A kind of materialist

Materialism, Terry Eagleton, Yale.

Terry Eagleton can usually be relied upon for a left-field viewpoint on religion, politics and culture, both in the senses of the political left and the simply surprising, even if he writes with common sense and a minimum of theoretical verbiage. In his latest book he investigates the concept of materialism (the philosophical concept rather than the idea of hording riches) particularly in the thought of Marx, Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, with major contributions from the medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas.

For Eagleton, Marx largely gets materialism right, arguing that the everyday determines how we think about things, rather than the other way around, and that material things should not be a means to an end, as in manufacturing simply for profit, for example.

Nietzsche held similar views about the roots of our ideas, spurned bourgeois philosophy in favour of brutal honesty and could see to the dark heart of things. (His celebrated ‘God is dead’ was meant to alert people to the fact that they spoke of God but acted as if He didn’t exist.) But Nietzsche got the practical application of materialism tragically wrong, arguing that the appalling conditions of many human beings in history is simply the price we need to pay to sustain the elite of society such as himself. (Those on the left in thrall to Nietzsche tend to conveniently overlook his fascist views, says Eagleton.)

Wittgenstein, who is somewhere in-between, thought philosophy was often hopelessly out of touch with reality, but he also, writes Eagleton, undervalued philosophy’s power. All three thinkers are wary of philosophy, but not in the sense, says Eagleton with his usual wit, that Brad Pitt might be.

Eagleton relies heavily on Aquinas, who is a kind of materialist – one who thought we are more than matter but didn’t dismiss the material, and held that body and soul, emotion and reason, feeling and thought are not so easily disentangled. It might surprise some to read Eagleton’s argument that Christianity is a materialist religion, but Jesus, who is supposedly God in material form, spent much time healing bodies, and his ‘spiritual’ teachings typically had a materialist bent – don’t get caught up in the struggle for wealth, feed the hungry, take care of the wounded stranger, welcome home the prodigal son with a feast.

And Christians are not just souls waiting for heaven, but material beings (of a ‘highly specific kind’, says Eagleton) working through the animation of the Holy Spirit for a better world. Neither are we just minds, but connected to other people through our bodily needs.

(A shorter version of this review appeared in Crosslight magazine.)

Sunsets and cancer


The Beauty and the Horror, Richard Harries, SPCK.

If you are going to write an apologia for the existence of the Christian God in the face of the existence of evil in the world, you have a number of hurdles to clear. You need persuasive arguments that avoid the trite and the clichéd and that avoid trivialising suffering. And the reasons for doubting God’s existence are plentiful: the fact that an omnipotent God shouldn’t need to permit grievous suffering, the lack of clear evidence of God’s hand in the world, the drabness or ineffectiveness of his supposed followers, the divisions within the church, the explanatory power of Darwinism and determinism and quantum physics and multiverse theory, the existence of multiple religions (they can’t all be right), the miserable lives of those who have never known God, the question of whether Christ died for intelligent alien life forms, and so forth.

Richard Harries’ book The Beauty and the Horror, which can be summarised in the question ‘why both sunsets and cancer?’, confronts at least some of these objections. More importantly, he takes serious objections to Christian faith as seriously as the questioners, and responds with a willingness to entertain doubts, but also with a refusal to simply throw up his hands. He emphasises that humans have asked about the meaning of life throughout history, and engages with a wide range of art and literature to elaborate on the consequences. Artists and novelists are, after-all, types of philosophers themselves.

When it comes to theodicy, the explanation for the existence of evil, Harries dismisses the idea that persists in some conservative circles of God needing to test us, but goes over the old arguments about free will needing to coexist with the possibilities of good and bad. To the objection that heaven is supposedly free of evil so our world could be also, Harries replies that we must have known both good and evil to appreciate heaven’s evil-free state. About similar arguments from the philosopher Richard Swinburne, whom Harries quotes, Terry Eagleton, generally an apologist for religion, tartly comments that only an academic could believe such nonsense. Harries is rightly unimpressed with the suggestions of some, such as the philosopher Ronald Dworkin, that we should live as if the world has meaning even if it doesn’t. This sounds like more academic ducking and weaving.

In making the case for belief in God you are better, as Harries does, commenting on the practice of living out faith, and how that illuminates the intellectual dilemmas. It’s not much good to suggest to an atheist that they have to be a Christian to understand why there is evil in the world, but we can’t escape the fact that living out faith enlightens areas of mystery that existed before faith, or that exist in conjunction with faith, as is often the case. Harries would never suggest that having faith solves all your problems. The great English writer and man of faith Samuel Johnson wrote that it was pointless trying to understand evil. Attempts to understand evil can paralyse us and make us crazy, like Hamlet. Harries continues by saying that if we are aware of evil’s existence we are better to try and combat it than understand it, as indeed Jesus did when he cured people and was dismissive of lay philosophising about why the people were sick in the first place.

Anyway, it is not generally the existence of evil that has encouraged unbelief. For millennia people have believed in God while suffering horribly. Generally it was the privileged, such as particular Enlightenment philosophers, who looked upon the suffering, rather than the suffering themselves, and who were sceptical of God’s existence. And living well doesn’t usually make you praise God; it makes you feel he’s unnecessary. Atheism comes with autonomy. Today, as Harries and Eagleton point out, the biggest threat to faith among the masses is consumerism. The availability of goods and the prevailing philosophy that these goods are the answer to whatever might be wrong with us has shunted God aside.

(Reviewed for the Uniting Church of Australia.)

Biting the hand that feeds

Culture, Terry Eagleton, Yale.

A yearly release by Terry Eagleton is becoming as regular as tax-time or ‘cruel thieves ruin Christmas’ newspaper stories in late December, but that is nothing to complain about (Eagleton’s book, not the thieves). Eagleton continues to write in his field of literary and cultural studies and has plenty of illuminating things to say, all with his trademark wit and ability to distill complex theory down to simple explanations with jokey examples.

He also continues to recycle material, I guess in the way a jazz musician might, including the opening lines about ‘culture’ being an exceptionally complex word, which is slightly adapted from his earlier book The Idea of Culture. He rightly states that culture can have narrow and broad meanings, and can be evaluative or descriptive. I would add it can also refer to highly thought out pursuits or habitual and unconscious ones. Eagleton notes how our pluralistic culture feeds consumerism, and notes the political underpinnings of Oscar Wilde’s seemingly throwaway lines (though he also notes that Wilde’s rather elitist view of culture is a little ‘too convenient’ for legitimising Wilde’s self-indulgence).

J G Herder

There is of course a political edge to the book, as he points out that culture can both reinforce or critique the ruling ideology. It is, he says, ‘the role of culture to bite the hand that feeds it’. And he finds seemingly unlikely allies in the conservative yet anti-slavery, pro-American revolutionaries Edmund Burke, and in J G Herder (above), the Enlightenment philosopher and Lutheran minister who Eagleton says is not as well regarded as he should be, particularly because Herder was one of the first to recognise the power of culture to shape society and as such, is the father of modern cultural studies. As far as Burke goes, Eagleton digs out some of his delicious quotes, and takes pains to point out that his conservative reputation and Tory appropriation is not always well-placed, a reading borne out also by recent biographers Richard Bourke and David Bromwich.