On the Same Spot and in the Same Moment

Terry Eagleton is a British literary critic, essayist, social commentator, sometimes-Marxist, and while he can come across as a Christian apologist he has not quite been willing to "wear the 'Christian' label." I give thanks for him.

In an essay appearing in The Guardian of a new book by Alain de Botton, Terry Eagleton takes on the history of those philosophers and intellectuals that might be described as "reluctant atheists," those who "long to dunk themselves in the baptismal font but can't quite bring themselves to believe." I find that I agree with Eagleton's critique. He argues it is an atheist tradition, going back at least to Machiavelli and Voltaire, to reject the essence of religion while seeking to maintain the substance. That is, these atheist philosophers abandon what they see as superstition while attempting to maintain the "moral order, social consensus and aesthetic pleasure" to be gained from religion. And this is Eagleton's critique. Alain de Botton's book, Religion for Atheists, is simply part of this long tradition of attempting to pry the substance of religion from its essence.

Of course, as Eagleton notes, "Like many an atheist, [de Botton's] theology is rather conservative and old-fashioned," and so he misses the essence and miscasts the substance at once. Morals, social order, and stupid politeness are not the gospel. Eagleton puts it well: "This is not quite the gospel of a preacher who was tortured and executed for speaking up for justice, and who warned his comrades that if they followed his example they would meet with the same fate." There is a critique here of Christianity that Eagleton either forgets or upon which he refuses to embark. The fact that atheist philosophers are able to extract social moralism from religion in the second place is because much of Christianity has reduced itself to something less than the gospel in the first place -- that is, reduced it to moralistic therapeutic deism (MTD).

MTD has been on my mind lately as I've applied for a youth ministry job here in the Denver metro. MTD was a phrase used by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton to describe the state of religious awareness and phenomenology among American teenagers. MTD describes the understanding held among youth (and I would argue adults) that religion in general is about being nice, life is about being happy, a god may exist but is not that involved with the world or with us, and that good people go to heaven. Smith and Denton on MTD,

”God is something like a combination Divine Butler and Cosmic Therapist: he is always on call, takes care of any problems that arise, professionally helps his people to feel better about themselves, and does not become too personally involved in the process."

If it isn't obvious, this stands in stark contrast to the witness given by the gospels to the man, Jesus, who spoke of turning away from the signs and wisdom of the world, away from the ego and toward the other in love. This man called disciples to follow him in life, and lived a life in opposition to the power of empire that landed him in the system of Roman justice that ultimately executed him. Not much there about being "nice" that I see. You'll note there is a tradition that the disciples also died rather, shall we say, unpleasant deaths.

Anyway, it is not only atheists who are reluctant to fully participate in the religious (and not merely philosophical) life of Christianity. I count myself among those who do not wish to find themselves baptized by a Christianity that has forsaken the gospel, any more than I want to find myself part of a society which has adopted an atheistic ideology that merely apes a life of faith, but which is ultimately empty. It is possible to find oneself in the paradoxical stance of a reluctant atheist and reluctant Christian on the same spot and in the same moment. That said, I would rather see well meaning people wrestle with the church in its flaws, on one hand, and struggle to build systems in the world that do not forsake justice, on the other, than see them limply extract a half-baked philosophy of nice from religions they do not fully understand.