Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Cranky Old British Scholars Duke It Out Over Jesus

The day after writing the previous post, a response to The New York Times Book Review's review of Richard Dawkins' new book, The God Delusion, I opened my mailbox and low and behold, there's another review of it in the new issue of The London Review of Books by Terry Eagleton, the eminent literary critic.

As I've written before (long before), I have a sort of love-hate relationship with Eagleton. For every startlingly brilliant essay I read by him, there appears another pretentious, ill-informed rant that I find plain objectionable. This new review falls into the latter category. First, I must point out that Eagleton is not only a clearly brilliant man and thinker, but also an extremely fine writer; there's something about older British academics--perhaps rote memorization of the classics--that makes their writing an immense pleasure to read. I might be revealing my innate literary nerdiness here, but it reminds me of those great introductory essays you can get in older Penguin editions of the classics, written in the Fifties or Sixties, which I always loved reading for some reason. Frankly, it's this quality that Dawkins has in common with Eagleton, and at their best they're rapier wits, their writings replete with rhetorical brilliance so painfully lacking in American writing; at their worst, they're pompous old whiners.

What I find so objectionable in Eagleton's review ("Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching," LRB Oct. 19) is a tendency I've noted in some other liberal/leftists commentators on religion (I wrote at length about Leon Wieseltier's tendency some months ago); they defend religion through an elegantly intellectual lense that abstracts religion so far from the lived experience that it renders it alien to most of its followers. And by "lived experience" I mean nothing more than how your average church-going Christian experiences religion in the US (and, I would imagine, Britain).

"There are always topics on which otherwise scrupulous minds will cave in with scarcely a struggle to the grossest prejudice," writes Eagleton of Dawkins failure to appreciate the complexity of Christian theology and the philosophical problems associated therewith. "For a lot of academic psychologists, it is Jacques Lacan; for Oxbridge philosophers it is Heidegger; for former citizens of the Soviet bloc it is the writings of Marx; for militant rationalists it is religion."

He continues:

What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.

Personally, I find this passage hilarious; here you have an erudite scholar of literature demanding of an evolutionary biologist that he be able to respond to two 13th Century theologians, one of them far more obscure than the other, and then demands, outraged, "Has he even heard of them?"

Yes, yes, I get it: the history of Christianity is marked by brilliant thinkers and respectable scholars, the Gospels and Old Testament are often beautiful and even sublime works of literature. And I grant you, perhaps Dawkins went to far in trying to explain away religion's origins, moving too far from his comfortable scientific sphere to write a weakly defended polemic. But again, as I wrote in the last posting: Is it necessary at all for Dawkins to respond to Aquinas or be aware of Moltmann (additionally, note Eagleton's pretentious use of a last-name only reference to a work as though it should be general knowledge what that refers to; he is, you must admit, a brilliant writer) to disprove religion? Sadly, no, it is not; biology and physics have dealt a swift and fatal coup de grâce with no ostentatious hand-wringing or severed-head waving, and no amount of prognostication by scholars dropping names left and right, claiming each deserves special attention before any final call can be made, can change that.

"Dawkins considers that all faith is blind faith, and that Christian and Muslim children are brought up to believe unquestioningly. Not even the dim-witted clerics who knocked me about at grammar school thought that. For mainstream Christianity, reason, argument and honest doubt have always played an integral role in belief. (Where, given that he invites us at one point to question everything, is Dawkins’s own critique of science, objectivity, liberalism, atheism and the like?)" writes Eagleton.

Reason, to be sure, doesn’t go all the way down for believers, but it doesn’t for most sensitive, civilised non-religious types either. Even Richard Dawkins lives more by faith than by reason. We hold many beliefs that have no unimpeachably rational justification, but are nonetheless reasonable to entertain. Only positivists think that ‘rational’ means ‘scientific’. Dawkins rejects the surely reasonable case that science and religion are not in competition on the grounds that this insulates religion from rational inquiry. But this is a mistake: to claim that science and religion pose different questions to the world is not to suggest that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine, the pope should get himself down to the dole queue as fast as possible. It is rather to claim that while faith, rather like love, must involve factual knowledge, it is not reducible to it. For my claim to love you to be coherent, I must be able to explain what it is about you that justifies it; but my bank manager might agree with my dewy-eyed description of you without being in love with you himself.

Fair enough, but a strangely relativist position again, and a potentially semantic one; here, Eagleton tries to defend religion against Dawkins' attack by turning Dawkins' own skepticism back on him. His anecdote about love is actually rather weak, I think: it's all fine and dandy to tell your bank manager you love some girl and him to believe; in the absence of contradictory information, why not? Tell him she's beautiful and shwo him a picture, well, he's got something more to go on than your word. Religion is like the love anecdote and that's a lovely thought; science is like the picture anecdote and, while arguably subjective, has a factual basis stronger than the prior anecdote. When the two conflict, then, I think I could say which one I believe would trump the other. Prof. Eagleton should remember that faith is not only that which survives doubt and skepticism, but potentially that which turns a blind eye to the truth and fact. A wife may have faith in her husband's fidelity, but it's a less generous thing to say about her when the two of you are outside the door of cheap motel from where you can hear the bedsprings popping and the choir teacher's car is parked next to his in the lot.

And then, as promised, the utter abstraction of religion from lived experience: "Jesus, who pace Dawkins did indeed ‘derive his ethics from the Scriptures’ (he was a devout Jew, not the founder of a fancy new set-up), was a joke of a Messiah. He was a carnivalesque parody of a leader who understood, so it would appear, that any regime not founded on solidarity with frailty and failure is bound to collapse under its own hubris. The symbol of that failure was his crucifixion. In this faith, he was true to the source of life he enigmatically called his Father, who in the guise of the Old Testament Yahweh tells the Hebrews that he hates their burnt offerings and that their incense stinks in his nostrils. They will know him for what he is, he reminds them, when they see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent empty away. You are not allowed to make a fetish or graven image of this God, since the only image of him is human flesh and blood. Salvation for Christianity has to do with caring for the sick and welcoming the immigrant, protecting the poor from the violence of the rich. It is not a ‘religious’ affair at all, and demands no special clothing, ritual behaviour or fussiness about diet. (The Catholic prohibition on meat on Fridays is an unscriptural church regulation.)"

Wow. That's almost Borgesian in its ability to wander a labyrinth of concepts; I also find it doubtful that most Christians would initially warm to the idea that Jesus was "a joke of a Messiah." If they knew what "carnivalesque" meant, they'd no doubt object to that description, too, since as good, austere Protestants they've spend a century fighting every expression of the carnivalesque in American cultural life, nor would they--as true believers--accept Eagleton's nevertheless correct historicist reading of the Bible which separates the God of the Old Testament from the Jesus of the New, for of course mainstream Protestant Christianity largely holds that the Bible is all but the work of God's own hand, and their theology, whatever else, does not hold much room for that sort of interpretation. (These are, after all, the same people who support Israel on the grounds that its existence means the Second Coming is approaching, and that soon the Anti-Christ will appear and be mistaken for the Messiah by the Jewish nation; as more than one Israeli commentator has written of American Evangilical support of his nation, "With friends like these...")

Certainly Eagleton's correct that the defense of the weak against the will of the strong is a basis of Christianity both originally and in the contemporary, but I find it hilarious that we works his critical genius at the beginning of the paragraph, interpreting religious beliefs in a way much different from what many of that religion's followers would accept, only at the end to dismiss out of hand the prohibition against eating fish on Fridays, still held by many Catholics out of habit if nothing else. He's correct; I recall no passage in the Bible that said I couldn't eat fish on Friday, but what's hilarious is that when he describes Christian beliefs it has virtually nothing to do with how mainstream Christians think, and when he describes a mainstream practice that affects millions, he dismisses it out of hand. The man's completely out of touch.

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