Tuesday, May 5, 2009

God Talk II

As I was saying, the second reason I had spirituality on my mind yesterday--and again today, I suppose--is this column in the NY Times by Stanley Fish, taking note a new book by British critic Terry Eagleton: Reason, Faith, and Revolution. Rather than attempt to summarize or digest the piece, I think some extended quotations will serve to not only provide a sense of what the book (and Fish's take on it) argues but also illustrate just why religion was on my mind yesterday. Speaking about religion, Eagleton asks:
“What other symbolic form . . . has managed to forge such direct links between the most universal and absolute of truths and the everyday practices of countless millions of men and women?”

Eagleton acknowledges that the links forged are not always benign — many terrible things have been done in religion’s name — but at least religion is trying for something more than local satisfactions, for its “subject is nothing less than the nature and destiny of humanity itself, in relation to what it takes to be its transcendent source of life.” And it is only that great subject, and the aspirations it generates, that can lead, Eagleton insists, to “a radical transformation of what we say and do.”

The other projects, he concedes, provide various comforts and pleasures, but they are finally superficial and tend to the perpetuation of the status quo rather than to meaningful change: “A society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire, managerialized politics and consumerist economics is unlikely to cut to the depth where theological questions can ever be properly raised.”

By theological questions, Eagleton means questions like, “Why is there anything in the first place?”, “Why what we do have is actually intelligible to us?” and “Where do our notions of explanation, regularity and intelligibility come from?”

The fact that science, liberal rationalism and economic calculation can not ask — never mind answer — such questions should not be held against them, for that is not what they do.

And, conversely, the fact that religion and theology cannot provide a technology for explaining how the material world works should not be held against them, either, for that is not what they do.
Indeed, this last has always seemed obvious to me, but evidently such in not the case with people who want to question the existence of God. They would have god be science and human reason, and they build their own faith structures around their god. I have atheist friend who swears up and down that his belief in science as the explanation of everything is not an act of faith. Nothing I can say dissuades him. But as the above quotation makes clear, there is a host of questions that science cannot begin to address. Are such questions ultimately unimportant or meaningless? Of course not, and science has to throw up its hands when confronted with them. And yet, and yet . . . in practice our atheistic brethren would have the only questions of significance be confined to the materialistic plane of existence.

Progress, liberalism and enlightenment — these are the watchwords of those, like [Christopher] Hitchens [and Richard Dawkins, writers of recent atheistic manifestos], who believe that in a modern world, religion has nothing to offer us. Don’t we discover cures for diseases every day? Doesn’t technology continually extend our powers and offer the promise of mastering nature? Who needs an outmoded, left-over medieval superstition?

Eagleton punctures the complacency of these questions when he turns the tables and applies the label of “superstition” to the idea of progress. It is a superstition — an idol or “a belief not logically related to a course of events” (American Heritage Dictionary) — because it is blind to what is now done in its name: “The language of enlightenment has been hijacked in the name of corporate greed, the police state, a politically compromised science, and a permanent war economy,” all in the service, Eagleton contends, of an empty suburbanism that produces ever more things without any care as to whether or not the things produced have true value.

And as for the vaunted triumph of liberalism, what about “the misery wreaked by racism and sexism, the sordid history of colonialism and imperialism, the generation of poverty and famine”? Only by ignoring all this and much more can the claim of human progress at the end of history be maintained: “If ever there was a pious myth and a piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, a few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.”

How in the name of all that's holy (pun intended) can anyone entertain such notions in the face of history, not to mention the current state of the world, is a mystery to me, but I think Eagleton fairly characterizes the underlying subtext of the Hitchins/Dawkins argument.

Finally, Eagleton comes around to the point I made above about faith being the ground of virtually any human contention that science and reason are the true gods. The gods of man's making require faith also.
Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith. [emphasis mine]

[Hitchens and Dawkins] Eagleton observes, cannot ground [their] belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for [them] an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” [empahsis mine] Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)

If this is so, the basis for what Eagleton calls “the rejection of religion on the cheap” by contrasting its unsupported (except by faith) assertions with the scientifically grounded assertions of atheism collapses; and we are where we always were, confronted with a choice between a flawed but aspiring religious faith or a spectacularly hubristic faith in the power of unaided reason and a progress that has no content but, like the capitalism it reflects and extends, just makes its valueless way into every nook and cranny.

For Eagleton the choice is obvious, although he does not have complete faith in the faith he prefers. “There are no guarantees,” he concedes that a “transfigured future will ever be born.” But we can be sure that it will never be born, he says in his last sentence, “if liberal dogmatists, doctrinaire flag-wavers for Progress, and Islamophobic intellectuals . . . continue to stand in its way.”

In light of this small taste of Eagleton's book, it sounds very much like something of value for those of us who still believe faith in something beyond what mankind's reason provides is not yet ready for the trash heap of history.
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