Eagleton and Friends on BBC’s Free Thinking: Religion, Spirituality, Culture…

Terry Eagleton

A great interview with golden-tongued Terry Eagleton on BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking last night. He talked about his new book, Culture and the Death of God (you can watch the Firth Lectures, on which the book is based, here), making the argument that secular stand-ins for religion since the Enlightenment have largely failed. Even his own line of work, culture, ‘doesn’t go all the way down’, he says. In our contemporary world we somehow still need religion.

Interesting stuff, but a couple of quibbles with the way he’s arguing this. Eagleton seems to throw ‘spirituality’ out of the window fairly early on – as a kind of disembodied randomness of good feeling that does no more than provide the ‘icing on the cake’ for late capitalism.

Sure, there’s something to that argument – and it was made very well a few years ago – but it doesn’t make sense to divide spirituality from religion on that basis. For successful, this-worldly types right down the ages religion has been the icing on the cake – as opposed to the immediate and unavoidable challenge to our way of life that many a religious leader, from the Jewish prophets onwards, would have preferred.

So it’s a pity that both Eagleton and another favourite commentator of mine, Giles Fraser, both tend to dismiss spirituality on the basis of a self-indulgent, soapy Radox-advert cliché. ‘Religion’ as the real ale of relating to the divine, ‘spirituality’ the mere shandy-with-ice – or, worse, and perhaps more fitting for the late-capitalist self-pampering theme, a metaphysical Cinzano-and-lemonade.

Instead, if what the philosopher Roger Scruton said on the same programme last night is true, that religion is a way of understanding and relating to life in its essentials – we can’t meaningfully relate to one another as the slabs of meat or tangle of neural circuitry that science reveals us to be – then surely spirituality has something to contribute here.

Showing us, in practical terms, how to balance the allure of concepts and opinions with other ways of being in the world – silence, ambiguity, barely explored depths to ourselves and others, and the vividness of living that can emerge from embracing such things. Jonathan Rowson at the RSA has been leading a team trying to unpick all this – there’s a video of one of his public events here.

My second quibble is with Eagleton’s ‘Yeti theory’ of religion: the notion, which he wants to reject, that religion is primarily about asserting the existence of some fantastical object (the Yeti is his own inimitable means of parody here).

He’s right to say that if you go back to the ancient Hebrews, through to Jesus and onwards for a good few hundred years Jewish and Christian religion was not primarily a matter of chin-stroking debate about God as object – and whether or not such an object ‘exists’. People saw in everything around them the immediate reality of the divine.

But Eagleton exaggerates the fideist case – the idea that it’s all about commitment and passion – seeming to offer no notion of what is being committed to, what the focus is of all this passion. If that ‘what’ is not an object – and countless theologians have pointed out that God as ‘object’ would make God part of creation, and not its source or principle – then it is surely more like a state of affairs. It’s a radical claim about how the world is, what underpins it, what it’s for, what it can and should become. Faith is the development and acting out of this conviction – sometimes shaky, sometimes more akin to hope than any kind of certainty.

The Yeti theory has the advantage of trashing ‘God-as-object’ but it underestimates ‘state-of-affairs’, and the extent to which religion has always – however implicitly – involved assumptions about the way the world is.

Christian theologian Elaine Storkey

So in Eagleton’s writings and in his interview with Free Thinking presenter Philip Dodd we don’t (yet) get a sense of what a ‘religion’ for the twenty-first century would look like. Eagleton has a lot of time for Christianity and for Catholicism in particular, much influenced in his thinking by the late Herbert McCabe and a fan of the communistic/communitarian ideals that he says are still being lived out in some corners of the Christian world.

But there’s a sense that Eagleton is just dropping hints, and possibly hasn’t himself come up with a formula that he can commit to or be passionate about. Philip Dodd gave him a gentle push, commenting that he often wants a book to begin where it leaves off. Unfortunately Eagleton didn’t entirely take the hint. You can here Radio 4’s Evan Davis doing his best to pin him down here

To be fair, Roger Scruton came not much closer to offering specifics about what kind of religion it is that we still need, and it was down to the writer Peter Watson and theologian Elaine Storkey to furnish us with some finer points. Watson’s book focuses on the idea of the decline of religion and God leaving something ‘missing’ – harking back to Jürgen Habermas’ essay a few years ago on An Awareness of What is Missing.

Storkey, who remained more on the peripheries of the conversation than, as a listener, I would have liked, offered some straight-down-the-line theism: God is not ‘an imaginative figment or psychological construct’, she said.

She offered too, an implicit defence of reflective spirituality, reminding us that for all the cleverness and utility of our varied intellectual disciplines we tend to approach them already ‘having asked and answered some fundamental questions… questions like ‘what is it to be a human being?” We bring these to our sciences, including psychology, as a ‘prior framework of understanding’ – as opposed to science, or any other discipline, being entirely free of prior cultural, emotional, cognitive commitments.

We might not be able fully to unpick these commitments, to find the perfect vantage point – Scruton says tonight that Immanuel Kant put paid to that fantasy fairly successfully – but we can develop our awareness of them. Which is surely what spirituality – possibly not so naff after all – is for.

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