Terry Eagleton doesn’t seem to be losing his flare. In fact, he’s just revolutionized the genre of book dedications. From his forthcoming book, On Evil we read the following on the dedication page:
To Henry Kissinger.
Terry Eagleton doesn’t seem to be losing his flare. In fact, he’s just revolutionized the genre of book dedications. From his forthcoming book, On Evil we read the following on the dedication page:
To Henry Kissinger.
Thanks to David for posting this:
“Since the man of common sense makes his appeal to feeling, to an oracle within his breast, he is finished and done with anyone who does not agree; he only has to explain that he has nothing more to say to anyone who does not find and feel the same in himself. In other words, he tramples underfoot the roots of humanity. For it is the nature of humanity to press onward to agreement with others; human nature only really exists in an achieved community of minds. The anti-human, the merely animal, consists in staying within the sphere of feeling, and being able to communicate only at that level.”
—Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V. Miller (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1977), 43.
The Immanent Frame has an interview up with Terry Eagleton that is well-worth a read. Here are just a couple of his memorable quotes:
Religion has become a very comfortable ideology for a dollar-worshipping culture. The scandal of the New Testament—the fact that it backs what America calls the losers, that it thinks the dispossessed will inherit the kingdom of God before the respectable bourgeois—all of that has been replaced, particularly in the States, by an idolatrous version. I’m presently at a university campus where we proudly proclaim the slogan “God, Country, and Notre Dame.” I think they have to be told, and indeed I have told them, that God actually takes little interest in countries. Yahweh is presented in the Jewish Bible as stateless and nationless. He can’t be used as a totem or fetish in that way. He slips out of your grasp if you try to do so. His concern is with universal humanity, not with one particular section of it. Such ideologies make it very hard to get a traditional version of Christianity across.
I think, actually, [Richard Dawkins is] a pre-Christian atheist, because he never understood what Christianity is about in the first place! That would be rather like Madonna calling herself post-Marxist. You’d have to read him first to be post-him. As I’ve said before, I think that Dawkins in particular makes such crass mistakes about the kind of claims that Christianity is making. A lot of the time, he’s either banging at an open door or he’s shooting at a straw target.
In light of the ensuing discussion, it seemed like a good idea to fill out the whole issue of the ethical relevance of intentions a bit more. What is absolutely important in regard to this issue is to understand the way “intention” must never be used to absolve us of our actions. This is at the heart of what I was putting forth earlier. So, rather than the stark language of “intentions don’t matter” that I used to cheaply grab your attention, what really needs to be said is that any attempt to posit a morally meaningful disjunction between intention and action is illicit. What absolutely cannot be allowed is for ethical analysis to take the shape of, “Yes, this horrible thing happened, but when you see it from my ‘inside view’ you’ll understand why I’m not really all that culpable.” This is exactly the way the “appeal to intentions” functions in regard to the example given by Bacevich in regard to America’s action in Iraq. It is this sort of attempt to posit a disjunction between intention and action that is morally disastrous, and shrouded in self-deception.
Slavoj Žižek, in his book Violence makes this point absolutely clear with regard to the horrors committed under Soviet Communism:
When, in the 1960s, Svetlana Stalin emigrated to the U.S. through India and wrote her memoirs, she presented Stalin “from inside” as a warm father and caring leader, with most of the mass murders imposed on him by his evil collaborators, Lavrenty Beria in particular. Later, Beria’s son Sergo wrote a memoir presenting his father as a warm family man who simply followed Stalin’s orders and secretly tried to limit the damage. Georgy Melenkov’s son Andrei also told the story, describing his father, Stalin’s successor, as an honest hard worker, always afraid for his life. Hannah Arendt was right: these figures were not personifications of sublime Byronesque demonic evil: the gap between their intimate experience and the horror of their acts was immense. (Emphasis added)
This crystallizes my point. Whenever appeal to “the inside” functions by way of introducing a disjunction between what is happening “out there” and “the real me/you,” then everything is wrong. That is what absolutely cannot be allowed within morally meaningful ethical discourse. The reason for this is because who we really are, the true story about us, lies not in our self-contemplations, but in who we are to others. Whatever Svetlana thought about who her father “really was,” in his private, tortured soul, the truth of who Stalin was is inscribed the masses of unmarked graves he left behind. That, not any internal reflection or emotional complexity he may have felt is who he was. The truth of who we are is not found inside us, but always outside ourselves in how we act on others and how they act on us (I think there’s a christological point in here somewhere).
Žižek drives the point home:
The experience that we have of our lives from within, the story we tell ourselves about ourselves in order to account for what we are doing, is fundamentally a lie—the truth lies outside, in what we do. (p. 47, emphasis added)
So, when put carefully, it isn’t that intentions have no relevance at all to ethics. Rather it is that they can never be allowed to function in an exculpatory way in ethical discourse. Appealing to the intentions may be licit in terms of condemnation of what seem, on the surface, to be acceptable acts, but they can never function as justification for ostensibly evil ones. Thus, to pull some sort of axiom out of all this, one might say that there cannot be any licit appeal to intentions to justify an act. Intentionality may, however serve to indict what may appear as acceptable acts in some cases. However, the overriding point must always be that any attempt to establish a disjunction between intention and act for the purpose of self-justification is to be rejected in all circumstances.
Eagleton seems to be the king of disarming, funny one-liners. For example:
With dreary predictability, Daniel C. Dennett defines religions at the beginning of his Breaking the Spell as “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought,” which as far as Christianity goes is rather like beginning a history of the potato by defining it as a rare species of rattlesnake. Predictably, Dennett’s image of God is a Satanic one. He also commits the Ditchkins-like blunder of believing that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world, which is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus. (p. 50).
Hilarious to be sure, but am I the only one starting to wonder if Eagleton relies a little too heavily on his fantastically brash “thinking this is ‘rather like’ this ridiculous other thing that makes you look stupid”-type statements?
Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution is, like most Eagleton books eminently entertaining and easy to read. I’ll have more developed (and actually rather critical) thoughts on the book later, but for now I’ll leave you with one of Eagleton’s trademark rhetorical flourishes:
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 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. (p. 8-9)
Stanley Fish has a great new post following up on criticism of his review of Terry Eagleton’s new book:
Some readers find a point of vulnerability in what they take to be religion’s flaccid, Polyanna-like, happy-days optimism. Religious people, says Delphinias, live their lives “in a state of blissfully blind oblivion.” They rely on holy texts that they are “to believe in without question.” (C.C.) “No evidence, no problem — just take it on faith.” (Michael) They don’t allow themselves to be bothered by anything. Religion, says Charles, “cannot deal with doubt and dissent,” and he adds this challenge: “What say you about that, Professor?”
What I say, and I say it to all those quoted in the previous paragraph, is what religion are you talking about? The religions I know are about nothing but doubt and dissent, and the struggles of faith, the dark night of the soul, feelings of unworthiness, serial backsliding, the abyss of despair. Whether it is the book of Job, the Confessions of St. Augustine, Calvin’s Institutes, Bunyan’s “Grace Abounding to The Chief of Sinners,” Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling” and a thousand other texts, the religious life is depicted as one of aspiration within the conviction of frailty. The heart of that life, as Eagleton reminds us, is not a set of propositions about the world (although there is some of that), but an orientation toward perfection by a being that is radically imperfect.
The key event in that life is not the fashioning of some proof of God’s existence but a conversion, like St. Paul’s on the road to Damascus, in which the scales fall from one’s eyes, everything visible becomes a sign of God’s love, and a new man (or woman), eager to tell and live out the good news, is born. “To experience personal transformation that in turn can truly move and shake this world, we must believe in something outside of ourselves” (Judith Quinton).”The kind of religion that moves me,” says Shannon . . . is the story of hope and love . . . not the idea that any particular story describes concrete historical ‘truth.’” “It isn’t about moral superiority,” says Richard. “It’s about humbly living an examined life held up to the mirror of a higher truth. It certainly does not seem to be about comfort.”
So to sum up, the epistemological critique of religion — it is an inferior way of knowing — is the flip side of a naïve and untenable positivism. And the critique of religion’s content — it’s cotton-candy fluff — is the product of incredible ignorance.
Adam Kotsko has a lengthy and helpful rumination on Milbank’s contribution to the new Milbank-Žižek book, The Monstrosity of Christ. Here’s a bit:
The more serious point, however, is that despite the capaciousness of Milbank’s Catholicism, it seems to be unable to “account for” one thing — precisely Christ. Everything seems to work just fine without him, and the attempts to shoehorn the Incarnation into the system strike me as afterthoughts for the most part. The Neoplatonism is where Milbank’s heart really is, and he’s into his idealized version of “Catholicism” because that’s been the primary historical carrier of Neoplatonism in his part of the world. (Presumably an Iranian Milbank would’ve been a Muslim who believed himself to be providing the Ayatollah with some intellectual “wiggle room,” and an Indian Milbank would be wondering aloud if the caste system hasn’t gotten a bad rap due to poor implementation.) For all his talk about history and thick contingency, he doesn’t seem to me to have any serious sense of the contingent historical event that should be central to all his reflections. And so for me, Milbank’s argument suffers from a problem much worse than being an unconvincing argument for Christianity — it’s unclear to me that what it’s arguing for even is Christianity.
This is like, pretty much exactly what I think. Spot on.
From Salon’s review of his new book:
Eagleton’s terminology is deliberately provocative, and some Christians won’t find his account of their beliefs, colored as it clearly is by the Catholic “liberation theology” of his youth, to be mainstream at all. Still, he is incontestably correct about two things: There is a long Judeo-Christian theological tradition that bears no resemblance to the caricature of religious faith found in Ditchkins, and atheists tend to take the most degraded and superstitious forms of religion as representative. It’s a little like judging the entire institution of heterosexual marriage on the basis of Eliot Spitzer’s conduct as a husband.
Yeah, pretty much.
Stanley Fish investigates Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith and Revolution. Whatever one thinks of Stanley Fish he is a great reader. Here’s a snippet of the article which describes Eagleton’s assault on Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens whom Eagleton derisively labels “Ditchkins.”
“Ditchkins,” Eagleton observes, cannot ground his belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for him an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)
If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.
For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.” But we can be sure that it will never be born, he says in his last sentence, “if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals . . . continue to stand in its way.”
One more point. The book starts out witty and then gets angrier and angrier. (There is the possibility, of course, that the later chapters were written first; I’m just talking about the temporal experience of reading it.) I spent some time trying to figure out why the anger was there and I came up with two explanations.
One is given by Eagleton, and it is personal. Christianity may or may not be the faith he holds to (he doesn’t tell us), but he speaks, he says, “partly in defense of my own forbearers, against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.”
The other source of his anger is implied but never quite made explicit. He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels.
Eagleton’s McCabesque wit will always make him a wonderful read. The real question is when he’s just gonna be straight with everybody and self-identify as a Christian.
The always interesting and entertaining Terry Eagleton has a fascinating article in the latest issue of Commonweal entitled “Culture and Barbarism.” A couple quotes:
Islamic fundamentalism confronts Western civilization with the contradiction between the West’s own need to believe and its chronic incapacity to do so. The West now stands eyeball-to-eyeball with a full-blooded “metaphysical” foe for whom absolute truths and foundations pose no problem at all-and this at just the point when a Western civilization in the throes of late modernity, or postmodernity if you prefer, has to skate by on believing as little as it decently can. In post-Nietzschean spirit, the West appears to be busily undermining its own erstwhile metaphysical foundations with an unholy mélange of practical materialism, political pragmatism, moral and cultural relativism, and philosophical skepticism. All this, so to speak, is the price you pay for affluence.
The idea, touted in particular by some Americans, that Islamic radicals are envious of Western freedoms is about as convincing as the suggestion that they are secretly hankering to sit in cafés smoking dope and reading Gilles Deleuze.
That problem encompasses a contradictory fact: the more capitalism flourishes on a global scale, the more multiculturalism threatens to loosen the hold of the nation-state over its subjects. Culture, after all, is what helps power grow roots, interweaving it with our lived experience and thus tightening its grip on us. A power which has to sink roots in many diverse cultures simultaneously is at a signal disadvantage. A British defense think tank recently published a report arguing that a “misplaced deference to multiculturalism” that fails “to lay down the line to immigrant communities” was weakening the fight against political extremists. The problem, the report warned, was one of social fragmentation in a multicultural nation increasingly divided over its history, identity, aims, and values. When it came to the fight against terrorism, the nation’s liberal values, in short, were undermining themselves.
H/T to Horstkoetter.
The critic of any Christian appropriation of anarchism tends to argue that anarchy is more violent than the current order, and, as such always inherently worse than our desires to oppose whatever hegemony happens to be in place. It seems incontrovertible that the recommendation of anarchism is, by its very nature more violent, dangerous, and irresponsible than the legitimation of the status quo, which is always propped up as the form of responsible Christian action.
What Slavoj Žižek says in his book, Violence may be helpful to addressing this argument. He notes that we often reduce violence to “subjective violence”, namely the sort of visible agential violence that can be seen in an act of physical assault or harm. Violence is seen as an intrusion into a previously peaceful state of tranquility, much as critics of anarchism would see it as introducing disorder and dysfunction into a state of order and functionality. Žižek goes on, however to argue that the tranquil state into which subjective violence seemingly intrudes is not peaceful, but is in fact deeply violence, being what he calls “objective violence”, that is the violence of structures of oppression, marginalization, etc. Thus, what seems to be an intrusion into a state of peacefulness is simply an event within an already-existing reality of violent, chaotic conflict that has simply been rendered invisible by its state of acceptance and legitimation by those in power (i.e. the “invisibility” of racism or sexism).
The critic of anarchism is making essentially the same argument that the aristocracy makes against the poor in situations of conflict, that of denying the inherent disorder, irrationality, and violence of present order. Moreover, Christian anarchism disrupts the current “arche” of the world, not with violence but with an interruptive peace — the peace of Christ. This denial of the “arches” of this world is neither violent, nor irresponsible, but rather is form of the kingdom of God breaking into the world in pneumatic, apocalyptic foretastes. Such an articulation of Christian anarchism seems supremely appropriate to the gospel, and its practice in the service of the mission of the church. What that looks like is, of course, the important question.
Žižek takes Dostoyevsky’s dictum “If God doessn’t exist, then everything is permitted” to task, claming, in true Žižek fashion, that the opposite is in fact true: if God does exist everything is permitted to those who speak for God:
“[Dostoyevsky] couldn’t have been more wrong: the lesson of today’s terrorism is that if there is a God, then everything, even blowing up hundreds of innocent bystanders, is permitted to those who claim to act directly on behalf of God, as the instruments of his will, since clearly a direct link to God justifies our violation of any ‘merely human’ constraints and considerations. The ‘godless’ Stalinist communists are the ultimate proof of it: everything was permitted to them since the perceived themselves as direct instruments of their divinity, the Historical Necessity of Progress towards Communism.” (Violence, 136)
Žižek makes a very good point, but one that needs two responses. The first response comes (at least to me) through Herbert McCabe. The only god we could ever “act directly on behalf of” is precisely that, “a god,” an inhabitant of the universe, a “top person” who legitimated our activities. The God of the Christian confession is not a top-person, a mere existent whom we could claim to represent directly. Rather God is the reason there is anything at all, the source of all being, and as such lies beyond our ability to directly mediate or claim. McCabe notes that most atheists think of the question of God as though religious people “claim to have discovered what the answer is, that there is some grand architect of the universe who designed it, just like Basil Spence only bigger and less visible, that there is a Top Person in the universe who issues arbitrary decrees for the rest of the persons and enforces them because he is the most powerful being around. Now if denying this claim makes you an atheist, then I and Thomas Aquinas and a whole Christian tradition are atheist too” (God Matters, 7). Only if God is some sort of existent, a “top person” who issues arbitrary decrees could we conceptualize God as the justification for acts of violence. And this is not the God of the Christian faith.
Secondly, a response via Rowan Williams, whose new book on Dostoevsky sheds quite a bit of light on the fragment the Žižek seeks to invert. Williams notes that
“[Dostoevsky] is not really interested in arguing the question–in general terms–of whether God exists. This does not mean that the reality of God is a matter of indifference to him or that he can be claimed from some for of contemporary nonrealism. But the different between the self-aware believer, the self-aware sinner and the conscious and deliberate atheist is not a disagreement over whether or not to add on item to the total sum of really existing things. It is a conflict about policies and possibilities for a human life: between someone who accepts the dependence of everything on divine gratuity and attempts to respond with some image of that gratuity, someone who accepts this dependence but fails to act appropriately in response, and someone who denies the dependence and is consequently faced with the unanswerable question of why any one policy for living is preferable to another.” (Dostoevsky: Language, Faith, and Fiction, 227)
Further to this point, Rowan Williams’ theology offers a helpful response to Žižek’s critique in that for Williams it is completely impossible for the church to ever make a strict identification between their work and the will of God. The only possible “direct link” we have to the Christian God is the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ which forbids us from gingerly locating ourselves on the side of God and God’s cause. Rather, according to the Christian gospel we are addressed by God precisely as those whose agenda is at cross-purposes with God. Any attempt on the part of the people called by God to equate their will and action with that of God is always to exchange the true God for some miserable godlet, an idol. Moreover, the God whose power is manifest precisely as cross and resurrection does not allow those who would follow God recourse to any other mode of power:
“God’s power ‘tells us who we are’ only in the risk and reciprocity of God’s life with us in Christ, as God displays his identity in the terms of human freedom and human vulnerability. That is the power by which the whole world is given newness of life, humanity itself is given new definition. And because it is that kind of power, refusing to functionalize and enslave what it works with, the process of preaching a transfiguring gospel must take place in a community that resists the idea that one human group can ever have license to define another in terms of its own needs or goals or fantasies. All must be free to find that ultimate self-definition in the encounter with a God who does not use us as tools for his gratification but shares a world of risk and contingency with us to bring us to our fullest liberty in relation with him and each other.” (On Christian Theology, 288-89)
Precisely because our only “direct link” to God is that of the cross and resurrection, Christians can never assume any posture of power than that displayed by God with us. As such, just as God enters into our lives on the path of cruciform vulnerability, so Christians are forbidden to deal with others, including religious others from any standpoint that would instrumentalize them in terms of our own needs, agendas, or fantasies. The cross forbids us any optic that would allow us to see other persons as obstacles to be overcome or destroyed for the sake of our own ends. Rather we are called to kenotically allow the other to be the other, trusting their transformation to the God of the resurrection. Christians, far from having their ambitions legitimated, are called to rest in the contingency and risk of not securing what they perceive the proper place of the other. For the acts of violence and domination that Žižek analyzes are ultimately reducible to a perverse attempt to narrate the other in a particular way, to circumscribe the other as a particular sort of other whose place must be determined by my ideology.
As such, I submit that only the Word of God in Christ, which calls us to this life of kenotic defferal-in-trust is able to actualize events of true peace in this world. For it establishes that we do not speak for God, God speaks for God in Christ. The proper mode of Christian action is always first silence before that speech which calls us out of our delusions and fantasies and into a life of vulnerability and contingency. Only such a mode of living, participating in the kenosis of Christ can be a true event of peace in a world of violences.
In his book, Violence, Slavoj Žižek contests the standard story that religious adherents use in response to the claim that religion causes violence. Generally it is claimed that perpetrators of religious violence are “only abusing and perverting the noble spiritual message of their creed.” Žižek argues instead that we should wise up and admit that religions simply are violent and thus “restore the dignity of atheism, perhaps our only chance for peace.” In other words, Žižek calls religions to the mat, insisting that any easy answer of “they aren’t true representatives of my faith…” is necessarily a dodge.
However, what is ironic is that Žižek utilizes the exact same logic in his defense of the moral superiority of atheism to religion. He claims that we should “renounce religion, including its secular reverberations such as Stalinist communism” and that while “there are cases of pathological atheists who are able to commit mass murder just for pleasure,” these events are “rare exceptions.” Here Žižek is simply marshaling the same argument flippantly used by religious adherents to explain away the violent behavior of their fellow-believers. He claims that events of atheist-perpetrated violence are simply exceptions that abuse and pervert the noble morality of true atheism. Why should the exact same argument be more believable as a defense of atheism than of religion?
It was a delight last night to go and listen to Slovoj Žižek speak here in Portland. Though he was, allegedly here to speak on and promote his most recent book, his actual lecture, was of course something rather different. He spoke about the “culture of politeness,” the nature of academic discourse, the problems with contemporary liberalism, and of course made countless references to contemporary films, in most of which he detected horribly fascist undertones–especially in “The Dark Knight,” the discussion of which I found the most entertaining by far.
Žižek is a hilarious speaker. One of the main reasons for that may be his somewhat comical persona that he sustains, and of course American’s uncanny knack for finding unfamiliar accents blitheringly funny.
A lot of the talk was vintage Žižek. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of “nature.” In contrast to most liberal ecological rhetoric about how we need to “get back” to nature and become more “integrated” into nature, Žižek insisted that we need more alienation from nature, not less. Nature, he insisted is not a harmonious system existing in homeostasis which we nasty human have intruded on and disrupted. Rather nature is “one big catastrophe” which only sporadically manifests order and peace. This is clearly Žižek’s ontology manifesting itself. All things emerge from the void, indeed reality in some sense is nothing other than a chaotic void. Thus, the good can only appear in the world in the form of a radical rupture, a break, a complete severing of what is, since what is is chaos and nothingness.
This kind of way of conceptualizing nature clearly has its problems, though I respect it for at least taking the empirical reality of what happens “naturally” in our world seriously. What I appreciated even more was the way in which Žižek uncompromisingly berated “new age spiritualism” with its goddess language and deification of the earth. There were hushed murmurs and quiet quasi-boos in the audience when Žižek insisted that Christians and secularists should be behind the same barricades fighting against any sort of new age spiritualism, particularly the rather lame incarnation of Zen Buddhism in the West.
I don’t know if Žižek has been to Portland before, but I can’t imagine he didn’t know his audience. It was quite fun to watch the crowd, consisting of loads of trustafarians from Reed College squirm under his iconoclastic words. Even though Žižek certainly needs a lot of theological critique anyone who can so handily and casually deconstruct the sentimental notions of contemporary liberal college student spiritual sensibility is a friend of mine.
Switch to our mobile site