Review: "Culture and the Death of God" – NBC2 News

Culture and the Death of GodBy Terry Eagleton | Yale University Press240 pagesLangans Book Mark: 4/4 stars

Terry Eagleton, Distinguished Professor of Literature at the University of Lancaster and author of forty books, investigates in Culture and the Death of God how our supposedly faithless age threatened by religious fundamentalism after 9/11 searches for a replacement for God.

The abstruseness of this search was brought home to me by a comment made by one of my daughters. When she saw that I reviewed an earlier Eagleton book, After Theory, in 2004, she said, Dad, who cares about that stuff?

Who cares indeed? This is the basic question. See if you care enough by reading this. Its longer and more complex than a usual review, because Eagleton is more intricate in his writing.

After Theory sustained a tightly woven argument asserting that cultural theory had become largely irrelevant. Cultural theory used to be an enterprise or a patch, as the author calls it, where intellectuals could raise basic questions about what is now quaintly called the human condition.

Despite my daughters remark, I think she cares, and others may as well about that stuff. Her impatience could be a trigger for a bigger issue agitating what passes for the collective conscience of the world. It is dissatisfaction with surrogates put in place of the Almighty. My daughter might say I was reviewing a book that nobody would buy because of the topic.

But thats Eagletons point: while many have jettisoned the idea of God, no good candidates have shown up to take his place. In his new book, Eagleton gives us a list of substitutes and reasons that they havent passed muster, and looks to a future it doesnt seem anywhere on the horizon to me where just and compassionate communities thrive.

So what are the loser replacements for God, our author asks? Good bye to culture, he says, as well as Enlightenment ideas, the philosophy of idealists, romantics, Reason, modernism and more. They all have their charms but come up short. The ache for permanence in humans wants more.

Here is how Eagleton states his case:

Those who find religion boring, irrelevant or offensive need not feel too deterred by my title. This book is less about God than about the crisis occasioned by his apparent disappearance. In pursuit of this subject, it begins with the Enlightenment and ends up with the rise of radical Islam and the so-called war on terror.Among other things, the narrative I have to deliver concerns the fact that atheism is by no means as easy as it looks.

Lets look at the usual suspects to replace God, and see why, according to Eagleton, none of these viceroys for God turned out to be very plausible

First of all, culture: Our author thinks this has always been the most credible candidate. After all, it involves, he says, foundational values, transcendent truths, authoritative traditions, ritual practices, sensuous symbolism, and much more.

So why did culture fail to take religions place? It couldnt, despite some Enlightenment scholars hopes, bridge the gap between the values of a minority and the life of the common people. Culture was unable to be a guarantor of social order and moral conduct because, as our man puts it, No symbolic form in history has matched religions ability to link the most exalted of truths to the daily existence of countless men and women.it was clear that there could be no salvation in aesthetic culture alone.

Not only that, Eagleton remarks, but when politically charged social divisions infiltrate the concept of culture itself, elements like language, symbol, kinship, heritage, identity and community are exploited, culture becomes part of the problem, shifting from a bogus transcendence to militant particularism. Read the front page of any newspaper describing various countries internecine warfare for verification of this remark.

What about idealist philosophy? German idealist philosophers, retaining some impetus from the Enlightenment, put Spirit in place of Reason as the mainspring of human history. This synoptic vision of science, art, Nature, history and politics represents one of the most astonishing intellectual syntheses of the modern era

In a sense, idealistic philosophy was a predictable candidate. It co-opted old religious ideas and put them into sectarian clothing. Idealistic thought was mid-way between traditional Christian doctrine and the creeping secularization of the modern era, according to Andrew Bowie, another historian. Still another historian, M.H.J. Abrams, called the Idealists and Romantics quest a pursuit of natural supernaturalism. Eagleton considers this a false transcendence there was no there, there and it ultimately failed.

What about Romanticism? Eagleton observes that Romanticism is a darker, more troubled affair than Idealism, even if, in some of its moods, it shares its zest and buoyancy. Like Goethes Faust, it must content itself with this endless process of becoming, not with any assured end product.

As Novalis, a pseudonym of George Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg (1772 1801), poet and philosopher of German Romanticism wrote, We seek everywhere the unconditional, and find only the conditional.

These rejections of God-substitutes give one a sense of Eagletons philosophic direction.

Then, how did religion capture the flag? Eagleton writes, The Church had sealed the rift between them (minorities and common people) in its own fashion enfolding clergy and laity in a single institution; and though the simple faithful may not be exactly on all fours with cardinals and theologians, this matters less than the faith they share.

A recurrent facet of the authors argument is that religion has not endured by assuming a series of cunning disguises, any more than it has been secularized away. Instead, religion, he says, has the capacity to unite theory and practice, elite and populace, spirit and senses, a capacity which culture was never quite able to emulate. Religion has all the qualities of culture, and more, a most tenacious and universal form of popular culture: according to Eagleton.

(As the author ironically puts it, The word religion crops up in university cultural studies prospectuses as often as the sentence We must protect the values of a civilized elite from the grubby paws of the populace.)

Why the omission? Eagleton writes that Almost every cultural theorist today passes over in silence some of the most vital beliefs and activities of billions of ordinary and women, simply because they happen not to be to their personal taste. Most them are also ardent opponents of prejudice.

Eagleton defends a highly unpopular concept in postmodern quarters: objective truth. He says that in fact it is a modest notion that many shy away from. The author chides those in the United States for slipping in to our speech the word like after every few words, as a postmodern reflex of not knowing what one thinks about anything. It would be dogmatic to suggest that something actually is what it is. Instead, you must introduce a ritual tentativeness into your speech, in a kind of perpetual semantic slurring.

About religion: If it were released from the burden of furnishing social orders with sets of rationales for their existence, he writes, it might be free to rediscover its true purpose as a critique of all politics. He notes that the New Testament has little or nothing to say of responsible citizenship. It is not a civilized document at all.

I question this last analysis of Eagletons. After all, the New Testament, echoing Exodus, set up rules for living that outline harmonious living among women and men.

In any case, the Almighty appears not to be safely nailed down in his coffin, Eagleton comments. He had simply changed address, migrating to the US Bible Belt, the Evangelical churches of Latin America and the slums of the Arab world. And his fan club is steadily swelling.

Michael D. Langan, the NBC-2.com Culture Critic, met Eagleton in the early 1990s when he spoke at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

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Review: "Culture and the Death of God" - NBC2 News

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