Can We Live Without Theology?
Alasdair Craig seems skeptical of the idea that we can. He considers new books by Peter Watson and by the Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, both of whom explore culture in a post-theistic age. Eagleton argues that Christianity is unique in world religions in that it was able to make the cosmic graspable and relatable to every day life. Excerpt:
We feel alienated from the cosmos because we struggle to integrate the truths of science with our everyday desires and emotions. Proselytizers for science like Richard Dawkins often miss this point. In 2009 Dawkins wrote an essay promoting science entitled “There is grandeur in this view of life.” But we already know that science discloses grand, even sublime truths. The problem is that this grandeur has proven difficult to connect with purpose, intimacy, emotion—the stuff that matters most in people’s everyday lives.
This, for Eagleton, is where Christianity excels. The Christian worldview was structured around a narrative that began with Creation and ended with Heaven/Hell. In such a world, humans found themselves in the midst of a quest, and we could choose to act accordingly. Before science discredited it, religion had what Eagleton calls “the power to motivate”; science, he says, lacks this.
Narrative becomes all the more precious in the face of earthly sorrows. For Nietzsche, the point of the story of the Fall and the coming redemption is to justify suffering and to offer hope to those who have least: the meek shall inherit the earth. But this story dies with God. “What actually arouses indignation over suffering is not the suffering itself, but the senselessness of suffering,” wrote Nietzsche in On the Genealogy of Morality. He concludes that the “herd” can never do without a grand narrative.
This, for Nietzsche, explains why although science and reason have killed God, we’ve failed to bury him. Eagleton describes the ways in which humans have tried—but failed—to replace God with concepts such as “Reason, Nature, Geist, culture, art, the sublime, the nation.” Theological concepts such as inspiration, unity, autonomy, epiphany and so on have also been imported into our talk about art.
Eagleton thinks atheism simply can’t provide the truths we need to live. More:
Watson is more optimistic about the possibility of an emotionally satisfying atheism. His proposal is that we use art and literature to comprehend and re-enchant the world that science has made foreign. Science is one way of understanding the world; art and literature another, he seems to say. Science provides technology, medicine and abstract knowledge; art provides meaning, purpose and a different, more intimate and immediately relevant kind of knowledge. God’s death just means that we need to construct our own, non-authoritative narratives and art, replete with purpose and meaning. Instead of one unified story to which everyone subscribes, we should play around with a plurality of downgraded stories, which can form the basis of our day-to-day lives.
But, of course, this is what we already do, and it is less a solution than a re-statement of the problem. His various narratives won’t provide the emotional relief he wants. For just as Christianity made sublime and cosmic “truths” accessible on a human level, so it invested everyday human life with cosmic significance. With God out of the picture, this is lost. Watson quotes the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s beautiful summary of this problem: “Existence is something tremendous, and day-to-day life, however indispensable, seems an insufficient response to it.”