Monday, November 07, 2011
TERRY EAGLETON 5
I continue to share thoughts here about Terry Eagleton’s 2009 book “Reason, Faith, and Revolution”.*
Eagleton (p.27) now starts to land some hard punches, to the reader as well as to the New Atheists and Ditchkins.
“The New Testament is a brutal destroyer of human illusions. If you follow Jesus and don’t end up dead it appears you have some explaining to do. The stark signifier of the human condition is one who spoke up for love and justice and was done to death for his pains. The traumatic truth of human history is a mutilated body. Those who do not see this dreadful image of a tortured innocent as the truth of history are likely to adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled human progress for which, as we shall see, Ditchkins is a full-blooded apologist.”
Eagleton is on to something here – something really big.
While the human psyche’s tendency to try to sugar-coat the terrors that confront it has always exercised a deforming gravitational pull on any world-class religion – trying to make its Vision less frightening and less demanding – yet the New Testament, and especially the Gospels, simply won’t let you do that in Christianity and the other religions of the Book.
The reality of what happens in this incomplete world, shot through with the energy and consequences of the less-evolved and basal and un-Genuine human energies, screams out from the Crucifixion and every little crucifix.
The urge to escape that sight and that Message, added to any less-religious or less-theological urge to throw aside the knapsack of consciousness in order to flee faster, has resulted in smarmy, sentimentalized goo-goo passivity, happy-faced burbling (and some god-awful churchy guitar music), or – on the other hand – robust and maniacal insistence that no matter how many ‘problems’ human existence poses, the human Mind and the human Will can either withstand or conquer them.
And as the West grew out of the threateningly dark forests of the Middle Ages into the ever-improving material world of the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, into the Modern age of the Enlightenment and Romanticism, it seemed possible that ‘religion’ was just a left-over nightmare, a residual depression and shock left over from days when human beings were terrified by rampant disease and burdened by the sheer physical challenge of existing and sustaining what little bits of life could be managed.
In the United States, especially as its almost story-book combination of natural resources and insulation from the ancient and dangerous national feuds of the Old World combined to create the appearance of a totally fresh new Start for humanity, the illusion could more easily find the space and fuel to burn as a large and powerful flame. (If, of course, you were willing to not-see what had to be done to the indigenous peoples and what had to be done to the imported enslaved peoples.)
But Truth and Justice – not simply as abstract empty concepts to be filled by whatever good intentions and thoughts an individual might have, but rather as aspects of a Multi-Planar, God-sourced Reality – have no easy time of it in this world, and those who dare to commit to Truth and Justice are going to find themselves in boiling in hot water or encased in frigid ice very quickly. The gravitational pull of Primitiveness and Sin (not the same thing) must always be taken into account; the ‘powers of this world’ are built into it because they inhere in human beings.
And the numbing, shocking Truth of Christ’s Crucifixion is that this is the way things are, and that God’s recommended response is to endure suffering while staying true to the Genuine and Echt still struggling to be born into actuality. Make your commitment and take your lumps, relying in faith on that relationship with God that is always available, even if your personal shopping list isn’t going to be filled right away.
You have to learn how to handle the ‘birth-pangs’ of a humanity that is only tenuously and inconsistently clawing its way up from its own violent, lumpish Primitiveness and selfish Sinfulness.
In other Posts I have used the image of the Resistance agent in Occupied Europe in WW2: you know London is ‘there’, you know that sooner or later the Liberation is going to come, you get assorted responses – often in code – to the radio messages you transmit with your dinky little set, and occasionally you actually get an airdrop out of the dark of the night sky. And that’s pretty much what you have to go on to keep on going. But you know London is there and that the Liberation is being planned and that someday the day will come.
And if you are a Resistance agent with a particularly clear-eyed grip on your situation and on the nature of things in an Occupied world, then you don’t try to turn London into a teddy-bear or give up on London and figure you and your posse can handle the full weight of the Nazis all on your own. This is not kid-stuff.
And yet keeping on in an Occupation, and trying to help Liberation along according to your own poor power to add or detract … this is a discipline (askesis, in the Greek) that brings life even as it guarantees exertion and pain and lots of discouragement and irritation. Again, this is not kid-stuff.
And there’s a difference between carrying-on some semblance of acceptable daily life in order to mask your Liberation allegiances from the ever-observant Nazi demonry and simply caving to the pressure to conform to the (mis-)Shapes of the Occupied World and just go along to get along.
This is never an easy line to draw. But like an ‘event horizon’ line, it’s one of those dynamic realities that you always have to keep your eye on, even if you can never get a solid fix on it.
The Catholic approach, a curious blend of ancient Roman and Mediterranean, has always been to set up an ideal and then urge everybody to try for it, fully aware of the fact that nobody can ever fulfill the ideal perfectly in this life. The Church’s law is called ‘canon’ law from the Greek kanon (let’s not get into the letters of the Greek alphabet), which means ideal.
Considering her mandate to extend to all humanity the Church has always realized that you can’t stuff everybody into the same box when it comes to how individuals are equipped to face the various realities and consequences of Sin: different people have different skills and weaknesses, and the best you can do is help them stay committed to the ideal and make allowances for when they fail (as all human beings inevitably do fail, one way or another). You can’t expect everybody to become ‘maquis’, living out in the woods and blowing up supply trains; you can’t expect everybody to have the same strengths and skills. But you can keep alive their faithfulness to Liberation and help their commitment along as best you can.
This ‘abundance of life’ that Christ talked about – I think of it as owning a musical instrument and finally getting it tuned so that it consistently makes music at the height of its possibilities as an instrument. Or again: as an automobile whose gears you have learned to operate, so that when you take it out onto the highway you are in ‘drive’ gear and not one of the lower gears that hold the engine back when you’re trying to drive at speed – and so the car swishes along.
In other words, this ‘abundance’ is the equivalent of reaching in this dimension and within your own Self that narrow-band (as in Narrow-Gate of the Gospels) of consciousness where you are operating out of your most Genuine and Echt energies that comprise the Image of God within you while at the same time you are attuned to the powerful transmission beam of God’s abiding Energy flowing into you.
This ‘narrowness’ of the Echt path is precisely what the Boomers rejected: since all life was groovy and (young) people were basically reeeely groovy, then you could wade into life as if it were a combination of Sunday-buffet and picnic at a nudist beach. Wheeeeeee! The Church, like all of the Axial religions, has always been more cautious: navigating in the narrows between Scylla and Charybdis, where the dangerous dynamics under the surface could pull you into one or the other of the lethal rocks … the wise captain doesn’t drive the great vessel and her burthen of souls at high-speed and over-confident self-assurance. This is why kids can’t be in command of ships.
The soul at this level of operation is not simply a radio for transmitting and receiving messages; it is not simply an instrument tuned to its highest competence. It is also something of a lung: drawing in great amounts of fresh air from the Source and converting that into energy to continue. This is not for kids.
None of this is accessible to Ditchkins and atheism.
They limit themselves to the single base Plane of existence, which isolates human beings from any Beyond. And then they have to try to make a decent meal out of what’s left.
The consequences of this are clear, as Eagleton sees (p.32), in how they approach ‘love’. For the Mono-Planar types ‘love’ can be nothing more than personal ‘feelings’ and/or physical coupling. That love can mean Love in the far more capacious and awe-some and awe-full sense of a relationship that is Grounded in and participates in the life-force of God … they have no room for that; they can’t allow for it.
There isn’t a God and therefore human beings aren’t made in any Image of God. In a single stroke they wind up uprooting this Plane of Existence from any other Higher Plane and they also denude the human being of any Larger or Higher relationship, Help, or Source of self-understanding. A human being trying to figure him/herself out without God is an isolated islander trying to figure out the automobile. They may well wind up taking a dump in it and thinking it’s a nifty out-house and nothing more. Happens all the time.
Eagleton quotes Aquinas (p.32) who figured that the fog of Sin (let alone the ignorance of not-realizing you are made in the Image of God) keeps human beings from using the power of sex well. If humans don’t have any knowledge of the Image, then sex has no Larger Framing context: it’s just some groovy fun-thing to do for a little momentary pleasure – it has no Larger context or Purpose (and no ill-consequences).
And without the context of that Framing Image then there’s no sense of a governing relationship as a framework into which sex-activity has to fit. It breaks loose within the self and just runs wild (and by ‘wild’ I don’t mean ‘free’).
And in the process sex may get mixed up with all sorts of primal emotions and urges and passions like anger, the quest for power, and the primitive lust for violence that so often consumes personalities that have no Larger motivations (or Help) to refine or boundary the primitive utterly self-oriented (I call it self-collapsed, where the self collapses in on itself like a black hole in space).
Think of newbie fireman-trainees: they don’t realize the terrific force of water under pressure that drives the nozzle of a large fire-hose. A standing joke used to be to let the kid loose on the training field all by himself holding the nozzle. Then the pump-engine is turned up, the water flows under pressure, and the nozzle starts bucking like a wild living thing – and assumes a life of its own, the nozzle writhing in his hands and spraying a dangerously powerful stream of water all over the place, and even begins walking him all over the field as it mindlessly gives off energy. (There’s a dark side to it: not only the stream of water but the metal nozzle itself can inflict lethal injury if they get loose from the handler’s control and simply start some crazy dance on their own; they will strike whatever can’t get out of their way.)
Sex can quickly become like that. And things don’t improve when the Boomers figure – as they did and have now allowed subsequent generations to figure – that it’s all ‘fun’ and there are no consequences, and that any attempt to control the stream and the nozzle are just signs of ‘conformity’ and lack of imagination.
Sex is a human energy like any other. If there is no Framing context of Purpose then it will run riot like an incompetently-handled fire-hose. And if on top of all that you wind up with a culture that will not or cannot insist on any Mastery, then the whole dangerous lunacy is erected into a Plan and people regress to their limbic and animal elements. This is not progress. This is not liberation. This is not maturity. This is not for kids.
Jesus, Eagleton notes (p.31), seems in the Gospels not to have much respect for the family. He is continually calling his disciples away.
Eagleton offers the thought that this is due to Jesus’ human awareness that the actual end of time would probably be coming very soon, so the work of sustaining a family and participating in one was – like all other human occupations – going to be ending soon anyway. Sort of as if Jesus expected the Allies to be landing in a couple of days so it’s time to put aside the ‘usual’ and ‘ordinary’ tasks and get ready for the Liberation.
But I think Jesus was using a sense of exaggeration as a rhetorical device: He was constantly trying to get His hearers to think Beyond (not outside-of) the Box of this-world and this Mono-Plane. And He was always aware that the human tendency is to seek a little comfort and predictability wherever it can be found, and then just pull of the trail and set up camp there. (Remember when Peter, having just watched the eye-popping vision of Jesus conferring with Moses and Elijah, came up with the idea that we should put up three tents and just stay here in this groovy place where great stuff happens.)
Jesus wanted to get people used to thinking Beyond the Box, thinking ‘on the Multi-Plane’, seeing and sensing things from the perspective of a Beyond that is not simply ‘coming along’ someday, but rather a Beyond that is continually and continuously here now, participating in this Plane’s activities and always inviting humans to participate in its energy right here and right now. (So ‘stop looking around’, stop searching ‘the sky’, and use your Image-of-God ability to tune into that Beyond right here and right now.)
The disciples were trying to play checkers on what was really a Vulcan chess-board. Jesus was always trying to get them Beyond checkers and even beyond the Single-Board idea, and to see and grasp the Reality of the Multi-Plane.
And the narrow-gate to all that was within them.
So I don’t ever sense that Jesus was anti-family. I think where He was going with it was that if you don’t have a genuine Multi-Planar Grounding then you aren’t really ever going to be able to develop the experience of the family to its full possibility. If you aren’t an Echt Self, sustained by that Beyond while working toward the Image of God within you, then whatever family activity you engage in is never going to get off the ground; your family relationships and your kids are never going to get the full benefit of what ‘family’ can be when it is lived among humans committed to the Image of God within them and living within an active relationship with the God in Whose Image they are each and all made.
This concept of family is not kid-stuff.
The Church always had to try to keep this complex Vision alive, and you can see where it would be hard to keep alive among Nobel prize-winners or the student-bodies (or faculties) of the world’s most prestigious universities, let alone among the hugely-varying competences of human beings generally. (Which is not to say you need Mensa-level intelligence or a degree from an Ivy to embody and embrace the Christian message … not hardly.)
In this sense then, all genuine Christian theology is ‘liberating’; it seeks to help humans ‘live Beyond the constraints of the Mono-Plane’, to live closer to that Beyond and that Multi-Planar Reality in Whose Image they are made to begin with. You learn to live beyond the basal and primal within yourself and you learn to live in participation with the great Graced energies of God coursing through this PoE from Beyond and seeking to draw humans into the life of the Beyond which is the Image in which they are made in the first place .
There’s a marvelous, dynamic symmetry to it.
But this is not simply a matter of having some ‘faith’ or any ‘faith’. Faith, like loyalty, is only as good as that in which it is invested. Many humans have given their faith, their loyalty, their integrity, to evil causes (the success of the Third Reich and the ‘master race’ or the success of the Communist vision of human life, for example) and yet it has led them horribly off the Echt human path into monstrousness.
This much Eagleton sees (p.37). And he takes it further: the New Atheists will claim that they too seek ‘faith’, although it will be in ‘human progress’ or in this or that this-dimensional ‘cause’ (he uses the two specific examples of “feminism and anti-colonialism”).
But these objects of faith are insufficient as primary Grounds toward which and upon which to anchor a human self (let alone a collective movement of many humans). They are all Mono-Planar and are themselves ‘creatures’ or constructs; human constructs are incapable of serving as Ultimate Grounds for humans.
Such constructs may legitimately serve as expressions of a Genuinely Grounded human activity (although that constitutes an analysis all its own, separate from my general discussion here).
But this is precisely where atheism fails. Because by definition no ‘cause’ can be Grounded in anything Beyond, nor can any human being be grounded in any Beyond. In the atheist vision, there is no Beyond and no Multi-Plane.
Which means that there is no Boundary and no Shape imposed by any Beyond. The this-dimensional construct and the this-dimensional human being are ‘liberated’ from Shape and Boundary.
This is not liberation; this is Shapelessness. And Shapelessness is not a good thing for human beings; and lack of Boundary is not a good thing for human energies.
So, Eagleton says (p.37), the Ditckins-types are wayyyy off course when they say that the world is sort of nice, and would be a whole lot nicer, except for the dark derangements of ‘religious believers’.
A world Flattened and squashed into its most basic levels, and human beings equally Flattened and un-Shaped … this is not a happy picture. And the atheists – even if on the surface ‘optimistic’ or ‘progressive’ – have to adopt a looney sort of happy-face vision of things in order to keep on going.
There’s a reason why Larry McMurtry (if memory serves) described this earth as “a boneyard mostly, but pretty in the sun”. The atheists have to concentrate on the ‘pretty in the sun’ and ignore the ‘boneyard’. And worse, they have to ignore how the Mono-Plane creates a boneyard within the individual human being.
You can see, perhaps, why they don’t want to go into these matters.
But that hardly makes them ‘radical’ or particularly insightful. As Eagleton notes (p.39) one of the Ditchkins triad, Daniel Dennett, actually thinks the invasion was a good idea except that it wasn’t carried out properly. There’s nothing radical there; in fact it’s conventional in a frighteningly in-the-Box and conformist sort of way.
If there are no boundaries, if there is no Boundary and no Shape, then what’s wrong with murder, for example?
Current and recent generations of young have a problem with that (if you press them enough to think beyond simply parroting the ‘sensitive’ or Correct answer).
Is it wrong simply because there’s a law against it? Then if the government passes a law that makes murder legal it’s OK to do it.
Is it wrong because it serves no useful purpose? But what if by murdering a parent can get money to support his/her children? That’s a useful and good purpose.
Is it wrong because it ‘feels wrong’? But feelings change. And on top of that, at any given time different human beings can have different feelings.
What makes murder wrong such that a general moral and legal ban upon it can be enacted and enforced?
And what justifies such a ban being valid even for other cultures and other times? To kids raised with the idea of ‘total autonomy’ and a non-judgmental ‘respect’ for any thoughts that anybody ‘has’ or ‘likes’, what justifies you intruding upon others’ preferences?
It’s frightening how many today would be caught like a deer in the headlights if the questions were put to them.
They have been trained that there is no Beyond and that you can’t go around interfering with people’s ‘total autonomy’ (unless you’re a government that ‘gets it’ and then you can impose anything on anybody who ‘just doesn’t get it’).
So they reach a certain point – and it doesn’t take long to reach it – and simply disconnect: who knows? It’s just the way things are.
This is no type of Citizenry upon whom to ground the governance of a government, nor upon whom to rely for the sustainment of democracy against a government increasingly seeking to engorge its writ.
The question of ‘liberation theology’ comes up (p.39). This is an approach that arose among Western missionaries especially in Latin and South America in the difficult and contorted period when US interests supported repressive (and thus reliable) governments and established elites whereas the peasantry might have been susceptible to Communist agitation. (Whackulently, the US support for the repressive governments drove the peasants even closer to the Communists who promised ‘liberation’ where the US was clearly bringing nothing but more repression.)
In these countries, so often of a dense Catholic heritage through the work of earlier centuries of missionaries, the hierarchy – caught as so often between governments with the power to kill and the Gospel – tried to thread their way and make accommodations. (Matters not made any easier by the class-origins of many of the members of the hierarchy.)
Some missionaries and theological thinkers came to believe that the Gospel demands not simply prayer for the poor, but immediate action. Which, in terms of ‘giving alms to the poor’ has a long and respectable Christian heritage.
But then further, they came to believe that no Christian can be Echt unless s/he works to change the material conditions which oppress and make the poor dependent on alms to begin with. Which moved things further along a difficult road.
Culture is never easily messed with, nor should it be. Human beings are culture-making beings and rely on culture to Shape them and in some ways mediate their relation to the Beyond.
But government is not the same as culture. And the American Revolution was certainly clear on that point, precisely seeking to limit the incursions of Leviathan in the large and more vital culture and society of the Citizens.
So how far can – or must – a committed Christian go toward changing the governmental policies or structures that oppress the poor, and often violently so?
What happens in a theological approach where the individual Christian is not morally justified in not working to change conditions, no matter if it leads to overt – perhaps deliberately intended - violence in the service of the poor?
This is a hugely fraught matrix of issues and questions.
But surely atheism can offer little beyond adopting either a happy-face approach or an acquiescent passivity or simply engaging in political revolution.
It can only offer some form of political illusion or political action, on the basal PoE, because there is no Larger Framework that atheism admits and there is no Help from any Beyond. Atheism plays on no Larger Board or Boards.
The line between intensified spiritual commitment and intensified political action is as close as you come to a tectonic plate-boundary in religious matters. There is no clear and easy way through it and the Church’s vision is to thread its way carefully; ‘damn the torpedoes’ works in war (sometimes) but it’s no basis for a system of government or cultural guidance. Had they not been so turned-off by things-military, the Boomers probably would have found Admiral Farragut’s brassy words at Mobile Bay to be a perfect capture of their sense of things.
So once you take Shape and Boundaries out of the equation – and the Beyond that gives them their capital-importance – then human beings become Shapeless and invertebrate. Yet they remain still possessed of all of their vitalities and energies. Especially if those human beings are not aware of the Challenge to increasingly operate out of their Higher, pre-frontal brainparts and are simply allowed to mistake the Shapeless vitality of the Lower, limbic brainparts as ‘life’ and ‘freedom’.
And if this is a bad way to raise kids, it is even more frakkulous to skew an entire society’s culture such that this sort of dreck is passed on as cultural wisdom and required of any member of the culture.
The Axial religions are each in their way aware of the ‘narrowness’ of the Genuine Path.
The Catholic Church – going back to the days when the Roman emperors and their empire collapsed, leaving the Church more or less in charge of culture and civilization in the West – is painfully aware of how much care must go into the construction and navigation of a Culture.
Like a great ship, a Culture must be handled with deliberation and care and prudence and caution. You don’t just play with them like you would with your personal motorboat out in the harbor or out on the lake on a summer Sunday afternoon.
There’s a reason why your 747 or 777 pilot doesn’t play games up in the air; no fancy loop-the-loops or flying real low to scare the chickens in the barnyard.
In a way, you have to handle a Great Culture the way you would fly a WW2 bomber, and not a WW2 fighter plane. The fighter pilot, so often alone in his highly-maneuverable aircraft, precisely has to operate on quick, instinctual responses in order to win his dogfight; thus he does his job. Whereas the bomber pilot has to hold his big, lumbering craft steady – no matter how much flak and threat from enemy fire and fighters, no matter what the weather and wind conditions are – in order to provide a steady and accurate run into the target; thus he does his job.
Trying to handle a Great Culture as if it were a personal pleasure boat or a fighter-plane isn’t going to work well at all. In fact it’s going to wreck lives and ruin the craft itself.
All of that has been going on for the past few decades around here. Yes, it was going on earlier than that – think of kids raised in the Jazz Age of the pre-Depression 1920s. But the Boomers were much more numerous.
And then when certain advocacies began to put forth various philosophical ideas as ‘justifications’ for creating more ‘social space’ for themselves, then the impatience and inexperienced callowness of the Boomer youth was erected into a Plan. And into national cultural policy.
The New Atheists are just the most recent ‘public intellectuals’ who are surfing the need of various influential ‘elites’ to get rid of any obstructions to this whakkulent Plan.
And one of the biggest of those obstructions is God-Religion-Beyond. And especially in the US, the Catholic version of Christianity, which stubbornly stands as a reminder that there is a Beyond; that there is a certain Shape and certain Boundaries which are built-into human beings and must govern their actions; that this is not a matter of ‘preference’ but rather a sober and accurate assessment of Reality at its most profound and Genuine level; and that conducting a human life is not something to be left to kids and the whimsy of ‘feelings’ and passing preferences.
So long as there is enough pressure to deny all of those elements, the New Atheists will always sound like they are making useful sense.
But they aren’t. Not hardly.
*New London: Yale University Press. ISBN: 978-0-300-15179-4