Tragically Human

Terry Eagleton’s review of ‘The God Delusion‘ became a minor publishing event in its own right when first published in The London Review of Books in 2006.
It is so juicily good that an excerpt follows…
Imagine someone holding forth on biology whose only knowledge of the subject is ‘The Book of British Birds’, and you have a rough idea of what it feels like to read Richard Dawkins on theology. Card-carrying rationalists like Dawkins, who is the nearest thing to a professional atheist we have had since Bertrand Russell, are in one sense the least well-equipped to understand what they castigate, since they don’t believe there is anything there to be understood, or at least anything worth understanding. This is why they invariably come up with vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince. The more they detest religion, the more ill-informed their criticisms of it tend to be. If they were asked to pass judgment on phenomenology or the geopolitics of South Asia, they would no doubt bone up on the question as assiduously as they could. When it comes to theology, however, any shoddy old travesty will pass muster.

For the whole deal, look here
Eagleton’s new book is reviewed in The Guardian here
I haven’t read it all yet, but found one of the final conclusions illuminating. Dawkins suggests that the worst excesses of human behaviour can be ascribed directly to the pursuit of religion(s), yet he seems unable to grasp the extent of the depravity and moral turpitude to which homo sapiens is capable of sinking, unassisted by religious or any other conviction. Eagleton advocates what he describes as a ‘tragic humanism’; in acknowledging the depravity to which the human species can sink, it confronts the reality of the death camps of the 20th century and the exploitation of the 21st. Christianity is an admirable form of tragic humanism, in order to address the extravagant defects of human nature, it has an equally extravagant, almost outrageous remedy. It goes like this, be prepared to love until you die. The Dominican philosopher and scholar, Herbert McCabe summed up the gospel in this way: if you don’t love, you die; if you do love, they kill you. My codicil to this is that it’s the kind of love which matters. Peter’s ‘phileas se’ to Jesus won’t do. ‘Agapeas se’ is the only one that cuts it. There’s a whole theology on the bride of Christ here, but…not today.
The dodo is unfortunately not mentioned in ‘The Book of British Birds‘; this Mauritian dodo has been extinct since about 1650. Its meat was described by passing mariners as ‘poorly flavoured and indigestible’, much like Dawkins’ attempts at theology.

3 thoughts on “Tragically Human

  1. I confess myself impressed. Your perspective on, well, just about everything is thought provoking, funny, and profound. I have ignored Dawkins' book for just the reasons you mention. I'm still not inclined to read it, but if in reading it, I gain more from Eagleton's perspective, it will be worth the slogging.


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