David Potter looks at two secular books which grapple with life’s big questions
Two books were published within a fortnight of each other in early February.
Their similar titles caught my eye: Culture and the Death of God by Terry Eagleton and The Age of Nothing: How we Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God by Peter Watson.
For most of human history, human beings have been curious to answer big questions like ‘What is the meaning of life?’, ‘How do we decide what is right and what is wrong?’, or ‘Is there life after life?’. And most of the answers have been more or less religious – until Nietzche, who in 1882 made the bold announcement that God is dead.
Starting from this point, Peter Watson chronicles the variety of ways in which nonbelievers have tried to answer the big questions of life and death without the need of religion. He does not challenge Nietzche’s dreadful conclusion. What he does show incidentally, perhaps unintentionally, is that with no God in the frame there can be no real answers on which human beings can agree. The human progress, which was expected in the wake of God’s death and emancipation from the oppressive influence of religion, simply has not materialised.
Theodore Dalrymple, reviewing Watson’s book in The Times, wrote: ‘The evidence for this [progress], on his own showing, does not appear very strong. Many of the ideas that were substitutes for religious thought have been shallow, silly or nasty’.
Watson’s account of secular ideologies shows him to be extraordinarily widely read with a magisterial grasp of his sources. He is necessarily selective, though that appears to be as much a matter of personal taste and choice on the author’s part. He offers no critique or other comment on these views. At times one is impressed, not with their profundity but their banality. The range and diversity of views is astonishing, a veritable planetarium of opinions.
I assumed that I would reach a point where the curtain would be drawn back with a flourish to reveal the shiny new model of ‘The Answer’, as discovered by Peter Watson. This is how we will live life with meaning and fulfilment in a bright future, unclouded by religious superstition. But there is no fanfare, no swish of the curtain, no future even. After all this, as the title declares, we have reached The Age of Nothing. That is not to say that Watson makes no attempt to point a way forward, but it is not new. It is not hopeful. And it certainly is not satisfying. He has given up on the search for one all-encompassing meaning, the idea that meaning is a big thing. Secularisation ‘teaches us how to look out upon the world, appreciating it detail by detail’.
A different outlook
Terry Eagleton’s book, Culture and the Death of God, is rather different. It is based on a series of lectures and has the feel of the classroom, didactic and polemical. Taking the Enlightenment as his starting point he attempts to cover the history of thought to the present day in six chapters. His particular focus is to discover whether culture has successfully supplanted religion to give meaning to life – and to show that it has failed in the attempt.
Unlike Watson, Eagleton takes issue with his sources along the way – he really doesn’t like Matthew Arnold. Occasionally there is a flash of wit and a pithy sentence shines out, like this remark in the opening paragraph: ‘Atheism is by no means as easy as it looks’. Then again, later, ‘Not believing in God is a far more arduous affair than is generally imagined’. Without religion where does one look for morality? How can one sustain any degree of social cohesion?
Like Watson, Eagleton has a profound understanding of his sources. While he does not attempt to cover the same range of thinkers and ideologies, he deals in depth with the strengths and, more particularly, the weaknesses of those he regards as significant to his theme. But he arrives at a very different place from Watson, one where religion holds significance. The reviewer in The Times sneers at him for this.
The final paragraphs show Eagleton groping towards a Christian conclusion. ‘The New Testament has little or nothing to say of responsible citizenship. It is not a ‘civilised’ document at all. It shows no enthusiasm for social consensus … what it adds to common-or-garden morality is not some supernatural support, but grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities. The sign of that dissolution is a solidarity with the poor and powerless. It is here that a new configuration of faith, culture and politics might be born’.
It hardly makes him an evangelical but it acknowledges that we who are might not be as far from the right track as secularists assert.
Secularism penetrates our world at every level, apparent in politics, economics, law, religion, entertainment and even sport. How right G. K. Chesterton was when he wrote: ‘When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything’. Secularism pretends certainty, even if it leaves all the big questions without an answer. But why does nobody point out that the emperor has no clothes? Scripture gives us a glimpse behind the scenes so that we may understand this strange indifference to the seemingly obvious: ‘The god of this world has blinded the eyes of those who do not believe’ (2 Corinthians 4.4).
By great contrast with these books, Scripture’s meaning is accessible to the reader. True, as Peter commented of Paul’s writing, there are some things that are hard to understand, but by far the majority of it is both readable and understandable. People do not disbelieve the Bible because they have read it and find it incomprehensible; by and large they have not read it! Perhaps Bible reading is what we should encourage first and foremost in our evangelism.
Eagleton poses a further challenge: ‘[Postmodernism] is too young to recall a time when there was (so it is alleged) truth, unity, totality, objectivity, universals, absolute values, stable identities and rock-solid foundations, and thus finds nothing disquieting about their apparent absence’.
How, then, shall we speak to the young generation which has no memory of absolute values, of rights and wrongs, of truth and falsehood? They have grown up with – and grown used to – the flexible certainties of science and the pliable morals of public opinion. How will they relate to the blinding certainties of biblical revelation? Will our outreach make sense beyond the generation of our church families?
Denial is un-reasonable
One final reflection on philosophy is to challenge the supposed antithesis between faith and reason. The evidence for something more than the empty materialism of a Marx or a Dawkins – or of 21st-century consumerism for that matter – is too compelling to be ignored. There is the reality which can’t be stuffed into a test-tube or peered at under microscopes. Denial is un-reasonable.
Christianity scratches where people itch. It admits that there is more than me, more than then and now, more than wish or fear. And it says what it is and why. It acknowledges the self-worth I treasure and tells me where it comes from. It understands the guilt I have and does more than offer an explanation: it tenders a permanent solution. The awe I feel at the edge of life is not a mirage: there is something there, and the gospel tells me what it is and how it may be realised. The awfulness of pain, the seeming random meaninglessness of suffering, finds its answer in a crucified body. And for the longing to be understood, to be known, to be loved, it offers me the embrace of God himself.