Religion Feed

Terry Eagleton: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

I have the local library to thank for my having read this invigorating little book. They took it out of circulation (or rather, no doubt, non-circulation) and put it on the giveaway shelf, and I, having heard a few things about Eagleton that sounded interesting, took possession of it. And I'm glad I did. The library will not be getting it back from me, as sometimes happens to books I've picked up as discards. It's now riddled with book darts marking passages I particularly liked.

TerryEagleton-ReasonFaithAndRevolution(The apparently torn place is printed on the cover.)

What I had heard about Eagleton had given me the impression that he's an interesting atheist, which is unusual. Most atheists have such a shallow, and often just plain wrong, understanding of theistic concepts, and the place and function of religion in the human psyche and civilization, that reading them is just an exercise in frustration. No one over the age of fifteen should ever think the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a clever and telling argument against belief in the Creator God. (See Wikipedia if you haven't heard of it. I will admit that "Pastafarian" is funny.)

But there are those whom I call deep atheists who do understand the questions and their significance, and are willing and able to work out the import of their atheism. Some of these have a great deal of insight and are not only worthy of respect, not only interesting to read, but actually illuminating about the beliefs they reject. Terry Eagleton is one of these.

On the basis of this book I'm not sure that he is technically an atheist, but he is an ex-Catholic who no longer believes, at least not in that specific faith, but does understand it. He's also a Marxist. From both points of view he challenges the thin secular technocracy which thinks it is pushing us along on the way to history's final destination. Which I suppose could be true, but not as they imagine it.

Here is Eagleton against the shallow atheists Dawkins and Hitchens:

Dawkins falsely considers that Christianity offers a rival view of the universe to science. Like the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in Breaking the Spell, he thinks it is a kind of bogus theory or pseudo-explanation of the world. In this sense, he is rather like someone who thinks that a novel is a botched piece of sociology, and who therefore can't see the point of it at all. Why bother with Robert Musil when you can read Max Weber?....

Christopher Hitchens makes much the same crass error, claiming in God Is Not Great that "thanks to the telescope and the microscope, [religion] no longer offers an explanation of anything important." But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.

And here he describes the profundity they don't see, and for that matter that many nominal Christians don't see:

For Christian teaching, God's love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed to be the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law.... Here, then is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety...

The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal....

The prosperity gospel people are not the only ones who need to hear that; I can't say it strikes me as good news. It's not the whole story, obviously, but it is an important part, and one that most of us prefer not to face.

The latter part of the book focuses on the conflict between militant Islam and the secular West, and on the essential failure of the latter to grasp the powers of religion and culture, to think that exporting capitalism and democracy to the Islamic world would be both an easy and an effective way to resolve the conflict. To some extent it's a criticism of the various wars we've waged in the Middle East, and is less interesting to me, as the immediate importance of those arguments has receded in the political nervous breakdown that the United States, along with much of the rest of what we call "the West," is undergoing, 

Eagleton is primarily a literary critic. I don't go in much for contemporary criticism, having gotten off the literary bus just before it arrived at post-modernism, and not liking what I can see of that. But he's hostile to post-modernism, so perhaps I'd find his criticism worthwhile, too.


I Want This On My Tombstone

However, I did try.
 --St. Katherine Drexel

I've taken it out of context--the sentence doesn't actually end there. And I'm not 100% certain that it was St K.D. It was in one of the daily meditations in a fairly recent Magnificat, maybe in March. I'm pretty sure I wrote it down, with attribution, somewhere, and now I can't find it. But in any case it sure fits.


Two Smart People Discuss the Disintegration of Culture

I'm trying very hard, and so far successfully, to stifle my impulse to talk about the political crisis of the United States. The crisis is far from abating. It's quieter now that the frenzy surrounding Trump has ceased, but the basic situation hasn't changed, and I'm trying not to spend too much time fretting about the likely outcomes, which seem to me to range from not good to very bad. (All right, I'll go this far: I think the most likely is a continued decline toward a situation like that which has often existed in Latin American countries: a corrupt pseudo-republican government, a small class of very wealthy and powerful people, and a great many poor and almost-poor people.)

The civilizational crisis that underlies the political crisis, though, still engages my attention and still seems worth commenting on as part of my effort to grasp it. A British novelist named Paul Kingsnorth has emerged as an articulate and perceptive voice on that subject. This video is an hour of his conversation with a Canadian artist/thinker name Jonathan Pageau, previously unknown to me. It's very much worth watching as a sort of overview. The most interesting part to me begins a little less than halfway through; the first 25 minutes or so are introductory. I don't entirely agree with him about the importance of climate change, but that's relatively unimportant--I certainly agree that our culture's relationship to the created order is pretty sick. 

Rod Dreher has quoted and written about Kingsnorth frequently, and today is another instance. I have not yet read the First Things and other links in that piece, but as this post has been sitting half-finished for over a week and I'm ready to be done with it, I'm going to go ahead and say that they're most likely very much worth reading. 


Ronald Knox Again

I'm just finishing up A Retreat for Lay People, which I planned to read over Lent, and have actually followed through on that plan. There's a lot of really good stuff here, a lot of quotable stuff. The next-to-last chapter is about Mary Magdalene, and this seems a good note for what will most likely be my last post, apart from the psalms, until Easter Monday. 

...for her, the interior virtues. She is the heroine of contrition; and contrition does not, of itself, alter the external fact of our sins; it only alters our attitude towards them. She is the heroine of resignation, and resignation does not help us to do anything; it only helps us to suffer, with patience, those bad times which will come to us whether we are patient over them or no. She is the heroine of hope; and hope does not change the course of the world's history; it only enables us to look forward, in a dark hour, to God's promise that the course of history will yet be changed.

 


The Last Christian Generation?

Rod Dreher had a post a month or two back in which he discussed the possibility that we are in a situation comparable to that of the Romans we call "pagans," those who continued to Rome's ancient objects and forms of worhip, when Christianity became the Empire's dominant religion. You can read the post here. It draws on a book which goes into that Roman transition in great detail.

That historical parallel is interesting and surely must have some validity. But what's been preoccupying me lately is just these words: "the last Christian generation." I'm so literal-minded that talk of generations always bothers me: we can speak of the generations of a family, because by definition children are preceded by parents and grandparents in strict order, however long the intervals between them may be. But the idea is only loosely applicable to societies. We don't see a million births in a single year, followed by twenty barren years, followed by a year in which all the twenty-year-olds bear children, and so on. There can't really be a last generation of anything in a society taken as a whole. There is only a waning and waxing of numbers, as more and more children grow up and leave one way and take up another. I know, there is some utility in speaking of, say, the young people of a certain age at a certain time as a generation. But I always want to carp at it a little.

It's precisely the specific and definite use of the word that I keep thinking about--the drying up of Christianity in individual families. I've seen it happen; we all have, I assume. There are a husband and wife who are practicing Christians. Maybe they're very devout. maybe they're fairly casual, but they do consciously think of themselves as Christians, go to church at least frequently, and make at least some effort to pass the faith along to their children.

Then the children leave, either in anger and bitterness or by casual drift, dropping any practice and any explicitly Christian thinking. Maybe they become "spiritual but not religious," maybe they don't even give any thought to that sort of thing. Still, some degree of Christian consciousness remains, some awareness of Christian things, some notion of what Christianity teaches. To that extent they're still part of a Christian culture.

But when they have children of their own, this consciousness, this awareness, does not pass to them. They know no more of Christianity than an American child in 1960 was likely to know of Hinduism. Moreover, they may have been educated, formally and informally, to associate the term "Christian" with sanctimony, eccentricity or outright madness, bigotry, perversion, and so forth. And to regard the history of Christian civilization as chiefly occupied in the burning of witches and heretics, and the enslavement and slaughter of other, superior peoples.

Within their own families, the grandparents in that progression are literally the last Christian generation. And this is not a thing that might happen: it is happening now. Probably we all know of instances. Christian thinkers have seen this coming for a century and a half or so, but it's one thing to hear about a drought, another to see the crops withering before your eyes.

We may already have arrived at a point where our culture is dominated by people who are at the stage of that third generation, or further. (It's arguable that the word "may" there is not accurate, but I'll let that go for now.) At that point the broader conventional use of "generation" becomes applicable. It's a discouraging thought, but appropriate for consideration as we move into Lent. There doesn't seem to be a great deal of a practical nature that we can do about this, which should give our prayers more urgency.

1024px-Cracked_earth_after_prolonged_drought._2020(Source: Wikimedia Commons)


"Of all deceivers...

"...fear most yourself."

      --Kierkegaard

One slightly annoying aspect of the current state of this blog is that at least half, maybe more, of the visits to it are from people who have searched for some relatively obscure thing and gotten a link to one of my posts. Whether or not whatever they found here is useful to them or not, they don't stick around, and they don't come back, at least not soon or regularly. Well, that's fine--happy to be of help, if I was. But it means that when I look at my statistics and want to know how many people read the blog intentionally, I have to figure the number of visits by those people, as opposed to those who have been pointed to some specific post on some specific topic and are otherwise not interested, is at best half of the already small number.

One of the more frequent hits is the 2012 post called "Getting Started with Kierkegaard." A fair number of people want to do that, I guess. The post consists of little more than the question: where to start? And there are some good recommendations in the comments.

Which did I pursue? None. The last two comments there reveal the sad picture: about this time last year someone asked if I had an answer to the question. Sadly, I did not, because after eight years I had not so much as picked up one of Kierkegaard's books: it was another of my intellectual projects that failed before it really got started. 

But I have resumed it, thanks to the Eighth Day Books catalog that I received some months ago. They offered a book called Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Søren Kierkegaard, which is a compendium of brief excerpts intended to provide an introduction to Kierkegaard's thought. I thought that might be a good way to take up my abandoned but not forgotten plan. 

Having bought the book (from Eighth Day), I was a little disappointed to find that the editor has in some cases resorted to paraphrase and abridgement in the interests of making Kierkegaard's meaning clear to the more casual reader. Perhaps I'll want to go on from here to specific works. But on the other hand this may be all the Kierkegaard I need.

At any rate I'm finding it very rich in insight, and besides that enjoying it very much. Isn't that epigram fantastic? 

Kierkegaard-Provocations

Here's a link to the publisher's description. And by the way it doesn't seem to be available from Eighth Day anymore. 


Re-reading The Moviegoer

I first read The Moviegoer sometime in the mid-1970s, and I loved it. But I was almost completely oblivious to the religious and philosophical aspects of it. I just thought it was a somewhat satirical, yet affectionate, and altogether delightful slice of a certain kind of Southern life. But that was all. After reading his other work, I could see, in retrospect, what I had missed. But as far as I can remember I didn't actually re-read it until now.

I did, clearly, browse through it a bit when I wrote about Percy in the 52 Authors series--browsed it enough to harvest the quotation I included there. That was five years ago, and I haven't changed my general view of Percy since then. On this reading, several things especially struck me:

1) It's even better than I remembered. I've long said, mainly on the strength of that first reading forty-five or so years ago, that on purely literary grounds this might well be considered his best. I say that now. All the others have their considerable merits and pleasures, but this one is the most perfectly formed.

2) All of the philosophical Percy is present here. If he'd never written anything else, this would stand as a statement (insofar as a novel can or should be a statement) of those views. Other works clarify and expand upon the basic ideas, and work them out in different situations with different characters (well, somewhat different). But the essentials are here, and I don't think they changed much over his career. And that implies a certain amount of repetition.

Percy's religious thought, the Catholic Percy, is hardly evident at all, though--only gently suggested. Binx has just realized that "a search is possible," and hardly begun it, though something has been found, or rather has found him. This was a good aesthetic choice, apart from the things Percy has written about theological questions--and answers--being best approached obliquely. For Binx and/or Kate to be converted would have required at least half again as long a book, and as this book stands it is slim and perfectly shaped.

3) I don't really have any clear idea of what's wrong with Kate. It isn't the same thing that's wrong with Binx, though there seems to be some sort of connection. Perhaps it's just that they are both rather severely "maladjusted," as psychologists used to say. I don't know whether they still say that or not, but it doesn't seem to fit with post-'60s attitudes.

4) I realized that I'm also unclear about the exact nature of the "certification" problem mentioned in that quote from Percy which caused me to re-read the book (see this post from a few weeks ago). This business of ordinary reality becoming unreal, and made real by sudden danger or catastrophe, or by being mentioned or represented in a movie, is something he brings up often, and I'm not sure exactly what its philosophical import is. In the first case--the ordinary made real at a moment of danger--is it really anything more than the fact, remarked on for ages and not particularly "modern," that we naturally grow accustomed to things and cease to pay much attention to them? And that we can be jolted into paying attention again by some out of the ordinary event? This is what Percy calls "everydayness" and is really not a strange phenomenon, or at least not one that has anything in particular to do with modern psychological dislocations.

The matter of extra-real existence being given to a person or place appearing in (for instance) a movie is a different story. If you recognize your home, or your hometown, in a movie, or your cousin as an extra in a crowd scene, you do see them as somehow made more real and significant--"certified," to use Percy's term. This is widely true, maybe universally true, and I think most of us have experienced it. I certainly recognize it. And am really quite puzzled by it. I recognize Percy's description, but I can't recall that he really explains it.

I've been thinking about it, and maybe one aspect of it--not the whole thing, but an aspect--is related to Rene Girard's ideas about mimetic desire: that we desire things because we see that others desire them. Similarly, the significance we assign to something is affected by the significance which others assign to it. It isn't desire, specifically, but it's related; it's certainly a type of valuation.

The prevalence of mass media like movies and television makes us tend to see what is represented there as having more significance than our own personal selves and surroundings, which means in a sense more ontological status: the significant is in some way more real to us than the insignificant. I and my surroundings are only significant to me; what I see on that screen is significant to many others. To that is added the vividness, selectivity, and drama with which movies and television invest everything. Few people have in real life the experience of magnificent bravery and skill shown by John Wayne's character in a scene from Stagecoach mentioned by Binx. Or the sheer power, also magnificent though evil, on display when Walter White says "I am the one who knocks." The common phrase "larger than life" says quite plainly what we feel.

Whether it's a great film or a bad film or a glimpse of the spectators at a football game or just a local news broadcast, that "larger than life" factor enters. And so if you see your town or your house or your cousin in one of these, they absorb some of the extra significance possessed by the thing as a whole. We know that others, thousands or millions of them, invest it with significance, if only by virtue of the fact that they see it. If so many think it's more significant than whatever is outside their own front doors, then it must be--you could in a certain way say it is in fact more significant--and therefore seems so to us as well. It has been certified.

Maybe that's what Percy says. I know he goes into this in more detail in Lost in the Cosmos, but I haven't read it for a while.

5) When I first read the book, I had never been to New Orleans, or for that matter to any part of Louisiana. And although I'd been to the Alabama and Florida Panhandle coasts enough to have a sense of what "spinning along the Gulf coast" is like, I didn't really know the feel of the place and its culture in the way that I do now, after living there for thirty years. I don't claim to know New Orleans well, but I've now been there often enough that Percy's descriptions of it have a flavor that they did not before. I've been on Freret Street, though I don't remember noticing a movie house there. and know that the campus which Binx and Kate walked through to get there is Loyola. It might even be possible to figure out which steps they sat on when they stopped to talk, though I'm sure the campus has changed a lot since the late '50s. 


Some Ominous Words

"We live in times when the very composition of man is changing."

The remark was made sometime in the 1980s by Fr. John Krestiankin, a Russian Orthodox monk, and is quoted in a long piece called "The New Martyrs and Confessors: A Personal Memoir of Russia's Orthodox Clergy & Elders Under Communism," written by Fr. Vladimir Vorbyev and appearing in the September/October issue of Touchstone.

(This link may take you to the article; I think it's subscriber-only but this link is supposed to allow me to share it.)

Many years ago--maybe in the late '70s or early '80s, maybe even earlier--I read someone's conjecture, based on some esoteric spirituality that included reincarnation, that there is only a certain amount of human spiritual "matter," and that the ever-growing population of the world, especially its growth in the past couple of centuries, means that this essence is being spread ever thinner among the living. I didn't believe it, but it was one of those eccentric theories that make you think "Well, it would explain a few things." 

I have often, over the years, going back to my acquaintance with the literature of the past when I was young, felt that the writers (and other artists) seemed to be made of...well, "sterner stuff" is the phrase that comes to mind after "made of," and that's probably part of it, but there's more to it than that. And anyway it's not only sterner; it's also in a way softer, more sensitive. In general it seems richer and stronger. I wouldn't really defend those observations as truth, but they are, as I say, something that has passed through my mind. I thought of it again a couple of years ago when I was looking through a trove of family records going back into the late 19th century. There were, for instance, poems written more or less casually in letters or published in the local paper that were remarkably well-crafted, certainly beyond what an ordinary person of ordinary education would be likely to produce today. And I guess we've all seen and heard of the McGuffey Readers of that time which were used in elementary schools but would be considered too difficult for our high school or even college students.

I don't wish I had lived in 1850. Or 1150, or any other time. I don't think we can say that people were any more virtuous before, say, 1900: those times were full of brutalities which were accepted as normal but which horrify us. And yet: doesn't it sometimes seem that we are a smaller, more trivial people than we once were? Fr. Vladimir continues:

At first I couldn't understand these words, but then I recalled the Book of Genesis, which says that God sent the Flood to the earth when he saw that men became fleshly (9:3). "The very composition of man is changing" meant that the spirit was diminishing. Alas, there are more and more people in whom it's hard to perceive their spiritual nature, because for some reason they want to behave like beasts.

It isn't the comparison to beasts that strikes me so much as "the spirit was diminishing." I don't know if that's the best way to describe it, either. But I've had the feeling for a long time that there is something bad going on in our culture that is spiritual and very deeply hidden, something more fundamental than mere skepticism, hedonism, and materialism--something that helps to give those their power. 


Does the Pope Believe in the Resurrection?

Some weeks ago I was asked about a remark attributed to Pope Francis by that journalist he talks to from time to time, Eugenio Scalifari. According to Scalifari, the pope said that the resurrection of Jesus did not actually happen as a physical event. This was one of those conversations with the 90-plus-year-old journalist who neither records nor takes notes of his "interviews." So (1) who knows what Francis actually said? (2) who knows what Francis actually meant? (3) who really cares, unless something more definite is known about (1) and (2)?

So much for that. But my correspondent had searched for something like "does the pope believe in the resurrection?" and had turned up something more serious, albeit happily more obscure. The web site of a self-described "reformed, Calvinistic, conservative evangelical publisher" based in Edinburgh, "Banner of Truth," asserts that Benedict XVI clearly denies the resurrection. A look around the site reveals that it also pushes old-school anti-Catholicism: Far From Rome Near to God: Testimonies of Fifty Converted Catholic Priests. So it's not surprising that in an article called "Does the Pope Believe in the Resurrection?" Matthew Vogan says the answer is no:

Continue reading "Does the Pope Believe in the Resurrection?" »


The Dangers of Being a Player

Perhaps you've heard of a little controversy involving First Things. It seems that the editor, R.R. Reno, issued a quarrelsome Twitter post or two in which he called people who wear the masks prescribed as COVID-19 preventatives "cowards." I was aware that he has been skeptical and even scornful about the way the pandemic has been handled, and that some people were pretty annoyed with him on that score. But there was apparently quite an outcry about the "cowards" business, resulting in a lot of discussion about the magazine, its history and future. 

Here's Rod Dreher on the matter. (And here is his account of the initial explosion, if you aren't already aware of it and want to know.) 

When First Things appeared in the '90s I read it occasionally and liked it. But I didn't subscribe because (1) many of its articles were too academic for me, by which I mean they assumed a level of education that I don't have, and (2) it seemed to have a sort of program which I did not entirely buy into. That program was generally identified as neoconservatism. And I had many points of agreement with it. After all, I was and am in some literal sense a neoconservative in the strict sense of being one who was on the political left and moved to the right. But of course the term in practice encompassed and implied much more than that, so I didn't apply it to myself.

But I was bothered by something deeper than that, something I was only vaguely aware of and never gave much thought to. A sentence in Dreher's post (the first one linked above) gave me an abrupt realization:

Neuhaus’s great triumph with First Things came from his aspiration to make it a political player. He succeeded.

Yes, and that was the problem. When you want to be a player, you have to cultivate alliances, flatter this one and shun that one, calculate your position, keep a close eye on what people are saying about you and whether or not they are people who matter...on and on. I don't say that it's an indefensible thing. Maybe you can advance good causes that way. Maybe you can't accomplish anything much in the world without doing at least some of that. But it's not for me, and I think the scent of it--the impression that Neuhaus and company enjoyed that game, took pleasure in hobnobbing with the high and mighty--always bothered me.

Well, it's easy for me to criticize; I couldn't do that stuff even if I wanted to. I'm just not made that way. But, my personal qualities or lack thereof aside, the effort to become a "player" as a means of advancing the Gospel, or, more mundanely, of advancing political causes that you see as advancing the Gospel, poses obvious dangers. Dreher points out (the first post I linked to above is very much worth reading), and I think he's probably right, that the identification of First Things and neoconservatism in general with the Republican party has really damaged the effectiveness of the magazine even within the scope of Christian politics. The identification of so many prominent "public" Christians, including many of those at First Things, with Donald Trump has done even more. 

I don't mean the simple act of voting for Trump. In 2016 you had a choice between Trump and Clinton. In 2020 you will probably have a choice between Trump and Biden. (Let's ignore the third-party option; anyone who takes that road understands that his candidate has no chance of winning.) Given that choice, there are plenty of good reasons to vote for Trump. What I mean, what's doing the damage, is not that, but the fanatical embrace of Trump as righteous prophet-savior ordained by God to lead his nation, and Christians in particular, out of the wilderness. This is just the right-wing counterpart of the left's Obama-worship. And both, as I keep saying, are symptoms of a very bad development in American politics: the elevation of the presidency into the role of god-king incarnating the soul and will of the nation. You can hardly get more un-American than that.

More significantly for the fortunes of Christianity in America, though: when idols fall, those who have embraced them fall with them.