- Culture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton
Eagleton’s new book is a powerful reiteration and expansion of arguments, first articulated by writers like Karl Löwith and M. H. Abrams, concerning what might be called “intellectual secularization.” Eagleton reads the entirety of modern Western thought as a series of largely unsuccessful attempts to replace theological concepts with natural ones, among them “reason,” “subjectivity,” “imagination,” “the aesthetic,” “symbol,” and “culture.” There is much that is persuasive here, but Eagleton overreaches, and he tends to portray these secular categories as nothing but disfigurations of the authentic theology from which they derived. His language is almost conspiratorial, as if the writers he discusses were incompetent alchemists trying to pass off base metals for gold: the Romantic idea of the “symbol” is a “shamefaced piece of theology,” the Idealists’ “subjectivity” is guilty of “stealthily usurping … divinity,” and Schopenhauer’s Will is “a grisly parody of the Almighty.” We hear of “locum tenens,” “stopgaps,” “surrogates,” and “residues,” but rarely of ideas that have their own integrity. [End Page 512]
What one wants from Eagleton is a comprehensive defense of this characterization of posttheological thinking. Why should the structural similarities he finds between theological concepts and their modern counterparts always be viewed as a form of secular theft? Hans Blumenberg, whose work Eagleton cites, argued that the replacement of theological concepts with “secular” ones should be conceived as a “reoccupation” of newly vacant “answer positions” rather than a simple transubstantiation of religious ideas. And Feuerbach, of whom Eagleton is dismissive, argued that theology was from the beginning subjectivity’s projection of itself onto a transcendent screen; if Feuerbach is right, it should not be surprising if secular models of the human reflect formerly theological ones. Eagleton is a Christian, so he has reason to reject that argument, and his book regularly juxtaposes his radical vision of the Gospels to the political and existential inadequacy of the surrogates he describes. But his book could have used some old-fashioned apologetics. Eagleton is skilled at rendering his gospel ethically attractive, but, if theology is going to be the stick with which he beats its bastard usurpers, he needs some account of why we should believe it, and why all those surreptitious secularizers could not.
Matthew Mutter is an assistant professor of literature at Bard College, currently finishing a book on the tension between religious and secular imaginaries in literary modernism.