The New Christians

The New Christians

Happily Religious in Fly-Over Country

I’ve long admired Stanley Fish, and I’ve written about my reliance on his fantastic book ofstanley-fish.jpg essays, Is There a Text in this Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Fish is a leading postmodern literary critic and occasional commentator on politics, academia, and religion.

In his NYTimes column this week, he wrote about Terry Eagleton’s new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. Although a left-wing (aka, Marxist) literary critic, Eagleton has recently taken his fellow Brits Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins (to whom he refers as “Ditchkins”) to task for miscontruing the role of religion in modern society.


Fish appreciates Eagleton’s stance as one who, himself, has defended religion, though he has been publicly coy about his own religious beliefs. (Do you hear me Al Mohler and James Dobson (to whom I will hereafter refer as Mobson) two postmodernist literary critics defending religion!).

Here’s the money quote from Fish’s blog:

Eagleton likes this turn of speech, and he has recourse to it often
when making the same point: “[B]elieving that religion is a botched
attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched
attempt to run for a bus.” Running for a bus is a focused empirical act
and the steps you take are instrumental to its end. The positions one
assumes in ballet have no such end; they are after something else, and
that something doesn’t yield to the usual forms of measurement.
Religion, Eagleton is saying, is like ballet (and Chekhov); it’s after
something else.


After what? Eagleton, of course, does not tell us, except in the
most general terms: “The coming kingdom of God, a condition of justice,
fellowship, and self-fulfillment far beyond anything that might
normally be considered possible or even desirable in the more
well-heeled quarters of Oxford and Washington.” Such a condition would
not be desirable in Oxford and Washington because, according to
Eagleton, the inhabitants of those places are complacently in bondage
to the false idols of wealth, power and progress. That is, they feel
little of the tragedy and pain of the human condition, but instead
“adopt some bright-eyed superstition such as the dream of untrammeled
human progress” and put their baseless “trust in the efficacy of a spot
of social engineering here and a dose of liberal enlightenment there.”


It’s a powerful essay, and one that I recommend you read. And, indeed, it puts in words my own experience of speaking in Washington, D.C. a few times, and it points up the problem with the label “prgressive.” That term has often meant a nearly blind belief in human progress. Rarely, however, do I speak to a working pastor who is particularly entranced by the idea that we’re progressing as a species. Yes, some things are getting better. But others are not. And what the logical-positivism of Ditchkins is unable to do is put the whole burrito in perspective.

And in addition to that, I commend my new favorite blog, that of Drew Tatusko. Recently, Drew interacted with another new book exploring the sacred and secular in modern society. But beyond just bemoaning the loss of religion in the West and the decline of mainline Protestantism, Drew puts on his Presbyterian elder hat and challenges his fellow mainliners:


This places the mainline churches which persist as the heirs of the
wealth created by their forebears at the end of the 19th century to
deal with a crisis that this wealth creation has ironically reinforced.
The Tower of Babel is, as much as anything else, a tale about a people
who believed themselves to be so powerful that they no longer needed
God. As we become more affluent in our own mainline denominations, it
may be that we are deluded into thinking we no longer need God quite as
much. However, this is not what Jesus asks of us. What Jesus asks of us
is to serve the least of these and love our neighbor.

If the reality is that the mainline people do not feel the need for
God to meet their existential needs quite as much as when each day was
a trial for survival, then we are in a position to put the Body of
Christ into action to serve those who continue to struggle. Not to
commit ourselves to the plight of the poor and those who bear the basic
existential burden of survival daily, is nothing short of erecting tall steeples of our own pride and sense of material accomplishment, only to push God out of the very churches in which we gather to worship ourselves.

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Blake Huggins

posted May 5, 2009 at 12:02 pm

Eagleton has a piece in the London review of books on Dawkins’ “God Delusion” that is equally as good. I really appreciate him and Fish taking on Dawkins et al. It’s certainly better than the attempts that have been made by fundamentalist Christians.

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posted May 5, 2009 at 12:43 pm

Wow. Did you read the comments on Fish’ article? there’s a lot of really angry atheists out there. 27 pages of comments worth.
Where are the calm, postmodern atheists/agnostics in that discussion who’ve actually read and understood some critiques of reason?
And are people still giving the bigot Richard Dawkins a platform? After he said (nearly verbatim) on NPR that Sunday School teachers are fundamentally the same as the people who blew up the Word Trade Center, I decided he was as wacko as they come.
Thank God (literally) all atheist aren’t nearly as fundamentalist or short-sighted.

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Drew Tatusko

posted May 5, 2009 at 12:57 pm

Eagleton’s critique of Dawkins is worth repeated reads. He also gave a set of lectures, I think at Yale a few years ago if I remember, where he coined “Ditchkins”. It was actually what got me blogging – that along with interactions on the Christians vs. Atheists group on Google Groups. I think Eagleton’s lectures are on the UChannel podcasts through iTunes – I think…
Thanks for the plug too! Either great minds think alike, or at least ours seem to 😉

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Ted Seeber

posted May 5, 2009 at 1:24 pm

Mainline denominations are Affluent? Why?
Roman Catholics, facing the only real sting the Reformation had to offer, stopped charging money in exchange for sacraments and sacramentals a long time ago; what really amazed me about the sex scandal was the apparent idea that a Catholic Priest, earning less than $19,000/year on average, was a big pockets target for civil lawsuit over something that criminally had hit the statute of limitations years ago.

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Drew Tatusko

posted May 5, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Not sure I follow. The mainline demographic has more wealth than other denominations. That’s the point. Has nothing at all to do with indulgences or sex scandals really.

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posted May 5, 2009 at 3:42 pm

Terry Eagleton’s lecture at Yale (where he coined Ditchkins) are also on youtube – first lecture:

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mike L.

posted May 5, 2009 at 4:41 pm

I loved the line… “[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus”
Tony, I’d also connect this to your recent post about resurrection…
Publicly affirming that you think the resurrection
‘really happened’… is like running out of a movie theater because one of the characters on the big screen just cut the blue wire instead of the red wire.
I do my best (though fail at times) to remain humbly agnostic about things which are not reasonably proven. However, modernist statements of certainty about supernatural explanations are exactly what breeds the anger of Hitchens and Dawkins. Fundamentalism and Atheism will keep fueling each other until people stop insisting that the value of our sacred stories is found in their ability to prove what did or didn’t happen in history.
The “Ditchkins” mistake is that they use the words “religion” and “superstitions” as synonyms. Unfortunately, your remarks tend to support their confusion. Instead of offering a case that religion is much more than superstition, you make their case stronger by suggesting religion hinges on one (or more) of those beliefs and cannot exist without them. You suggested a faith apart from those beliefs is, in your words, “impotent”.

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Drew Tatusko

posted May 5, 2009 at 8:22 pm

The mistake they make is not confusion of religion and superstition, but religion and magic. Religion is more of a sociological phenomenon in a scientific frame than a cognitive issue and that is where they fall miserably short of the mark. They reference not a single sociologist (Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkions to be sure). So they skirt the social reality of what it does in order to focus on various “scientific” strawmen. Then they change the rules and call religion what they need it to be in order for their assertions to sound good. Smoke and mirrors.
Very short definition… Magic offers immediate rewards within a given context, religion is what forms a primary structure of world-creating. Magic can exist within a religion, but the religion is not determined by the magic it may or may not include.
And then they go off and suggest that behavioral scientists are wrong in their determination of delusion. As if those who have made those behavioral distinctions and actually gave us the terminology have misunderstood their entire field of research! Absurd arrogance is not an adequate substitute for reasoned arguments on common grounds. But I have been down this and many many other roads before. The parroting of Dawkins’ assertions is tiresome indeed. Better to read Stephen Jay Gould’s Rocks of Ages along with Ken Miller’s Darwin’s God and get on with it.

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Tom LeGrand

posted May 6, 2009 at 10:14 am

mike L.,
I’ve read your posts under Tony’s blog (and attempted to sort through the glut of other posts there), and you seem to be taking him to task for his stance in a way that I just do not understand.
I cannot see how a statement of belief in the literal, physical resurrection as supporting the idea of Christianity as “superstition” or that anyone is trying to “prove” the resurrection event. Belief in any event that claims God physically and spiritually acted in the framework of history is a matter of faith; and, faith is not superstition by definition. Emergent Christianity, from everything that I have read to this point, does not claim that there are no essentials of Christian faith. It simply chooses to engage in dialogue about those essentials, and listens to people (like you) who may disagree with those essentials. I therefore fail to see how Tony’s public affirmation of his belief in the event of the resurrection does any harm or damage whatsoever.
I also tend to think that holding only to what can be “reasonably proven” is a bit of a farce. We hold on to many things in life that are not proven; or, at least, that are not reasonably proven. Faith in anything does not depend solely on proof, although faith and reason are not mutually exclusive. There are numerous arguments that can be made to provide at least circumstancial evidence for the resurrection event, but these do not prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt. At some point, it becomes a matter of what you are convinced by the head and the heart has happened.
Tony is simply stating that his head and heart are convinced of the truth of the resurrection as a historical event. How is that damaging? How is that fleeing from postmodernism? Just because you are willing to dialogue does not mean that you cannot hold certain things to be true and/or necessary for Christianity.

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mike L.

posted May 6, 2009 at 3:16 pm

I think if you’ll reread my comments on both posts, you’ll see I don’t claim to “hold on to what can be reasonably proven” as you have suggested. Instead, I’d prefer to say, “I claim confidence about something only when it can be reasonably proven. On other things, I try to remain humble agnostic (uncertain).” Your phrase, “hold on to”, confuses me. What do you mean by that.
In other words, I’m not willing to make emphatic statements of certainty without clear evidence. In this case, we don’t even have a definition of what the “thing” is. It seems odd to claim certainty in something we can’t even define. What do we accomplish by claiming “it” really happened/exists, if we don’t know what “it” is? Technically, that would be a null statement.
What you described as “faith” is not at all what I understand and claim as faith. I don’t regard faith as an intellectual certainty that defies the evidence. Instead, I regard faith as my actions in the absence of certainty. In other words, faith is living through the tension between my hopes and my doubts.
Also, I never criticized Tony’s statement of belief (he made a statement of belief, not a statement of faith). I support it, even where I disagree with him. That is exactly what brings me to the emerging conversation and what I love about Tony’s books and his blog. What I clumsily attempted to articulate here, is that I wonder if Tony was consistent in how he reconciles his intellectual confidence on some issues with his more humble approach on others. There have been more damning comments made by other people. I don’t endorse those (even if those who made them might have responded positively to my comments).

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