If you are a regular visitor to my posts, you will know that I have a certain fondness for the writing of Terry Eagleton. Impatient to get into this book, I actually began it on the bus and had to restrain myself from laughing out loud as I read such typical Eagleton comments as “One would not expect the Queen’s chaplain to inquire whether one had been washed in the blood of the lamb” (3). No I wouldn’t: far from it. I suspected that Culture and the Death of God would reveal Eagleton in fine form, and in terms of Eagleton’s acerbic prose I was not disappointed.
However, I was not reading this book simply to be entertained. I was primarily interested in Eagleton’s topic: “the crisis occasioned by . . . [God’s] disappearance (viii). In his Preface, Eagleton informs us that not only does he feel that “atheism is by no means as easy as it looks” (viii) but also that “at least until the advent of postmodernism, what seems like an authentic atheism turns out to be nothing of the kind” (ix). I am not particularly certain that God, or at least the idea of a deity, has in any way disappeared from public discourse, and it seemed that Eagleton and I were in accord on this point. What I expected from the book was an examination of how religious belief has contributed to defining what we understand as culture, and what the effect of the idea of secularity has had on the way societies function. Here, too, I was not disappointed. Rather, I was struck by the scope of Eagleton’s investigations.
He organizes his ideas chronologically beginning with an overview of Enlightenment thinkers and ending with his sixth chapter “Modernism and After.” I discovered very quickly that I had to read this book with extreme care to ensure that I clearly distinguished between Eagleton’s summary of previous ideas and his own often pithy response to those ideas. A recurrent motif spanning the whole period is the idea that a shared religion whether experienced at the naive level of an illiterate labourer or at the level of a philosophical bishop contributed to a certain social cohesion, even though there may have been one practice for rich and another for the poor. And, we must not forget the role religion has played in social control. If we hadn’t noticed the situation for ourselves, Eagleton points out the recurring hypocrisy [my word] of a “philosophical elite” (207) who eschew religious activity for themselves as being, depending upon their time and place, unreasonable, unaesthetic, unscientific, unnecessary, but who advocate religion for the masses because it keeps them in order. However, the main point of the book is to address the question of just how actually dead God is.
Eagleton suggests that while the thrust of postmodernist thinking allows for “an authentic atheism,” we know “there is more to late modern civilisation than postmodernism” (190). Given the very concrete acts of fundamentalists of several religious and denominational stripe, it certainly seems to me to require the agility of a mental contortionist to argue the demise of the deity. In other words, then, Eagleton is suggesting that news of the death of God is somewhat premature.
Does he do more than this? I’m not sure. Certainly, he strongly takes to task those who make specific claims on behalf of Christianity that he feels show a misunderstanding of what lies at the core of that faith. He has little patience with those who like Matthew Arnold conceive of a Jesus who “would hardly be out of place at an Oxbridge High Table” (136), and reminds us that Christianity “is not about moral uplift, political unity or aesthetic charm. Nor does it start from the portentous vagueness of some ‘infinite responsibility.’ It starts from a crucified body” (206).
His final paragraph suggests, “if religious faith were to be released from the burden of furnishing social orders with a set of rationales for their existence, it might be free to rediscover its true purpose as a critique of all such politics” (207). He reminds us that the New Testament is not concerned about “codes of conduct” or “supernatural support” for a “common-or-garden morality.” Rather, he emphasises the New Testament’s “grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities. The sign of that dissolution is a solidarity with the poor and powerless. It is here that a new configuration of faith, culture and politics might be born” (208).
I’ve quoted his last paragraph at some length because, as I suppose all last paragraphs should, it left me thinking. My marginal note here reads, “Has Eagleton rediscovered God?” I haven’t answered that question, and I’m not sure Culture and the Death of God answers that question. After all, that last sentence depends upon the word might [my emphasis]. Despite the strength of this last paragraph in a somewhat polemical last chapter, I nevertheless experienced paradoxically a sense of let-down. I wanted a more developed conclusion. I found that Eagleton came too quickly to a stop and I wanted more detail in his own response to our contemporary situation. When I finished the book, I went back to the Preface to clarify just what his purpose had been, and, yes, I certainly think he has given a detailed overview of how the various “viceroys for God” (ix) have failed. What I wanted was a seventh chapter developing his thoughts on how the idea of or construct of God, never quite eclipsed, has returned in certain forms at the centre of ideologies that we find threatening and incomprehensible in what we believed to be a secular society.
That said, Culture and the Death of God will remain on my book shelf. Its individual chapters stand alone as insightful and informative summaries to the thought of the periods they each examine, and, as I’ve said before, I simply enjoy reading Eagleton.