, the confrontation metaphor eschewed by Eagleton is actually more enlightening than the collaboration metaphor. The unknown aspects of these problems need to be overcome, not backed away from. Furthermore, these challenges can also provide us with the sense of collective activity highlighted by MacIntyre, the proper study of which could lead to a revived moral sense. But let us be clear: these activities are determined neither by tradition nor by arbitrary personal conviction, but by the nature of the object itself.

Reason, Faith & Revolution is therefore a highly readable yet worrying little book. It provides a very useful correction to the rampant idea of rationality employed by the New Atheists Dawkins and Hitchens, but substitutes for this a pre-Enlightenment alternative that lacks the clout to start outlining the sort of activities we should be engaged in, and the means – both technical and political –successfully to execute these. Indeed, its underlying message is that we should largely refrain from employing such means on a grand scale, which would deny us the opportunities we need to revive moral sensibilities through confronting the world out there and feeling our way through some kind of world-changing project. In time, therefore, the marriage of Eagleton and God may well prove to be more dangerous than the joint works of Ditchkins.

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