Reinventing Christianity

Shadia B. Drury

From the very moment of its invention by Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity has been in need of reinvention. So unpalatable was the religion of Jesus that the overwhelming success of Christianity could not have been possible had it not been for the ingenuity of the Catholic Church. To triumph, the Church had to obscure the cruel and callous aspects of the founders religion. For example, Jesus thought that there were only two alternativesheaven or hell. On Judgment Day, each of us will be consigned to one or the other. This meant that someone guilty of a trivial misdemeanor may share the same fate as a brutal dictator. Without obliterating the abnormally vicious doctrine of hellfire, the Church invented purgatory. In this way, it gave the religion of Jesus some semblance of justice. The success of the Catholic Church was due in large measure to its ability to project a veneer of fairness, meekness, love, and mercy, which made the religion extremely appealing-because, contrary to the Christian doctrine of original sin, most people are attracted only to the just and the good (or what appears to be just and good).

As the Church gained political power, its crimes proved an embarrassment to the faith. The success of Christianity has depended on a cavalcade of theologians ready to re-invent the religion of Jesus, just as the Church had done with such spectacular success. Time and again throughout history, these apologists have endeavored to reestablish the oneness of the Christian ideal with the true, the just, the good, and the beautiful.

The most recent and most ingenious example of this theological creativity is Terry Eagletons Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale University Press, 2009). In a bristling response to the most notable antitheists of our time (Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens), Eagleton musters all his creativity in yet another reinvention of Christianity. He is eager to rescue the religion of his forefathers (he was raised an Irish Catholic) from the crude version that is dominant among its critics and advocates alike. In his estimation, both the antitheists and right-wing Christian fundamentalists share the same coarse, vulgar understanding of the faith. To counteract this crude caricature, Eagleton offers what he considers to be a portrait of Christianity that is as sublime as it is sophisticated. In what follows, I will show that Eagletons reinvention of Christianity is simultaneously unrecognizable and depressingly familiar.

The most surprising aspect of Eagletons Christianity is that it is not a religion of dogmas, beliefs, or propositionsit is a performative rather than a propositional religionin other words, it is a religion of doing, not believing; of works, not faith (p. 111). It would certainly come as a shock to Thomas Aquinas (for whom Eagleton professes boundless admiration as the greatest theologian of all time) that all the beliefs Aquinas deemed absolutely necessary for salvation (the Virgin Birth, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection) are irrelevant. It behooves us to recall that Aquinas defended the killing of heretics because their errors contaminate the ideas of the faithful and threaten their salvation. For Aquinas, the Inquisition was necessary for self-defense. If Eagleton is right about Christianity, then all these heretics died in vainthey posed no threat after all.

Eagleton goes so far as to dispense with belief in the existence of God. He insists that God is about faith, and one can have faith in God without believing in his existence as the CEO of the universe or its creator. Faith in God is like faith in a friend. There is no connection between faith in God and belief in his existence. Eagleton points out that devils believe in the existence of God but have no faith in himthat is to say no confidence, trust, or esteem for him. I think this makes perfect sense, but the reverse is not the case. No one can have faith in God while believing that he does not exist. Eagleton fails to recognize that believing that God exists is a necessary but not sufficient condition for having faith in him. The fact that I have a daughter is not a sufficient reason for me to have faith in her. But I could not have faith in my daughter if I did not have a daughter in the first place.

Digging deeper, it seems that for Eagleton, faith in God is inseparable from the experience of oneness and solidarity that we get in the course of struggling with others against injustice (p. 92). God is that flash of eternity in time, that glimpse of the kingdom that we experience in these shared moments. This is why we are forbidden to make graven images of this nonentity because the only image of him is human beings (p. 8). And yet, human beings are for Eagleton the source of all the rottenness in the world.

Eagleton is a Marxist, but he does not believe that a communist wonderland will materialize at the end of history. Instead, he shares the view of Christiansfrom Augustine to Lutherthat the world is sordid, vile, decrepit, and depraved. He attributes the evils of the world to humanity, which he dubs the scum of the earth. But the human proclivity for hatred, exploitation, domination, injustice, greed, idolatry, and delusion does not lead him to despair (p. 24). Instead, Eagleton tells us that we must struggle against the injustices of this deplorable world even if the task is hopeless. This requires faith that against all appearances to the contrary, the powerless can come to power. Such an impossible struggle requires what Eagleton calls a steadfast fidelity to failure (p. 27).

Jesus is the model for this radical posture. Eagleton paints him as a revolutionary who has no interest in prudent reforms, negotiation, or compromise. Eagletons Jesus is altogether contemptuous of moderation and half measures, which Eagleton associates with the deplorable bourgeois virtues of his opponents. In contrast to the moderate stance of liberal humanists such as Dawkins and Hitchens, Jesus refused to have any truck with this bankrupt, dpass, washed-up world(p.24). He would settle for nothing short of the complete transfiguration of this lamentable world; only an unsurpassed reign of justice and fellowship could satisfy him. Eagleton bids us to follow Jesus and abandon our dished-up world in order to live in the hope of a more authentic existence in the future (p. 27). This endeavor will naturally require sacrificefor only through a tragic process of loss, nothingness, and dispossession can humanity come into its own (p. 38). As Eagleton explains, the coming of the kingdom will involve a turbulent passage through death, nothingness, madness, loss, and futility (p. 24). But Eagleton is a Marxist without illusions for whom there is no guarantee that a transfigured future will ever be born (p. 169).

Christians have always believed in following the example of Jesus. Eagleton tells them that it is not enough to follow Jesus in life, they must also follow him in death (p. 23). For Eagleton, if you follow Jesus and dont end up dead, it appears you have some explaining to do (p. 27). Despite all appearances to the contrary, Eagleton denies that his version of Christianity fosters a ghoulish cult of suffering (p. 28). Instead, he dubs it a tragic humanism. But on careful inspection it turns out to be neither humanitarian nor tragic.

There is nothing humanitarian about condemning humanity to endless struggle, martyrdom, and death in the name of an unattainable reign of justice and fellowship. Eagleton and his Jesus have declared war on the world, humanity, and life itself. They demand nothing short of the total transfiguration of existence. They are full of the same contemptu mundi as Pope Innocent III, who had contempt for the world, a predilection for gloom, and disgust for humanity as food for worms. Eagleton and his Jesus suffer from a chronic inability to affirm life in this world. They cannot accept the limitations of our humanity. They reject the natural exclusivity of love for those who are nearest and dearest in favor of impossible fellowship with every stranger. They are willing to sacrifice the real love that is available in this world for the oxymoronic dream of political lovethe cornerstone of the Marxist dream. But since the latter is unattainable, Eagleton turns the struggle itself into a heroic but tragic enterprise.

However, self-inflicted suffering in pursuit of an impossible, unattainable, and unreasonable goal is never heroic or tragic. Tragedy is about innocent suffering in a world that no one has promised to transfigure. The tragic hero is the victim of circumstances that are beyond his or her control. There is a world of difference between the undeserved and unwelcomed suffering of Oedipus and the suffering of a revolutionary who valorizes his anguish as an affirmation of his humanity. The latter is complicit in his anguish; he chooses his torment as the badge of his identity. He is a deluded individual, not a tragic figure. Unwittingly, Eagletons reinvention of Christianity leaves his readers longing for the bourgeois virtue of moderation that he so contemptuously attributes to his opponents.

Shadia B. Drury

Shadia B. Drury is professor emerita at the University of Regina in Canada. Her most recent book is The Bleak Political Implications of Socratic Religion (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).


From the very moment of its invention by Jesus of Nazareth, Christianity has been in need of reinvention. So unpalatable was the religion of Jesus that the overwhelming success of Christianity could not have been possible had it not been for the ingenuity of the Catholic Church. To triumph, the Church had to obscure the …

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