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Reports of God’s death

20 June 2014

Nietzsche may have exaggerated, says Richard Harries

Culture and the Death of God
Terry Eagleton
Yale £18.99
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

TERRY EAGLETON argues that God has been a very long time dying and, indeed, is very far from dead now. In the Enlightenment, reason may have replaced revelation, and God have been pushed to the margins of life in the form of Deism, but religion was still encouraged as a means to stop the masses revolting. It was fine for thinkers to disbelieve, but this was not to be discussed in front of the servants, in case the latter started to disbelieve.

A purely rational religion was, however, too dry even for the intellectuals; so, in the 19th century, with Idealism, they started to believe in a great advance of Spirit in human consciousness, and, with Romanticism, gave this Spirit feeling and yearning.

It was only with Nietzsche that we have the first true atheist, as someone able to face up to its consequences: that there can be no substitute for God in the way of humane ethics, culture, or rational meaning to life. True atheism means that we have to face up to the sheer horror and cruelty of existence, and then boldly take control of our life with no norms or guidance. Yet, Eagleton argues, even Nietzsche was in some sense dependent on the God he rejected; for his idea of the human superman who takes control of his or her life out of nothing does in fact reflect the idea of a self-subsisting God.

Modernism, he argues, was still haunted by the alleged death of God, and it is perhaps only in our own time, with a consumer- dominated late capitalism, that we can see that God has, indeed, died. For post-modernism, there is no God-shaped hole, "no phantom limb syndrome". Yet, in this post-modern world, fundamentalism, itself a product of that world, is rampant; so perhaps God is not so dead after all, much as some people might wish it.

And, all the way through this survey of culture from the Enlightenment to our own time, Eagleton shows the multiple ways in which people have invented substitutes for the God whom they think they have put aside - in culture, nationalism, and spirituality, for example: anything rather than the inconvenience of believing in a living God who might actually make a difference to their lives. "So it is that those who cannot conceive of an end of Wall Street are perfectly capable of believing in Kabbalah. . . The point of spirituality is to cater for needs that one's stylist or stockbroker cannot fulfil."

Eagleton uses his strengths as an English scholar and a critic of culture, and his awareness of the economic realities underlying culture, to tell a persuasive story. But the real delight of this book lies in its brilliant and often aphoristic individual sentences, which make it fun to read even when the technical argument is quite academic. Sometimes these sentences do, in fact, belong to others. Eliot, Yeats, and Chesterton, for example, are slipped in without quotation marks or acknowledgement. Presumably this is on purpose, but it is slightly odd.

Sometimes, in his bold generalisations, Eagleton glosses over real differences between the people he lumps together. Roger Scruton, for example, is not just one of the current intellectuals for whom religion is a fashionable subject, but an observant Anglican. Similarly, Francis Spufford is a believer in a way that Alain de Botton is not. And, although it is true that Jürgen Habermas thinks that religion still has much to offer our present impoverished public square, he denies that he is reducing religion to its social contribution, and regards it as having its own validity.

Gibbon wrote: "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosophers as equally false; and by the magistrates as equally useful." Eagleton basically works with that understanding of religion, pointing up its contradictions and hypocrisies, and sets against it the prophetic religion of Jesus, in whom we see the true death of God - that we may come to see God in the weak and vulnerable.

This Jesus calls us not to create social cohesion - for his teaching implies just the opposite - but to follow him in solidarity with, and service of, the poor. "It is here that a new configuration of faith, culture and politics might be born."

The Rt Revd Professor Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford. His latest book is  The Image of Christ in Modern Art (Ashgate, 2013).

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