Culture and the Death of God
by Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press, 2014, 248 pp.
God has been through a very rough patch over the last 500 years. Once the Creator and Ruler of the universe, He fell into a long and precipitous decline with the advent of modernity. Dethroned as Ruler in the North Atlantic by religious tolerance and democracy, the Almighty watched helplessly as science refuted His claim to be the Creator. Historians, archeologists, and literary scholars broke the spell of His holy books, impugning their inerrancy and exposing them as riven by myths, errors, and contradictions. Add popular education, material prosperity, and longevity extended by better diet and medicine, and God’s hold on the moral and metaphysical imagination grew ever more attenuated.
Secular intellectuals have been of two minds about the Heavenly Father’s demise. Hoping that the last king would be strangled with the entrails of the last priest, Diderot mused that God had become “one of the most sublime and useless truths.” Yet Voltaire—fearful that his own impiety would embolden his servants to murder and larceny—maintained that if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him. Diderot’s antipathy morphed into the revolutionary unbelief of Marx and Bakunin (as the latter snarled, if God did exist, it would be necessary to abolish Him); reached its zenith in the exuberant blasphemies of Nietzsche; and persists in brash but utterly derivative form in the “new atheism” of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens.
Yet despite His protracted dotage, God refuses to shuffle off into oblivion. If He lingers as a metaphysical butt in seminar rooms and research laboratories, He thrives in the sanctuaries of private belief, religious communities, and seminaries, and abides (sometimes on sufferance) in theology and religious studies departments. He flourishes in suburban evangelical churches everywhere in North America; offers dignity and hope to the planet of slums in Kinshasa, Jakarta, São Paulo, and Mumbai; inspires pacifists and prophets for the poor as well as bombers of markets and abortion clinics. David Brat claims Him for libertarian economics, while Pope Francis enlists Him to scourge the demons of neoliberal capitalism. He’s even been seen making cameo appearances in the books of left-wing intellectuals. “Religious belief,” Terry Eagleton quips, “has rarely been so fashionable among rank unbelievers.”
As Eagleton contends in Culture and the Death of God, the Almighty has proven more resilient than His celebrated detractors and would-be assassins. God “has proved remarkably difficult to dispose of”; indeed, atheism itself has proven to be “not as easy as it looks.” Ever since the Enlightenment, “surrogate forms of transcendence” have scrambled for the crown of the King of Kings—reason, science, literature, art, nationalism, but especially “culture”—yet none have been up to the job.
Eagleton demonstrates that all the replacements for God have proved abortive, and that secular intellectuals must concede the futility of all attempts to find proxies for divinity. It’s a simple and courageous contention, conveyed with Eagleton’s signature wit and learning and without a trace of sanctimony or schadenfreude. With brisk but never facile aplomb, he recounts an intellectual history of modernity as the search for a substitute for God and adumbrates, in his own running and spritely commentary, a political theology for the left.
Once upon a time—before modernity, to be precise—God was alive and robust, and religion united “theory and practice, elite and populace, spirit and senses.” With its capacious embrace of the soul and the body, religion—clearly epitomized, for Eagleton, by Roman Catholicism—has repeatedly exhibited the capacity to “link the most exalted truths to the daily existence of countless men and women.” More attuned to our most fundamental needs and longings than the modern cultural apparatus, it has been “the most tenacious and universal form of popular culture.” With its theology, philosophy, liturgy, and morality, Roman Catholicism embodied a grand synthesis of the human condition that embraced both scholasticism and the Corpus Christi festivals, the Book of Kells and the peasant’s prayers, Thomas Aquinas and Jacques Bonhomme. Eagleton fondly evokes the sensuous felicity of Catholic religious life, how faith finds material expression in “the odour of incense, the colour of a chasuble, the crook of a knee.” (The redolence of Eagleton’s own Catholic past—recounted in his 2003 memoir, The Gatekeeper—is evident throughout this book.)
Shaken by the Reformation, the Catholic synthesis of religion and culture was finally demolished by the Enlightenment. Retailed to generations of undergraduates as a monolithically and militantly secular movement, the Enlightenment emerges from Eagleton’s account as a much more reformist affair, seeking not to écrasez l’infâme but to make religion more urbane and rational, something gentlemen could espouse without an unbecoming zeal. Purged of superstition and fanaticism, religion would defer to Reason, defined in terms of logical consistency and effectiveness in practical affairs. Most philosophes rejected the churches, not the Intelligent Designer of the universe; the Enlightenment aimed “at priestcraft rather than the Almighty.”
If they mocked the clergy, the philosophes respected the magistrates, for they feared the common people as credulous rubes who needed an enlightened ruling class. Thanks to the spread of revolutionary ideas, the rifts formerly healed by religion—between theory and practice, elite and populace, spirit and sense—threatened to rupture into violent tumult. Hesitant to dispatch religion because they saw its utility as political legitimation, the luminaires inaugurated the nineteenth century’s problematic of secularism: If God and religion must pass—and likely fail—the tests of Enlightenment rationality, is reason compelling enough to assume the vacant throne of the Almighty? Relentlessly critical and iconoclastic, Enlightenment reason tends to pulverize symbols and deprive them of hegemonic power. It became evident toward the end of the eighteenth century that reason defined in the philosophes’ terms was too irreverent, cerebral, and rarefied to generate symbols capable of commanding popular deference. How would a secular society—defined in terms of religion’s relegation to private life, not its abolition—achieve the unity once afforded by a common faith?
The answer was—or appeared to be—“culture,” first advanced by German Idealists and Romantics as the heir to the mantle of God. An “anti-political brand of politics,” Culture (or “the aesthetic”) would serve as an extension of Enlightenment reason, a beautiful accessory to supplement the homeliness of instrumental rationality. Providing cold, imperious Reason with the raiment of mythology, poetry, literature, and art, Culture, its devotees fervently hoped, would successfully impersonate the synthesis of religion, becoming “the sacred discourse of a post-religious age, binding people and intelligentsia.” Under the talisman of Culture, philosophers and poets aspired to establish a new, post-Christian clerisy whose art and literature would leaven the people with new myths, icons, and epiphanies. As Walt Whitman would put it in Democratic Vistas, “the priest departs, the divine literatus comes.”
The divine literatus came, and saw, but did not conquer the realm once enchanted by God and his priestly minions. Culture fumbled the Almighty’s rod, failing both to close the chasm between elite and populace and to elaborate an authoritative metaphysics and morality. Although Culture provided an enclave for values inimical to industrial capitalism, its bourgeois provenance ensured that its resistance would be limited, even turned to hegemonic account. Matthew Arnold’s model of culture, for example—a “gentrified form of Christianity,” as Eagleton scathingly describes it—proved all too transparently phony. Devoutly agnostic and petrified of revolution, Arnold emerges as a virtuoso of intellectual mendacity, insisting that the bovine and restless working class believe in things that he has airily renounced. Arnold’s bowdlerized Gospel is the religious analog to his definition of culture as “the best which has been thought and said in the world.” Redemption surrenders to edification.
Eagleton prefers Nietzsche’s sacrilege to Arnold’s bland and disingenuous unbelief. Nietzsche was the first infidel to realize the full implications of atheism: once God has been assassinated, there must be no successor, lest anyone or anything once again assume His inherently illegitimate authority. Deicide is the opening act in an orgy of metaphysical carnage that fells every viceroy for God: Culture, Science, Morality, Nature, Beauty, and finally Man—“a true image of the God he denies,” Eagleton writes, so “only with his own disappearance from the earth can the Almighty truly be laid to rest.” Nietzsche’s true genius as an atheist lay not in his denial of God, but in his resolute opposition to any humanism or metaphysics. God will finally give up the (holy) ghost only when the idea of innate meaning expires; “the Almighty can survive tragedy,” Eagleton remarks, “but not absurdity.” Yet because Nietzsche himself abhorred nihilism, he ultimately failed as an atheist. Fashioning his own values out of nothing but his own ingenuity and will to power, the Übermensch, Eagleton observes, “has more than a smack of divinity about him”; his aristocratic hauteur and his indomitable volition recall the Almighty in all His lordly potency. Like culture, Nietzsche’s atheism turns out to be yet another ruse of “counterfeit theology.”
If even Nietzsche wasn’t the genuine article, has there ever been an authentic atheism? Eagleton identifies two candidates: postmodernism (both as a historical moment and as a mélange of critical theory) and Marxism. In the era of postmodernism, both the restless heart and the infinite abyss are dismissed as relics of humanism. The venerable questions of meaning and destiny are sloughed off as unreal and coercive “metanarrative”; revolutionary hope yields to the conquest of cool, the imperium of a hip and benevolent plutocracy. Meanwhile, thanks to mass communications, postmodernism joins the elite and the people, the aesthetic and the commonplace: culture is increasingly popular and even populist, while everyday life is thoroughly aestheticized by advertising and product design. “The only aura to linger on is that of the commodity or celebrity.”
However “secular” their origins in property relations, commodity fetishism and the idolatry of the market are capitalist forms of enchantment.
This points to two glaring and puzzling absences from Eagleton’s roster of surrogates: the market and the commodity. Eagleton insists that capitalism is “fundamentally irreligious in a critical area (i.e., the economy), and totally alien to the category of the sacred.” Yet despite the apparent secularity of its pecuniary ethos, capitalism is hardly post-metaphysical: its metaphysics is money, the criterion of reality, meaning, and identity in a competitive commodity culture. The young Marx referred to “the divine power of money” and its status as “the god among commodities.” As the realm of the commodity widens, money not only purchases everything; it brings things into being from nothing, performing all manner of astonishing feats of moral and metaphysical alchemy. Contra Lennon and McCartney, money can buy you love: I am ugly, but I can buy for myself the most beautiful of women. Therefore I am not ugly, for the effect of ugliness—its deterrent power—is nullified by money. However “secular” their origins in property relations, commodity fetishism and the idolatry of the market are capitalist forms of enchantment.
Eagleton rejects the idea of Marxism itself as a proxy for religion and implies that Marx, not Nietzsche, was really the first real atheist. For Marx, the humanity that finally replaces God is not utterly independent or self-fashioning; men and women will remain limited, material beings even in the realm of freedom. Thus, Eagleton asserts, Marx refrains from turning humanity into yet another surreptitious stand-in for God. Yet he also acknowledges some “clear affinities between religious thought and Marx’s vision of history,” especially the eschatological imagination: the arduous struggle for justice, the final conflict of oppressor and oppressed, the ultimate victory of the subaltern and the establishment of peace, freedom, and abundance. Marxists, Eagleton admonishes his comrades, should be grateful for this prophetic legacy.
Eagleton approaches political theology with a wealth of experience and erudition. In the 1960s—galvanized by the aggiornamento (“bringing up to date”) of the Second Vatican Council, Eagleton and other young Cambridge intellectuals inaugurated the Catholic New Left in Britain. In books such as The New Left Church (1966) and The Body as Language: Outline of a ‘New Left’ Theology (1970), Eagleton wedded the spirit of aggiornamento to revolutionary socialism, arguing that Christians, as the body of Christ, embodied “a revolutionary vanguard … working to dissipate the layers of false consciousness,” while the Eucharist betokened “a symbolic transcendence of alienation.” A brilliant and agile intellectual emissary among Aquinas, Wittgenstein, and Marx, Eagleton arguably ranks among the earliest avatars of “liberation theology.”
As the New Left faded in the 1970s, Eagleton left the Church and abandoned what seemed to be the fruitless task of revolutionary theology, devoting himself to literary criticism and becoming one of the most prolific and celebrated Marxist scholars and theoreticians. But after the collapse of the Soviet bloc, his theological concerns resurfaced in tandem with his misgivings about postmodernism and its debilitating political consequences. By the time the “new atheism” reared its head in the mid-2000s, Eagleton had circled back to his earlier vocation as philosopher and theologian, albeit with an edgier style. (His review of Dawkins’s The God Delusion in the London Review of Books is a masterpiece of polemical demolition.) Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics (2008), Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009), and this new book form a trilogy of freelance political theology, Christian in its moral vernacular, Catholic in its metaphysical sensibility, and Marxist in its political intelligence.
Eagleton accuses most unbelievers of rejecting a theologically illiterate caricature of God unknown to classical theology. Even to say “God exists” is to commit a kind of ontological faux pas; God is “no kind of entity” but rather “the ground of all being, the condition of possibility of anything at all.” (God and the universe, he notes astutely, do not add up to two.) God is neither the metaphysical industrialist imagined by creationists, nor a claimant to ownership of the universe. God is not the Cop on the Cosmic Beat, our immensely stronger rival in a contest of wills; God’s sovereignty is “not like that of a despot, however benevolent” but rather “a power which allows the world to be itself.” Rooted in “its sharing in the life of its Creator,” our freedom and autonomy is rooted in God’s, not hemmed in or suppressed.
In the life and death of Jesus—resurrection goes unmentioned—Eagleton discovers the most stringent and fundamental rebuke to capitalism, as well as the point of departure for any future revolutionary politics.
The itinerant and crucified Jesus, not his Dad, is the apotheosis of Eagleton’s political theology. To the curer of leprosy and blindness, pain and disease are “unacceptable”; misery and despair are not “enviable opportunities to flex one’s moral muscles.” Jesus mends without compensation or moral inquiry; he never tells the afflicted to learn the edifying lessons the Almighty is teaching them, however inscrutably. If there must be suffering, it comes as the price of personal and collective transfiguration; our condition is so awry that the only way out is through a turbulent journey of self-dispossession. As Eagleton explains, the Christian life as portrayed in the Gospels is not that of the pious, hard-working, familial accumulator dear to the conceits of suburban believers. It is rather “homeless, propertyless, peripatetic, celibate, socially marginal, disdainful of kinsfolk, averse to material possessions … a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful.” In the life and death of Jesus—resurrection goes unmentioned—Eagleton discovers the most stringent and fundamental rebuke to capitalism, as well as the point of departure for any future revolutionary politics. It is in that crucible of downward mobility that “a new configuration of faith, culture, and politics might be born.” This is unvarnished liberation theology, and here Eagleton returns to the prophetic Marxism that animated his earlier career.
There are problems with this account, especially its omission of the indisputable fact that Christianity was harnessed to political repression well before Constantine. If the Gospels exhibit a salutary aversion to money, property, and “family values,” the rest of the New Testament is not so unaccommodating to the powers and principalities. It was Paul who told slaves to obey their masters and wives to submit to their husbands, and who believed that the Roman imperial government was a providential instrument of order. And in an era when, especially among Catholics, faith has been cast more in terms of propositional scrupulosity than commitment to justice, Eagleton’s gesture to liberation theology will be seen by many as a retrograde and sinister capitulation to unbelief.
Yet if the early days of Pope Francis’s papacy give any sign, hostility to the acquisitive ethos may be returning to the center of the Christian message, and fellowship with the weak and downtrodden may become the new politics of Christian love. By the terms of Eagleton’s theology, however, avarice is more than a grubby moral failing, and capitalism is much worse than a system of exploitation and injustice. They stem from a lack of trust in the basic goodness of creation; as Eagleton writes, they deny God as “friend, lover, and fellow accused,” who created the world out of lavish affection and will suffer anything to reconcile us. Christianity, Eagleton reminds us, is a radical humanism, rooted in the faith that a superabundant love is the leaven and marrow of the universe.
That faith will seem folly to secularists, however touching or even appealing they may find it; but if Eagleton’s story of unavailing surrogates is right, they might want, at the very least, to reconsider their indifference or animosity to theology. Secular liberals and radicals continue to speak in a moral and political idiom, originating in the Enlightenment, a lexicon of justice and compassion derived mainly from the Jewish and Christian traditions. Yet those traditions insist that justice and compassion are anchored in the very metaphysics that a secular left dismisses as superstitious at best and ideological at worst.
If Eagleton’s theology is right, then today’s apostates must insist that love widens the range and magnitude of moral and political possibility; but they can do so only if they affirm a very different account of the nature of the cosmos. In the coming age of political and ecological crisis, we may have no other choice but to embrace the vulnerability that comes with the eschewal of possession and domination. We may discover, contrary to the fraudulent realists, that the meek will inherit the earth.
Eugene McCarraher is associate professor of humanities at Villanova University. He is currently completing The Enchantments of Mammon: Capitalism and the Moral Imagination.