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Yale University Press
Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate

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

by Terry Eagleton


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300151794
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 04/21/2009
Series: Terry Lectures Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 200
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Terry Eagleton is Distinguished Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster, England, and Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland, Galway. He is also Distinguished Visiting Professor at the University of Notre Dame. Eagleton is also the author of On Evil, published by Yale University Press.

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Reason, Faith, & Revolution

Reflections on the God Debate


Copyright © 2009 Terry Eagleton
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-15179-4

Chapter One

The Scum of the Earth

It was, I felt, characteristic of the delightfully informal nature of American society that I should receive a letter from Yale inviting me to deliver the Terry Lectures. I had of course long been accustomed to the instant-first-name character of U.S. culture, but this long-range intimacy nevertheless came as something of a surprise. I began to wonder whether these talks, when Carl Jung was delivering them, were affectionately known as the Chuck Lectures, to be changed later to the Maggie Lectures when the speaker was Margaret Mead. Anyway, I feel that something is demanded of me in return for this spontaneous display of geniality; so I insist that while I am here at Yale I should be known not as Professor Eagleton, but as Doctor Eagleton. Let no one claim that we Brits don't know how to unbend.

My delight at this informality was quickly tempered as I read on to discover that the Terry Lectures are traditionally devoted to two subjects I know embarrassingly little about, namely science and religion. As for the relationship between them, which is of particular concern to the Terry Lectures, one of my few experiences of this came in my childhood in the form of amonstrous, universally feared and detested headmaster called Brother Columba, a chemist and cleric whose religion was as brutally impersonal as the laws of science, and who as an authoritarian Roman Catholic was a good deal more at home with test tubes than with human beings.

I have, however, never allowed ignorance to deter me from anything, which is why I stand before you today-though I must confess that I did begin my intellectual career as an amateur species of theologian, in those heady post-Second Vatican Council days in the 1960s in which anyone able to spell the name Schillebeeckx was instantly drafted onto the editorial board of some opaque theological journal based in Nijmegen. All I can claim in this respect is that I think I may know just about enough theology to be able to spot when someone like Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, a couple I shall henceforth reduce for convenience to the single signifier "Ditchkins," is talking out of the back of his neck. Before I conflate Hitchens and Dawkins too peremptorily, however, let me draw a contrast between the stylish, entertaining, splendidly impassioned, compulsively readable quality of the former's God Is Not Great and Dawkins's The God Delusion, which merits absolutely none of these epithets. Dawkins's doctrinal ferocity has begun to eat into his prose style. Perhaps I should add that when Christopher Hitchens was still a humble Chris, he and I were comrades in the same far-left political outfit. But he has gone on to higher things, discovering in the process a degree of political maturity as a naturalized citizen of Babylon, whereas I have remained stuck in the same old political groove, a case of arrested development if ever there was one.

I should also confess that since the only theology I don't know much about is Christian theology, as opposed to those kinds I know nothing at all 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-a sound enough reason in my view for enthusiastically endorsing almost anything it cares to say. As well as science and religion, I shall also be speaking in these lectures about politics, which means that two of my three subjects, politics and religion, happen to be the two traditionally banned from discussion in English pubs.

Much as I dislike the practice of autobiography, a personal word is scarcely avoidable here. I was brought up as a conventional Roman Catholic of Irish provenance in working-class England, and imbibed in my childhood a set of baroque and hermetic doctrines which, so I was astonished to discover later, were supposed to have some sort of bearing on human existence. It was rather like being raised in a strictly observant Marxist family, learning at one's parents' knee a number of formulas about the negation of the negation and the transformation of quantity into quality, without a clue that all this was supposed to have some sort of relevance to questions of human freedom and justice. Since the religious doctrine I was taught seemed to me as I approached student age to illuminate human existence about as profoundly as the croakings of a frog, it seemed natural when I arrived at university to discard this whole way of talking in the name of something rather more relevant and humane.

In the Cambridge of the early 1960s, this was known among other things as existentialism, a term which was for the most part an ontologically imposing way of saying that one was nineteen, far from home, feeling rather blue, and like a toddler in a play school hadn't much of a clue as to what was going on. A few decades later this condition persisted among late adolescents, but it was now known as post-structuralism. But there was also socialism, which I had encountered while growing up along with Irish Republicanism, and which-in an era of Cold War hostilities, weapons of mass destruction, and anticolonial revolution-seemed a touch more relevant to the human species than the doctrine of limbo (a spiritual condition not to be confused with a popular Caribbean dance), or recalling the Latin name for the precise type of worship appropriate to those drearily bureaucratic subcommittees known as the saints.

Things, however, didn't prove quite so simple. For no sooner had I arrived in Cambridge, at a point where any reasonably sensitive, moderately perceptive character would have rejected for the nonsense it largely was what I had learned at school, than the Second Vatican Council broke out, along with a version of the Christian gospel which seemed to me to make some rather urgent human and political sense. This, needless to say, brought its frustrations. The rethinking it entailed looked like involving a lot of tedious spade work, as the character in P. G. Wodehouse remarked when his interlocutor seemed not to understand the word "pig." For it is of course always easier to buy one's rejection of a belief system on the cheap, by (for example) triumphantly dismissing out of hand a version of Christianity that only seriously weird types, some of them lurking sheepishly in caves too ashamed to come out and confront the rest of us, would espouse in the first place. This applies to more than religion. It is easier to believe that Nietzsche was a budding Nazi than to grasp that he was a precursor of Foucault. To save yourself too laborious an attention to Marxism, you can dismiss it on the grounds that it dreams of a world of equality in which men and women will all be spiritually wretched and materially miserable in exactly the same way.

The so-called new theology I stumbled upon at the age of eighteen or so, with the aid of a few maverick Dominicans and rather more pints of bitter, was not in fact new at all. It was new only to the likes of callow young papists like myself. It did not see God the Creator as some kind of mega-manufacturer or cosmic chief executive officer, as the Richard Dawkins school of nineteenth-century liberal rationalism tends to imagine-what the theologian Herbert McCabe calls "the idolatrous notion of God as a very large and powerful creature." 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?

For Thomas Aquinas, by contrast, God the Creator is not a hypothesis about how the world originated. It does not compete, say, with the theory that the universe resulted from a random fluctuation in a quantum vacuum. In fact, Aquinas was quite ready to entertain the possibility that the world had no origin at all. Dawkins makes an error of genre, or category mistake, about the kind of thing Christian belief is. He imagines that it is either some kind of pseudo-science, or that, if it is not that, then it conveniently dispenses itself from the need for evidence altogether. He also has an old-fashioned scientistic notion of what constitutes evidence. Life for Dawkins would seem to divide neatly down the middle between things you can prove beyond all doubt, and blind faith. He fails to see that all the most interesting stuff goes on in neither of these places. 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.

The New Testament has next to nothing to say about God as Creator. Indeed, I suppose that where science and religion come closest for the Christian is not in what they say about the world, but in the act of creative imagination which both projects involve-a creative act which the believer finds the source of in the Holy Spirit. Scientists like Heisenberg or Schrödinger are supreme imaginative artists, who when it comes to the universe are aware that the elegant and beautiful are more likely to be true than the ugly and misshapen. From a scientific standpoint, cosmic truth is in the deepest sense a question of style, as Plato, the Earl of Shaftesbury, and John Keats were aware. And this is at least one sense in which science is thoroughly and properly value-laden.

God for Christian theology is not a mega-manufacturer. He is rather what sustains all things in being by his love, and would still be this even if the world had no beginning. Creation is not about getting things o the ground. Rather, God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever. Not being any sort of entity himself, however, he is not to be reckoned up alongside these things, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects. God and the universe do not make two. In an act of Judaic iconoclasm, we are forbidden to make graven images of this nonentity because the only image of him is human beings. There is a document that records God's endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible. God the Creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it.

Or, as one might say in more theological language, for the hell of it. He made it as gift, superfluity, and gratuitous gesture-out of nothing, rather than out of grim necessity. In fact, for Christian theology there is no necessity to the world at all, and God may have long ago bitterly regretted succumbing to the sentimental impulse which inspired him to throw it o in the first place. He created it out of love, not need. There was nothing in it for him. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. The doctrine that the world was made out of nothing is meant to alert us to the mind-blowing contingency of the cosmos-the fact that like a modernist work of art it might just as well never have happened, and like most thoughtful men and women is perpetually overshadowed by the possibility of its own nonexistence. Creation "out of nothing" is not testimony to how devilishly clever God is, dispensing as he can with even the most rudimentary raw materials, but to the fact that the world is not the inevitable culmination of some prior process, the upshot of some inexorable chain of cause and effect. Any such preceding chain of causality would have to be part of the world, and so could not count as the origin of it. Because there is no necessity about the cosmos, we cannot deduce the laws which govern it from a priori principles, but need instead to look at how it actually works. This is the task of science. There is thus a curious connection between the doctrine of creation out of nothing and the professional life of Richard Dawkins. Without God, Dawkins would be out of a job. It is thus particularly churlish of him to call the existence of his employer into question.

The existence of the world, then, is a critique of iron causality, and thus testimony to the freedom of which Ditchkins, in personal and political terms, is so rightly jealous. The world thus belongs to that exceedingly rare class of objects which, in a way that would have delighted the heart of Oscar Wilde, exist entirely for their own sake and for no drearily utilitarian end-a category which along with God includes art, evil, and humanity. It is part of the world's sharing in God's own freedom that it works all by itself. Unlike George Bush, God is not an interventionist kind of ruler. It is this autonomy of the world which makes science and Richard Dawkins possible in the first place. Ditchkins, who holds that there is no need to bring God into scientific investigation, might be interested to learn that the greatest theologian in history, the Aquinas to whom I have just alluded, thoroughly agreed. Science is properly atheistic. Science and theology are for the most part not talking about the same kind of things, any more than orthodontics and literary criticism are. This is one reason for the grotesque misunderstandings that arise between them.

God, in short, is every bit as gloriously pointless as Ditchkins tells us he is. He is a kind of perpetual critique of instrumental reason. John C. Lennox writes in God's Undertaker that some scientists and philosophers think we should not ask after the reason for the universe because, according to them, there isn't one. In this, however, they are unwittingly at one with theologians. If we are God's creatures, it is in the first place because, like him, we exist (or should exist) purely for the pleasure of it. The question raised by radical Romanticism, which for these purposes includes Karl Marx, is that of what political transformations would be necessary for this to become possible in practice. Jesus, unlike most responsible American citizens, appears to do no work, and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He is presented as homeless, propertyless, celibate, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinsfolk, without a trade, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, careless about purity regulations, critical of traditional authority, a thorn in the side of the Establishment, and a scourge of the rich and powerful. Though he was no revolutionary in the modern sense of the term, he has something of the lifestyle of one. He sounds like a cross between a hippie and a guerilla fighter. He respects the Sabbath not because it means going to church but because it represents a temporary escape from the burden of labor. The Sabbath is about resting, not religion. One of the best reasons for being a Christian, as for being a socialist, is that you don't like having to work, and reject the fearful idolatry of it so rife in countries like the United States. Truly civilized societies do not hold predawn power breakfasts.

The quarrel between science and theology, then, is not a matter of how the universe came about, or which approach can provide the best "explanation" for it. It is a disagreement about how far back one has to go, though not in the chronological sense. For theology, science does not start far back enough-not in the sense that it fails to posit a Creator, but in the sense that it does not ask questions such as why there is anything in the first place, or why what we do have is actually intelligible to us. Perhaps these are phony questions anyway; some philosophers certainly think so. But theologians, as Rowan Williams has argued, are interested in the question of why we ask for explanations at all, or why we assume that the universe hangs together in a way that makes explanation possible. Where do our notions of explanation, regularity, and intelligibility come from? How do we explain rationality and intelligibility themselves, or is this question either superfluous or too hard to answer? Can we not account for rationality because to do so is to presuppose it? Whatever we think of such queries, science as we know it is possible only because the world displays a certain internal order and coherence-possible, that is to say, for roughly aesthetic reasons. Is it relevant to inquire where these laws come from? Might science one day find out, or is this question off-bounds to it?


Excerpted from Reason, Faith, & Revolution by TERRY EAGLETON Copyright © 2009 by Terry Eagleton. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents


1. The Scum of the Earth....................1
2. The Revolution Betrayed....................47
3. Faith and Reason....................109
4. Culture and Barbarism....................140

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