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.)

What would you know about it?!

Roger Trigg

Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics, Roger Trigg, Templeton Press.

We live in a world shaped by Western science. But not only is science governed by often unspoken metaphysical assumptions, writes philosopher of science Roger Trigg, science actually requires a metaphysical framework, both to prompt and hint at avenues of further enquiry, and to ensure scientists are not staking claims beyond their turf.

Beyond Matter is prompted by and a response to the claims often made by scientists that questions beyond the reach of science are not worth asking and are only ‘pseudo-problems’. Trigg tries to take a middle path, as the book is also a response to postmodernist claims that scientific truth is merely relative, only agreement rather than something of cross-cultural importance. Though rightly made, Trigg perhaps over-emphasises this point, as those of a postmodernist persuasion don’t generally think of science as inapplicable in non-Western cultures. Postmodernists are, however, sceptical of the claims of disinterest amongst scientists that often cover up personal (or cultural) ambition and particular agenda. Trigg blames Wittgenstein for a recent tendency to be suspicious of science, but Wittgenstein simply warned us about the hubris involved in seeking truth through human means, for language can only be verified by more language, in a circular fashion. There is something here that resonates with the Biblical story of the Tower of Babel, an enterprise in applied science. It is no coincidence that the story of Babel links human hubris with sharing language. Shared scientific language (and outlook) can mask a tendency to overreach. Still, Trigg is right to make the point that within scientific practice there is an emphasis on reason, which should cross cultural borders. Planes fly and fridges chill in both the East and the West. As Trigg, says, science works, and it works universally.

There is some irony in this. Atheistic science enthusiasts often pit religion against reason, and yet reason in Western science can be seen as a legacy of Christianity. The early Christians were quite sceptical of superstition, and their faith was built not on a kind of belief in magic but on the belief that Jesus’ resurrection had been verified. And the superstitions of the Middle Ages, it can be argued, were contrary, not sympathetic, to Christian belief. The Enlightenment philosophers might not have all been devout, and some not even deists (as most actually were), but their faith in reason was a legacy of the belief, deeply embedded in Western culture and prompted by the Bible’s revelation of God, that Creation was logical, understandable and testable. And that the laws of nature, a product of God’s benevolence, are predictable due to their consistency. This is, as Trigg points out, not simply fact, but a metaphysical assumption.

The modern era has, of course, thrown a spanner into this machinery, with the discovery of quantum physics, which, as Niels Bohr and others famously pointed out, seems to have a certain unpredictability built in. And now, says Trigg, science, at least in the realm of physics, currently touted as the base upon which all science needs to be built, has made a turn from the pragmatic approach of testing and observation to the speculation of mathematical theorising. Nowhere is the hubris of scientists more on show than in the realm of physics, both at the micro level of string theory and the macro level of speculation about multiverses. Much has been verified (the Higgs particle, for example), but the new physics rides somewhat on the coattails of previous incarnations of science, and although much is merely speculation, it is described as science and is therefore, according to its defenders, unassailable. Although Trigg doesn’t go as far as to say so, there is something of a desire to take religion out of the equation, to try and explain origins without mention of the ‘G’ word, but by its very nature multiverse theory is unprovable, as we are speculating about what happens outside our universe where the laws of nature or God may work differently.

The distinction between abstract theory and testability is not quite as neat as Trigg makes out. Mathematical modelling could be said to be both theory and a manner of verification. When a dinosaur skeleton is reconstructed, is it theory or practice? But Trigg is right to be wary of multiverse explanations. The theory of multiverses, even where it is suggested that there are an infinite number of universes and so anything is not only theoretically possible but actually existent, doesn’t really answer the question of ‘why’, particularly why there is something rather than nothing. If there are an infinite number of universes, why are there an infinite number? If that is simply mathematically predictable, why does maths work in this way? Where did maths come from? If it is a human mapping of the way the universe is, why does it work so well? This may be just a Wittgensteinian case of asking the wrong questions, but I suspect there is something fundamentally correct about asking where our universe (or universes) comes from and why. Part of the reason I hold this suspicion is because even supposedly disinterested, atheistic science, even deliberately atheistic Darwinian science, cannot help but, as Trigg observes, use the language of purpose and design. Some of that is simply anthropocentric, and as Christians we could happily agree with that charge by citing God’s reply to Job, along the lines of ‘what would you know about it?!’ But there is also a nagging sense, which can only be the product of revelation, of purpose and control within our universe. This revelation is, of course, in the shady realms of metaphysics, of religion and philosophy.

Trigg doesn’t spell out in detail what metaphysical framework we might need, though those of us who are Christians are happy to fill in the blanks. But he certainly implies that scientists need a sense of humility. This goes for Christians too, as human brains have only a certain capacity for knowledge. We can both celebrate our capacity to understand much about the universe, and wonder at the complexities of mystery that continue to baffle.

Talks about himself a lot

Stanley Hauerwas2

The Work of Theology, Stanley Hauerwas, Eerdmans, 2015

Stanley Hauerwas was once a bricklayer, and it is interesting to note that the pre-release cover artwork for this new book featured a bricklayer’s trowel, making a nice correlation with the book’s title, The Work of Theology. The trowel has since been dropped from the cover, and one can only assume that the author asked the publisher to do so in accord with his previous statements that one can make too much of the bricklayer analogy for what Hauerwas does with theology. (Although he has only himself to blame, calling the book The Work of Theology.) The reason the analogy doesn’t quite work is because theology is less like a systematic, solid building-up, and more like a playful conversation.

Hauerwas talks about himself a lot, and this may confirm for some that he has bought into the hype that has him labelled as ‘America’s best theologian’ (a concept Hauerwas is bemused at). But it is quite the opposite. Because he is a prominent theologian, he has attracted his share of criticism and comment, therefore much of Hauerwas’s writing is defensive. He requalifies, elaborates, apologises, restates, argues fiercely – sometimes exasperatedly, sometimes with humour (this book contains a chapter on why theology is funny). His writing confirms Wittgenstein’s point that we can only make our words mean what we want them to mean by continually using other words to clarify.

His career shows that writing theology is difficult, in particular when, in his case, he argues that the church is decidedly alternative to the world, yet must engage with it, a view sometimes misconstrued as retreat from the world. In his book Approaching the End he argues that Christianity can’t claim to exist apart from how it relates to the world. The church’s very being is a reaction to the world and its injustices, and he is therefore critical of church accommodation to the world, whether it be sanctioning war or using the language of business to address the ‘unchurched’ (a word he finds ‘hilarious’) as part of ‘growth strategies’.

He also carefully points out that ‘ethics’ can’t be pulled out of ‘theology’. Theology for Hauerwas can’t be an abstract thing, a matter of theory to be contrasted with practice. Theology must be ‘performed’ in the messiness of life. He is keen to say that being an ethicist is not a specialisation, but is simply part of any Christian’s life, as being a Christian means acting ethically in light of the Gospel. Theology is not primarily an academic activity either. We always start ‘theologising’ on the run, in the midst of whatever we are dealing with in the church at any given time, which is why Hauerwas resists the urge to systematise his theology (though, he points out, he is not against consistency). And again, this is why Hauerwas uses ‘I’ a lot – theology, contrary to some expectations, is a personal endeavour. And lest that seem individualistic, Hauerwas also points repeatedly to ‘us’, the church, as the place where theology is played out.

Neither can there be any final resolution to theology, as Karl Barth’s (unfinished) Church Dogmatics famously demonstrates. Not that Hauerwas makes it explicit in this new book, but we can assume this is also a reason he keeps writing so noticeably in the first person – he realises that a theologian can never make the definitive pronouncement about God as if he were writing about the atomic structure of carbon dioxide or the degree of tilt of the Earth’s axis. Our writing about God is largely metaphorical, as he suggests – we are squeezing God into the limitations of our language – as well as speaking about him in relative terms. This is not to suggest that theology is relativistic, only that there are limitations as to how one person can speak about God (a point also made by Rowan Williams in his last book).

His carefulness here is part of what makes him, perhaps paradoxically, such a good – and exciting – theologian, and why a book of essays such as The Work of Theology is as good or better than a systematic magnum opus at showing how a theologian goes about his or her work.

(A shorter version of this review appeared in Journey magazine)

Like a spring day

The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language, Rowan Williams, Bloomsbury

Natural theology involves looking at the world and coming to conclusions about God based on what we see, as in William Paley’s famous and often caricatured analogy of finding a watch on the ground and concluding that it must have been designed by someone. In Rowan William’s book The Edge of Words, Williams takes a feature of our world – language – and concludes that it infers profound things about the God we believe in. He argues that our universe is to all intents and purposes as our language constructs it (think about how babies gradually make sense of their world by naming things) and that beyond that word-constructed universe we begin to see glimpses of God. This is not an argument for proof of God’s existence, but rather an encouragement to think wider about this entity we call God.

Rowan Williams can write clearly when he wants to. Some of his more popular works explaining Christian faith are fine examples of fresh but simple exposition. Some of his other, let’s say, more intellectual works are famously torturous, not the least because he is so careful to qualify his statements. This latest book falls into the latter category, but this is no reason to dismiss it, or his other works. He is a subtle, deep and surprising thinker, and the attentive reader will be rewarded, even if at times the experience is like a typical spring day – alternating moments of cloudiness and illumination.



The writing itself perhaps proves his Wittgensteinian point that we can discover something about God by pushing language to the cliff edge and then peering over. He advises that we should “think to the point where there seems nothing further to be said and see what happens”. In this statement alone we can begin to see how his argument might have some affinity with meditative spiritual practices, and how in thinking about language we might conclude that it is far less self-contained than it appears.

For language is a strange thing. Williams points out that we think in metaphors more than we assume, and we assume that our vision of the world is just ‘what is’ rather than a construction. (To take two examples, in other languages the colour spectrum can be divided quite differently than in English, and we regularly don’t see things that are there if we don’t expect to see them.) Additionally, language represents the universe but is itself a part of the universe it represents. Like consciousness, this is something of a puzzle.

For Williams, this has ramifications for how we think about God being ‘outside’ the universe. If God is ‘outside’ the universe (‘outside’ itself being a metaphorical term in this case), it is rather difficult to use language – a feature of the universe – to represent something that doesn’t abide by the conventions of the universe. Our thinking about God then becomes like chimpanzees thinking about astrophysics – beyond our capacities. Williams’ point is not that we should give up trying, but rather that this fact should make us pause for sober reflection.

This unsettling of assumptions has an important effect: rather than thinking of our relationship with God as an unchanging thing in a restless world, Williams suggests that our relationship to God will be like our relationship to language – constantly re-evaluated. God becomes less like a rock, and more like a river. For Williams, God is an infinite conversation partner, who continually reorients us as we make sense of the world, in a process of talking, questioning, correcting, and reconsidering.