At the top of my list of movies I most disliked is Terminator 2. My friends pressured me into see this movie in a theater years ago. I am a light comedy kind of guy, so an intense, shoot ‘em up movie is never to my liking. And this movie was the worst. The bad guy was seemingly indestructible (made of some substance that would simply reform itself no matter how much you shot holes in it or blew him up). The movie, without any possible end in sight, went on and on and on…forever…since the bad guy just kept coming back! I didn’t think it would ever end! This movie came to mind as I read Terry Eagleton’s book Culture and the Death of God because the story of the demise of Christianity is much like Terminator 2, where the antagonist (here the Christian faith) is attacked, discredited, shot to pieces and written off as dead and buried by the best minds of modernity, but somehow it just won’t go away. Like the bad guy in the movie, it just can’t be destroyed! This insightful book explains why, with all the modern intellectual effort to discredit and displace Christianity, the reports of the death of Christianity has been highly exaggerated.
Central to Eagleton’s argument is that what Enlightenment thinkers proposed to replace religion with did not offer the same essential ingredients that are inherent in a belief system nor did it offer the necessary tools to maintain civil society at are embodied in religion. The modern movements of the 18th-20th Centuries set out to discredit and remove Christianity from the field of play of intellectual discourse on society and politics, science and psychology. “(T)he abiding concerning of the Enlightenment is the battle against religion…”[i] But, God was very hard to displace, because religion (Christianity, God, faith) played such an essential role in to formation and maintenance of a moral society. (Isn’t it fascinating that after two hundred years of battling God, thinkers like Dawkins and Hitchens are still needing to make a case.)
The inability of modernity to set religion aside was due to the fact that the Enlightenment, according to Eagleton, was about ideas. Those in the forefront of the Enlightenment—and its sister movements over the next two hundred years—failed to understand that ideas were important for those with education and leisure, but ideas in and of themselves do not capture the hearts and minds of the people. These movements “paid too little heed to the fact that local customs, pieties and affections are the places where power embed itself if it is to flourish. Otherwise, it will prove too abstract and remote to be assured of its subjects’ allegiance. There can be no effective sovereignty without a foundation in lived experience….”[ii] Eagleton suggests that “native styles of thought (rationalism, pragmatism, secularism, materialism, utilitarianism and the like) tend to undermine the very symbolic resources necessary for its own social reproduction. It is hard to generate any very edifying world-view from such a drably prosaic materials. Liberalism and Utilitarianism do not fare well as symbolic forms.”[iii]
This failure to understand that grand ideas do not necessary generate passionate loyalty or translate into lived experiences is best seen in the Soviet experiment. The grand idea that Soviet Communism preached was utopian society of equal work and pay, where utilitarianism would rule, where everyone’s material needs would be satisfied and peace would reign. This utopian dream required something that the Soviet leaders never quite figured out how to bring about: A new Soviet person. In order for such system to work required that people to act selflessly, sacrificially and with compassion. This meant changing human nature – hearts and minds! It was assumed that people would be naturally magnanimous as the system developed. The reality is that the Soviet system brought about the exact opposite kind of person. The new Soviet person developed an extensive black market system, along with massive hording; they show little concern for what now belonged to the community and they were generally distrusting of neighbor. The wonderful idea of a communal care and an equal society was in fact a system where everyone was watching out for number one, where rich oligarchies ruled and got richer, and an extensive underground economy thrived in order for people to survive. The grand communist “idea” did not bring about loyalty, sacrifice and passion from the common people. So, to insure success, a totalitarian system had to dedicate loyalty, sacrifice and passion through fear, which did little to endear the people to this grand idea.
This is the same issue that all the modern “isms” have faced: How to capture the hearts and minds of the people. When “isms” undercut Christianity, they destroy the foundations necessary for their systems to work. “The irony of the situation is plain. They very system which discredits religion in its spontaneously secular dealings is also the one most urgently in need of the symbolic unity that religion on provide.”[iv] Be it Soviet Communism or Humanism, Romanticism or Utilitarianism (and might we add Atheism?), they all lack the symbolic power and the unifying force that religion in general and Christianity in particular most powerfully provides. All these movements have attempted to displace Christianity to their detriment.
Bottom line, what Eagleton reminds us is that Christianity has something far more basic and meaningful to offer than an idea. Ideas will come and go, but ideas will never be able to speak to the deeper needs and longs and create the allegiance that Christianity can. For this reason, Christianity always comes back, like Terminator 2, no matter what is thrown at her.
John F. Woodward