Monday, October 23, 2006

Eagleton on Richard Dawkins and Jesus

I think I've said before that Terry Eagleton is, by far, my favourite cultural theorist. I've yet to read an Eagleton piece which isn't immensely entertaining and with which I significantly disagree. His recent piece, in the London Review of Books, is an absolute stonker. I command you to read it! The purpose of the article is rip into the 'fundamentalist atheist', Richard Dawkins - and he leaves blood on the walls.

I can't help reproducing this part of the article - in which Eagleton provides us with a rather more sophisticated description of the activities and values of Christ, than the caricature imagined by Dawkins.

Jesus hung out with whores and social outcasts, was remarkably casual about sex, disapproved of the family (the suburban Dawkins is a trifle queasy about this), urged us to be laid-back about property and possessions, warned his followers that they too would die violently, and insisted that the truth kills and divides as well as liberates. He also cursed self-righteous prigs and deeply alarmed the ruling class.

The Christian faith holds that those who are able to look on the crucifixion and live, to accept that the traumatic truth of human history is a tortured body, might just have a chance of new life – but only by virtue of an unimaginable transformation in our currently dire condition. This is known as the resurrection. Those who don’t see this dreadful image of a mutilated innocent as the truth of history are likely to be devotees of that bright-eyed superstition known as infinite human progress, for which Dawkins is a full-blooded apologist. Or they might be well-intentioned reformers or social democrats, which from a Christian standpoint simply isn’t radical enough.

The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky and opium of the people. It was, of course, Marx who coined that last phrase; but Marx, who in the same passage describes religion as the ‘heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions’, was rather more judicious and dialectical in his judgment on it than the lunging, flailing, mispunching Dawkins.

Funny, Eagleton makes him sound a lot like a proto-socialist radical. The point, here, I suppose is that Christ is not necessarily best interpreted in the way that crude anti-religious zealots tend to. Neither, it should be added is he best understood as the bloodless, de-radicalised, passive, resigned and, above all, politically safe figure that most Christians would be comfortable with - especially those Christina Odones amongst the faithful.

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