Monday, October 10, 2011


Changing the pace a little, I’d like to share thoughts here about Terry Eagleton’s 2009 book “Reason, Faith, and Revolution”.*

I’m more or less going to simply proceed through the book making comments as I go, giving quotations from the text on whatever I comment upon.

“Religion”, he says, “has wrought untold misery in human affairs”. Well, yes and yet …

Compared to what? The 20th-century ‘revolutions’ in Russia and China, which were also intended to bring about not only Good but also the Earthly Paradise to all its forcibly restrained beneficiaries? It always amazes me how many folks are willing to insist that the Church’s failures are so much worse because it claims to want to do Good. Has the Church killed a fraction of the millions killed in the Russian Civil War, Lenin’s assorted class-pogroms and government-caused famines, or Stalin’s purges and famines, or Mao’s jaw-droppingly lethal combination of government-induced famines and Cultural Revolution? All of which were dedicated to bringing about the Earthly Paradise (despite, of course, the necessary breaking of some millions of ‘eggs’ in order to confect the Great Omelette).

If you tote up all the ‘heretics’ and the far fewer ‘witches’ killed by the Inquisition (the majority of witch-trials and burnings were carried out after the Protestant Reformation broke up the orchestra and sent many fractured parts and players spinning off to play the tunes according to their own illuminations and excitements) … do you even come close to matching the numbers of the much more recent revolutionary activity so dear to so much of the Left?

Eagleton (p. xi) mentions “religion” so he is not specifically singling out the Catholic Church here. Religious zeal has certainly sparked wars among human beings throughout human history, and many of those wars were among folks who had never heard of or been influenced by the Church.

And in how many cases was ‘religion’ simply tossed out as a pretext for other, darker and deeper motives on the part of monarchs or states or other wielders of violence? Does the Rightist-Fundamentalist presumption that this country is somehow Deputized to enforce God’s Will and Writ over all the peoples of the earth count as a blot against religion or against some nationalistic hubris or other agenda? Does the Leftist secular presumption that the US is nowadays somehow authorized (by whatever authority) to enforce its own conception of ‘human rights’ anywhere on the globe (where it can get away with it) count as religion for all functional and practical purposes? Were the Christian missionaries who accompanied the Spanish conquistadors responsible for the native deaths in the New World or should that be toted up to the ruthless avarice of the conquistadors and their government’s desperate purpose in sending them over here?

Was the desire of the Church to civilize the natives so different from the present secular desire to enlighten those governments and peoples that still ‘just don’t get it’ nowadays? And to use American troops as secular missionaries-with-bayonets, to use Napoleon’s pithy phrase?

I am not here trying to make a case that ‘religion’ hasn’t been from time to time as deformed by human avarice and excitability as any other organization that humans have erected in the course of their tenure on the planet. But I would make a case that one has to be careful in tossing around the ‘religion is basically or primarily evil, hurtful, violent and/or regressively primal and immature’ mantra.

All human beings are capable of being evil, hurtful, violent and/or regressively primal and immature. But it is the hallmark of the Great Axial Religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism – and perhaps Confucianism although it might arguably qualify as more a Philosophy than a Religion) and all of the religions derived from them certainly sought and seek to help humans function according to “the better angels of our nature” (to borrow Lincoln’s phrase) rather than to deliberately incite them to operate out of ‘the lower end of their range’ (as the social workers like to delicately put it).

Religion’s deformities are humanity’s deformities. And while religion, being administered by humans, has inevitably been tainted with some of those deformities attendant upon any human endeavor, the Axial religions have surely sought to work against the deformities in the service of bringing humans to a higher and better self and place.

I’d make the case that if ‘religion’ weren’t around humans would be operating out of the lower end of their range a lot more often than not. Nor have I seen any ‘secular’ influences strong enough to boundary such deformative regression to primality and primitivity, even unto this very day.

And of course, genuine Axial religions decisively and implacably remind humans that there is some Beyond to which human action is accountable and should be conformable. Yes, you run into problems when a religion becomes so enmeshed and identified with a particular State that its allegiance to the Beyond is somehow entangled with loyalty to this or that earthly sovereign ( think of Russian Orthodoxy with the Tsarist Imperium, Judaism (to some extent) with the Israeli realm, Islam with a theocratic political earthly government, or Catholic Christianity with Constantinian Rome). Western Europe’s experiences with various versions of Christianity becoming indentured to this or that sovereign among the welter of developing monarchies as feudalism gave way to national monarchies in the pre-Westphalian era surely come to mind – and one cannot neglect the Church’s own experiences while the Papacy struggled with the insurmountable incoherences of maintaining the Papal States as a political reality.

Earthly sovereignties do not like to be reminded that there is any Sovereign Beyond and Above them. And they instinctively tolerate religion only so long as at least the local version is kept under their control and thus doesn’t push the point too strongly. Or, preferably, they like to see the local religion endorse the local sovereign’s authority as God’s Anointed or God’s Deputy and Right-Hand. (Which has an eerily ominous contemporary ring in these parts.)

And – as I have said – secular governments seek to eliminate the Above and Beyond altogether and simply declare themselves the end-all and be-all of their peoples’ life and history and future. These polities seek citizens without souls, and promise to enfold their lives far more palpably and reliably than any inscrutable Divine Will or Plan or Providence. Judge for yourself if that approach is any better.

But – alas – the Heavenly Gate will not be asking to see your passport nor make Its decision based on political allegiance. So when your individual and personal time comes, flag lapel-pin and passport and political allegiance won’t be of any use at all. Like cash and valuables, you can’t take that stuff with you. None of it will be there when you most personally and perhaps desperately need it; it won’t count for homework or extra credit at that Final Exam nor will you be allowed to breeze through the Gate by simply waving such paraphernalia at the Officials.

Surely you didn’t hear it here first.

When Andrew Carnegie – having already made his wad by doing whatever it took to stomp labor and erect his huge corporate steel empire – tried in old age to effect a reconciliation with his once-deputy Henry Clay Frick, Mr. Frick responded icily from his own nearby Manhattan mansion to the effect that After what we’ve both done, sir, I shall see you when we are both in Hell. They didn’t indulge themselves in saccharine, self-justifying fantasies back then, those patriarchal Robber Barons. It was perhaps their only redeeming moral quality, but it’s one more moral quality than modern-day corporate Barons possess in this even more gaudily-gilted Second Gilded Age.

Eagleton then (p.3) raises the nicely complicating point that Post-modernism as a doctrine doesn’t respect Science at all. While Modernism embraced the wonders of technically useful Science whole-heartedly, Post-modernism doesn’t believe in the value of detached objectivity, the ultimate competence of rationality, the reliable existence of any truth (let alone Truth), or the possibility of any large Narrative that can somehow make sense of human experience or even human existence.

Which is why the Pomo’s are so dangerous when they ally themselves with a particular government sovereignty: they will insist – once they have got themselves securely embedded in a willing government – that the only Source of Law and Truth is that particular government; above and beyond that government there is no Above and Beyond to judge its actions or to provide some overarching Guidelines, Rules or – the horror! - Commandments. Oy.

Nor, I suppose, would the Pomo’s change their tune even if Lenin or Stalin or Mao came back from the grave to warn them. I’m jus’ sayin’.

Anyhoo, as much as Eagleton confirms his Lefty creds by acknowledging the awfulness of “religion”, he is actually out to point out the incoherences in the contemporary efforts of certain scientists and commentators to ‘prove’ atheism. He singles out Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, all of whom have written books recently to raise up the so-called ‘New Atheism’ and demonstrate scientifically that ‘religion’ and its Beyond are regressive phantasms of undeveloped minds or un-courageous hearts. Since they all seem, to Eagleton, to be making the same points in different ways, he refers jauntily to this triad as “Ditchkins”, combining a bit of each of their last names.

They all follow, he says,  the same basic gameplan (p.6) which is to take a very selectively partial aspect of ‘God’ and claim that it is the essence of religion’s claims about ‘God’; having thus set up their convenient straw-man (or straw-god) they then happily set about demolishing what they have carefully selected.

Eagleton is on to something here: Ditchkins is basically attempting to attack the big flappy ears, or the pointy tusks, or sinuous trunk, or house-like bulk or tree-like legs of the Elephant, and in landing a few good whacks at their personally-selected aspect of the Elephant, claim that they have thus subdued the entire Reality facing them. You wouldn’t want to be a native porter out on safari with these great white hunters; they don’t really seem clear on the concept. Worse, they really think they know what they’re doing.

Nicely – and he will do this throughout the book – Eagleton brings in Thomas Aquinas, and explains him rather clearly and accurately.

For Aquinas (p.6) “God is not a hypothesis competing with science nor about how the world originated”. Simply speaking, religion deals with the Why of Being and Existence, not the How of this-dimension’s operations.

As Eagleton puts it: Dawkins himself makes a category error; he also uses the phrase “gate-error” which gives the image of a searcher choosing the wrong entry gate or, to me, the charming picture of a racehorse coming out of the wrong end of the starting gate.

This error concerns the true and actual nature of Christian theology, what it really is. Dawkins prefers to think of it as a pseudo-science which “excuses itself from scientific evidence”.

But, as Eagleton observes, Christian theology is not a pseudo-science, and while it is – especially in its more mature upper ranges – an organized rational inquiry into matters ‘existential’, it is not ‘science’ in the sense of conducting such a rational inquiry upon this-dimensional material reality, where obtaining this-dimensional material evidence is possible and necessary because such this-dimensional evidence can be presumed to exist, however difficult it may be to obtain. You can’t obtain such clear, material, this-dimensional evidence of another Plane of Existence, as I would put it.

Note here that I am now going to clarify my thoughts by no-longer discussing the Beyond as another ‘dimension’. I distinguish between other ‘dimensions’ and an entirely different Plane of Existence (PoE).

There may well be other ‘dimensions’ to existence – six, ten, a dozen, or an infinite number, depending on which scientist’s rumination you are considering. Someday we may know much more about whatever other dimensions exist in the material universe. One scientist, for example, working from the principles of quantum-physics and especially of Ernst Schrodinger, believes that every possible option we encounter exists in another dimension (along with the self that would have selected that particular option; so for example, do I order the steak or the fish on the menu; or do I go to college or go to work).

But the Plane of Existence refers to an entirely different Reality: non-material and existing utterly Beyond however many dimensions exist: like an upper level of a Vulcan chess-board, rather than simply being one more possible dimension into which the base board might be conceptually divided.

Dawkins – a third part of the Dennett, Hitchkins trio Eagleton calls collectively “Ditchkins” - has set himself up a straw-religion: one that merely poses as a pseudo-science of this-dimensional reality, which yet excuses itself from having to play according to the (right and valid) rules of the scientific process by having to provide palpable and reproducible evidence of its assertions. This is the equivalent of calling a motor-boat an automobile, and then making yourself a mini-career by demonstrating to the world how the boat is not an auto at all, and is purposely trying to deceive everybody that it is indeed an auto. He somehow thinks that by demonstrating that the boat can’t take you down the street to the grocery store ‘proves’ his point. But the point itself is grossly, almost ludicrously, mistaken from the get-go.

So, much like a race in which the racehorse has come out the wrong end of the gate, and is now running the track in the wrong direction, so much of the New Atheism discussion remains at the level of farce.

Except that so many secular-leaning elites seek to convince everybody that their nag is actually a Triple-Crown contender. And many folks not as adept in matters theological, or in the basic distinctions of conceptual process, think that they are actually seeing a race.

It would make a great silent-era film comedy. Except that we are talking about vital and profound and fundamental matters of human existence here: how to make sense of it, how to situate ourselves in Existence, what is the nature of our being, and whether as beings we are Alone and Un-Accompanied by any higher or larger Being.

As Aquinas saw clearly in the 13th century (and he wasn’t the first): religion does not consider itself a science. (Although, lamentably though somewhat understandably, even some theological thinkers thought they might help their cause by borrowing some of the cachet of the nascent Science back in the early days.) It is not a science because it deals with another, non-material Plane of Existence.

Things do get complicated, especially in the Christian vision, because that higher PoE – and the personal God Who dwells there – interacts mysteriously with this-dimensional activity.

Things get further complicated because historically, the Church’s theology was for many centuries the only Narrative and conceptual tool available to Western civilization, back in the days before Science really got its project up and running.

Nor did the Church’s stance toward the developing Science attempt to strangle the nascent project in its crib. The Church has always been interested in Science; the Vatican was into the observatory business long before Mount Palomar or satellite-mounted astrophysical telescopes. BUT the Church’ s concern has always been Larger: having contributed deeply to a civilization that in the days before Science was intimately conceptually linked to that Higher PoE, the Church was with profound prudence concerned that you don’t take a culture or a civilization and a society (and all the human beings, all the ‘souls’ who rely on the Shape of their civilization and culture and society) and start screwing around with the Shape.

Too much of that sort of thing and you might wind up knocking folks adrift from both Shape and Ground in their lives: they will effectively be cast adrift on this basic Plane of Existence with no working connection to that Higher Plane of Existence. The Church didn’t think such un-rooting of human beings and their social and political collectivities would lead to anything but existential-grade confusion and despair.

Think for yourself if that was a misplaced concern.

The trouble, I would say, has arisen as Science made a category error in assessing its own role in the human Narrative, and then even began to compete with and even attack the Church’s project as somehow being ‘unscientific’ or false-science.

Eagleton (p.7) exposes Hitchens’ initial mistake: neither the microscope nor the telescope have rendered the Church’s or religion’s project obsolescent. The Church and religion is working with a Plane of Existence inaccessible to either of those instruments. The fact that that Higher PoE does interact with humans and their activities and their history might give rise to the mistaken conception that such an inter-planar or multi-planar interaction is or must be accessible to Science at least in the parts that touch upon this dimension and this lower Plane, but that would be a category-error of basic yet profound importance.

More vividly, Eagleton (p.8) asserts the classic claim that “God and the universe do not make two”. God, that is, does not constitute a second object of Science’s inquiry-project, along with the this-dimensional (although unspeakably vast) universe. God is of another PoE altogether. To approach that Higher Plane (and God, if you wish) with microscope and telescope is the equivalent of landing on another planet and expecting to guide your exploratory treks with a compass attuned to Earth’s magnetic field. If you dropped a troop of Boy Scouts on some distant planet with such pitiful provision you would be criminally liable for it; it would rise to a cosmic level of child-abuse.

The only “image” of God, Eagleton continues classically (p.8), is in the Human Being him/herself.  I would add what many of even the best thoroughly Modern and au courant thinkers fail to include: that it is only in the ‘higher’ or ‘superior’ (as the I Ching would put it) ranges of the Human Self, in the most genuine manifestation of the best of the Human Self, that God’s image is clearly discernible. And in Christian theology, it is in the Christ who took human form precisely to provide a palpable working template of just what God was going after when Humans were created.

And that there are ‘higher’ and ‘superior’ levels to the Human Self because there are also ‘lower’ or ‘inferior’ levels. You can begin to get a handle on this by reflecting on how Humans have evolved information-processing and responses from reliance on the ancient and primal limbic system and its relatively instinctual processes to the truly marvelous and unique prefrontal-cortical processes, with their capacity for rational thought, for delay of impulse and gratification, for imaginatively envisioning what it would be like to be in another’s place, and so forth.

But this still doesn’t exhaust the essential points on the circuit. There is also the matter of what the Church has always termed Original Sinfulness: that even when operating on its highest brain-levels, the individual Human Self displays a stubborn and perennial tendency to place its own preferences before the rights of other equally-marvelous Human Selves.

And this phenomenon, this inescapable characteristic of Human Beings and of each Human Self, cannot simply be reduced to any ignorance or lack of mastery of the prefrontal-cortical capabilities. There is a moral – not scientific – realm involved here, where it is not a (comparatively) simple task of informing some basic ignorance but rather of wrestling (and mastering) the Human Will-to-Self even if that involves a Will-Against-Other-Human Beings.

But by this point Ditchkins has been left far behind.

Although you wouldn’t know it by reading most elite and au courant ‘thinking’.

Eagleton (p.8) then refers to “God’s endless and dispiriting struggle with organized religion”. I’m not sure whether he himself isn’t ascribing the human sense of disappointment and frustration to God. But there can be no doubt – and shouldn’t be any surprise – that Human efforts, even by the Humans dedicated to interaction with that Higher Plane of Existence, still haven’t reached a level of perfection. Humans are notoriously incomplete and imperfect, even if they dedicate themselves to organized religion or even the Church.

This could hardly be or ever have been a surprise to God.

But it can and must be a continuing goad to Humans, even if and as they are trying to get a better grasp on that Higher Plane, on God, and on their own most genuine Self.

Welcome to religion’s world.

Eagleton goes a bit off the rails here. Trying to re-assert the Otherness of God he opines (p.8) that God’s creation of Humanity was totally unnecessary and thus God’s sense of well-being (and perhaps His interest) is totally non-reliant on whatever messes Humans cook up for themselves. God doesn’t “need” Humans.

Aquinas (and I am getting a bit ahead of Eagleton here) would agree. But that is precisely for Aquinas (and the Church) the most amazing bit: that God entered into a relationship with Humans, one moreover based on a freely-given Love (and again, the limitations of the English language vocabulary fails here**) which in its most Genuine manifestation unites the Human and God, and all Humanity and God. Humans are God’s ‘children’.

Which, I would say, introduces a bit of the genetic into the mix, and not simply by analogy. Just as a biological parent sees and senses – and rightly – a profound bit of him/herself in his/her child, so too Humans bear a very profound (not to say materially and scientifically provable) actual connection with God. You can get into the bit about calling that element the ‘soul’, but let us not get sidetracked herein the discussion  with what is a legitimate (and urgent and necessary) subject of inquiry but not immediately relevant to this point here.

(And yes, this underlies the Church’s concern for the integrity of biological parents, marriages, and families. But it is not to say that adult Humans, sufficiently operating out of their higher capacities, cannot adopt children in the legitimate desire to share their most profound human life with children who are not their biological offspring.)

Eagleton (p.9) is trying to make room for “human freedom” by supposing that since God doesn’t “need to” become involved with Humans since He doesn’t rely on them for the completeness of His own existence, then He leaves them more or less alone – and this creates the space for human “freedom”.

It has a certain geometric symmetry to it but in the Church’s view ultimately fails, and necessarily so. Because if you’re made in God’s image, then what freedom results if you cut loose from that image and its capabilities and responsibilities and simply set out to wield your human capabilities and your Will totally on your own?

If you intend on being an airplane pilot, what ‘freedom’ do you actually gain by throwing away ‘the book’, and figuring that you don’t need to be familiar with the principles of aerodynamics? Being a totally-autonomous, free-agent pilot who figures that if you reeely reeeely deeply feel that you’d like to try putting the engines into reverse and flying backwards … what sort of ‘freedom’ is that in any vital and realistic sense? If you decide you’d really like a lunch the way they make it at your favorite restaurant – and right now – what ‘freedom’ is it to try to sail your boat up onto the Pacific Coast Highway and thus make your way to the restaurant parking lot?

There are certain limits that go with Shape; boundaries do not simply restrict. They also create a specific Shape. No boundaries, no Shape. Total-autonomy is not a concept that works with Humans any more than it does with planes or sailing vessels.

Yes, I am committing here that sin against contemporary Correctness called ‘essentialism’ but there it is. To be a particular being and type of being pretty much includes that you have an ‘essence’ personally, and that all others of your kind (species, if you wish) share to some extent a similar essence. And that essence is ‘essential’ to your well-functioning. And that if you disregard this whole area of mastery then you, like the pilot who doesn’t prefer to learn aerodynamics, are not going to be in the being-business for long. Nor will any passengers who rely on you experience a safe and successful flight.

Eagleton is applying skepticism to the entire Ditchkins gambit. And I support him in that. But he’s also trying hard not to leave himself open to the charge of being merely an apologist for organized religion (which, to the extent that it is also tainted with Human foible, equally and rightly irritates him).

But in trying to steer between that Scylla and Charybdis he steers perilously close to reducing organized-religion to merely another human-constructed Narrative or paradigm or template that can’t ultimately be relied upon and must be exposed wherever its pretensions seek to delude humans with the illusion of some profound Accuracy in its casting of the Human reality.

And the great Axial religions are somehow more than all that. Especially (to me) Christianity in its most mature Vision: Aquinas would insist that the core characterization of the Human encounter with God is that of relationship: you sense an attraction to another presence, and that presence (in the case of God, Presence) responds to you … you can sense it, you can feel it, you thus in a very real sense ‘know’ it, even though you can’t necessarily prove it. (Have you ever tried to ‘prove’ to others that you have experienced most definitely the presence of a recently-departed loved one? And been dismissed with Scrooge’s gambit: it was merely “an undigested bit of beef” or – in more contemporary argot – incomplete ‘mourning’ or some form of psycho-emotional derangement that’s ‘quite normal’ for the bereaved?)

Theology and organized religion, especially in the Christian West, have grown up around that ineffable experience of relationship. A multi-Planar relationship, I add; one that is to those who experience it so undeniably real that it inexorably brings with it intimations of a Plane of Existence beyond this (basic) Plane.

And yes, you have to be really really careful with this. The human capacity to ‘imagine’ is a horse that can run away with the wagon: humans are not immune to fantasizing or mistaking an imaginatum for an actual reality (or even Reality). But with full acknowledgement of that ever-present danger, we still cannot make the mistake recounted in the Eastern story of the six blind men who encountered the elephant in the jungle: each stumbled upon a different bit of the creature (the sharp hard tusks, the sinuous trunk, the huge leathery ears, the tree-like legs, the house-like bulk of the body, the wispy tail) and consequently each had a different conception of the elephant.

Yes, these folks need a bit of assistance in getting a full and clear concept.

BUT you cannot make the Modern and Post-modern errors of immediately presuming that if there are so many radically differing ‘concepts’ of the elephant, then the elephant itself clearly and surely does not (or cannot) exist.

And actually, among the great Axial religions, there is a remarkable uniformity among the various concepts anyway. (Which is another book, no doubt.)

The Elephant, meanwhile, continues to exist, even if insufficiently comprehended by the humans.

And, of course, when you are dealing with God – the Source and Image in which you are made – then getting the best comprehension you can manage is kinda reely reely essential and – not to put too fine a point on it – vital and urgent. You can’t know yourself without having a conception of ‘God’ in Whose image you are made. That’s the Church’s permanent position.

Thus the Church and theology and organized religion in their most genuine roles.

And Eagleton (p.11) goes on to get beyond the Ditchkins-level of discourse by asking the perennial question: Whence the human urge to comprehend reality rationally in the first place? Scads of other biological life forms on the planet (think of the cockroach) seem to be doing rather well without any such urge. Why are we humans so concerned for “intelligibility” and some regularity and predictability in the first place? Is it purely because we fear the unknown and – most rationally – want to know as much as we can in order to protect ourselves? Is that all there is to it, Alfie? Is that what it’s all about?

And where do we Humans get these intimations – and palpable, even if hard-to-relate and prove – experiences of life on some other Plane? (This is not to say extra-terrestrial life: wherever they may be, ET’s are still part of this basic Plane, the Mono-Plane, I would call it.)

So Eagleton (p.12) assets – and rightly – that Science has no business going beyond its competence by trying to make metaphysical assertions (about – in my schematic – another Plane of Existence altogether).

Science is well-suited, and gloriously humanly so, in trying to figure out the How of Stuff and of the material processes of Life on this Mono-Plane, this basic Plane of Existence.  

But it’s brought a knife to a gunfight if it tries to make inductions about any other Plane. And in that sense scientists still are – and the best of them will acknowledge – still very much blind folks making their way through a verrrrry big jungle. They are well-advised in taking little itty-bitty steps and doing so with as much careful rationality as they can manage. They are – Eagleton will agree here – equally well-advised not to be trying to take the jungle at a run, generating deductions and inductions far and wide, high and low.

Especially since this rather profoundly marvelous jungle seems to also participate in another Plane of Existence altogether, in rather mysterious ways.

I’ll do further Posts on Eagleton’s book. As you can see, there’s a lot that can be discussed.


*New London: Yale University Press. ISBN: 978-0-300-15179-4

**The reality that the English “love” cannot adequately convey is actually a combination of a vivid and vital respect and abiding care; God profoundly cares for each Human and yet within a framework (perhaps even a boundary) of respect for the freedom of each Human and all Humans to make his-her-their way to a more accurate and reliably-grounded working conception of their own genuine fulfillment as creatures made in God’s own image and to a more mature relationship with God. This is a life-long process which, in the Axials – especially Christianity – can and must form the primary guiding and defining purpose of a Human’s life and of Humanity’s actions. This is the great drama and agon of Human being and history.

Labels: , , ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home