Culture and the Death of God

I’ve been reading my way through Terry Eagleton’s “Culture and the Death of God” pretty slowly – blogged a few times I was both enjoying it and finding it a bit tough going. Subject-wise I’m pretty well read, but of course Terry is really well read and not afraid to construct his rhetorical flourishes from technically knowing material, confident in his own knowledge. Keep up mere mortal.

I really have only the one criticism, apart from the one implied above. That is, why someone so well read and intelligent is writing this in 2014, when it could have been written 10 or 12 years ago in the aftermath of 9/11? We agree, already.

95% of the text is so infuriatingly quoting, and more often summarising, critical views of one school / writer’s view of another – that it is well nigh impossible to glean Terry’s own view, except as inferred from his choice of adjective and adverb modifiers. Every view is stated from every side. Everything from the Hellenics to the Po-Po-Mo’s, humanists and new-atheists not being spared. Apart from the subjective modifiers nothing is laid on the table until the final chapter.

Herewith my highlights – a thoroughly recommended read (*), worth the effort needed (avoided the risk of more notes than original text):

[(*) Aside – As you can maybe tell from the criticisms, my position is jealousy – another book I wish I’d written, in fact it’s the book I’ve been trying to write since 2001, though of course I’d be aiming higher – for the message to be assimilable by the voting masses, as well as an intellectual elite. Irony noted Terry?]

Talking of idealists on p64 Eagleton cites Herder :

“[For Herder] reason is a historical facility … “

Compare the Pirsigian “Rationality is 20:20 hindsight” cited in Friends in Low Places by GP Dr James Willis. For Herder, Eagleton continues:

“The enlightenment has served to justify colonial oppression,  and in doing so has proved itself an anti-poetic power, stifling the folk from whom the truest poetry wells up. … Literature must become more earthy and engage. History is the work not of politicians but of poets, prophets and visionaries.  It is the narrative of nations not states.”

Continuing; most of the rest of my recorded notes are just points of interest to give a flavour of the content and language:

p143 “As usual it proved easier to dispose of a caricature of the opposition rather than the real thing”

p148 “… faith has more in common with the American dream than it does … with justice.”

p150 “reason has its roots in the human body”

Interestingly, he quotes (well, paraphrases) Zizek positively on p158. Interesting because reading Eagleton I have trouble not hearing the Zizek lisp in Eagleton’s lecturing delivery, so parallel are the lines of argument since 9/11 and The Empty Wheelbarrow.

“We know that God is dead, but does he?”

On p159 to p166 he cites the Nietzsche’s (unwitting orthodoxy) of “twice-born” in his UberMensch.

“That the death of God involves the death of Man, along with the birth of a new form of humanity, is orthodox Christian doctrine; a fact of which Nietzsche seems not to have been aware …. Like most avant-gardists, Nietzsche is a devout amnesiac”

(Eagleton constantly pillories sources that defend a knowing  intelligentsia vs the convenient ignorance of the masses. Is he denying relative knowledge and wisdom between individuals?)

His opening paragraph on Modernism and After, he says:

p174 “Scientific rationalism takes over doctrinal certainties [of religion]. ”

p175 George Steiner: “Is a luminary”.

Which will be reassuring for Pirsigians.

p179 Shelling: “No act can be more free than the decision to relinquish one’s liberty.”

p183 “It is no accident that Adam Smith is moralist and economist together. The merchant and the Man of Feeling are not to be treated as Antitypes”

p189 Nietzsche: “The Ubermensh stamps his image on a world of mere flux and difference.”

p191 Joyce: “It is the worldly and well-heeled who think of [theistic or non-theistic] religion as cosmic harmony and esoteric cult, rather as the idea of the artist as a shock-haired bohemian.”

p192 “One reason why post-modern thought is atheistic is its suspicion of faith. Not just religious faith, but faith as such. It makes the mistake of supposing that all passionate conviction is incipiently dogmatic.”

p193 A J P Taylor: “extreme views held moderately.”

(Many earlier references to this “Strong views, lightly held” concept, and one recent one.)

p194 summarizing Nietzsche Joyful Wisdom: “If one believes in freedom,  then this must surely include a certain freedom from one’s belief in it [….] Not all certainty is dogmatic and not all ambiguity is on the side of angels.”

p196 after de Certeau: “The market place would continue to behave atheistically even if every one of its actors was born-again Evangelical [….] just as western capitalism may have been edging in the direction of [jettisoning religious conviction], two aircraft slammed into Word Trade Center” and metaphysical ardour broke out afresh. … [and, a la Zizek] … the irony of the so-called war on terror is hard to overrate.”

p202 “an off the peg version of Enlightenment [is being] recycled by the so-called new atheism [in the aftermath of the above].”

Like this blog for example [see footnote]. Compare also Dennett on those naive scientistic types who believe science provides all the off the peg philosophy one could ever need.

p204 “reluctant atheists who can be distinguished from the Archbishop of Canterbury only by the fact that they do not believe in god”

p207 summarizing Nietzsche: “less the death of God than the bad faith of man.”

p208 (concluding paragraph) “[It is] a solidarity with the poor and powerless [in which] a new configuration of faith, culture and politics might be born.”

Solidarity – the latest buzzword. Not just values, but a variety of values worth sharing.

6 thoughts on “Culture and the Death of God”

  1. I’ve been listening to his Firth Lectures and wonder if you understood what he was saying at the end, the importance of the crucified body and the resurrection. And how does this feed into his own beliefs? Or is it impossible to tell? I know I should read the book if I really want to learn what he’s saying, but still I’d love to hear what you say on this.

  2. Hi Seev, certainly rebirth (or twice-born) is the metaphor he uses (I mention it earlier in the review) for enlightenment, his specific enlightenment conclusion is to recognise human “solidarity” as the moral compass worth holding – on faith. His common thread is that this is a Judaeo-Christian message that arises in many philosophies before and since, sometimes acknowledged, sometimes intentional if disguised and sometimes unrecognised in the underlying culture from which a given philosophy arises. He doesn’t major on his specific theistic or religious beliefs other than this.

  3. Thanks very much for that, Ian. He’s recognizing human “solidarity” to be held on faith? Clearly I should read the book. Listening to his lecture was difficult enough. I was a little put off at the end when in answering someone’s question about the Big Bang and our origins he just put this off quickly as not important. Did I get this right? Isn’t the whole question of origins, multiverse yes or no, first cause, etc., important? Or, perhaps human solidarity is in fact more important. We can’t answer those questions anyway?

  4. The Big Bang as the “origin” of the universe is not important, because it’s not real and not a question we can answer. I said something about these previously reading Larry Krauss – “Something from (almost) Nothing” and Mersini-Houghton on “Before the Big Bang”. (Coincidentally both of whom are at the Hay on Wye festival this May). I can’t imagine Eagleton having anything positive to say about cosmic physics in the context of moral philosophy. (I’ll dig up the Krauss and Mersini-Houghton links.)

  5. Of course! Eagleton is talking about moral philosophy, not cosmic physics or the problem of origins. Thanks for reminding me of that. And thanks, too, for your links to Krauss and Mersini-Houghton. I actually read these sometime in the past. Your site has been an absolute wonder for me and I’ve always found most everything here fascinating. Recently I’ve been reading, or trying to read, the Cape Town Cosmologist/Physicist George F. R. Ellis who claims there is not any real scientific evidence for the multiverse. Here’s a link to a talk he gave at a workshop in 2012:

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