This article by Stanley Fish on the Terry Eagleton’s latest book has already received more attention that it really deserves, but I nonetheless thought that there some points to it that might have been overlooked:
In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”
Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”
The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”
And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”
Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.
“Ditchkins,” Eagleton observes, cannot ground his belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for him an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)
If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny…
The religions I know are about nothing but doubt and dissent, and the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, feelings of unworthiness, serial backsliding, the abyss of despair. Whether it is the book of Job, the Confessions of St. Augustine, Calvin’s Institutes, Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding to The Chief of Sinners,” Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” and a thousand other texts, the religious life is depicted as one of aspiration within the conviction of frailty. The heart of that life, as Eagleton reminds us, is not a set of propositions about the world (although there is some of that), but an orientation toward perfection by a being that is radically imperfect.
The theory suggested by the likes of Derrida and Barthes and expounded by Eagleton and Fish had its ultimate origins in a critique of the Platonic and Biblical conception of logos, of the word as an inerrant source of truth. The increasing trend throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was to regard the word as an unreliable proxy for the concepts it denoted, culminating in Derrida’s view of meaning as simply an endless chain of differance, in which one word simply represents another and then another, without any transcendent truth standing behind them. In other words, much of this tradition is explictly anti-religious, denying that holy texts have another capacity to represent anything other than themselves. While the conflict with science is equally evident in the work of Lyotard, I am very far from being persuaded that post-modernism and religion have as much in common as is being suggested above. Certainly, Christian theology is far from being without strains of thought based around the ineffability of the divine, but they hardly account for the majority of the christian tradition. Equally, the description Eagleton proposes of christianity as being akin to a form of art for art’s sake, something that does not attempt to describe or prescribe the world, is something that barely seems recognisable to either a contemporary christanity which rarely lets a week slip without a cardinal or bishop somewhere making incursions into secular politics or to a history where the personal aspects of faith have been very far from those that have been most pronounced. Most religions do indeed purport to describe the world, they certainly attempt to prescribe how it should be and they typically do so without much evidence of the doubt Fish rather probably assigns to them above. In any case, this idea of religion as a form of ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ hardly seems consistent with Eagleton’s vision of christianity as a radically transformative ideology, a kind of surrogate for communism. No ideology can dictate how the world should be made anew without some form of denunciation of how it stands at present, and christianity is no different to this. Having long viewed communism as a form of materialistic religion, it hardly surprises me that Eagleton has switched from one totalising ideology to another, although given his dismissal of the liberal ideal of progress as a myth it would be interesting to see how he copes with the problem that the ideal of progress and of history as teleological is a christian concept and one that is particularly evident in some of his current utopianism.