In the end, only love (of which faith is a particu…

In the end, only love (of which faith is a particular form) can achieve the well-nigh impossible goal of seeing a situation as it really is, shorn of both the brittle enchantments of romance and the disheveled fantasies of desire. Clinical, cold-eyed realism of this kind demands all manner of virtues—openness to being wrong, selflessness, humility, generosity of spirit, hard labor, tenacity, a readiness to collaborate, conscientious judgment, and the like; and for Aquinas, all virtues have their source in love. Love is the ultimate form of soberly disenchanted realism, which is why it is the twin of truth. The two also have in common the fact that they are both usually unpleasant. Radicals tend to suspect that the truth is generally a lot less palatable than those in power would have us believe, and we have seen already just where love is likely to land you for the New Testament. In one sense of the word, dispassionateness would spell the death of knowledge, though not in another sense. Without some kind of desire or attraction we would not be roused to the labor of knowledge in the first place; but to know truly, we must also seek to surmount the snares and ruses of desire as best we can. We must try not to disfigure what we strive to know through fantasy, or reduce the object of knowledge to a narcissistic image of ourselves.

Eagleton and Ditchkins

Terry Eagleton’s 2008 Terry Lectures at Yale University have been transcribed into a new book entitled Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. It’s the first rebuttal to Dawkins and Hitchens (whom Eagleton reduces to the solitary signifier “Ditchkins”) that isn’t relegated to the Christian ghetto, but appears to be gaining traction outside of it. Salon covers it in an article entitled Those ignorant atheists, while Stanley Fish reads through it appreciatively in a blog post called God Talk over at the New York Times.

I have not read the book, but I listened to the fantastic originating lectures, which combined wit, intellectual sophistication, political radicalism and good theology. If you prefer free to paid and/or audio to text, you can go listen to the 2008 Terry Lectures on iTunes U. In fact, I think I might just have to listen again.

Belief Makes Meaning Difficult

Terry Eagleton has become one of my go-to authors for pure enjoyment in reading, as he takes on loaded topics with wit, humor and penetrating insight. He had the audacity to pen a book called “The Meaning of Life,” from which this quote comes:

Religious fundamentalism is the neurotic anxiety that without a Meaning of meanings, there is no meaning at all. It is simply the flip side of nihilism. Underlying this assumption is the house-of-cards view of life: flick away the one at the bottom, and the whole fragile structure comes fluttering down. Someone who thinks this way is simply the prisoner of a metaphor. In fact, a great many believers reject this view. No sensitive, intelligent religious believer imagines that non-believers are bound to be mired in total absurdity. Nor are they bound to believe that because there is a God, the meaning of life becomes luminously clear. On the contrary, some of those with religious faith believe that God’s presence makes the world more mysteriously unfathomable, not less. If he does have a purpose, it is remarkably impenetrable. God is not in that sense the answer to a problem. He tends to thicken things rather render them self-evident.

Eagleton, The Meaning of Life, 77.

The last part of that paragraph resonates perfectly with me. When I first became a Christian, I was utterly convinced that life now made perfect sense, and I knew what the meaning of (my) life was. I now see that, firstly, it would be difficult not to see more clearly after I ceased abusing enough drugs to fell an elephant. Secondly, my simple confidence in the meaning of life is no longer simple, but rather assailed with anxiety, doubt, and not a little fear. And this is because of my faith in God.

God seems to have delighted in turning my life upside down, not in just a supposedly instantaneous moment of salvation, but in a style more akin to a car crash that lasts for years and years. Any notion of stability is simply a reprieve from the tumult bound to break in at any second. I don’t know which way is up, and it’s all God’s fault.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Body of Morality

As I mentioned in my last post, Terry Eagleton’s After Theory provides me with virtually no end of quotes to post on this blog. The quote below deals with the topic of the universality of morality, against both much of what is stated in postmodern theory and the disembodied ideals of much of the Enlightenment. Instead, it is in the body itself that we find a universal, objective starting point for morality. Eagleton makes his case for this and teases out one implication regarding technology in the second paragraph:

It is because of the body, not in the first place because of Enlightenment abstraction, that we can speak of morality as universal. The material body is what we share most significantly with the whole of the rest of our species, extended both in time and space. Of course it is true that our needs, desires and sufferings are always culturally specific. But out material bodies are such that they are, indeed must be, in principle capable of feeling compassion for any others of their kind. It is on this capacity for fellow-feeling that moral values are founded; and this is based in turn on our material dependency on each other. Angels, if they existed, would not be moral beings in anything like our sense.

What may persuade us that certain human bodies lack all claim on our compassion is culture. Regarding some of our fellow humans as inhuman requires a fair degree of cultural sophistication. It means having literally to disregard the testimony of our senses. This, at any rate, should give pause to those for whom ‘culture’ is instinctively an affirmative term. There is another sense in which culture can interpose itself between human bodies, known as technology. Technology is an extension of our bodies which can blunt their capacity to feel for one another. It is simple to destroy others at long range, but not when you have to listen to the screams. Military technology creates death but destroys the experience of it. It is easier to launch a missile attack which will wipe out thousands than run a single sentry through the guts. The painless death for which the victims have always hankered is now also prized by the perpetrators. Technology makes our bodies far more flexible and capacious, but in some ways much less responsive. It reorganizes our senses for swiftness and multiplicity rather than depth, persistence or intensity. Marx considered that by turning even our senses into commodities, capitalism had plundered us of our bodies. In his view, we would need a considerable political transformation to come to our senses.

Terry Eagleton, After Theory, 155-6.

A Means to a Moral End?

I’m reading Terry Eagleton’s terrific book After Theory currently, and nearly every other page provides me with something to say to myself “wow, I should blog this quote.” Here’s one of them:

…the modern period has made moral questions hard to handle. It is not only because in a complex society there are too many answers rather than too few; it is also because modern history makes it especially hard for us to think in non-instrumental terms. Modern capitalist societies are so preoccupied with thinking in terms of means and ends, of which methods will efficiently achieve which goals, that their moral thinking becomes infected by this model as well. What it is to live well thus becomes a matter of acting so as to attain a certain goal. The only problem is that moralists continue to bicker about what this goal should be. For utilitarians, we should act so as to bring about the greatest happiness of the greatest number. For hedonists, we should act so as to maximize pleasure, preferably our own. There have been those who held that the aim of human action was to florify the political state. Still others believe that we should act so as to achieve social justice or some other praiseworthy end. In a moral climate where what matters seems to be results, some people might well think twice about trying to help an injured man if they knew that the roof was about to fall in on him and finish him off. Yet a lot of people would help him all the same, and it is interesting to ask ourselves why.

After Theory, 123-4.