Nostalgia for the Numinous
by Terry Eagleton
Yale University Press, 248 pp., $26
In the beginning were the angry atheists: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and their heaven-less hosts. Then came the response of the believers, of whom too there were many. After these books came more considered reflections, most from non-believers who nonetheless realized that religion spoke to something deep within the human condition. Among this third group were Jürgen Habermas’ An Awareness of What is Missing, André Comte-Sponville’s The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality, Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, and the late Ronald Dworkin’s Religion without God. Perhaps most interesting was Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly’s All Things Shining, an out-of-the-box argument by two distinguished philosophers for a return to polytheism. Terry Eagleton’s new book Culture and the Death of God belongs to this category. His argument is simple: “Atheism is by no means as easy as it looks.”
We are meaning-seeking animals. And if we can no longer believe in God we will find other things to worship. Eagleton’s book is a brisk, intelligent, and provocative tour of Western intellectual history since the Enlightenment, understood as a series of chapters in the search for a God-substitute. The Enlightenment found it in reason, the Idealists in the human spirit, the Romantics in nature and culture, the Marxists in revolution, and Nietzsche in the Übermensch. Others chose the nation, the state, art, the sublime, humanity, society, science, the life force, and personal relationships. None of these had entirely happy outcomes, and none was self-sustaining.
The end result was postmodernism, a systematic subversion of meaning altogether. Postmodernism is Nietzsche without the anguish, tragedy, or will to power—all the things that made Nietzsche worth reading. Now, in place of the revaluation of values, we have their devaluation. We are surrounded by choices with no reason to choose this rather than that. Postmodern consciousness, in Perry Anderson’s phrase, is “subjectivism without a subject.” Eagleton calls it “depthless, anti-tragic, non-linear, anti-numinous, non-foundational and anti-universalist, suspicious of absolutes and averse to interiority.”
The result is that we are witnesses to the advent of the first genuinely atheist culture in history. The apparent secularism of the 18th to 20th centuries was nothing of the kind. God—absent, hiding, yet underwriting the search for meaning—was in the background all along. In postmodernism, that sense of an absence, or what Eagleton calls “nostalgia for the numinous,” is no longer there. Not only is there no redemption, there is nothing to be redeemed. We are left, Eagleton writes, with “Man the Eternal Consumer.”
There the story of the search for transcendence might have ended. But then came 9/11 and the realization that religion had not gone away after all. It had just signaled its presence in the most brutal fashion. “No sooner had a thoroughly atheistic culture arrived on the scene . . . than the deity himself was suddenly back on the agenda with a vengeance.”
The real trouble—and here Eagleton is surely right—is that the West no longer has a set of beliefs that would justify its commitments to freedom and democracy. All it has left is “a mixture of pragmatism, culturalism, hedonism, relativism and anti-foundationalism,” inadequate defenses against an adversary that believes in “absolute truths, coherent identities and solid foundations.” The West has, intellectually speaking, “unilaterally disarmed at just the point where it has proved most perilous for it to do so.” Eagleton regards this as an irony, but it is not. It is precisely the West’s loss of faith that made it seem vulnerable to its opponents. It is mostly the failure of postmodernism to speak to the most fundamental aspects of the human condition that has driven those in search of meaning and consolation into the hands of the anti-modernists for whom freedom and democracy are not values at all.
The substitutes for God turned out not to be substitutes after all. All the proposed alternatives to religion proved inadequate to achieve what the great faiths have done: “unite theory and practice, elite and populace, spirit and senses.” Rationalism devalued the emotions. Romanticism failed to check humanity’s darker drives. And culture was unable to bridge the gap between the elite and the masses.
What then is left? Readers of Eagleton will not be surprised to discover that the answer is unforthcoming other than a vague gesture to his lost but still nostalgically remembered faiths as a Catholic, then a Marxist (“a crucified body,” and “solidarity with the poor and powerless”). Nothing angers him more than a neo-conservative invoking religion for its character- and culture-strengthening properties: George Steiner, Roger Scruton, John Gray, and Alain de Botton all come in for Eagleton’s scorn. Yet it is hard to see what he is doing if not gesturing at the same sort of argument from a left-wing position.
Jews and Christians believe, in their different ways, that the Supreme Power entered history to redeem the supremely powerless. But if one does not believe this, then invoking God for political reasons is precisely what Eagleton accuses Machiavelli, Voltaire, Matthew Arnold, Durkheim, and Leo Strauss of doing, a strategy that he calls “unpleasantly disingenuous.” Eagleton is right to remind us that Judaism and Christianity have their revolutionary as well as their conservative moments. But we cannot feign faith if we lack it, and where in today’s deeply de-religionized culture will we find it?
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Reading his book as a Jew, one cannot but feel that Eagleton understates the real pathos of the situation. For the post-Enlightenment search for a God-substitute, whether in reason, the human spirit, culture, or art, went hand-in-hand with the evolution of a new strain of one of the world’s most tenacious viruses, Judeophobia, or as it began to be called in the late 19th century, anti-Semitism. The epicenters of this deadly disease were the intellectual capitals of Europe—Paris, Vienna, and the University of Jena. You can catch at least a trace of it in most of the great philosophers of mainland Europe, in Voltaire, Fichte, Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Frege, and, most notoriously, Martin Heidegger.
This was the real refutation of Bildung and Sittlichkeit, “culture” and “sensibility,” as a substitute for religion: that more than a half of the participants in the Wannsee Conference that decided on the “Final Solution” carried the title “doctor,” that string quartets played in Auschwitz-Birkenau as a million and a quarter human beings—among them a quarter of a million children—were gassed, burned, and turned to ash. As George Steiner argued in Language and Silence almost half a century ago, civilization failed to civilize, and the humanities to humanize. And whereas the Catholic Church has tried to come to terms with its own history of Judeophobia, there has been almost no parallel self-reckoning on the part of secular philosophers as to how such a crime was possible, conceived, and enacted by the most self-consciously philosophical of Europe’s nations. (Jonathan Glover’s Humanity is an honorable exception.)
That tragedy has deepened in our time, as yet another new strain of anti-Semitism has emerged, substituting Israel for Jews and Zionism for Judaism. Jews find themselves for a third time denied the right to exist, first as a religion, then as a race, now as a sovereign nation. Once again not only has the academy by and large not protested, it has provided the new hatred with its most congenial home. In too many universities, campus life has become what Julien Benda called it in La Trahison des Clercs almost a century ago: a home for “the intellectual organisation of political hatreds.” Anti-Semitism is hardly the most pressing problem facing humanity, but over the centuries it has proved a reliable early warning of a civilization going wrong.
Can the West recover its faith? Livy said about 1st-century Rome that it had reached the stage where “we can endure neither our vices nor their cure.” Such is the degree of secularization among the West’s elites now that religious liberty itself is felt by many believers to be at risk. Having tried and failed to provide substitutes for religion, today’s public intellectuals have no new candidate to offer beyond the present mix of relativism, individualism, hedonism, and consumerism, which is neither elevating nor redemptive.
In global terms, the 21st century will be more religious than the 20th. In part this is because, after the failures of the God-substitutes, no other system remains as a source of meaning and consolation. In part it will happen simply because of demography. As Eric Kaufmann has documented in Shall the Religious Inherit the Earth? in most parts of the world religious practitioners have significantly more children than their secular counterparts. This really is the surpassing irony: Neo-Darwinian atheists risk extinction for the most Darwinian of reasons—their failure to hand on their genes to the next generation. In Europe, the epicenter of Western secularism, every native population is in decline.
But the religiosity likely to prevail in the future will not be the mild, latitudinarian God-as-an-English-gentleman variety. It will be passionate, zealous, and unforgiving, with none of the self-restraints we have come to associate with liberal democratic societies. Liberal theologies are everywhere in retreat. So too are traditional orthodoxies, committed to creative dialogue with the wider culture. As secular culture becomes increasingly hostile to religion, so religion becomes increasingly hostile to secular culture. And here lies the problem.
Enlightenment intellectuals and their successors did not, by and large, work within the world of faith itself even if they were themselves believers. They preferred to create neutral space—first science, then politics, then economics, then culture—systems that operated without religious presuppositions. There were liberal theologies aplenty, but none of them wrestled with the heart of darkness in many of the world’s great faiths.
The occupational hazard of monotheism is dualism: the division of humanity into the children of light and the children of darkness, the redeemed and the infidel. The result is that in the 21st century we will face a world of increasing religiosity of the most unreconstructed, pre-modern kind, whose devotees believe themselves to be commanded to convert or conquer the world. Too little has been done within the faith traditions themselves to make space for the kind of diversity with which we will have to live if humankind is to have a future. As religious groups turn inward under the impact of aggressive secularism, all that will be left will be the extremes.
Terry Eagleton has written a witty and insightful book, but the real work—discovering within the word of God for all time, the word of God for this time—remains. Our grandchildren will pay a heavy price if we fail.