REASON, FAITH, AND REVOLUTION: Reflections on the God Debate

Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press ($25)

by Emy Farley

English Literature and Cultural Theory professor Terry Eagleton is a bold man. The highly decorated literary critic begins his latest book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, by brazenly admitting “since the only theology I don’t know much about is Christian theology, as opposed to those kinds I know nothing about, I shall confine my discussion to that alone, on the grounds that it is better to be provincial than presumptuous. As for science, my knowledge of it is largely confined to the fact that it is greeted with dark suspicion by most postmodernists.”

This statement should give Eagleton’s readers a glimpse into the book they’ve just picked up: a man who self-admittedly understands little about science or theology is here attempting to bridge the gap and provide context for the ongoing debate about the existence of God. The tone of Eagleton’s declaration will also give readers an understanding of the language awaiting them in Reason, Faith, and Revolution: a bit long-winded, rife with the presumptuousness he contends he does not have, and bound to go straight over the head of an average reader.

From the start, it is obvious that Doctor Eagleton (as he requests to be called, finding “Professor” too stuffy) has something he needs to get off his chest. He is tired of atheists missing the point, taking the easy road and rejecting Christianity as a whole rather than approaching it systematically. He is tired of the “ignorance and prejudice” of Christianity’s “rationalist and humanist” critics, and he is especially tired of two prominent atheist writers, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (later referred to as the singular derivative “Ditchkins”). Though blind belief stretches Eagleton’s imagination, he finds that Christianity itself has important things to teach about politics, about “death, suffering, love, self-dispossession, and the like,” so with Reason, Faith, and Revolution he attempts to move the debate from its current dismissive tenor to one that is more reasoned.

This lecture series-turned-book begins several interesting arguments that could become coherent and convincing chapters, but these arguments are either abandoned or “proven” by flimsy analogies, leaving the reader floundering to conclude Eagleton’s point on his behalf. Take, for example, the sum of Eagleton’s argument against Ditchkins’s stance that Christianity is a useless pseudo-science that “dispenses itself from the need of evidence altogether.” “Christianity,” asserts Eagleton, “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.”

The main dispute between religion and science does not, Eagleton contends, concern the best explanation for how or why we’re here, but rather how far back one has to go to begin asking questions. Science looks for the spark of the Big Bang and the things that followed. Theology, he says, looks further: why is there anything in the first place? Why are we self-aware? Why do we want answers, how do we know we want them, and why do we assume the system works in a rational, explainable way?

According to Eagleton, God created the universe not because he had to, but simply for the joy and the art of it. This becomes the main distinction between liberal rationalists like Ditchkins and radicals like the author—can you see the world not as a question to be answered, but as a gift given for no reason other than love? The world exists entirely for its own sake. How do we know this? Because, explains Eagleton, in the Bible we have the story of the first rebel, the first hippie, the first slacker—and we are told to lay down our nets and follow Him.

In Eagleton’s telling of the New Testament, Jesus should be read not as a savior but as a political radical. He preached love, but not in the sense that modern audiences understand it—as an intimate, private, unique above-all bond. The love Jesus preached was the revolutionary, humanist, “justice is thicker than blood” type of love, where the good of all was ranked over the life of the individual. Through Jesus’s example, Christians have learned that through great suffering comes great faith, and, according to Eagleton, that humanity must suffer as Jesus did to “come into its own.” Ditchkins (and liberal rationalists like them) cannot understand faith because they lead easy lives in comfortable suburbia, and thus they reject faith as a whole.

Despite these frequent bouts of illogical causality, bizarre analogies, or stifling academia, Eagleton frames many fascinating questions and puts Christianity into a unique perspective. Sadly, rather than developing this arc further, the book instead becomes uncomfortably political, tying Christianity, radical Islam, atheism, and 9/11 together as a result of confusing faith with law. Eagleton spends much of the book philosophizing about politics, radicals, liberals, postmodernists, and rationalists, deriding capitalism, and using theology as a loose framework around which to hang his musings. The subtitle’s indication that Eagleton’s proclamations are “reflections” on the God debate is accurate; the book offers contemplation and consideration rather than a point-counterpoint discussion of opposing viewpoints.

Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate feels more like a highly educated professor theorizing with his other well-read friends at a pub than a true rebuttal to previously made arguments between science and theology. His points are well taken, but they are often not easily accessible to those outside academia or Marxism. With so many others writing on The God Debate, perhaps some readers should heed the spirit of Eagleton’s own words: “why bother with Robert Musil when you can read Max Weber?”

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009