Theology As A Long Lost Friend
Articles about the “New Atheists,” writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens for example, seldom hold my attention anymore. Criticising their arguments is a little bit like shooting fish in a barrel – too easy and potentially self-destructive. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who stops to think about it that many of the points these […]
Articles about the “New Atheists,” writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens for example, seldom hold my attention anymore. Criticising their arguments is a little bit like shooting fish in a barrel – too easy and potentially self-destructive. It’s pretty obvious to anyone who stops to think about it that many of the points these writers make don’t really apply to a lot of real-world believers, don’t really take seriously the directions academic theology has taken in the last 500 years and don’t make any real effort to address the global diversity of religious faith in anything other than its most extreme forms.
But, there I was, on a late summer night, running out of articles to read in the August 31 edition of the New Yorker, when I dove into James Wood’s piece, God In The Quad, reviewing a recent book (Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (The Terry Lectures Series)) by literary cultural theorist and critic of the New Atheists, Terry Eagleton.
Wood lays out the problems with the New Atheist position quickly and clearly, before evaluating Eagleton’s own, enigmatic theology. The “faith” that Eagleton holds to will be familiar to acquainted with Christian Socialism (especially in its British forms) and the post-Marxist debate in Catholic ethics and social theory. It is precisely because Eagleton still occupies this space, that he is able to attack the social inadequacies of Dawkins and co for being what Wood calls “politically complacent.”
In the end Wood finds Eagleton’s notion of faith unsatisfying, even when Eagleton seeks shelter under Wittgenstein’s notion of a Form of Life. For Wood, the theology Eagleton articulates is too vague and rarified and also, too far connected from the faith of the ordinary believer, to be compelling or attractive.
In a surprising twist, Wood suggests that what we need is neither the abstract theology of Eagleton nor the “overweening rationalist Atheism” of the new Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens, but instead “a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief.” Wow!
I don’t know what that looks like, but I suspect the soundtrack for that could come from Brian Blade’s excellent album, Mama Rosa.
One of my favourite albums of 2009, Mama Rosa is not so much Gospel music, as music that remembers Gospel. This notion of remembering faith is what the new atheists don’t understand and what Eagleton seems to forget. It’s what gives power to speakers who invoke religious language and catches our ear when we hear musicians and singers reference (good) Gospel music.
“Disappointed belief,” is probably a good way to describe my theology these days – well I could start there at least. Church is largely a memory, some sweet moment buried under layers of virulence and misalignment. I still believe in, for want of a better phrase, “a better tomorrow,” but, I’m slow to articulate that now, since the language I have used for years has been appropriated (politically, not just theologically) to ends I cannot stomach.
Maybe that’s cost of being on a journey. With your destination a long way off and your point of origin nothing but a memory, you end up with nothing but stories from the road, stories of change and transition, stories of short-term and tentative solutions to the problems of life.