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BOOK REVIEW

A Christian Marxist spars with atheists

By Rich Barlow
Globe Correspondent / June 3, 2009
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'An atheist who believes in God!" snarls a reporter to the Clarence Darrow character in the play and the film "Inherit the Wind," the fictionalized account of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial. The cynical scribe would have been just as astounded to meet Terry Eagleton, a Marxist who believes in religion.

This takes some explaining, and not just because Marx famously derided religion as an opiate. The Judeo-Christian religion endorsed by Eagleton is not of the variety favored by many churchgoers. "Religion has wrought untold misery in human affairs," he says in the first sentence of "Reason, Faith, and Revolution," based on lectures he gave last year at Yale University. Eagleton does not believe "in the archangel Gabriel, the infallibility of the pope, the idea that Jesus walked on water, or the claim that he rose up into heaven before the eyes of his disciples."

So what does he believe in? The virtues of a very "orthodox" Christian religion, Eagleton says, one promulgated by Thomas Aquinas and thinkers before him. This Christianity "is not primarily a matter of signing on for the proposition that there exists a Supreme Being, but the kind of commitment made manifest by a human being at the end of his tether, foundering in darkness, pain, and bewilderment, who nevertheless remains faithful to the promise of a transformative love." He goes on to say that faith "is for the most part performative rather than propositional. Christians certainly believe that there is a God. But this is not what the credal statement 'I believe in God' means. It resembles [rather] an utterance like 'I have faith in you.' "

Eagleton, who has churned out 40-plus books in his career, admits he's no theologian. Yet that's also true of the fundamentalists whose ignorant religion he rightly criticizes; true, too, of the main targets of his ire, the atheist authors Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, whom he frequently lumps together as "Ditchkins." Of the two, he has some admiration for Hitchens - Dawkins he writes off as a theological imbecile - but even Hitchens is witheringly likened to "an indignant bank manager" when he criticizes Jesus's lilies-of-the-field parable. It's a good line, though not Eagleton's best analysis. Hitchens's beef is that the parable dismisses the value of thrift and family. The Marxist Eagleton happily concurs; Jesus expected the end of the world shortly, he writes, so why horde money and family relations for the future? Most people would side with Hitchens's values in this case.

"Reason, Faith, and Revolution" argues that the first third of that trinity is not the enemy of the second, properly understood, and that the second can inform the third by offering "valuable insights into human emancipation." Eagleton is certainly correct that the atheists miss how Jesus and his followers took on the religious and political establishments, preaching an unconditional and egalitarian love that, if anything, is utopian in its radicalism.

This erudite but often entertaining volume runs out of gas only sporadically, whenever Eagleton commits too much philosophy, dishing up wordy and opaque paragraphs. His politics, while humane, can be as simplistically rendered as Ditchkins's theology. Arguing that evil is an intrinsic part of humanity, he writes, "This is not to conclude that racism or sexism or capitalism cannot be defeated." Condemning the three without missing a beat is amusing, and Wall Street has been full of bunglers lately, to be sure. But it's not the Klan or the Taliban.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlow81@gmail.com

REASON, FAITH, AND REVOLUTION: Reflections on the God Debate By Terry Eagleton

Yale University, 185 pp., $25

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