Saturday, May 08, 2010

Review: After Theory by Terry Eagleton (2003)

Terry Eagleton, After Theory. New York: Basic Books, 2003. 231 pages with index. $25.00. Reviewed by Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary and the author of Truth Decay. [Sorry for the typeface inconsistencies.]

Apologetic endeavor has many faces and works on many fronts. The aim of apologetics is to articulate and defend any biblical truth that the unbelieving world is calling into question, especially those directly related to the gospel. People cannot come to the Christ of the Bible on God’s terms unless certain beliefs have been banished from their thinking and other beliefs are then put in their place. They cannot embrace the gospel in an intellectual vacuum by sheer willpower. When Paul preached to the Greek intellectuals at the Areopagus council, he did not begin by calling people to turn to Jesus or to understand that Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures, as he had done with Jews and God-fearers (Acts 17:10-12). Instead, he found a point of contact (their religiosity) and then proceeded to speak of God’s objective character (Acts 17:22-30)—even quoting non-Christian Greek sources to make strategic points. After establishing the fact of God, he began to explain the significance of Christ and his resurrection (v. 31)

J. Gretchen Machen, a key conservative apologist in the Fundamentalist-Modernist split, thundered forth the same message in 1912 in a message called “The Scientific Preparation of the Minster.” “False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which…prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.”

One such anti-Christian idea today that inhibits the reception of the gospel is the claim that truth is neither objective nor absolute, but constructed in terms of how various communities use language. This pernicious postmodernist idea was once promoted by Terry Eagleton, Professor of Cultural Theory at Manchester University. Eagleton introduced a generation of students to deconstructionism and postmodern theory (also called just “theory”) through his book Literary Theory (1983; revised 1996). However, he has had second thoughts about the movement he once heralded, and even laments some aspects of postmodernism that neglect or trivialize the great intellectual questions of truth, goodness, and justice. While still respecting some of the insights of Derrida, Barthes, Kristeva, and others, Eagleton believes the movement is in need of serious correction. The movement is largely spent, focusing on trivialities instead of on deeper questions of truth and justice. So he charts a course “after theory.” (He voiced similar criticisms in his 1996 book, The Illusions of Postmodernism.)

Unlike most postmodernists, who often revel in obscurity, Eagleton writes with lucidity, passion, and pluck (sometimes bordering on belligerence). Although he is a literary theorist, Eagleton addresses classic philosophical topics such as the objectivity and absoluteness of truth, the meaning and moral purpose of human life, and political philosophy. When an influential non-Christian intellectual repents of significant errors regarding his previous thinking so that he moves closer to a Christian worldview (even without embracing it), this turnabout presents an important apologetic opportunity. Good arguments by non-Christians in support of truth integral to the Christian worldview should be applauded. But we should also challenge such thinkers to embrace the only worldview that fits all the pieces of truth together into a coherent whole—Christian theism. Eagleton’s change of mind on postmodernism presents such an apologetic opportunity, both in terms of what he gets right and what he gets wrong. All in all, this book is worth assessing despite Eagleton’s atheism, na├»ve socialism, unfair attacks on Christian “fundamentalism,” and his shrill anti-Americanism, which is especially evidence in the postscript.[1]

Eagleton aptly defines “postmodernism” as “roughly speaking, the contemporary movement of thought which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge. Postmodernism is skeptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends toward cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity” (13). This perspective, he rightly claims, provides scant resources for the perennial issues of philosophy and politics, since it denies the possibility of finding a philosophically satisfying worldview (or metanarrative.) But Eagleton believes that the crisis of international terrorism against the West means that it must reflect on its own foundations—a notion that postmodernists abhor as “modernistic.” He writes: “The West, then, may need to come up with some persuasive-sounding legitimations of its form of life, at exactly the point when laid-back cultural thinkers are assuring it that such legitimations are neither possible nor necessary. It may be forced to reflect on the truth and reality of its existence, at a time when postmodern thought has grave doubts about both truth and reality. It will need, in short, to sound deep in a progressively more shallow age” (73).

Eagleton sometimes strongly indicts the deficits of postmodern theory. “It has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals, and foundations, and superficial about truth objectivity and disinterestedness. This, on any estimate, is a rather large slice of human existence to fall down on” (101-102). Postmodernism has, in other words, marginalized the very questions that philosophy and religion have addressed for millennia. In this sense, it is a kind of “anti-philosophy” (as Eagleton puts it)—a veto on profitably pondering on the things that matter most (63). This kind of approach would render the claim of biblical revelation irrelevant, since religion supposedly cannot speak to matters of truth, evil, love, death, suffering, and so on.

Cutting against the postmodern grain, Eagleton argues persuasively for the existence and knowability of objective and absolute truth (103-139). He rightly notes that the fallibility of some truth claims does nothing to undermine the category of truth itself—a simple distinction that many postmodernists miss. Although Eagleton does not put it this way, postmodernists often confuse the metaphysics of truth with the epistemology of truth. Truth, on the correspondence view—which Eagleton advocates— is (or means) “agreement with reality.” This is the definition (or metaphysics) of truth. Correspondence with reality is what truth consists of. But truth-claims may be defended or attacked through a variety of intellectual means. This is the realm of epistemology, which concerns the intellectual justification of truth claims. Simply because truth is sometimes elusive—which is part of the curse of the fall, after all—this does not imply that it is constructed (and deconstructed) by linguistic communities, as postmodernists posit.[2]

This view of truth matters to Eagleton—and it should matter to us—because, as he says, it is part of our dignity as “moderately rational beings” to have access to the truth. Moreover, political critique and action demand access to reality. Political radicals—of which Eagleton is one—can stop complaining that it is certainly true that women are oppressed if the idea of objective truth loses its power. And we might add a comment that Eagleton would never make. If truth loses its power, political conservatives can stop talking as though it is unequivocally true that abortion on demand is a moral atrocity. Without a strong claim to truth, all political discourse devolves into mere manipulation.

This concern about the relationship of truth to ethics lies at the root of Eagleton’s desire to reform society according to a particular vision—a mixture of Marxism and Thomism (without God). Eagleton’s Catholic roots—abandoned long ago—are evident when he describes an ideal order in which humans flourish within communities. Humans thrive by realizing their own natures and contributing to the realization of others’ natures as well. His vision, however, is socialistic—with plenty of acerbic and reactive criticisms of capitalism and American conservatism—and post-religious. Nevertheless, Eagleton argues that a secular worldview will have difficulty wedding fact and value meaningfully. In one eloquent paragraph, he speaks of Christianity’s profound power to give meaning, value, morality, and vision to existence. This is worth quoting at some length. “Through ritual and moral code, religion could link questions of absolute value to men and women’s everyday experience. Nothing was less abstract that God, heaven, sin, redemption. . . . It planted the cosmic law in the very depths of the individual, in a faculty known as conscience. Faith bound together the people and the intellectuals, the simple faithful and the clergy, in the most durable of bonds. It could create a sense of common purpose far beyond the capacity of a minority culture, It outlined the grand narrative of all, known as eschatology. It could interweave art, ritual, politics, ethics, mythology, metaphysics and everyday life while lending this mighty edifice the sanction of supreme authority” (99). In spite of all that, “It was thus a particular shame that it involved a set of beliefs which seemed to many decent, rational people remarkably benighted and implausible” (99).

There are, of course, “many decent, rational people” (including many contemporary evangelical philosophers) who do not find this religious worldview “benighted and implausible” but rational and indeed compelling. Eagleton, like many British secular intellectuals, seems content to relegate religion to a thing of the past, even if wistfully. But in so doing, he ignores the renaissance in Christian philosophy that has occurred in the past twenty-five years, which includes both American and British thinkers. The pervasive secularism of England is conducive to these kinds of comments, however unwarranted they may be given the larger intellectual climate.[3] Of course, truth isn’t settled by counting noses (educated or otherwise), but one wishes that Eagleton had provided some arguments for denying a Christian worldview that he seems ambivalent about relinquishing.

Eagleton sometimes sounds like a bit like a God-haunted atheist, given the attention he pays to explicitly biblical themes. But Eagleton’s biblical criticism is far less convincing than his criticisms of postmodernism. Eagleton finds some biblical discussions to have contemporary significance, but disparages “fundamentalism.” This is evident when he rejects Luke’s infancy account of Jesus as a ludicrous fabrication for theological purposes, which has no historical basis (204-205). Luke’s account of Jesus’ youth, particularly the remarks about the Roman census, differ from the other Gospels but can be harmonized with them. Moreover, Luke’s explicit purpose is historical (Luke 1:1-4) and has been proven accurate by extrabiblical sources on many matters of historical detail.[4] Eagleton gives some outlandish and embarrassing interpretations of Scripture, showing he has not transcended the hermeneutical gymnastics of deconstructionism. He claims that the New Testament view of ethics is relatively “irreligious,” since “salvation comes down to…the “humdrum material business of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the sick” (154). Matthew’s account of the Second Coming, he claims, “is one of carefully contrived bathos” and “even heaven is something of a let down” (154).

One wonders what Bible the Professor Eagleton has been reading. His flippant comments to the contrary, the ethics of the Bible is rooted in the commands and character of a holy and loving God (Exodus 20:1-18; Matthew 22:37-40). Salvation is won for us through the vicarious atonement and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). Salvation is received by faith alone, but saving faith fosters good works for the glory of God (Ephesians 2:8-9; James 2:14-26: Colossians 3:17). The notion that either the root or fruit of salvation is “humdrum” is patently absurd. Even in serving “the least of these” we serve Christ (Matthew 25:31-46). Eagleton’s claim that Matthew’s account of the Second Coming is crafted to treat a serious subject in a superficial way (bathos) is itself an egregious example of (unintentional) bathos.

Eagleton even blithely asserts that “The New Testament also adopts a fairly relaxed attitude to sex, and takes a notable dim view of the family” (154). The New Testament is, in fact, less “relaxed” about sex than the Old Testament, since it forbids polygamy and is more strict concerning divorce (see Matthew 19:1-12). Paul’s attitude toward sexual debauchery is hardly relaxed (see Paul’s instruction on sexual morality in 1 Corinthians, for example.) Jesus, in fact, tightens the screws on sexual behavior when he teaches that lust in the heart is a kind of adultery (Matthew 5:27-30). Jesus affirmed that we should not put the family above God (Matthew 10:37-39), but that is hardly “a dim view of the family.” Nor does any other New Testament instruction diminish the importance of the family, since heterosexual marriage and godly child-rearing are God-ordained (Genesis 1:28; 2:20-25).

Leaving aside Eagleton’s unholy wrangling about Holy Writ, his own notion of a rational human nature and telos with access to objective moral truths coheres far better with a theistic worldview than his atheistic one. Christianity provides a solid basis for an objective ethic that highly values human beings and encourages their flourishing in accord with the principles of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 6:33). This perspective is rooted in the revealed truth that we are made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26) and have access to the moral law through our conscience (Romans 2:14-15) and Scripture (2 Timothy 3:15-17).

But Eagleton asks, “What are human beings for? The answer is surely: nothing…” because we are simply ends in ourselves (120). He takes this to be a brute fact, requiring no explanation. But humans can have no intrinsic moral value as ends in themselves in a materialistic world without design. On this scheme we are merely evolved animals whose behaviors are constrained only by biology and contingent moral norms. How could any objective moral values that transcend instinct and culture emerge from the purely material matrix of cause and effect to which Eagleton the atheist is confined? Moral relativism—or even nihilism—is more fitting for such a materialistic metaphysic. Eagleton advances no real arguments regarding these significant philosophical concerns. It is one thing to assert that morality is objective; it is another to argue that claim cogently on the basis of a morally sufficient worldview.

Despite its deep flaws, After Theory serves the significant purpose of calling key postmodernist ideas into question and by arguing that the reality of objective truth has yet to succumb to the stratagem of postmodernist assailants. Nevertheless, in light of the horrific apocalypse of September 11, 2001, and the war against terrorist in which we are enmeshed, the West needs much more than an atheistic literary critic with second thoughts on postmodernism can offer. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn said in A World Split Apart (1978), the decline of the West is traceable to one principal thing. We have rejected God. Sadly, so has Terry Eagleton.

[1] On anti-Americanism, see Jean-Francois Revel, trans. Diarmid Cammell, Anti-Americanism (San Francisco, Encounter Books, 2000).

[2] On the importance of truth, see Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

[3] For the testimonies of Christian philosophers, see James Kelly Clark, ed., Philosophers Who Believe (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

[4] On the historicity of Luke infancy narratives, see Craig Keener, Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 193.

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