Saturday, December 04, 2010

A Dinner Party

Being the holiday season, which includes get-togethers that drag all sorts of disparate relatives, friends, strangers, acquaintances, and others around a common table, I thought a way to start unpacking my own thoughts concerning Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate would be to imagine such a beast. You are sitting at a table along with Eagleton, Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion), Christopher Hitchens (author of God is Not Great), Daniel Dennett (author of Breaking the Spell), and (not included in Eagleton's marvelous, short tour-de-force) Sam Harris (author of The End of Faith). Dawkins would be the Uncle who holds sway, dominating all conversation, getting louder and louder, stifling any questions or comments as the result of one's own stupidity at not grasping his simplicity, clarity, and brilliance. Hitchens would be the drunk uncle, more entertaining, yet pedantic for all that, citing tiny factoids to make a point, many of which are demonstrably false. A drunken pedant, while having a certain charm, is a pedant nonetheless, which brings us to American analytical philosopher Daniel Dennett. More relaxed, less spittle-flaked than his British counterparts, Dennett would in all likelihood end up speaking more and more loudly only because, being dull, the rest of the table became engrossed in other conversations. Harris would be the annoying college sophomore cousin, who having read Nietzsche and finished a class on western history, has learned all sorts of things he didn't know before. Attempting to refocus the conversation, the frailty of his arguments, as well as the violence and superficiality of his understanding will bring about that most horrid of results. He will be devoutly ignored by the rest of those gathered around the table.

In the moment or two of silence that follows, Eagleton will speak up, his voice quiet, his attitude one of bemused irritation with the stridence of the first two, of a hand-waving dismissal of the third, and a total silence on the fourth. Listening to him, agreeing or not, you come to realize that, for all the arguments presented by those adamant that religious belief is a load of poppycock and balderdash, there is no need to lose one's aplomb. One can endorse the verdict that religion, as a social phenomenon, is guilty of monstrous crimes, yet still see in its variety and even the heart of the Christian Gospel much to commend. One can do all this all the while joking and chuckling at the expense of those sitting around in sullen silence because their moment has passed.

In matters of style, the raging polemic is, for me, a turn-off. Being enraged certainly is important, but it matters what one is enraged at. Eagleton never tires of pointing out that Ditchkins (his conflation of his British opponents in the God-debate) seem to lose all perspective over the notion that there might be those who hold a belief in God, all the while being relatively silent on the very real horrors their liberal-humanist-capitalist states have visited on various populations over the past decade. One can be horrified in roughly equal amounts by the blood-bath of the Crusades (which was preceded by a pogrom of Jews in many cities across Christendom) as well as the wholesale slaughter visited upon Muslim states in the name of neo-liberal capitalism, and still hold that while the sins of the Christian Fathers may indeed bring opprobrium upon their children, there is also, at the heart of the Gospel, a message of love and an ethic of solidarity that is worth preserving for its own sake.

Unlike many reviewers, I couldn't care one whit whether this work signals Eagleton's abandonment of Marxism for a radical theologicall-based rejection of late liberal capitalism (much in the manner of, say, Karl Barth). What impresses me most is the mixture of wit and seriousness, of real outrage over real atrocities with a real theological response without ever, once, conceding that the Christian churches aren't also soaked in the blood of the innocent.

From such a dinner party, my guess is many might come away confused. I, for one, am enriched by this stirring defense of the best of the Christian tradition against those who, as Eagleton makes clear early on, attack it at those points that are most weak. His generosity of spirit, his ability with a brilliant simplicity that hides a depth of understanding one finds lacking even in the most rigorous theological monograph, and his passionate belief that our world suffers not from the violence of belief, but rather from the violence of a political ideology that sees human beings as disposable commodities that interfere with profit all come together in less than 200 pages. There is much more with which to come to terms in Eagleton's little book. For anyone who thinks that Dawkins and Hitchens have had the last word on religion, Eagleton's little book offers more in any single paragraph than pages and pages of the former authors.

Virtual Tin Cup

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