What’s a Straw Man of a Straw Man? Fish features Eagelton’s rediscovery of religion

Stanley Fish’s blog at the NYT has often tempted me to write a commentary/fisk, but I never got around to it. But in honor of my last post on pomo, I couldn’t resist commenting on Fish’s current posting about Terry Eagelton, the Marxist post-modernist literary critic’s turn to religion. I may be reading this wrong — I haven’t read Eagelton’s new book yet, and am relying on Fish’s summary — but it strikes me as a puerile and unself-reflecting turn with very dangerous implications. We modernists (among whom I include the post-modernists), if we want to play with the fire of religious belief, need to have a steep learning curve lest it just become a form of regression. I see no sign of the self-criticism that would produce that learning curve in either Eagelton or Fish’s discussion of him.

God Talk
Stanley Fish blog, NYT
May 3, 2009, 10:00 PM

In the opening sentence of the last chapter of his new book, “Reason, Faith and Revolution,” the British critic Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?” His answer, elaborated in prose that is alternately witty, scabrous and angry, is that the other candidates for guidance — science, reason, liberalism, capitalism — just don’t deliver what is ultimately needed. “What other symbolic form,” he queries, “has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

So wait a minute. After decades of post-modern “there are no absolutes,” it’s now, “given that reason and science don’t work, let’s go back to religion?” Is there any self-interrogation here? What happened to post-modernism? Just a little adolescent spiritedness?

Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “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.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”

I don’t want to seem dismissive, but this move is a little like Jimmy Carter saying, “I condemn terrorism, but, Hamas is an important and legitimate organization.” Terry, if you don’t have a good understanding of how and why religion has led to terrible things, then you have no business playing with that fire. And first on your list of meditations, is what every scholar of millennialism knows all too well: when religious (or secular) zealots are seized with the ambition to bring about a collective “radical transformation of what we say and do,” they are prime candidates to do “terrible things in religion’s (or communism’s) name.”

The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”

This is an excellent example of the lack of appreciation for what modernity has wrought as one can find. Here the astonishing accomplishments of modernity — the bounty it has brought to everyone, the end of the quadrennial cycle of famines in which one or more family members might perish, the relief from the kind of suffering one sees in the slums of Cairo and Mexico City, the ability to communicate instantaneously with people around the world — becomes a package of comforts that get in the way of serious theological questions. Eagelton seems unaware that, without the exceptional protections of this superficial society of prosperity, he’d have been burned at the stake long ago.

By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”

The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.

First of all, I was under the impression that the last two questions were reasonably considered within the realm of both philosophy and psychology.

Second, I see no reason why we can’t ask these questions in conditions of material well-being. Why would that make it hard to “cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised”?

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do. When Christopher Hitchens declares that given the emergence of “the telescope and the microscope” religion “no longer offers an explanation of anything important,” Eagleton replies, “But Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place. It’s rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekhov.”

That’s a cheap shot at a cheap shot. In the Middle Ages Christianity and Islam both insisted that they had a great deal to say, if not about explaining the universe, about what explanations were acceptable. If that were not the case, then the discovery that the earth was billions of years old, and mankind hundreds of thousands, would not have so troubled theologians.

Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement. Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after something else.

More cheap shots. Religion, in a certain form, makes hegemonic statements about the nature of the universe that scientific findings often contradict, and people committed to those hegemonic claims are unlikely to blaze any paths in scientific thought, at least in its early phases. (Now with the Tao of Physics, who knows what kind of mystics inhabit some of the more esoteric realms of science?)

After what? Eagleton, of course, does not tell us, except in the most general terms: “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead “adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”

Now we get to the core of Eagelton’s agenda. He’s not interested in religion, he’s interested in millennialism – The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington. In other words, now that both the “scientific” millennial dream of Marxism, and his alternative pomo experiment in the redemptive power of destructive “exegesis” has come up empty-handed, he’ll go anywhere to get his fix.

Progress, liberalism and enlightenment — these are the watchwords of those, like Hitchens, who believe that in a modern world, religion has nothing to offer us. Don’t we discover cures for diseases every day? Doesn’t technology continually extend our powers and offer the promise of mastering nature? Who needs an outmoded, left-over medieval superstition?

Eagleton punctures the complacency of these questions when he turns the tables and applies the label of “superstition” to the idea of progress. It is a superstition — an idol or “a belief not logically related to a course of events” (American Heritage Dictionary) — because it is blind to what is now done in its name: “The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.

Good grief, this sounds just like the “deep” meditations of the Marcuse crowd from the late sixties – one dimensional man, the hollow life of materialism and consumerism. And, if I’m not mistaken, Fish thinks this is good stuff. Is this what happens when post-modernists come off their binge of exegetical inebriation? Rehash the sixties. Next thing you’ll know, they’ll be telling us to try acid.

(Not that I am against the sixties — I both enjoyed and think I benfitted from them. But I do think we deserve a learning curve. To paraphrase anoymous, “If you twenty and not a socialist you have no heart, if you’re forty and still a socialist, you have no head, and if you’re sixty and haven’t gotten the two to communicate, you’re lazy.”)

And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.”

This strikes me as not so much silliness as bad faith. Liberalism, at least in its current incarnation, is very much opposed to racism, sexism, colonialism and imperialism – even to the point of assaulting a genuinely liberal state for even looking like it’s imperialist/colonialist. To lump them together as if they were one in the same is just cheap, cheaper than, say, calling post-modernism, Marxism for academic wimps.

That kind of belief will have little use for a creed that has at its center “one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains.” No wonder “Ditchkins” — Eagleton’s contemptuous amalgam of Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, perhaps with a sidelong glance at Luke 6:39, “Can the blind lead the blind? Shall they not both fall into the ditch?” — seems incapable of responding to “the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love.”

So it’s not religion we’re revitalizing, but Christianity? Will Eagelton also reintroduce supersessionism? (Or did he ever leave it behind?)

You won’t be interested in any such promise, you won’t see the point of clinging to it, if you think that “apart from the odd, stubbornly lingering spot of barbarism here and there, history on the whole is still steadily on the up,” if you think that “not only is the salvation of the human species possible but that contrary to all we read in the newspapers, it has in principle already taken place.” How, Eagleton asks, can a civilization “which regards itself as pretty well self-sufficient” see any point in or need of “faith or hope”?

So Eagelton turns to religion in order to find a ground in which he can contest complacency? What’s wrong with the progressive left? They don’t think the Beatles meant it when they sang “It’s getting better all the time.”

What bother me here is the lack of appreciation of religion’s role in both the emergence and the maintenance of the semi-miraculous society that we live in. What if demotic religiosity were at the heart of modern Western civilization? What if the commitments to equality and respect for the other had a religious dimension? Wouldn’t a healthy social body – one that rejected various kinds of defensive prejudice – find religion a welcome part of its constitution? Why do we have to plunge into the abyss of despair – including ranting at the immeasurable injustices of our (Western) world – in order to discover religion?

“Self-sufficient” gets to the heart of what Eagleton sees as wrong with the “brittle triumphalism” of liberal rationalism and its ideology of science. From the perspective of a theistic religion, the cardinal error is the claim of the creature to be “self-originating”: “Self-authorship,” Eagleton proclaims, “is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence,” and he could have cited in support the words of that great bourgeois villain, Milton’s Satan, who, upon being reminded that he was created by another, retorts , “[W]ho saw/ When this creation was…?/ We know no time when we were not as now/Know none before us, self-begot, self-raised” (Paradise Lost, V, 856-860). That is, we created ourselves (although how there can be agency before there is being and therefore an agent is not explained), and if we are able to do that, why can’t we just keep on going and pull progress and eventual perfection out of our own entrails?

This kind of hubris long predates the bourgeois (who are often tolerably modest in their pretensions, perhaps too modest). If Eagelton wants us to become more modest in our pretensions, he might start with himself. Rather than rant about how we’ve sold religion (Christianity) short, he might do some auto-criticism about his career as an inebriated Marxist pedagogue.

That is where science and reason come in. Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.

I don’t get it. The preliminaries – science and reason can’t do it – are already basic post-modern positions. They (including Eagelton) didn’t make this next move — “only from some kind of faith.” On the contrary, they would have found such a claim ridiculous. Hopefully Eagelton’s book is much better – and more profound – than Fish’s summary. This stuff is about as jejune as you can get.

“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.)

I personally find both Dawkins and Hitchen’s books wanting. But they’re neither as silly nor superficial as one might think from this discussion, and, as I recall, they would not get stuck in a denial that value, quality, and judgment are reducible to “facts themselves.”

As for “Ditchkens,” it reminds me of “Billary” (for Bill and Hillary), a puerile expression of antipathy that one expects one’s audience – the choir – to share. Just what is Eagelton’s audience… aside from Fish?

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.

One of the things that always struck me about “post-modernism” was the combination of ignorance and hubris embedded in the name. We don’t know what we are, but we do know that we’ve superseded modernity, that we’re well beyond that period. I always thought of modernity – that is, the liberal project of trying to establish a society run according to the basic rule of equality before the law for all citizens — as a long and difficult process. Indeed, it sometimes takes decades, even centuries to confront some of the difficulties that arise in such an endeavor – letting women and other races vote, de-imperializing, creating a safety net for citizens, figuring out how to treat other nations decently.

The idea that such an effort is spectacularly hubristic, but that it’s not hubristic to embrace a religion that can bring about a

    coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice, fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more well-heeled quarters…

seems risible. It’s precisely the hubristic impatience with slow progress that drove the Marxist revolutionaries to speed up the train of history, at the cost of tens of millions of lives. So now, to call the moderate millennialists, who take their progress as they can, without carving their images of perfection out of the body social, the “spectacularly hubristic” strike me as less funny than as a serious act of bad faith.

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.”


On the one hand, Eagelton hedges his bets: okay, I’m for this religion stuff because it promises a redemption that mere science and reason can’t hope to offer, but don’t expect guarantees. But it’s worth the leap of faith because at least, we then live in hope. Like so many millennialists, Eagelton’s a hope-addict. Even if it means leaping into the unknown – and his following statement proves how little he knows about religion – let’s do it.

On the other hand, despite his lack of certainty, he can be so sure of his suggestion about religious, that those who stand in the way, become to enemy of progress. The list of foes, those who block the path to this sketchy leap of faith in a transfigured future contain two interesting and revealing categories –

1) The “liberal” and “progress[ive]” camps. Eagelton tars them as “dogmatist… doctrinaire,” even though both of these schools of thought had arisen by freeing themselves from precisely the doctrinal dogmatism of the religion Eagelton now seeks to revalorize.

2) Islamophobic intellectuals. This is the scariest part of this puerile diatribe. If people who fear the theocratic, authoritarian and violent dimensions of Islam – the very elements of religion whose overthrow permitted the rise of the modern world – are obstacles to his attempt to revalorize religion, then he’s not just bring back some touching and possibly revitalizing spiritual force, he’s opening the door to real, anti-modern, inegalitarian, thuggish dogmatism.

Is it a toss-off line? Or is this Eagelton’s effort to recruit the Muslims in his new revolutionary campaign.

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.”

Excuse me while I barf. Eagelton danced on the graves of his forbears. Now all of a sudden he’s begun to honor his parents?

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.

What happens when you get a straw man of a straw man? Kindling.

5 Responses to What’s a Straw Man of a Straw Man? Fish features Eagelton’s rediscovery of religion

  1. modernism…

    … One of the things that always struck me about post-modernism was the combination of ignorance and hubris embedded in the name. We don’t know what we are, but we do know that we’ve superseded modernity, that we’re well beyond that … ……

  2. oao says:

    marxists turning to religion — now that’s sound intellectual ability for you.

    but in fact it should not surprise: if one faith fails, switch to another. that one is secular and one not is not a big deal, it’s the faith that counts and the faith usefulness for manipulation and control.

  3. Jacob says:

    “Terry Eagleton asks, “Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God?””

    Because it’s in fashion and Terry E. is nothing if not a man of fashion. A thinker he is not.

  4. The Modern Left: A Marriage of Post-Modernism and Narcissism, Part II…

    [The Modern Left: A Marriage of Post-Modernism and Narcissism, Part I] Communisms, and its more liberal offspring, Socialism, appeal to the young because it is superficially more fair than Capitalism. The Utopianism inherent in Socialism appeals to tho…

  5. bob sullivan says:

    when it comes to ‘bad things’ done historically I am afraid the ‘ant-religious’ comes out way ahead –100 million +- dead–USSR, Communist China, Nazis, Pol Pot , North Veitnam

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