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Surrogate Transcendence: Terry Eagleton’s Culture and the Death of God

By Dustin Illingworth.

Culture and the Death of God

Terry Eagleton, Culture and the Death of God (Yale University Press, 2014)

Shrill and appalling, the words still hold something of their concussive effect: “God is dead.” A particular strain of modern agony, crystallized. But if Thus Spake Zarathustra heralded deicide, it was only in the context of a larger rebuttal of metaphysical tradition. Indeed, Nietzsche’s most quotable proclamation has the dubious distinction of also being his most vulgarly misunderstood. Popularly accepted as an incursion on religious belief as such, Zarathustra’s famous utterance has seen the broader implications of its meaning dissolved within a caricatured nihilism. For Nietzsche, God was dead – but so, too, was German Idealism, the polished systems of Hegel and Schelling, to say nothing of the Enlightenment project of an eminently rational progress. It was a disintegration of the reigning spiritual and intellectual frameworks as much as it was a rooting out of God from his many hiding places: morality, culture, grammar and art, to name but a few. Surmounting the God-shaped void, our lonely hero knew, was a task for a theorized posthumanity (or, at the very least, a hardier variety of late European).

The enormous difficulty of this challenge – of discovering a surrogate commensurate with the social, moral and political power of a departed Almighty – is the provenance of Terry Eagleton’s bracing intellectual history Culture and the Death of God. Its central argument – that genuine atheism is both difficult and rare – seems at first blush a bit of wishful apologism, the death rattle of a proud but exhausted cultural model. After all, the diminishment of the sacred is no longer merely the overbold conjecture of an intellectual fringe element. Withered by the profound secularization of capitalist culture, and bolstered by positivism’s new vogue beneath the banners of Dawkins and Harris, God seems, if not dead, than irreparably reduced – something approaching an antiquated curio, or the equivalent of a harmless knocking on dusty wood.

And yet, by way of an ironically Darwinian feat of cultural adaptation, He remains alive and well – if, admittedly, much transformed. His many secular guises constitute and complicate the last 300 years of European thought – from Enlightenment rationalism, to Romantic intuition, to the Modernist culture industry. Eagleton’s oeuvre, a formidable body of literary and cultural criticism deeply informed by his Marxist-Catholic convictions, can be taken as a hostile interrogation of this secularizing tradition. His lively 2009 book Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, adapted from his Yale lectures, was a polemical broadside against the liberal-humanist prejudices of New Atheism. Culture and the Death of God can be usefully read as a kind of companion volume to this previous work, as it guides the reader through a brisk circuit of recent European history to compile a damning index of secular failure. Eagleton enumerates the abortive proxies with seeming relish: “Reason, Nature, Geist (Hegel’s “Spirit”), culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, Society, the Other, desire, the life force and personal relations” – each, in its cultural moment, embraced; each, in time, found wanting. The crime of modernity, then – or so our cantankerous Catholic implies – is one of Sartrean bad faith rather than deicide: a refusal to grapple with the inherent falsity of an unacknowledged surrogate culture. With trademark erudition and biting humor, Eagleton imbues his contentions with an abiding insistence on both secular futility and a revolutionary return to Christ’s “Mystical Body”. If Eagleton’s Catholicism adds a persuasively sensual and subversive dimension to his argument – manifested most convincingly as a demand for a renewed commitment to the world’s poor – it is also the source of his book’s greatest flaw: a misguided conflation of Christian ethos and Marxist ideology, resulting in a grotesquely politicized (and ahistorical) vision of Christ.

The German sociologist Max Weber said of modernity that “the ultimate and most sublime values have retreated from public life either into the transcendental realm of mystic life or into the brotherliness of direct and personal human relations.” Prior to this – what Eagleton calls the “privatization of the symbolic sphere” – religion had provided a public framework of existential consolation and enduring mystery, along with an exploitable moral apparatus marshalled for social control and an ample, if flawed, political stability. (Being Eagleton, “religion” should nearly always be substituted with “Roman Catholicism”, its incense and ritual being more than apparent throughout the text.) Eagleton argues that no symbolic form before or since “has matched religion’s ability to link the most exalted of truths to the daily existence of countless men and women”, though I bristle here (and elsewhere) at Eagleton’s co-option of “truth” for his cause, and his cause alone, particularly in a text that so successfully articulates the difficulty of universal credos, codes, and narratives. This inability to hold his own convictions to the same critical standard he subjects the other forms of cultural modernity to creates an unfortunately limiting exploratory boundary throughout much of the text – a kind of bad faith in its own right. Nonetheless, Eagleton sets out to show how the broad and proven appeal of religious life – supernatural assurance and order for the unlettered masses, theological-intellectual heft for the Aquinases in their midst – could not be reproduced at scale within the post-religious discourse of secular culture. By uniting “theory and practice, elite and populace, spirit and senses”, Eagleton credibly estimates religious practice as “the most tenacious and universal form of popular culture.”

Into this richly numinous milieu, the Enlightenment swung with appropriately disruptive consequence. One of the successes of Eagleton’s book is his cogent, clear-eyed interpretation of Enlightenment doctrine. Far from the singularly secular, icily rational juggernauts of the popular imagination, the Aufklärer surface here as representatives of an emerging political culture setting out not to assassinate God but rather “to oust a barbarous, benighted faith in favour of a rational, civilized one.” Eagleton, in a bracing forty page tour-de-force, convincingly paints the latent Enlightenment impulse as political and pragmatic as much as it was intellectual, locating in thinkers like Turgow, Godwin, and Condorcet a Baconian dream of knowledge harnessed for social reform and emancipation. Cleansed of its coarseness and superstition, autonomous Reason would materialize out of the transformed faith of the people – a courtly social order under the progressive auspices of a Rational Deity.

But eager as they were to lead the charge against the corruption of ecclesiastical power – what Eagleton calls “the unholy alliance of throne and altar” – the Enlightenment intelligentsia was also loath to lose the political expediency of religious organization. The philosophes, with impressive snobbery, feared that the disintegration of the binding agency of religious practice would lead to a delegitimization of the existing social order, inciting chaos and revolution among the common rabble. Eagleton is largely (sometimes unfairly) critical of this political pragmatism that sought to bridge “a coterie who lived by the idea and a populace who lived by the image”; indeed, his often tepid praise for the remarkable intellectual achievements of Hume and Kant, Lessing and Bentham can come off as disingenuous, an underplaying to bolster his Christ-centered thesis. Still, his crisply-worded assaults on Idealist thought – “too dewy-eyed about humanity, in the manner of young, ebullient social movements, to match Christianity’s bleak moral realism” – often land with convincing force. He insists, accurately, that while rationalism was damaging to the clerics, it could neither shoulder their ideological burden nor match their social efficacy. Rationalism – which Hegel dismissed as “a purely negative attitude to belief” — proved too cold a concept to gain widespread acceptance, a system shorn of emotional, imaginative, and symbolic dimensions. With the Enlightenment entering intellectual maturity and a populace either unwilling or unable to subscribe to the gospel of the rational, Eagleton turns next to the anxious question hanging in the air at the dawn of the 19th century: where would the emergent secular impulse identify a politically useful, socially beneficial alternative to religious life?

Terry Eagleton

For Eagleton, the most successful answer thus far has been culture – that is, reconstituting divinity within a shared aesthetic schema. The rationalism of the Enlightenment lacked a certain corporeal warmth, which the German Idealists and the Romantics sought to restore by way of a new symbolic idiom comprised of mythology, art, and literature. In this way, its acolytes hoped, the cold comfort of Reason might be sweetened by a secular iconography, in the process proving the compatibility of intellectual elite and commoner within a new post-Christian paradigm. But Eagleton persuasively argues that just when we needed culture most – as an heir to religious feeling and a path to continued social organization – the contentiously pluralistic nature of modern society made culture itself part of the problem, “more likely to reflect social divisions than to reconcile them”. Like rationalism before it, both aesthetics and the broader conception of a shared, popular culture failed to seal the growing rift. To steal the words of Matthew Arnold (much-despised by Eagleton), culture was merely “a beautiful, ineffectual angel beating its wings in a luminous void”, too fractured to ensure political utility, too rarefied to command universal submission, too cerebral to surmount the intuitive ease of the Christian mythos.

With culture found too fraught and pallid to achieve the broad social unity offered by religion, the modern atheist exemplars, epitomized by the genius of Friedrich Nietzsche, further complicated matters. Nietzsche, whom Eagleton grapples with uneasily throughout much of the latter text, understood that God’s final dismissal depended on a concomitant annihilation of all innate meaning, the kind that clung parasitically to the various cultural forms of modernity. Nietzsche emerges here as something of an antagonist or ghostly foil for Eagleton, the tension arising, perhaps, from Nietzsche’s anticipation of Eagleton’s claims that culture cannot inherit the unifying function of religious life, nor can it provide anemic industrial-capitalist existence with a suitably revivifying transfusion. With grudging admiration, Eagleton astutely locates in Nietzsche a powerful demystifying agent, particularly with regard to cultural idealism. Through Nietzsche, Eagleton sees culture as a document of barbarity, the fruit of a “history of debt, torture, revenge, obligation, and exploitation” rather than a consoling process of social evolution. The posthuman animal capable of overcoming this calcification of culture – the Übermensch – remains a source of anxiety for Eagleton, too, not least because of his ability to shrug the yoke of social law in pursuit of an aesthetic existence outside the sphere of divinity (having no use for it in the first place). Eagleton, of course, is not so easily deterred. In Nietzsche’s very exuberance – the passionate aestheticism on display in the verve and originality of his tragic conception – Eagleton discovers the telltale signs of an incomplete atheism. Alas, finally, not even the Anti-Christ himself can escape Eagleton’s claims of divine surrogacy, as the Übermensch, in his creative potency, remains recognizable as a kind of pocket Christ, a miniature-creator. “The autonomous, self-determining Superman,” says Eagleton (gleefully, one suspects), “is yet another piece of counterfeit theology.”

Outside of his Enlightenment explication, Eagleton’s other great contribution in this book is his eloquent interpretation of postmodernism, in whose blurrily globalized, morally bankrupt, socially incoherent features he locates a “subjectivism without a subject” – that is, the first truly authentic atheism in human history. The fate of culture under postmodernism, Eagleton argues, has been a “shift from bogus transcendence to a militant particularism”, one that has absorbed much of Nietzsche’s vision but finds itself too thin, too commodified, and too ironic to create the new values the Übermensch seemed to promise. For Eagleton, postmodernism may feint toward transcendence by way of a pluralistic cult of otherness but this is merely gesture or performance – it lost any claim to (or interest in) depth along with its banishment of the divine, interiority having been relegated to the realm of coercive fairytale or exhausted metaphysic. As Eagleton neatly sums up, “it is not as though truth, identity, and foundations are tormentingly elusive, simply that they never were.”

Eagleton suggests that we were heading toward the lukewarm limbo of a post-religious order, a truthless collection of digitally mediated niches, until two planes crashed into the Twin Towers. With this act of fundamentalist aggression, Eagleton asserts, we’ve reached our contemporary crisis, a kind of metaphysical battle royale: the atomized, secular capitalism of the West against the deeply rooted cultural anxiety of radical Islam. Eagleton doesn’t say who he thinks will emerge victorious, and this seems appropriate; after all, what does victory mean in a battle between a postmodern vacuity and a premodern brutality?

Culture and the Death of God is an often richly rewarding pleasure, a book suffused with enough ideas to keep even the most intellectually voracious reader satisfied. Eagleton’s crisply lucid takes on Enlightenment history and postmodern cultural ennui, in particular, are limpidly researched, unfailingly articulate, and highly accessible. But Eagleton, a founder of the radical Roman Catholic New Left of the 1960s, never seems to place his own Catholicism under the same scrutiny as the fragmented heirs he so delights in tearing apart. Surely a man of Eagleton’s intellectual stature must find the unquestioned rightness of his own beliefs – temporally and geographically mediated, I might add – awfully convenient. This narrows what could have been an otherwise encompassing exploration of the human search for meaning through recent history.

Eagleton also makes too much of Christ’s potential for social critique, which dovetails a little too patly with the revolutionary underpinnings of his Marxism. Indeed, one could easily mistake Eagleton’s faith for a kind of politically expedient affection. Enlisting the historical Christ for his opportunistic political value is to misinterpret both history and Christ himself. As the English philosopher John Gray has said “[Jesus’] disdain for order in society rested on his conviction that the world was about to come to an end, not metaphorically, as Augustine would later suggest, but literally.” Our anxious world – its crises and continuities – cannot, finally, be guided by an essentially otherworldly figure. For it seems to me Christ had need of his own troubling surrogate: an assured apocalypse in place of a difficult but necessary future.



Dustin Illingworth

Dustin Illingworth is a critic, essayist and fiction writer in southern California. He writes a monthly column for Full Stop and is currently at work on a debut novel.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, March 24th, 2015.