Thursday, June 19, 2014

Unilateral disarmament

I probably won't read Terry Eagleton's Culture and the Death of God but I probably should. Jonathan Sacks' review, "Nostalgia for the Numinous," is in itself worth reading:
.... We are meaning-seeking animals. And if we can no longer believe in God we will find other things to worship. Eagleton’s book is a brisk, intelligent, and provocative tour of Western intellectual history since the Enlightenment, understood as a series of chapters in the search for a God-substitute. The Enlightenment found it in reason, the Idealists in the human spirit, the Romantics in nature and culture, the Marxists in revolution, and Nietzsche in the Übermensch. Others chose the nation, the state, art, the sublime, humanity, society, science, the life force, and personal relationships. None of these had entirely happy outcomes, and none was self-sustaining.

The end result was postmodernism, a systematic subversion of meaning altogether. Postmodernism is Nietzsche without the anguish, tragedy, or will to power—all the things that made Nietzsche worth reading. Now, in place of the revaluation of values, we have their devaluation. We are surrounded by choices with no reason to choose this rather than that. Postmodern consciousness, in Perry Anderson’s phrase, is “subjectivism without a subject.” Eagleton calls it “depthless, anti-tragic, non-linear, anti-numinous, non-foundational and anti-universalist, suspicious of absolutes and averse to interiority.”

The result is that we are witnesses to the advent of the first genuinely atheist culture in history. The apparent secularism of the 18th to 20th centuries was nothing of the kind. God—absent, hiding, yet underwriting the search for meaning—was in the background all along. In postmodernism, that sense of an absence, or what Eagleton calls “nostalgia for the numinous,” is no longer there. Not only is there no redemption, there is nothing to be redeemed. ....

The real trouble—and here Eagleton is surely right—is that the West no longer has a set of beliefs that would justify its commitments to freedom and democracy. All it has left is “a mixture of pragmatism, culturalism, hedonism, relativism and anti-foundationalism,” inadequate defenses against an adversary that believes in “absolute truths, coherent identities and solid foundations.” The West has, intellectually speaking, “unilaterally disarmed at just the point where it has proved most perilous for it to do so.” Eagleton regards this as an irony, but it is not. It is precisely the West’s loss of faith that made it seem vulnerable to its opponents. It is mostly the failure of postmodernism to speak to the most fundamental aspects of the human condition that has driven those in search of meaning and consolation into the hands of the anti-modernists for whom freedom and democracy are not values at all. ....

Can the West recover its faith? Livy said about 1st-century Rome that it had reached the stage where “we can endure neither our vices nor their cure.” Such is the degree of secularization among the West’s elites now that religious liberty itself is felt by many believers to be at risk. Having tried and failed to provide substitutes for religion, today’s public intellectuals have no new candidate to offer beyond the present mix of relativism, individualism, hedonism, and consumerism, which is neither elevating nor redemptive. .... [more]