Terry Eagleton is my favourite Marxist critic, though I must add that the competition for that title is less than fierce. His status as such rests upon the clarity of his prose, the elegance of his wit, the breadth of his learning, a sense of self-parody (sadly a rare commodity among radicals of either left or right) and the precision with which he dissects modern cultural truisms and shibboleths. His demolition of postmodernism and his pungent critiques of the New Atheists are superb. And while laughter is essentially a social phenomenon, his autobiography, The Gatekeeper, remains the only book that repeatedly made me burst out laughing when reading it even when by myself. So the publication of a new piece of Eagletoniana is always a cause for celebration in the Trueman household.
Radical Sacrifice, his latest piece, is not as consistently sharp as his usual fare. Billed as offering ‘a radical version of the idea of sacrifice,’ it offers some fascinating insights but frequently lacks a clear direction. Perhaps I have read too much of his work, but a lot of the humor also seemed to operate along predictable lines; and parts of the book seemed to do little more than rehash earlier work. The section on death, for example, reminded me very much of his arguments in The Meaning of Life. For example, he rehearses here his argument that death and the finitude it involves makes life meaningful, given that immortality would be rather boring (though he does appropriately distinguish between immortality and eternity). There is also plenty of talk about Freud and the death drive. This leads to another criticism: while it is Eagleton’s well-established pattern to summarize the thought of others as the springboard for his own reflections, this particular volume seems to be heavy on such summaries and patchy on his own contributions. That he chooses to spend considerable time offering digests of people such as Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek is most depressing, as neither really has anything of value to say. Depending on how charitable I am feeling, I consider them either to be masters of the kind of vacuous linguistic obfuscation beloved by college sophomores or tiresome comedians who are having a private joke at the gullible reader’s expense. All things considered, this is not the ‘magisterial treatment’ of sacrifice which the jacket commendation from John Milbank claims it to be.
But the book has its moments of greatness. Eagleton is always at his best when engaged in direct polemic, and this volume is no different. Here his most entertaining target is Rene Girard and his work on sacrifice. Over recent years, quoting or referencing Girard has become essential for any middle-aged evangelical leader who aspires to be a hip intellectual, so a critique of Girard is thus always welcome for those of us who are terminally unhip, and Eagleton does not disappoint. He points out that Girard’s view of sacrifice, fixated as it is on the notion of scapegoating, cannot offer the comprehensive theory of violence or even sacrifice which he seems to believe it does. Eagleton’s Marxism is important here, as he points to the material complexities underlying human action in general and violence in particular; but one does not need to be a Marxist to agree that a ‘one size fits all’ schema for sacrificial violence is historically untenable.
Further, Eagleton’s folding together of tragedy, sacrifice and revolution is intriguing. The revolutionary is, for Eagleton, the modern equivalent of the tragic hero or the scapegoat, doomed to suffering by his (or her) role but, through that suffering, a means for the purifying and remaking of society. Of course, Jesus Christ is a great example of this, destroyed by the political and religious establishment of his day but thereby the means for their destruction and the establishment of a new order. The revolutionary is the point of Hegelian movement in history, someone who embodies in themselves the death of one society and the birth of another. Such suffering is therefore redemptive and transformative.
What is a Christian to do with Eagleton’s arguments? We can certainly appreciate his critique of Girard and also affirm the tragic nature of human existence. Would that more preachers saw the darkness of life as clearly as he does. Pain and suffering are evils but, in the fallen world in which we live, they are often necessary. In Christ, of course, such pain and suffering is subversive and is the necessary means of destroying the old order. But Eagleton, appreciative as he has become of Christianity and his Catholic roots, is still a Marxist and still conceives of the human condition as determined by, and terminating in, material conditions. Christ is a revolutionary indeed but only within the framework of this world. That the human condition is tragic prior to material conditions and that the cure for this is not a rearrangement of the social structure via revolutionary sacrifice, are things which Eagleton would repudiate.
Eagleton is to be commended for seeing that pain, suffering, tragedy and sacrifice lie at the heart of Christianity’s revolutionary message. But the tragedy of Eagleton is that this revolution is ultimately an immanent one which, for all of its courageous acceptance and hopeful defiance of the darkness of this world, fails to see the depths of our problem and the transcendence of God’s grace.
Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Humanities and Letters, Grove City College.