After Theory

Article ID: JAP335 | By: Douglas Groothuis

This review first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 27, number 5 (2004). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal go to: http://www.equip.org

People cannot come to the Christ of the Bible on God’s terms unless they have banished certain beliefs from their thinking and put other beliefs in their place. They also cannot embrace the gospel in an intellectual vacuum by sheer willpower.

J. Gresham Machen, a key conservative apologist against modernism — the liberal and skeptical notions that challenged the truth of the Bible and the Christian faith early in the twentieth century — thundered forth the same points in 1912 in a message called “The Scientific Preparation of the Minister.” He stated, “False ideas are the greatest obstacles to the reception of the gospel. We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which…prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.”

One such idea today that inhibits the reception of the Christian gospel is the claim that truth is neither objective nor absolute; rather, it is constructed in terms of how various communities use language. In other words, there is no universal truth; rather, each linguistic community determines its own truth. Terry Eagleton, professor of cultural theory at Manchester University, once promoted this pernicious postmodern idea and introduced a generation of students to deconstruction (the critical analysis of language) and postmodern theory (also called simply “theory”) through his book Literary Theory (University of Minnesota Press, 1996). Eagleton, however, has rethought the movement he once heralded and now even laments some aspects of postmodernism that neglect or trivialize the great intellectual questions of truth, goodness, and justice. He still respects some of the insights of postmodern thinkers such as Derrida, Barthes, and Kristeva; however, Eagleton says he now thinks the movement primarily focuses on trivialities instead of deeper questions of truth and justice and, therefore, needs serious correction; so he charts a new course of thought “after theory.” (He voices similar criticisms in his book The Illusions of Postmodernism [Blackwell Publishers, 1996].)

Unlike most postmodernists, who often revel in obscure language and arguments, Eagleton writes with lucidity, passion, and pluck (sometimes bordering on belligerence). He is a literary theorist who addresses classic philosophical topics such as the nature of truth, the meaning and moral purpose of human life, and politics. The turnabout of an influential non-Christian intellectual who repents of significant errors in his previous thinking and moves closer to a Christian worldview (even without embracing it) presents an important apologetic opportunity. Christians should applaud good arguments by non-Christians that support truths that are integral to the Christian worldview; nevertheless, Christians also should challenge such thinkers to embrace the only worldview that fits all the pieces of truth together into a coherent whole — Christian theism. Eagleton’s change of mind on postmodernism presents just such an apologetic opportunity, in terms of what he gets right and what he gets wrong. His book is worth assessing for this reason — despite his atheism, naive socialism, unfair attacks on Christian fundamentalism, and his shrill anti-Americanism, which is especially evident in the postscript.

Eagleton aptly defines postmodernism as “the contemporary movement of thought which rejects totalities, universal values, grand historical narratives, solid foundations to human existence and the possibility of objective knowledge. Postmodernism is skeptical of truth, unity and progress, opposes what it sees as elitism in culture, tends toward cultural relativism, and celebrates pluralism, discontinuity and heterogeneity” (p.13). This perspective, he rightly claims, provides few resources to evaluate the long-standing issues in philosophy and political thought, since it denies the possibility of finding a philosophically satisfying worldview (or “metanarrative”). Eagleton, however, believes the crisis of international terrorism against the West means that the West must reflect on its own foundations — a notion that postmodernists abhor as “modernistic.” He writes, “The West may need to come up with some persuasive-sounding legitimations of its form of life, at exactly the point when laid-back cultural thinkers are assuring it that such legitimations are neither possible nor necessary. It may be forced to reflect on the truth and reality of its existence, at a time when postmodern thought has grave doubts about both truth and reality. It will need, in short, to sound deep in a progressively more shallow age” (73).

Eagleton sometimes strongly indicts the deficits of postmodern theory. “It has been shamefaced about morality and metaphysics, embarrassed about love, biology, religion and revolution, largely silent about evil, reticent about death and suffering, dogmatic about essences, universals, and foundations, and superficial about truth objectivity and disinterestedness. This, on any estimate, is a rather large slice of human existence to fall down on” (101–2). Postmodernism, in other words, marginalizes the very questions that philosophy and religion have addressed for thousands of years. In this sense, it is a kind of “anti-philosophy,” as Eagleton puts it — a veto on profitably pondering the issues that matter most (63). This kind of approach renders the claims of biblical revelation irrelevant, since religion supposedly cannot speak to matters of truth, evil, love, death, suffering, and so on.

Eagleton cuts against the postmodern grain and argues persuasively that objective and absolute truth exists and that we can know it (103–39). He rightly notes that the fallibility of some truth claims does nothing to undermine the category of truth itself — a simple distinction that many postmodernists miss. Eagleton does not put it this way, but what he is saying is that postmodernists often confuse the nature of truth (i.e., metaphysics) with the knowability of truth (i.e., epistemology). Truth, according to the correspondence view, which Eagleton advocates, is (or means) “agreement with reality.” This is the definition (or “metaphysics”) of truth; correspondence with reality is what truth is or consists of. Truth claims, nonetheless, may be defended or attacked through a variety of intellectual means. This is the realm of epistemology, which concerns the intellectual justification of truth claims. Simply because truth is sometimes difficult to know or discover does not imply that linguistic communities construct (and deconstruct) truth, as postmodernists posit.1

This view of truth matters to Eagleton — and it should matter to us — because, as he says, it is part of our dignity as “moderately rational beings” to have access to truth. Political critique and action, moreover, demand access to reality. Political radicals — of which Eagleton is one — can stop complaining that it is certainly true that women are oppressed, for example, if we cannot know objective truth. We might add a comment that Eagleton would never make: If truth is not objective and knowable, political conservatives can stop talking as though it is unequivocally true that abortion on demand is a moral atrocity. Without a strong claim to truth, all political discourse devolves into mere manipulation.

This concern about the relationship of truth to ethics lies at the root of Eagleton’s desire to reform society according to a particular vision — a mixture of the natural law philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (but without God) and the socialist philosophy of Karl Marx. Eagleton’s long-abandoned Catholic roots are evident when he describes an ideal social order in which humans flourish in communities. Humans thrive by realizing (fulfilling) their own natures and contributing to the realization of others’ natures as well. Eagleton’s vision, however, is postreligious and socialistic — with plenty of harsh and reactive criticisms of capitalism and American conservatism. He, nevertheless, argues that a secular worldview will have difficulty wedding fact and value meaningfully. In one eloquent paragraph, he speaks of Christianity’s profound power to give meaning, value, morality, and vision to existence:

Through ritual and moral code, religion could link questions of absolute value to men and women’s everyday experience. Nothing was less abstract than God, heaven, sin, redemption.…It planted the cosmic law in the very depths of the individual, in a faculty known as conscience. Faith bound together the people and the intellectuals, the simple faithful and the clergy, in the most durable of bonds. It could create a sense of common purpose far beyond the capacity of a minority culture. It outlined the grand narrative of all, known as eschatology. It could interweave art, ritual, politics, ethics, mythology, metaphysics and everyday life while lending this mighty edifice the sanction of supreme authority. (99)

Eagleton laments, however, that in spite of the many benefits the Christian worldview offered, “It was…a particular shame that it involved a set of beliefs which seemed to many decent, rational people remarkably benighted and implausible” (99).

There are, of course, “many decent, rational people” (including many contemporary evangelical philosophers) who do not find this religious worldview “benighted and implausible,” but rational and indeed compelling. Eagleton, like many British secular intellectuals, seems content to relegate religion to the past, even if wistfully. In so doing, however, he ignores the renaissance in Christian philosophy that has occurred in the past 25 years, which includes American and British thinkers. The pervasive secularism of England is conducive to these kinds of comments, however unwarranted they may be, given the larger intellectual climate.2 Truth, of course, isn’t settled by counting noses (educated or otherwise), but one wishes that Eagleton had provided some arguments for denying the Christian worldview he seems ambivalent about relinquishing.

Eagleton sounds at times like a God-haunted atheist, given the attention he pays to explicitly biblical themes. His criticism of the Bible, nevertheless, is far less convincing than his criticism of postmodernism. Eagleton finds some biblical discussions to have contemporary significance but disparages “fundamentalism,” especially the view that the Bible is historically reliable. This is evident when he rejects Luke’s account of Jesus’ infancy as a ludicrous fabrication for theological purposes that has no historical basis (204–5). Luke’s account, however, particularly the remarks about the Roman census, differs from Matthew’s account, but the two can be harmonized. Luke’s explicit purpose, moreover, is historical (Luke1:1–4), and extrabiblical sources on many matters of historical detail prove it to be accurate.3

Eagleton also offers some outlandish and embarrassing interpretations of Scripture that show he has not transcended the hermeneutical gymnastics of deconstructionism. He claims that the New Testament view of ethics is relatively “irreligious” since “salvation comes down to…the humdrum material business of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and visiting the sick” (154). Matthew’s account of the second coming, he claims, “is one of carefully contrived bathos,” and “even heaven is something of a let down” (154).


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One wonders which Bible Professor Eagleton has been reading. His flippant comments to the contrary, the ethics of the Bible is rooted in the commands and character of a holy and loving God (Exod.20:1–18; Matt.22:37–40). Salvation is won for us through the substitutionary atonement and glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ (1Cor.15:3–4). Salvation is received by faith alone, but saving faith fosters good works for the glory of God (Eph.2:8–10; Col.3:17; James2:14–26). The notion that either the root or fruit of salvation is “humdrum” is patently absurd. Even in serving “the least of these,” we serve Christ (Matt.25:31–46). Eagleton’s claim that Matthew’s account of the second coming is crafted to treat a serious subject in a superficial way (“bathos”) is itself an egregious example of unintentional bathos.

Eagleton even blithely asserts that “The New Testament also adopts a fairly relaxed attitude to sex, and takes a notable dim view of the family” (154). The New Testament, in fact, is less “relaxed” about sex than even the Old Testament, since it forbids polygamy and is more strict concerning divorce (Matt.19:1–12). Paul’s attitude toward sexual debauchery in 1Corinthians, for example, is hardly relaxed. Jesus also tightened the screws on sexual behavior when He taught that lust in the heart is a kind of adultery (Matt.5:27–30). Jesus affirmed that we should not put the family above God (Matt.10:37–39), but that is hardly a “dim view of the family.” Nowhere does the New Testament diminish the importance of the family, since heterosexual marriage and godly child rearing are ordained by God (Gen.1:28;2:20–25).

Leaving aside Eagleton’s unholy wrangling about Holy Writ, his notion that humans have a rational nature that has access to objective moral truths coheres far better with a theistic worldview than with his atheistic one. In other words, Christianity provides a solid basis for an objective ethic that highly values human beings and encourages their flourishing in accord with biblical principles (Matt.6:33). This perspective is rooted in the revealed truth that human beings are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen.1:26) and have access to the moral law through conscience (Rom.2:14–15) and Scripture (2Tim.3:15–17).

Eagleton, however, asks, “What are human beings for? The answer is surely: nothing…” because we are simply ends in ourselves (120). He takes this to be a brute fact, requiring no explanation. Humans, however, cannot have intrinsic moral value as ends in themselves in a purely material world that is without design or purpose. On this scheme we are merely evolved animals whose behaviors are constrained only by our biological makeup and relative cultural norms. Objective moral values that transcend instinct and culture cannot emerge from a purely material matrix of cause and effect, which is all that Eagleton’s atheism says exists. Moral relativism — or even nihilism (the idea that nothing has value) — is more fitting for such a materialistic view of reality. Eagleton advances no real arguments regarding these significant philosophical concerns. It is one thing to assert that morality is objective; it is another to argue that claim cogently on the basis of a morally sufficient worldview.

Despite its deep flaws, After Theory serves the significant purpose of calling key postmodernist ideas into question and arguing that the reality of objective truth has yet to succumb to its postmodernist assailants; however, in light of the horror of 9/11 and the war against terrorism in which we are enmeshed, the West needs much more than an atheistic literary critic with second thoughts on postmodernism can offer. Alexander Solzhenitsyn observed that the decline of the West is traceable to one principal thing — we have rejected God. Without the knowledge of the biblical God, the West will never recover its foundations.

— reviewed by Douglas Groothuis

NOTES

1. See Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay: Defending Christianity Against the Challenges of Postmodernism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000).

2. For the testimonies of Christian philosophers, see James Kelly Clark, ed., Philosophers Who Believe (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994).

3. On the historicity of Luke’s infancy narratives, see Craig Keener, Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992), 193.