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Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

The 14th Psalm begins, “The fool says in his heart, there is no God.” Believing participants in the recent “God debate” have been quick to affix this label to the current crop of infidels. But no one does this more tellingly than the seriously funny Terry Eagleton who conflates the names of his principal opponents, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, under the moniker “Ditchkins,” in Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale University Press, 2010).

As anyone who has bothered to grapple with the efforts of Anselm of Cantebury (1033 – 1109) to articulate the foolishness of unbelief knows, it is exquisitely difficult to make sense of saying that God ”is.” It may be that even the “God of the philosophers” deserves rejection. If, when ignorant unbelievers understand what sophisticated believers affirm, they see that nothing of real moment divides them, then faith has unwittingly become foolish. What is at stake is hope for revolution.

Eagleton calls for revolutionary faith in opposition to the liberal humanism of Dawkins and Hitchens whose ignorance of faith in God yields a politics of capitulation to the status quo. Eagleton “cannot accept that this — the world we see groaning in agony around us — is the only way things could be.” Since the intolerable agony of the world results from “flaws and contradictions built into the structure of the human species itself, which cannot simply be historicized away,” revolution is necessary.

Is it possible to hope for revolution that would actually relieve the agony of the world? Seeing no possibility of transcendence of our world, Ditchens cannot see that it is “dished up” and he foolishly prescribes untrammeled assertion of the self as the only possible answer to our predicament. To do this is to bury reason in despair. The only possibility of hope is to enlist in a revolution of self-dispossession. It is to have faith that self-dispossession is not necessarily self-annihilation.

The heart of Eagleton’s critique can be found in several crucial aphorisms. The God of Christian faith, revolutionary faith, is not, contrary to Ditchkins’ assumptions, “a very large and powerful creature.” “God and the universe do not make two.” “God does not exist as an entity in the world.” “God is not even a possible object of cognition.” “God is not an interventionist kind of ruler.” The world is a gift. There is no necessity to it. Its existence is a critique of iron causality.

Though not noted by Eagleton, Ditchens most damning intellectual failure is not his confusion of history with necessity. It is, rather, his failure to understand Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) and therefore to enlist him in his assault on faith.

Kant showed that faith that attempts to conceive its source as both unconditioned and historically engaged is incoherent. Such faith is, to borrow a phrase, not even wrong — the commitment to it of many of the most sophisticated of believers notwithstanding. It would seem, then, that Kant confronts Christian faith with the alternative of unrequited love for the pitiless indifference of the absolute or trust in a “very large and powerful creature.”

Indeed Ditchkins could be forgiven for failing to be chastened by Eagleton’s theological aphorisms because, apart from an Anselmian clarification, they could be fairly understood to fail Anselm’s rule for faithful talk about God. In which case, they would be vulnerable to Kant’s destructive critique.

Anselm has taught us that if we are going to talk about God, we must talk about one than which none greater can be conceived. Neither the absolute nor idols have any possibility of conforming to Anselm’s rule. So Kant’s alternative is false, provided Anselm is right in his confidence a coherent concept of deity is possible.

Inconveniently Kant’s critique stands in the way of every effort to immunize theological talk from exposure to the intolerable agony of the world. A god whose metaphysical status precludes participation in the world is certainly immune from complaints about the condition of the world. But such a god deserves curiosity not worship and certainly offers no hope of revolution.

So Ditchkins’ complaints about god as he conceives him have a point. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) himself acknowledges it when he allows that the two most serious problems for faith are evil and complete but Godless explanations of the world. What Ditchkins has every right to demand is a deity that threatens oppressors and emboldens the oppressed, that is a deity that is neither indifferent to the agony of the world nor one more of the world’s impotent victims.

The possibility of over throwing the principalities and powers, and the rationality of self-dispossession in the struggle giving birth to this revolution both reside in the reality of one who is engaged in the world but not doomed by its imperfections. Christians bear witness to the executed and resurrected body of Jesus as the incarnation of this deity. It is one of the considerable merits of Eagleton’s reflections that he grasps this.

Christian faith affirms that in Jesus, God is God and a participant in the conditions of history. But if this incarnate God is not to be the “very large and powerful creature” whose worship would be idolatry, then the God who is present in him must be understood to be qualitatively different from creatures. The tradition, as Kant clearly understood, described the difference as absence from conditions and contradictorily asserted that this unconditioned deity is engaged with the conditions of history. Anselm’s maximal greatness is the conceptual tool for resolving that contradiction. Unfortunately almost all of its users share Ditchkins’ despairing faith that the way things are is the way they must be in the precise sense that the goods of the world necessarily involve agony.

We owe Terry Eagleton for his clear headed, deliciously humorous, and impassioned denial that this is so. And if he is right, humanism need not be tragic. Conceding the last word to injustice capitulates to the fear that the truth about reality is ugly not beautiful.

Terry Eagleton’s faith involves the affirmation that reality is, and therefore ultimately can be beautiful, free of all disfiguring injustice. It is, in fact, reasonable to hope and act for the revolutionary triumph of beauty.

– addendum by David Larson

A drinking buddy of Hitchens when they were both active socialists, many applaud Eagleton as today’s leading British literary theorist. Now dividing his time between the University of Lancaster and the National University of Ireland, Galway, he has also been a professor at Oxford and Manchester Universities and, most recently, at the University of Notre Dame. Of all the books he has written, some believe that the prize for the most ironic title goes to The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2008).

The book reviewed here is based upon Eagleton’s 2008 Terry Lectures at Yale University. For the transcript of an interview of him about it and related topics, please go here. A video of his 2010 Gifford Lecture on “The God Debate” is available here.

Partly because of his Marxism, many describe Eagleton as an atheist. Depending on many things, including what the word “God” means, this might or might not be precisely accurate and precision in such matters is essential.

A graduate of the University of Chicago Divinity School, Daryll Ward teaches religion and ethics at the Kettering College of Medical Arts in Ohio. Among other things, specialists know him as an expert the thought of the so-called father of modern Protestant theology: Friedrich Schliermacher (1768 – 1834).

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