Terry Eagleton: "Culture & Barbarism"
Terry Eagleton, the influential British literary theorist, has published in the liberal Catholic journal Commonweal an excerpt from his recent book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. The excerpt, "Culture & Barbarism: Metaphysics in a Time of Terrorism," seems to have appeared last year, but I only noticed it yesterday. Eagleton makes a number of interesting and insightful points about religion and our late-modern or postmodern condition, but he gets something important wrong, I think:
Why are the most unlikely people, including myself, suddenly talking about God? Who would have expected theology to rear its head once more in the technocratic twenty-first century, almost as surprisingly as some mass revival of Zoroastrianism? Why is it that my local bookshop has suddenly sprouted a section labeled "Atheism," hosting anti-God manifestos by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and others, and might even now be contemplating another marked "Congenital Skeptic with Mild Baptist Leanings"? Why, just as we were confidently moving into a posttheological, postmetaphysical, even posthistorical era, has the God question broken out anew?Whatever the case concerning the resurgence of talk about God, I think that Eagleton misses the point on radical Islam in maintaining that it does not understand its own religious faith and in characterizing it as politically driven instead. He has perhaps been misled by noting, correctly, that Bin Laden lacks expertise in Islamic theology and law and thus failing to notice that a lot of other Islamist leaders are in fact richly steeped in these things. He has also failed to realize that Islam is profoundly political, and so (unsurprisingly) is radical Islam. He therefore misunderstands 9/11:
Can one simply put it down to falling towers and fanatical Islamists? I don't really think we can. Certainly the New Atheists' disdain for religion did not sprout from the ruins of the World Trade Center. While some of the debate took its cue from there, 9/11 was not really about religion, any more than the thirty-year-long conflict in Northern Ireland was over papal infallibility. In fact, radical Islam generally understands exceedingly little about its own religious faith, and there is good evidence to suggest that its actions are, for the most part, politically driven.
Assured since the fall of the Soviet bloc that it could proceed with impunity to pursue its own global interests, the West overreached itself. Just when ideologies in general seemed to have packed up for good, the United States put them back on the agenda in the form of a peculiarly poisonous brand of neoconservatism. Like characters in some second-rate piece of science fiction, a small cabal of fanatical dogmatists occupied the White House and proceeded to execute their well-laid plans for world sovereignty. It was almost as bizarre as Scientologists taking over 10 Downing Street, or Da Vinci Code buffs patrolling the corridors of the Elysée Palace. The much-trumpeted Death of History, meaning that capitalism was now the only game in town, reflected the arrogance of the West's project of global domination; and that aggressive project triggered a backlash in the form of radical Islam.Islamism is no mere backlash reaction to Fukuyama's end-of-history thesis or to America's foreign policy under George Bush, nor was 9/11 a reaction to some neoconservative 'cabal'. Eagleton forgets that the first attack on the World Trade Center occurred in 1993, early in the hardly neoconservative Clinton administration. Islamist aggression was long in the making and draws on deep sources in Islam. It is not merely a reaction to anything.
Nevertheless, Eagleton's article offers intellectual riches, especially for what it says about culture versus civilization . . . but I'll leave that for readers to enjoy firsthand.