Why am I still a Theologian? - Terry Eagleton on Theology

For a while I taught a class called “Faith & Reason.” It was a good class that tackled the intersection of revelation and reason in the Western tradition (inclusive of some Jewish and Muslim thinkers), and I enjoyed teaching it. But then some administrative reorganization happened and the course was redundant, etc.

But one of the things that I liked most about that course was ending the semester with Terry Eagleton’s book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Those who follow me carefully on social media (blessings be upon you, since you clearly need them if you’re following me carefully on social media), or spend time with me offline talking about theological things, know that I’ve come to really enjoy Eagleton, and this book is where that started. I need to figure out another place to work this book into my teaching, or else find a way to resurrect this class. But, alas, administrative duties mean that I don’t teach all that much anymore.

Changing tacks rapidly, it has been nearly two decades since I started formally studying theology as an undergraduate at Wheaton College. Suffice it to say that I don’t believe this stuff in the same way that I used to (some have claimed that I don’t believe it at all, but I’ve got a PhD in theology so I get to maintain my own definitions), and that means I don’t do theology in the same way, either, or even find it interesting for the same reasons.

Bringing these two strands of reflection together is the following excerpt from right near the end of Eagleton’s book, in which he gives an account of why he finds theology compelling. I agree with him. I won’t say that this is the only reason why I’m still a theologian, but it is an increasingly important one.

Hang in there through this long quote from pp. 165–68. Any italics are in the original, but I’ll drop in some bold to mark the best lines. For those who haven’t read the book, “Ditchkins” is Eagleton’s rhetorical construct for a symbolic composite of Christopher Hitchens (previously mentioned on this blog a few times, but especially here) and Richard Dawkins (never mentioned on this blog, #PraiseTheLord).

If politics has so far failed to unite the wretched of the earth in the name of transforming their condition, we can be sure that culture will not accomplish the task in its stead. Culture, for one thing, is too much a matter of affirming what you are or have been, rather than what you might become. What then of religion? What we know as Christendom saw itself as a unity of culture and civilization. If religion has proved far and away the most powerful, tenacious, universal symbolic form humanity has yet come up with, it is partly on this account. What other symbolic form has managed to forge such direct links between the most absolute and universal of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women? What other way of life has brought the most rarefied of ideas and the most palpable of human realities into such intimate relationship? Religious faith has established a hotline from personal interiority to transcendent authority—an achievement upon which the advocates of culture can only gaze with envy. Yet religion is as powerless as culture to emancipate the disposed. For the most part, it has not the slightest interest in doing so.

. . .

If Marxism holds out a promise of reconciling culture and civilization, it is among other things because its founder was both a Romantic humanist and an heir of Enlightenment rationalism. Marxism is about culture and civilization together—sensuous particularity and universality, worker and citizen of the world, local allegiances and international solidarity, the free self-realization of flesh-and-blood individuals and a global cooperative commonwealth of them. But Marxism has suffered in our time a staggering political rebuff; and one of the places to which those radical impulses have migrated is—of all things—theology. It is in some sectors of theology nowadays that one can find some of the most informed and animated discussions of Deleuze and Badiou, Foucault and feminism, Marx and Heidegger.

This is not entirely surprising, since theology, however implausible many of its truth claims, is one of the most ambitious theoretical arenas left in an increasingly specialized world—one whose subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life. These are not questions one can easily raise in analytic philosophy or political science. . . . We find ourselves, then, in a most curious situation. In a world in which theology is increasingly part of the problem, as Ditchkins rightly considers, it is also fostering the kind of critical reflection which might contribute to some of the answers. There are lessons which the secular left can learn from religion, for all its atrocities and absurdities, and the left is not so flush with ideas that it can afford to look such a gift horse in the mouth.

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