Magazine article Dissent

The Gospel According to Terry

Magazine article Dissent

The Gospel According to Terry

Article excerpt

The Gospel According to Terry Culture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton Yale University Press, 2014, 248 pp.

God has been through a very rough patch over the last 500 years. Once the Creator and Ruler of the universe, He fell into a long and precipitous decline with the advent of modernity. Dethroned as Ruler in the North Atlantic by religious tolerance and democracy, the Almighty watched helplessly as science refuted His claim to be the Creator. Historians, archeologists, and literary scholars broke the spell of His holy books, impugning their inerrancy and exposing them as riven by myths, errors, and contradictions. Add popular education, material prosperity, and longevity extended by better diet and medicine, and God's hold on the moral and metaphysical imagination grew ever more attenuated.

Secular intellectuals have been of two minds about the Heavenly Father's demise. Hoping that the last king would be strangled with the entrails of the last priest, Diderot mused that God had become "one of the most sublime and useless truths." Yet Voltaire-fearful that his own impiety would embolden his servants to murder and larceny-maintained that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him. Diderot's antipathy morphed into the revolutionary unbelief of Marx and Bakunin (as the latter snarled, if God did exist, it would be necessary to abolish Him); reached its zenith in the exuberant blasphemies of Nietzsche; and persists in brash but utterly derivative form in the "new atheism" of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.

Yet despite His protracted dotage, God refuses to shuffle off into oblivion. If He lingers as a metaphysical butt in seminar rooms and research laboratories, He thrives in the sanctuaries of private belief, religious communities, and seminaries, and abides (sometimes on sufferance) in theology and religious studies departments. He flourishes in suburban evangelical churches everywhere in North America; offers dignity and hope to the planet of slums in Kinshasa, Jakarta, Säo Paulo, and Mumbai; inspires pacifists and prophets for the poor as well as bombers of markets and abortion clinics. David Brat claims Him for libertarian economics, while Pope Francis enlists Him to scourge the demons of neoliberal capitalism. He's even been seen making cameo appearances in the books of left-wing intellectuals. "Religious belief," Terry Eagleton quips, "has rarely been so fashionable among rank unbelievers."

As Eagleton contends in Culture and the Death of God, the Almighty has proven more resilient than His celebrated detractors and would-be assassins. God "has proved remarkably difficult to dispose of"; indeed, atheism itself has proven to be "not as easy as it looks." Ever since the Enlightenment, "surrogate forms of transcendence" have scrambled for the crown of the King of Kings-reason, science, literature, art, nationalism, but especially "culture"-yet none have been up to the job.

Eagleton demonstrates that all the replacements for God have proved abortive, and that secular intellectuals must concede the futility of all attempts to find proxies for divinity. It's a simple and courageous contention, conveyed with Eagleton's signature wit and learning and without a trace of sanctimony or schadenfreude. With brisk but never facile aplomb, he recounts an intellectual history of modernity as the search for a substitute for God and adumbrates, in his own running and spritely commentary, a political theology for the left.

Once upon a time-before modernity, to be precise-God was alive and robust, and religion united "theory and practice, elite and populace, spirit and senses." With its capacious embrace of the soul and the body, religion-clearly epitomized, for Eagleton, by Roman Catholicism-has repeatedly exhibited the capacity to "link the most exalted truths to the daily existence of countless men and women." More attuned to our most fundamental needs and longings than the modern cultural apparatus, it has been "the most tenacious and universal form of popular culture. …

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