Eagleton redux

Terry Eagleton is getting to be embarrassing. He reviewed a collection of essays on secularism last week, with his familiar combination of malice, inaccuracy and laziness. That’s not a good combination for a reviewer.

Most recent defences of secularism, not least those produced by “Ditchkins”
(Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), have been irate, polemical affairs, powered by a crude species of off-the-peg, reach-me-down Enlightenment.

There’s the laziness and the malice – recycling his own stupid joke, which was never funny in the first place, not least because Dawkins and Hitchens are really not interchangeable. And there’s the inaccuracy too, in the meaningless sneer at the end.

It is scarcely a caricature of Dawkins’s work to suggest we are all getting nicer and nicer and that if it wasn’t for religious illusion, we would collectively outdo Kenneth Clark in sheer civility.

Scarcely a caricature! Scarcely a caricature!! This from a literary critic, for christ’s sake. A caricature is exactly what it is, and a broad, stupid, vulgar one at that.

Adam Phillips, a superb writer whose outlook on the world is that of Islington Man…

What, exactly, is it that Terry Eagleton thinks separates his outlook from that of “Islington Man”? What exactly is it that makes Eagleton’s outlook superior in its humility and authenticity and austerity? He’s a prosperous academic; he has been and perhaps still is trendy; he has acolytes; he has international gigs; he writes for the New Statesman and the Guardian. How is he not “Islington Man” himself? Whence comes the great height from which he looks down on other prosperous academics?

Christianity is certainly other-worldly, and so is any reasonably sensitive soul who has been reading the newspapers. The Christian gospel looks to a future transformation of the appalling mess we see around us into a community of justice and friendship, a change so deep-seated and indescribable as to make Lenin look like a Lib Dem.

Big woop. “The Christian gospel” can afford to do that, can’t it, because it’s just making it up. “Looking forward” to things is dead easy; making things happen is another kind of activity altogether, so naturally the latter is much tamer than the former. People who make things happen have to work within real limits; people who just make things up don’t. You’d think a lit crit would know that.

There are some predictable misunderstandings in these essays. No theologian worth his or her salt would see God as an “entity” as Philip Kitcher does.

Why’s that then? (If it’s even true, which I doubt.) See above – because making things up is a lot easier than working within the limits of the real world.

A message for quasi-Islington Man.

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