Culture and the Death of God
by Terry Eagleton.
Yale University Press, 2014.
Hardcover, 234 pages, $26.

There are few polemicists writing in the English language today as erudite, or as pugnacious, as Terry Eagleton. Nor are there many public intellectuals who so defy categorization. All three of these traits were on display in October of 2006, for example, when Eagleton, in a now-classic review of flamboyant atheist Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion in the London Review of Books (“Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching”), put Dawkins’s brand of divine nose-thumbing in its place. But just five years after this refreshingly faith-based rebuttal of the world’s most infamous living atheist appeared from the pen of a secular scholar in a major newspaper, Eagleton released Why Marx was Right, in which he attempted to vindicate the teachings of one of the world’s most infamous dead atheists. Those who would blithely dismiss Eagleton as either a religious simpleton or a Marxist mouthpiece do so at their own peril; there is much more depth to Eagleton than to nearly any other essayist inthe Anglophone sphere.

This depth runs throughout Eagleton’s latest effort, Culture and the Death of God. Eagleton’s thesis is bold, but, as happens so very infrequently, the body of the book lives up to and bears out the burden of the core argument. Eagleton’s main idea is that “God has played such a vital role in the maintenance of political authority that the waning of his influence in a secular age could not be greeted with equanimity even by many of those who had not the faintest belief in him” (viii). In short, as the sons of the Enlightenment arrogated to themselves the powers of human governance formerly reserved to the Church, they found themselves incapable of a de novo start to either culture or statecraft. The hidebound secularists’ robes of state proved, in the end, to be nothing but clerical garments worn inside-out. These “surrogate forms of transcendence,” Eagleton contends, were never really fully atheistic, “at least until the advent of postmodernism.” Eagleton’s lively book is crowded with examples in illustration of this argument; I touch on only a few here.

Some of Eagleton’s insights are truly startling; only someone of his breadth of range could, for example, parse the differences between Marx and Freud in the context of the Pelagian Heresy. (Freud, we are told, was a “devout believer in Original Sin,” while Marx was not, and Shelley and Hardy were likely to regard such a notion as “offensively demeaning.”) Eagleton’s powers of synthesis also lead him into a full-throated critique of Nietzsche as having been unaware that the “death of God involves the death of Man, along with the birth of a new form of humanity, [which] is orthodox Christian doctrine.” There follows one of the most heartfelt descriptions of the Incarnation and kenosis that one is likely ever to find in a scholarly treatise, after which Eagleton sums up Nietzsche with, “The absence of God may be occluded by the fetish of Man, but the God who has been disposed of would seem little more than a fetish in the first place.” Concepts both cultural and religious are supple under Eagleton’s touch, and he brings the passion of a true Christian believer to every page, which amplifies his insights into these two currently estranged halves of academic pursuit.

Ironically, though, it is in Eagleton’s more straightforward defenses of religion that he runs into marshier territory. For example, he is spot-on in his critique of religious studies at universities: “Almost every cultural theorist today passes over in silence some of the most vital beliefs and activities of billions of ordinary men and women, simply because they happen not to be to their personal taste.” Eagleton is unlikely to find much opposition amongst faithful, or even respectful, scholars of religion to the criticism that academics are snooty when it comes to talking about popular creeds. But Eagleton has a tendency, beyond this initial and uncontroversial observation, to argue that “religion has proved easily the most tenacious and universal form of popular culture” because of religion’s “[c]apacity to unite theory and practice, elite and populace, spirit and senses, a capacity which culture was never quite able to emulate.” Eagleton, seemingly against his own better judgment, sometimes reduces the transcendent to the cultural, which works in places to undermine the epistemological and ontological uniqueness of religious study for which he elsewhere so cogently and forcefully argues.

Despite some occasional forays into the spongier plots of Christian theology, Eagleton is surprisingly, even insistently, orthodox in his understanding of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Even many of the insights inspired by Eagleton’s Marxism wash in the wider context of the book. For example, one cringes slightly—expecting the usual social justice message bleeding over into your garden-variety radical politics—when Eagleton says of the New Testament that it brings “grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities,” the sign of which dissolution “is a solidarity with the poor and powerless.” But Eagleton surprises us by going on to say that the Christian faith “is not about moral uplift, political unity, or aesthetic charm. Nor does it start from the portentous vagueness of some ‘infinite responsibility’. It starts from a crucified body,” entirely anathema to politics of any kind.

Eagleton is, to be fair, occasionally not above letting his own politics inform his theology. He lumps Wahhabi Muslims and Southern Baptists into the same category of “fundamentalism,” for example, the rise of which he links to rampant secularism by blaming them both on “Western capitalism.” Capitalism as the root of all woe is not a surprising thesis for a lifelong Marxist bruiser with the courage of his scholarly convictions. But a closer reading of passages like these reveals that the Marxist impetus behind Eagleton’s critiques does not blind him to the subtleties of his subjects, but instead, more often than not, leads him to return to his thesis and insist, again, that culture and philosophy in nearly all of their post-Enlightenment forms are stand-ins for the transcendence of God.

In the end, and apart from the substantial rethinking of religion, culture, and philosophy laid out by the book itself, the most interesting aspect of Culture and the Death of God may well be its palimpsestic nature: imbricated in Eagleton’s portrayal of a society at war with its own incomplete atheism is a deeper confession of an author’s internal struggle with the demands of two seemingly contradictory creeds. In one sense, Eagleton is a kind of Marxist Jeremiah, alerting his academic cohort to the existence of a God both wrathful and merciful, and very real. Such a Jeremiah is long overdue, and Christians should give thanks to God for sending us one. But that one cannot really be both Marx and Jeremiah comes out in raw proxy in some of Eagleton’s best prose, such as his meditation on Friedrich Schlegel’s “wry observation” that “‘it is equally fatal for the mind to have a system as to have none. It will simply have to decide to combine the two’.” And, as Novalis later rejoins in a debate with Fichte, “‘All searching for a single principle would be like an attempt to square the circle.’” Most poignantly, when Eagleton says that “[tragedy] represents a memory trace of nobility in a drably bourgeois epoch, a residue of transcendence in an age of materialism,” one detects, beneath the ostensible critique of tragedy as a “split religion” incapable of satisfying the bourgeois craving for a tamer religion than that of the Cross, perhaps an identification by Eagleton with the tragic hero, who is called, impossibly, to live in one world while obeying the call of another. 

Jason Morgan is a doctoral candidate in the department of history at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.