Terry Eagleton and the awkward necessity of being radical

I argued a while a ago that for someone with a Christian motivation there will always be the awkward necessity of being a true radical. Radicalisation in that sense is not something that has to be avoided. Indeed, proper radicalisation has to be encouraged in order to prevent the wrong kind of radicalisation we don’t want. „Proper“ in this sense equals kenotic, humble, sacrifical. „Wrong“ equals dominant, exclusive, ego-centric.

In his book „Culture and the Death of God“ (New Haven 2014), Terry Eagleton comes to a similar conclusion. Eagleton’s book is something like a history of intellectual secularisation and the transformation of the concept of God and the divine. He starts with German and English traditions of Idealist thinking at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century. He then turns his attention to Romantic notions of culture as the Divine before arriving at the more atheistic visions of the god-like human being in the thought of Marx and Nietzsche. I must admit that – having in mind Hans Blumenberg’s criticism of the secularisation thesis – I was sometimes sceptical as to whether Eagleton’s rather linear account of divine „loss“ is correct. But that is not my question here.

Rather, I would like to do nothing more than to mention that Terry Eagleton – like myself – sees the need for a firm faith-based intervention into social and political discourse. We have to bear in mind, however, that faith and faith-communities are not mere functions of society. Also their justification lies not in the useful kit they provide for the social fabric. Terry Eagleton writes towards the end of his book:

„If religious faith were to be released from the burden of furnishing social orders with a set of rationales of their existence, it might be free to rediscover its true purpose as a critique of all such politics. In this sense, its superfluity might prove its salvation.“ (207)

Faith’s role in society is not primarily edifying or constructive. But it is also not destructive or corrupting. It is neither of these. Faith’s „usefulness“ lies in the space and time it provides for critique, for transformation and conversion. Christian faith, thus, has in store …

„… the grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities.“ (208)

In Eagleton’s own words the „self-dispossession of Christ“ (159) must be followed by a self-dispossession or decentring of his ollowers today. These followers become Christ-like radicals for the sake of justice and compassion.

These radicals walk the earth as constant critics of fundamentalist and secular arrogance alike. This seems to be the awkward radicalism which is needed after all: in politics, in society, in church.

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