A house under construction

The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe, John Haught, Yale University Press.

The argument of John Haught’s The New Cosmic Story is that part of the universe’s continuing development is an awakening to what he calls ‘rightness’, for want of a better term. In this view, scientists and philosophers have not taken seriously the emergence of religion (alongside consciousness), which, rather than being some sort of outdated rival to science, has been oriented towards this rightness.  Religion may point to truth, beauty and purpose being fundamental goals of the universe, rather than illusions or accidents.

Haught contrasts three views of the universe – first, an atheist materialist one that says that the universe has no ultimate purpose and that it can be explained by looking back and down at the building blocks of the universe, namely matter. Materialists suggest that science explains all, including religious intuitions. Ironically, says Haught, they do so with a strong sense of the ‘rightness’ of their opinions.

The second view is of some religious believers, from Buddhist to Christian, who treat the universe as imperfect and who look forward to escape. For them also, the universe has little purpose except to be endured until we enter a perfect one. In contrast, Haught writes of a third, anticipatory worldview that sees subjectivity and morality as part of the universe, not an accidental by-product, and evolving along with actual matter.

By way of analogy, we might suggest the universe in Haught’s thought is a house under construction. Materialists suggest that it can be explained by looking back at when the materials were ordered and the inevitability of bricklayers laying one brick on top of another, but think it is silly to entertain thoughts of it being built for a purpose. Religious escapists see the rain pouring through holes in the unfinished roof and declare that we should ignore this imperfect, inadequate structure, as other perfect and finished dwellings are available for purchase. For Haught, the house is being built for habitation but its final shape is only envisaged, not complete.

At times it seems Haught has little evidence to back up his view, and can only state it repeatedly, albeit in increasingly poetic and elegant terms. But he would counter that this is taking the scientistic view. Instead we can take the universal emergence of religious explanations among many cultures as indications that there is more in the universe than can be explained by science, but that this way of seeing is through a glass darkly, and works subjectively and intuitively.

Some may catch a whiff of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s work behind all this, and certainly Haught builds on it while making his own case. Teilhard de Chardin’s work is not universally accepted, but it does have biblical resonance. In the New Testament, the concept of the Kingdom of God is one that has already begun. Christians are working on it already, with the help of God, anticipating that it will come to completion and perfect both heaven and earth, renewing the whole of creation, not just individual souls whisked off to enjoy heaven. This is a somewhat more specific reading than Haught gives. He is more concerned with the rise of religion in general alerting us to the possible teleology of the universe, a surmise certainly at odds with most cosmologists, who tend to look backwards rather than forwards.

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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.)