Category Archives: Terry Eagleton

The Ghosts in the Material. A Critique of Materialism by a Materialist Placed Into a Theological Frame of Knowledge of God

I am continuing to read Terry Eagleton on Marx. I just came across a very interesting critique of elitism, and of materialism itself; a critique made, indeed, by the materialist par
excellence, Marx. Let me share it with you, and then I’ll close with some commentary (as usual).

The materialist’s response to the sceptic is not a knock-down argument. You might always claim that our experience of social cooperation, or of the world’s resistance to our projects, is itself not to be trusted. Perhaps we are only imagining these things. But looking at such problems in a materialist spirit can illuminate them in a new way. It is possible to see, for example, how intellectuals who begin from the disembodied mind, and quite often end up there as well, are likely to be puzzled by how the mind relates to the body, as well as to the bodies of others. It may be that they see a bap between mind and world. This is ironic, since it is quite often the way the world shapes their own minds that gives rise to this idea. Intellectuals themselves are a caste of people somewhat remote from the material world. Only on the back of a material surplus in society is it possible to produce a professional elite of priests, sages, artists, counselors, Oxford dons and the like.

Plato thought that philosophy required a leisure aristocratic elite. You cannot have literary salons and learned societies if everyone has to work just to keep social life ticking over. Ivory towers are as rare as bowling alleys in tribal cultures. (They are just as rare in advanced societies, where universities have become organs of corporate capitalism.) Because intellectuals do not need to labour in the sense that bricklayers do, they can come to regard themselves and their ideas as independent of the rest of social existence. And this is one of the many things that Marxists mean by ideology. Such people tend not to see that their very distance from society is itself socially conditioned. The prejudice that thought is independent of reality is itself shaped by social reality.[1]

What an insightful critique of a materialism idealized. The same is true of Christian theology; or it can be. This is one other reason why thinking from God’s embodied existence in the flesh of the man from Nazareth; this is why thinking that starts with the resurrection of God’s humanity in Jesus Christ is so important for all theological endeavor. It keeps theology, the wisdom of God, tethered concretely in the material world that God created and recreated. There is no ideology in a genuinely Christian frame; in other words there is no abstract knowledge of God parasiting off of the backs of broken and suffering people. God has so entered into material/physical reality that it can only be said to be suffused with his grandeur and glory as that is revealed in the punched up face of Jesus Christ. Here is where the hidden God becomes the revealed God, and the wisdom of God comes to be known in the weakness and foolishness of God. It isn’t built upon someone else’s discursive machinations about some Big Other we correlate with the living and revealed God; no, God’s knowledge is a Self-knowledge that can only be known as we come to participate in his life through his Self-mediation in Christ by the Spirit—only God can reveal God.

The way I theologized this may sound strange given Marx’s context and thought-frame. But I think his frame has interesting lines of trajectory; secularly parabolic in nature, even. We could commentate on some of the theopolitical implications of Eagleton’s insights on Marx, but I’m not going to do that right now (Eagleton’s own commentary should suffice for the moment).

[1] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 2011), Loc 1506, 1514 kindle version.


Karl Marx, Karl Barth, and the Inner-Life of Christian Sanctification

As a Christian I am concerned with the ‘inner life’; my inner life. If this concern is not properly ordered or placed into a properly formed Christian Dogmatic, with a properly construed theological-anthropology, then this concern could reduce to something like a so called modern ‘turn-to-the-subject’ or an overly pietistic concern with perfectionism. But I am intentional about avoiding such errors by working at thinking things through, indeed, a properly shaped Christian Dogmatic; which then impinges upon and implicates a properly formed Christian spirituality. The inner-life, for the Christian though, I maintain, is very important.

In the premodern, and in particular in the mediaeval time it was popular to think about the inner-life through what is called a tripartite faculty psychology (made up of affections, intellect, and will). In modern times it is becoming popular, at least for some Christian theologians, to think in terms of what is called non-reductive physicalism; so to think of the soul-body as an integrated whole, and develop theological anthropology and subsequent models of Christian spirituality (by way of recognizing its contours) from there. What I have come to realize is that much of what I have been being exposed to, by hanging out (online mostly) with young Barthians (and some older ones), and being exposed to so called ‘progressive’ or ‘leftist’ Christian thinking is that the theological anthropology shaping that trajectory is much more like what we find in the materialism of Karl Marx rather than what we find in orthodox Christian thinking; and more importantly, than what we find in the Bible.

Karl Barth’s own theology lacks the type of attention to a properly formed conception of the inner life, and as such suffers from a weakness when it comes to real life Christian sanctification. This has made me really think about the relationship between the attractiveness of Marx to so many of these so called Barthians (and other ‘ians’ ensconced in the same ethos); while there are many important differences between Barth and Marx in regard to theology in general, and theological-anthropology in particular, there seems to be a sort of resonance between the lack of focus on the inner life of human beings in both of their respective ways of thinking. In other words, there seems to be such a focus on “embodiedness” that there is neglect when it comes to the soulish realities; realities, I’d contend, that are of primary concern when it comes to Christian sanctification in Holy Scripture. I’m not, on the other hand, denying the reality or importance of recognizing that Christianity is indeed focused on an embodied conception of what it means to be bodied and physical human beings; but I am noticing that a certain sort of physicalism (not simply non-reductive), or materialism seems to be informing and present in the minds and hearts of many of these folks I have had contact with over the years.

In order to help us understand what I’m referring to with more clarity let’s turn to Terry Eagleton now as he helps develop an entrée into Marx’s own inklings on a materialist-anthropology.

Materialism for Marx meant starting from what human beings actually were, rather than from some shadowy ideal to which we could aspire. And what we were was in the first place a species of practical, material, bodily beings. Anything else we were, or could be, had to be derived from this fundamental fact.

In a boldly innovative move, Marx rejected the passive human subject of middle-class materialism and put in its place an active one. All philosophy had to start from the premise that whatever else they were, men and women were first of all agents. They were creatures who transformed themselves in the act of transforming their material surroundings. They were not the pawns of History or Matter or Spirit, but active, self-determinating beings who were capable of making their own history. And this means that the Marxist version of materialism is a democratic one, in contrast to the intellectual elitism of the Enlightenment. Only through the collective practical activity of the majority of people can the ideas which govern our lives be really changed. And this is because these ideas are deeply embedded in our actual behaviour.

In this sense, Marx was more of an antiphilosopher than a philosopher. In fact, Étienne Balibar has called him “perhaps … the greatest antiphilosopher of the modern age.” Antiphilosophers are those who are wary of philosophy—not just in the sense that Brad Pitt might be, but nervous of it for philosophically interesting reasons. They tend to come up with ideas that are suspicious of ideas; and though they are for the most part entirely rational, they tend not to believe that reason is what it all comes down to. Feuerbach, from whom Marx learned some of his materialism, wrote that any authentic philosophy has to begin with its opposite, nonphilosophy. The philosopher, he remarked, must accept “what in man does not philosophise, what is rather opposed to philosophy and abstract thought.” He also commented that “it is man who thinks, not the Ego or Reason.” As Alfred Schmidt observes, “The understanding of man as a needy, sensuous, physiological being is therefore the precondition of any theory of subjectivity.” Human consciousness, in other words, is corporeal—which is not to say that it is nothing more than the body. It is rather a sign of the way in which the body is always in a sense unfinished, open-ended, always capable of more creative activity than what it may be manifesting right now.[1]

We can see certain currents of thought, as Eagleton tells it in Marx, that fit well with the modern desire to think “post-metaphysically”; these are currents that in some ways I have some sort of lurid affinity for myself. I do happen to think that a non-reductive physicalism is probably the best way to construct a theological-anthropology these days (rather than a tripartite faculty psychology etc.), but I think I see more than that in many of these thinkers of today (the ones I’ve been mentioning). I think I see more of an actual physicalism, of the Marxist materialist type, informing the lack of focus on the inner life, and the traditional notion of sanctification and walking in the holiness of God when that comes to personal and individual attention. Indeed, I sense almost zero spirituality in and among the folks I’m thinking of; as if the living Lord has been reduced to material reality only symbolized by the Christ of faith. In the mode I’m thinking of everything seems to be materialized and externalized and existentialized rather than spiritualized by the Christian God who is ‘spirit’ (cf. Jn 4.24).

To be clear, I am only thinking out loud about my own experiences and senses I’ve had with various thinkers over the last many years. Most of these thinkers are of Marx in one way or another, so I think there might be something to my observations. Do I think Barth and Marx offer a similar spirituality? Not really. But I do think that Barth’s lack of attention to sanctification and the Christian life in general is a serious lacuna in his work. As far as Marx goes, I do think he might have some insightful things to say about how humans function on a purely empirical basis, but beyond that I’m not interested in referring to him or synthesizing him with Christian theology in the main.

One more word. You might be wondering why studying Marx is important. Because, his presence is increasingly everywhere. If you pay attention to the so called social issues in the public square then the current rupture in the North American society between right and left can generally be correlated with a rupture (as far as political theory goes) between Marxism and Capitalism. One more word; I’m just as critical of Capitalism as I am of Marxism.

[1] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 2011), Loc 1462, 1469, 1477 kindle version.

Engaging With Karl Marx’s Utopia and the Future: With Some Constructively Christian Eschatologizing

Marxism. Utopia. Realities shunned by Americans in the main; well at least until lately. I am reading Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right. Not because I want to become a Marxist, but because I want to understand Marx and the subsequent developments of Marxisms better. One concept that is often caricatured, among others when it comes to Marx’s doctrine, is the concept of Utopia. I haven’t given much thought to it myself, other than to give in to the common idea that utopia represents some sort of a heaven on earth. But as Eagleton points out, at least for Marx himself, this really couldn’t be further from the truth. So for the rest of the post we will hear from Eagleton on Marx’s understanding of Utopia and the Future.

“So will there still be road accidents in this Marxist utopia of yours?” This is the kind of sardonic enquiry that Marxists have grown used to dealing with. In fact, the comment reveals more about the ignorance of the speaker than about the illusions of the Marxist. Because if utopia means a perfect society, then “Marxist utopia” is a contradiction in terms.

There are, as it happens, far more interesting uses of the word “utopia” in the Marxist tradition. One of the greatest English Marxist revolutionaries, William Morris, produced an unforgettable work of utopia in News from Nowhere, which unlike almost every other utopian work actually showed in detail how the process of political change had come about. When it comes to the everyday use of the word, however, it should be said that Marx shows not the slightest interest in a future free of suffering, death, loss, failure, breakdown, conflict, tragedy or even labour. In fact, he doesn’t show much interest in the future at all. It is a notorious fact about his work that he has very little to say in detail about what a socialist or communist society would look like. His critics may therefore accuse him of unpardonable vagueness; but they can hardly do that and at the same time accuse him of drawing up utopian blueprints. It is capitalism, not Marxism, that trades in futures. In The German Ideology, Marx rejects the idea of communism as “an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself.” Instead, he sees it in that book as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

Just as the Jews were traditionally forbidden to foretell the future, so Marx the secular Jew is mostly silent on what lie ahead. We have seen that he probably thought socialism was inevitable, but he has strikingly little to say about what it would look like. There are several reasons for this reticence. For one thing, the future does not exist, so that to forge images of it is a kind of lie. To do so might also suggest that the future is predetermined—that it lies in some shadowy realm for us to discover. We have seen that there is a sense in which Marx held that the future was inevitable. But the inevitable is not necessarily the desirable. Death is inevitable, too, but not in most people’s eyes desirable. The future may be predetermined, but that is no reason to assume that it is going to be an improvement on what we have at the moment. The inevitable, as we have seen, is usually pretty unpleasant. Marx himself needed to be more aware of this.

Foretelling the future, however, is not only pointless; it can actually be destructive. To have power even over the future is a way of giving ourselves a false sense of security. It is a tactic for shielding ourselves from the open-ended nature of the present, with all its precariousness and unpredictability. It is to use the future as a kind of fetish—as a comforting idol to cling to like a toddler to its blanket. It is an absolute value which will not let us down because (since it does not exist) it is as insulated from the winds of history as a phantom. You can also seek to monopolise the future as a way of dominating the present. The true soothsayers of our time are not hairy, howling outcasts luridly foretelling the death of capitalism, but the experts hired by the transnational corporations to peer into the entrails of the system and assure its rulers that their profits are safe for another ten years. The prophet, by contrast, is not a clairvoyant at all. It is a mistake to believe that the biblical prophets sought to predict the future. Rather, the prophet denounces the greed, corruption and power-mongering of the present, warning us that unless we change our ways we may well have no future at all. Marx was a prophet, not a fortuneteller.[1]

Before I say anymore, Eagleton’s perspective of the biblical prophet is half-baked and relies upon a certain anti-super-naturalistic approach to Holy Scripture and its Prophets and Apostles. If someone reads the Bible it is clear that its prophets and apostles believe that they are referring to something concrete and future; something that they weren’t experiencing yet, but knew because of who God is, and because he keeps his promises that they someday would, as a people, experience his promises to them. It was upon this basis that they not only forthspoke but also foretold future realities; of most significance with reference to Jesus Christ. So Eagleton is just wrong on this score (as he wrote this originally he was either an atheist or agnostic; I’ve heard of late that he may well have returned to the Catholic church).

Nevertheless, he helps to provide greater clarity in regard to what Karl Marx believed ‘utopia’ and the ‘future’ entail as realities. I think, at least with reference to Eagleton’s telling of Marx, there is some wisdom in recognizing that attempting to divine things about the future—even in the name of Jesus—can become idolatrous. Idolatrous in the sense, as Eagleton notes, that we are looking for stability and security in some abstract conception of a forthcoming history as we have designed and divined that. It is in the shadow of this idol that ethics, foreign policies, geo-political postures, perceptions of other nationalities and races, and a host of other shibboleths can be fostered and allowed to fester. As Christians we can learn something from this sort of perspective about the future, even from a materialist like Marx. It isn’t that Christians don’t have a proleptic-future oriented looking view in regard to eschatological reality; it is just that a properly Christian orientation to such things will recognize that that reality is not something that we determine or that is at our behest. Christians will recognize that God in Jesus Christ himself is the eschatos, the last thing that is not absent or in a faraway land, but that he is personally present with us in eucharistic form spread abroad in the hearts of his people by the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christians, while standing in a genuine hope for the future—i.e. the bodily resurrection secured in Christ’s resurrection for us—have not been left as orphans; we live from the future of God for us in the risen and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is not something that we could have ever secured, or divined, but it is something God could. As such, we live lively lives not of our own possession, not of our own construction, but lives put to death and risen again, over and again from Christ’s life for us. This is important: we live in a vulnerable state in regard to our grasp on the past, present, and future, but the grasp on our lives by God’s great big hands are indeed secure; yet not a reality that we have control over, but instead one that we trust can keep us from being plucked out.

Marx can provide some intellectual and even spiritual foil for the Christian, even as the materialist and atheist that he was. But he should not be given too much shrift. He rejected the living Christ, and the living God; so his perspective will be skewed, he did not have the resources to supply people with the hope that God alone can and has in Jesus Christ. Yet, I think it is important to get Marx right, particularly in regard to the nuance he had with reference to realities like utopia. By engaging with the nuance he had we might find some fruitful lines of self-criticality even as Christians. If God could use the Abimelechs, the Assyrians, and the Athenians to work his purposes; he certainly could use a Marx.

[1] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 2011), Loc 774, 782, 790, 797 kindle version.