- Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate
With Reason, Faith, and Revolution, Terry Eagleton enters the “God Debate,” responding to recent critiques of religion by atheist apologists such as Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion ) and Christopher Hitchens (God Is Not Great ). Eagleton argues that the new atheists attack a caricature of religion, buying their rejection of belief systems “on the cheap” (5) rather than addressing their target at its most powerful and persuasive. The critique of dogmatic thinking by Dawkins, Hitchens, and their kind becomes dogmatic itself, indicative of the same kind of ignorance and prejudice of which they accuse religious believers, and Eagleton playfully underscores their monolithic way of thought by conflating the names of his two primary opponents into “Ditchkins.” As this rhetorical move suggests, Eagleton’s tone is what his readers have come to expect: delightfully witty and unapologetically biting where he discerns ignorance in those who should know better.
Despite the conversational and humorous quality of his writing, Eagleton’s project is serious. He argues that humanity is in a desperate situation largely of the West’s making. In a world where reason and faith are increasingly polarized, they are pushed to their extreme forms: rationalism and fideism. Eagleton suggests we need to foster conditions in which a “reasonable kind of faith” (148) can flourish in order to reclaim the kind of transformative and revolutionary potential of early Christianity. Neither politics nor culture offers a way out of the crisis, but theology, with its critical contemplation of the nature of humanity and humanity’s future, may suggest answers to some of the very problems it helped to create.
Eagleton offers an account of Christianity that is rooted in his Irish Catholic upbringing, shaped by his Dominican-influenced, post-Vatican-II rethinking of theology as a Cambridge undergraduate, and informed by readings of Thomas Aquinas and others. He highlights two key points: first, God created the world as a gift, without purpose or necessity. Second, Jesus, “a sick joke of a savior” (19), represented the “scum and refuse of society” (23) and died as a political criminal in solidarity with the dispossessed. The bloody body of Christ attests to the dismal state of humanity and the sacrifice required to transform the human condition. Ditchkins types do not recognize the necessity of humanitarian action implicit in the faith Eagleton describes because, not being desperate themselves, they do not believe such a situation exists within their Progress-driven world. For Eagleton, the differences between Ditchkins and “radicals” like himself are as much about politics as theology.
Eagleton identifies in chapter 2 a series of hypocrisies: Christianity has “betrayed its own revolutionary origins” (55) by abandoning the poor and dispossessed, but liberalism, too, has “failed to live up to its own founding principles” (60). Ditchkins ignores the contributions of Christianity to society and critiques neither global capitalism which gives rise to fundamentalism nor Western atrocities of slaughter and oppression. In chapter 3, Eagleton argues that although reason is necessary, it is not the most fundamental aspect [End Page 405] of humanity. Reason relies on faith to “draw upon energies and resources deeper, more tenacious, and less fragile than itself” in order to prevail (110). For mainstream Christians, faith is performative, not propositional, motivating action which in turn defines beliefs. Faith of any kind—that necessary for feminism, science, political authority, or Christianity—is not a matter of making a conscious decision, but neither is it a matter of determinism. Eagleton explains that faith is finding oneself committed to something and being unable to turn away from it. Faith “encompasses reason but also transcends it” (139). Eagleton argues in the final chapter that the grip on the West of postmodernism and late capitalism, which both refute grand narratives of all kinds, has pushed faith from the mainstream and separated it from reason, but faith will not disappear and so becomes extreme and irrational. The dominant culture claims the universal values of civilization as its own while viewing other cultures as a...