Culture and the Death of God
Yale University Press, 2014
Speaking to the Oxonian Review a couple of years ago , Terry Eagleton volunteered that “what you might call ‘political Christianity’ has run as a kind of subcurrent beneath my work.” It is becoming less easy to forget that Eagleton debuted intellectually as a radical Catholic, a founding editor of the journal Slant and the author of The New Left Church. In recent years he has come full circle, supplementing literary theory with a re-engagement with higher things, and consequently running the gamut of distinguished theological lecture series.
Eagleton’s Terry Lectures at Yale became Reason, Faith and Revolution (2009), a lively polemic against the inadequacy of the “new atheist” discourse of Richard Dawkins et al. He delivered one of the Gifford Lectures at Edinburgh in 2010 and the Frith Lectures at Nottingham in 2013, the latter of which form the basis of his latest volume, Culture and the Death of God. In plotting a modern history of the many doomed surrogates advanced for religion—above all, “culture”—he extends the argument, familiar from his earlier work, that religion might yet become a wellspring of critique in a society rendered aridly unreflective by its deference to the calculus of capitalism.
Eagleton is an increasingly endangered species of critic on two counts: he is a Marxist and he is a delight to read. That he succeeds in combining the two is even more remarkable. Few can match him for pithy eloquence; fewer still possess what can only be termed the heroism required to make the likes of Fichte and Feuerbach fun. But the starting-point, appropriately enough, is Marx: religion is “the opium of the people”, but it is also (less notoriously) “the heart of a heartless world” and “the soul of soulless conditions”. If religion, at its worst, has proved to be a powerful means of justifying power, the ne plus ultra in legitimation, at its best its sensitivity to questions of value has exposed the very powers which sought to co-opt it.
Eagleton’s perspective on religion is informed by his view of the Enlightenment . Like Jonathan Israel and Charles Taylor, he argues that, far from being driven by atheists and originating outside the sphere of religion, the Enlightenment arose out of an attempt to put Christianity on a firmer footing. It is hard to argue with Eagleton’s claim that this project gravely weakened religion’s “ideological function”, by which he means its ability to sustain the social order. He shows how attempts to disembarrass Christianity of its more rustic elements opened up a theological chasm: on one side stood “natural religion”, grounded in reason, and on the other, various fideisms floating free of it.
The former was, as Newman was to say of liberalism, “too cold a principle to prevail with the multitude”, while the latter, with their accent on individual experience, were just as unlikely a foundation for social cohesion. It is a useful taxonomy, although Eagleton carries the oppositions too far (understanding versus imagination, theology versus practice) in order to contrast these hopelessly dissociated sensibilities with an older, more integrated “orthodoxy”, in which the intellectuals and the masses could put their trust. Eagleton’s conception of “orthodoxy” is slippery, but he is surely right to observe that neither the abstractions of Kant and Hegel, nor the appeals to inwardness of Kierkegaard and Schleiermacher, could possibly support an ideological burden.
This is something of which many of the Enlightenment’s leading lights were painfully aware. Voltaire, scourge of the Church, was anxious that his domestic staff should not pick up any unorthodox notions. Candide was not the sort of thing one wished one’s wife or servants to read. Eagleton argues that fear of unrest and the belief that the masses were impervious to reason went hand in hand in producing this hypocrisy. In a celebrated passage in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon writes that the various forms of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were “considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrates as equally useful.” Yet in Gibbon’s own century, religion was looking less and less useful; a substitute would have to be found to plug the ideological hole before the authority of the ruling class began to drain away.
Enter Romanticism. “Power, to be effective,” Eagleton writes, “must inscribe itself on the senses.” The problem was particularly acute because economic life under industrial capitalism was less dependent on extra-economic values than any previous mode of production. Eagleton rehearses Fredric Jameson’s argument that the dreary mechanics of liberal economics entail an emotional and symbolic shortfall which has to be met with refurbished forms of transcendence. In the opinion of the early twentieth-century critic T.E. Hulme, Romanticism is precisely so much “spilt religion”.
Nowhere has its legacy been more powerful than in the phenomenon of Romantic nationalism, which sought to synthesize culture and country. National culture would repair the breach between everyday existence and ultimate truths, image and idea, fact and value. Keats’s great avowal—”Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—restores the material to the transcendent, and in so doing presents a fresh foundation for the polity. Yet, as Eagleton notes, nationalism has a tendency to wither away once political self-determination has been achieved. And while Herder saw culture as a means of incarnating the nation, Schiller regarded it as entirely antithetical to parti pris.
In this respect, Schiller had an heir in Matthew Arnold, of whom Eagleton is decidedly not a fan. Eagleton damns the disinterestedness which Arnold hailed as the virtue of self-culture as first-class mystification. If culture dissolves all rancour in “sweetness and light”, then it takes on unspeakable importance for those interested in conserving the social order. Culture becomes the ideological rampart that religion can no longer be. Religion itself is pressed into the service of culture; its radical potentialities are poeticized away while its scriptures are to be regarded as a kind of edifying nonsense. In Arnold’s reconstruction, religion is a purely personal affair, which would have been news to Jesus of Nazareth.
Eagleton has precious little time for other nineteenth-century liberals, whom he caricatures (in time-honoured fashion) as peddling a na√Øve, self-flattering image of humanity. But if the likes of George Eliot were “anxious to divert our feelings of awe, reverence and obligation from the deity to humanity itself”, the impulse was a laudable one (think of Silas Marner). By contrast, Eagleton admires the sheer effrontery of Nietzsche’s self-seeking, self-creating √úbermensch, who dismisses morality in the same breath as God. Nietzsche’s autonomous subject disdains all social and collective norms, driving a wedge between the ideas of culture as self-cultivation and culture as common life.
With modernism, argues Eagleton, this distinction crystallizes into an opposition. Art becomes an “Olympian refuge from history” for the cultural elect rather than a resource for social transformation. Turning in horror and disdain from a philistine world, modernists looked to the imagination as “a means of grace”: the redemptive power of memory in Proust, the priestly vocation of the Joycean artist, epiphanies in Rilke and Woolf. “Poetry / Exceeding music must take the place / Of empty heaven and its hymns”, writes Wallace Stevens. Eagleton slams Salman Rushdie for promoting a belated version of what he calls so much “bogus transcendence”. Eagleton’s ideological wariness of the aesthetic gets the better of him on occasions like these; what use is a word like “bogus” if, as Rushdie might reasonably retort, “bogus” transcendence is the only kind there is? If “high” culture was a shoddy surrogate for religion, this is not because aesthetic experience is some sort of false consciousness but because (as Eagleton will rightly acknowledge) religion is about rather more than aesthetic experience.
In the postmodern supermarket, Eagleton more convincingly goes on, culture and religion alike exist “to cater to needs that one’s stylist or stockbroker cannot fulfil.” What culture gained in democratic terms, it all but abandoned in critical ones, while religion in many quarters has degenerated into a carousel of self-affirmation. Alain de Botton thinks of Christianity as “sporadically interesting, useful and consoling”, which, as Eagleton points out, is a curious way of viewing the requirement that one should lay down one’s life for a stranger if needs be.
For Eagleton, authentic Christianity is not about aesthetic charm or spiritual uplift. Nor is it a servant of power. In fact, the lifting of its ideological load has freed it to become the critique of authority it ought always to have been. Hence, “its superfluity might prove its salvation”, a thought echoed in these pages by Diarmaid MacCulloch . But why, a more conventional Marxist might ask, bring religion into your radical critique? Because, Eagleton replies, theory grows out of lived experience, not the other way round—the tortured body of a political criminal “moves us to action in ways of which reason alone is incapable.” In The Crucified God, the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann puts it best:
[T]he universal must be understood in the particular and the eschatological in the historical. Otherwise it is impossible to think concretely without becoming pragmatic, and impossible to think universally without becoming abstract.
Though you will search in vain for his name in the index, it is Moltmann’s radical theology of liberation, and not the “orthodoxy” of Eagleton’s beloved Thomas Aquinas, that gleams through this book’s argument. Moltmann wrote that “to make present one who was crucified in the name of bourgeois religion” is to replace such religion with churches “which freely criticize society” and which do so by denouncing “idols” and “fetishism” and supporting the victims of prejudice and exploitation. Eagleton hails the God of the Hebrew Bible as an anti-deity who champions the poor and powerless, who “spurns religious cult, rails against fetishism and idolatry, refuses a title and image, and sets his people free from slavery.” It is, of course, a highly selective construal of the one the scriptures call melek hakkābôd—the King of Glory. But perhaps no more so than that which an obscure first-century peasant once dared to imagine.
Fergus McGhee  is reading for a second BA in English at Harris Manchester College, Oxford. He is the ORbits editor at the Oxonian Review.