Terry Eagleton is a British Marxist literary critic, which makes him a lot of fun at book parties. Oh, wait, that’s me. But he’s a good speaker – bearded, not posh, erudite and passionate about the right to revolution. He delivered a series of lectures at Yale in 2009, published as “Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate.”
Now it’s a sad, sad day in New Haven when it takes a Marxist to make a plea on behalf of religion. Marx had no time for God – literally. He barely noticed It. But he was clear that religion itself is a misguided use of energy in pursuit of a lie. Eagleton’s thesis is opposite: that faith is reasonable, even rational, and at any rate a whole lot more interesting than most non-religious people think.
Eagleton’s targets are the New Atheists, in particular Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, whom he calls “Ditchkins.” He thinks – quite rightly IMHO – they’ve misunderstood the nature of the enemy. They’ve over-rationalized faith to the point of caricature, making it seem like a kind of willful commitment to a set of facts that are obviously absurd.
The problem, he says, is a lack of respect. These New Atheists are dissin’ religion. Which makes sense:
“It is, in fact, entirely logical that those who see religion as nothing but false consciousness should so often get it wrong, since what profit is to be reaped from the meticulous study of a belief system you hold to be as pernicious as it is foolish?”
Personal aside: Six years ago I would have agreed with Ditchkins. My interest in religion came from intellectual curiosity, and an impulse I didn’t understand. So I started listening to lectures on the subway and while walking my beloved Bernese mountain dog – academic talks put out by The Teaching Company on the history of the early church, and the making of the New Testament canon, the culture of Palestine in the first century, the Reformation and Luther and Existentialism and Islam.
Easily, as I’ve said, two hours a day of religious education. And I read at night, the entire Hebrew Bible, centuries-old classics I’d never heard of that are among the best-selling books in the Western library – Thomas a Kempis’ “Imitation of Christ,” which Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple read before bed; and Teresa of Avila’s mind-blowing “Life” and a library of original translations put out by the Paulist Press whose introductions alone were a cheap at twice the price.
So doing the napkin math, let’s say 2 hours a day of this stuff for five years, rounded down for vacations and whatnot, and we’re at 3,000 hours of exposure to religious ideas, history and analysis. And guess what? I still don’t know ANYTHING. I can’t articulate what it is I believe. I can’t meditate or pray properly. I don’t know Ancient Greek (the language of the New Testament), or Hebrew. I can’t list all the Deutero-Pauline epistles or the twelve prophets. It still seems absurd to me that God would come to earth in human form, be fully God and fully human. How?!
Yet I’m not unique. Open-mindedness to mystery is messy and uncomfortable. Read memoirs of the spiritual track stars like Teresa and John of the Cross if you want to see anxiety: they were tormented by doubt and second-guessing. They used their minds avidly. If people like Teresa struggled, what does that mean for the rest of us?
It’s just this kind of hard labor driven by an inchoate yearning that Eagleton would recognize as faith.