Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Jesus by Terry Eagleton

Jesus, unlike most responsible American citizens, appears to do no work, and is accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He is presented as homeless, property-less, celibate, peripatetic, socially marginal, disdainful of kinfolk, without a trade, a friend of outcasts and pariahs, averse to material possessions, without fear for his own safety, careless about purity regulations, critical of traditional authority, a thorn in the side of the Establishment and a scourge of the rich and powerful.

Jesus thought that the end of the world was just around the corner and the morality he preached- not the kind one associates with chartered accountants or oil executives- was reckless, extravagant, improvident, over-the-top, a scandal to actuaries and a stumbling block to real estate agents: forgive your enemies, give away your cloak as well as your coat, turn the other cheek, love those who insult you, walk the extra mile, take no thought for tomorrow.

The non-God or anti-God of Scripture, who hates burnt offerings and acts of smug self-righteousness, is the enemy of idols, fetishes and graven images of all kinds- gods, churches, ritual sacrifice, the Stars and Stripes, nations, sex, success, ideologies and the like. You shall know God for who he is when you see the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent away empty handed. Salvation, rather bathetically, turns out to be not a matter of cult, law, ritual, of special observances and conformity to a moral code, of slaughtering animals or even of being splendidly virtuous. It is a question of feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants, visiting the sick, and protecting the poor, orphaned and widowed from the violence of the rich. Astonishingly, we are saved not by a special apparatus known as religion, but by the quality of our everyday relations with one another.

There is nothing heroic about the New Testament at all. Jesus is a sick joke of a savior. Messiahs are not born in stables. They are high-born, heroic warriors who will lead the nation into battles against its enemies. They do not reject weapons of destruction, enter the national capital riding on donkeys, or get themselves strung up.

Christianity is all rather disappointingly materialist, unglamorous and prosaic. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's" is a notoriously enigmatic injunction; but whatever it means, it is unlikely to mean that religion is one thing whereas politics is another, a peculiarly modern prejudice if there ever was one. Any devout Jew of Jesus's time would have known that the things that are God's include working for justice, welcoming the immigrants, and humbling the high-and-mighty. The whole cumbersome paraphernalia of religion is to be replaced by another kind of temple, that of the murdered, transfigured body of Jesus. To the outrage of the Zealots, Pharisees, and right-wing rednecks of all ages, this body is dedicated in particular to all those losers, deadbeats, riffraff, and colonial collaborators who are not righteous but flamboyantly unrighteous- who either live in chronic transgression of the Mosaic law or, like the Gentiles, fall outside its sway altogether. In fact, Jesus has very little to say about sin at all, unlike a great many of his censorious followers. His mission is to accept men and women's frailty, not rub their noses in it.

For Christian teaching, God's love and forgiveness are ruthlessly unforgiving powers which break violently into our protective, self-rationalizing little sphere, smashing our sentimental illusions and turning our world brutally upside down. In Jesus, the law is revealed as the law of love and mercy, and God not some Blakean Nobodaddy but a helpless, vulnerable animal. It is the flayed and bloody scapegoat of Calvary that is now the true signifier of the Law. Which is to say that those who are faithful to God's law of justice and compassion will be done away with by the state. If you don't love, you're dead, and if you do, they'll kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky or opium of the people, your soft-eyed consolation and pale-cheeked piety. Here is the fantasy and escapism that the hard-headed secularist pragmatist finds so distasteful.

Freud saw religion as a mitigation of the harshness of the human condition but it would surely be at least as plausible to claim that what we call reality is a mitigation of the Gospel's ruthless demands, which include such agreeable acts of escapism as being ready to lay down your life for a total stranger. Imitating Jesus means imitating his death as well as his life, since the two are not finally distinguishable. The death is the consummation of the life, the place where the ultimate meaning of Jesus's self-giving is revealed.

The only authentic image of this violently loving God is a tortured and executed political criminal, who dies in an act of solidarity with the destitute and dispossessed- the shit of the earth- the scum and refuse of society who constitute the cornerstone of the new form of human life known as the kingdom of God. Jesus himself is consistently presented as their representative. His death and descent into hell is a voyage into madness, terror, absurdity and self-dispossession, since only a revolution that cuts that deep can answer to our dismal condition.

What is a stake here is not a prudently reformist project of pouring new wine into old bottles, but an avant-gardist epiphany of the absolutely new- of a regime so revolutionary as to surpass all image and utterance, a reign of justice and fellowship which for the Gospel writers is even now striking into this bankrupt, depasse, washed-up world ( so characterized by the prevalence of greed, idolatry and delusion, the depth of our instinct to dominate and possess, the dull persistence of injustice and exploitation, the chronic anxiety which leads us to hate, maim, and exploit, along with the sickness, suffering and despair which Jesus associates with evil; what Christianity knows as original sin.) No middle ground is permitted here: the choice between justice and the powers of this world is stark and absolute, a matter of fundamental conflict and antithesis. What is at issue is a slashing sword, not peace, consensus and negotiation.


  1. Jesus does not seem to be any sort of liberal, which is no doubt one grudge which Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens hold against him. He would not make a good committee man. Neither would he go down well on Wall Street, just as he did not go down well among the money changers of the Jerusalem temple.

    The account of Christian faith I have just outlined is one which I take to be thoroughly orthodox, scriptural and traditional. There is nothing fashionable or newfangled about it;, indeed, much of it goes back to Thomas Aquinas and beyond. In my view, it is a lot more realistic about humanity than the likes of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. It takes the full measure of human depravity and perversity, in contrast to the extraordinarily Pollyannaish view of human progress of "The God Delusion". At the same time, it is a good deal bolder than the liberal humanists and rationalists about the chances of this dire condition being repaired. It is more gloomy in its view of the human species than the bien-pensant liberal intelligentsia (only Freudianism or the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer can match it here), and certainly a good deal more skeptical than the naive upbeatness of American ideology, which tends to mistake a hubristic cult of can-do-ery for the virtue of hope.

    " Reason, Faith, and Revolution; Reflections on the God Debate" by Terry Eagleton; Yale University Press, 2009

  2. "It is worth adding that Jesus's attitude to the family is one of implacable hostility. He has come to break up these cozy little conservative settlements so beloved of American advertisers in the name of his mission, settling their members at each other's throats; and he seems to have precious little time for his own family in particular. In "The God Delusion", Richard Dawkins greets this aspect of the Gospel with chilly suburban distaste. Such a cold-eye view of the family can suggest to him only the kidnapping habits of religious cults. He does not see that movements for justice can cut across traditional blood ties, as well as across ethnic, social, and national divisions. Justice is thicker than blood."

  3. Although Eagleton does not specifically address the matter, there are at least a handful of Christian theologians who find it difficult to discover any reference to an immortal soul in Holy Scripture. The presumption that certain passages refer to it seems based on Greek translations of the original Aramaic or Hebrew. Such a view- that there is no immortal soul- would not be entirely inconsistent with John Calvin's notion of Pre-destination; God's judgement (eternal damnation) having been more or less delivered once and for all right from the beginning. This would help explain Calvin's fundamental reticence in discussing the issue and also his anxiety about "not lying" or misrepresenting the Gospel message in his many writings and sermons. It would be consistent with the notion that the promise of salvation in the Gospel is FOR THIS LIFE, rather than for the NEXT.

    Fools rush in where angels fear to tread!

  4. "Fools shout where angels fear to whisper" is better. This is how Charlie Chaplin described his endeavor to answer the question "what would we do if we had the power of Mussolini to help England in her present crisis" at a dinner with Lloyd George, Ramsay MacDonald and Winston Churchill in 1931.

    His answer was: "Reduce government. The world is suffering from too much government and the expense of it. The government should, however, own the banks and revise the banking laws and the Stock Exchange, controlling prices, interest and profit. England's colonies should be amalgamated into an economic unity. My policy would stand for internationalism, world cooperation of trade, the abolition of the gold standard and world inflation of money..I would endeavor to raise the standard of living, preferably internationally, otherwise throughout the British domain. Labour hours should be reduced and a minimum wage applied."