Quailing Before the Real: Terry Eagleton on Ethics

By Roland Boer

Posted 1 December 2010

Terry Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009).

Terry Eagleton has joined the rush of those on the left to offer opinions on ethics in a recent lop-sided work called Trouble With Strangers. [1] In what follows I offer, in the spirit of Adorno’s suspicion concerning any moral philosophy, [2] a critical reading of Eagleton’s text and then develop more sustained criticisms of both a theological and philosophical tenor. The argument of the book is as straightforward as it is expected in these days of his recovered role as a left theologian: both Christian theology and socialism offer a far more profound sense of both the depravity of human beings and the capacity for ground-shaking renewal. After all, is this not the point of the narrative of Christ’s death and resurrection? It leads one to what should be an entirely disinterested obligation to sympathy, compassion, understanding and obligation to one’s fellow men and woman.

Strangers, Ethics and Theology

But why is this position expected? In most of Eagleton’s works after the turn of the millennium, [3] he has trotted out variations on the same, rather traditional Roman Catholic form of theology: the intrinsic nature of God, who had no need to create the world but did so out of love (God therefore does not depend upon creation for existence); the power of simple, intrinsic virtues in constructing a metaphysical response to the equally intrinsic and apparently insurmountable forces of evil (capitalism, selfishness, mayhem, bloodshed, cruelty, radical Islam and what have you); the centrality of ethics and love as the process of selfless giving; the need for forgiveness, specially political forgiveness; the role of genuine hope, particularly through and for the anawim (the poor, dispossessed and downtrodden), the only Hebrew word Eagleton seems to know and which appears, dragged out of retirement from his early theological works, with predictable regularity. [4] Through it all, ethics sounds a regular beat as a central feature of that theology. In work after work we find the same potted theology, with occasional references to Thomas Aquinas and an old mentor, Herbert McCabe. And in work after work Eagleton ritually opines in the preface that Christianity may be responsible for some of the most bloodthirsty acts in the last two thousand years, but that it is one of the few systems of ideas that may offer some viable resources for the left – to whom of course he feels obliged to apologise for dipping into such a theology once again while also castigating his comrades for their studied ignorance, indolence and hostility to theology. [5]

The late Eagleton has settled upon a three-legged stool: Marxism, Lacanian psychoanalysis and theology each provide him with largely the same message concerning the depths of human depravity and the possibility of overcoming it. Or rather, while psychoanalysis might provide an excellent description of our fallen state, Christianity and Marxism (tagging along somewhat breathlessly) have by far the best solution. But this triangulation explains the choice of Lacan’s Imaginary, Symbolic and Real as a grid for Trouble With Strangers – a decision that initially seems like window-dressing for some rather ordinary arguments concerning ethics but then turns out to be quite forced. By the later stages of the book the grid looks decidedly lumpy, with Eagleton struggling to bend and stretch it to fit yet more ethical positions: Shakespeare in the symbolic, Kierkegaard’s aesthetic, ethical and religious as imaginary, symbolic and Real, and then the leftovers gathered at the end from Aristotle to Kant. However, the trap with using these categories, particularly in the way Eagleton presents them, is that they fall into a developmental pattern. Although Eagleton notes Lacan’s dialectical reading of the imaginary, symbolic and Real, he takes them either as stages in a child’s development, a potted historical narrative of bourgeois fortunes, and of course as a progressive narrative structure in which Christianity comes out trumps at the end. The effect is obvious, for the imaginary is an immature form, caught in the primitive mirror stage, and an ethics that falls into this category is focused on the self. The symbolic is a step forward with its negotiation of the self and the other, but even this falls short of the terrible place of the Real, the traumatic, indescribable kernel that keeps us all going but threatens to destroy our world at any moment. Only at this point do we reach the Christian doctrine of sin, which is not only the springboard for a theological solution but also the moment where Marxism’s profound pessimism about the status of exploited and alienated human beings comes into its own. Or, as Eagleton puts it, the Lacanian Real is ‘a psychoanalytic version of Original Sin’.[6] So psychoanalysis gets us to our fallen, sinful state, but from there we need theology and Marxism. The problem now is that Eagleton simply assumes, without offering any extensive analysis, that Marxism drinks deeply at the well of Jewish and Christian thought.

But what has all this got to do with ethics? One keeps anticipating a breakthrough, a deep and thorough transformation of ethics in light of the traumatic and terrible Real. If we need to have a Lacanian structure, then let us make the most of it. Does the passion narrative of Christ’s death allow us to stare that beast in the face? Does it provide a narrative of transition, the ultimate psychoanalytic cure? In the despairing cry of dereliction and abandonment – ‘my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – does the narrative take us through and beyond the Real? Do we finally get past the subjective concerns of the imaginary and the interpersonal obsessions of the symbolic to a moment when the over-riding desire of ethics is to help us get on better with our fellow man and woman?

The simple answer is no: Eagleton does not deliver. All that is offered are some feel-good observations on disinterested goodness and virtue: Christ overcomes death and despair basically through being nice and not expecting to be rewarded for it – something like lending my shovel to a neighbour and not expected anything in return. According to Eagleton, Christian theology offers a number of simple, unprepossessing virtues that may actually overcome the depths of evil (and Eagleton does shy not away from admitting that he seeks to recover a full-blooded ‘metaphysics’).

Kindness, love, justice, humility, modesty, meekness, vision, courage, dedication, selflessness and endurance – all of these and more are marshalled again and again to do battle with evil in a starkly dualistic universe.[7] But the greatest virtue is love, which he takes not as the lusty desire for getting one’s clothes off and connecting the plumbing, but as an indifferent, unconditional, impersonal and, especially, a public and political law of love that has its benchmark in the love for enemies and strangers. For Eagleton, this is the key to ethics, a self-less and disinterested – as in not expecting anything in return – obligation to care for the ‘stranger’. The echoes of the biblical injunction to show kindness to the stranger in our midst, for we too were strangers in Egypt, runs through Eagleton’s text,[8] but he cuts a different path from Levinas’s bloodless, disembodied ethics in the midst of a permanent warfare of the social. In the end ethics is at the core of the Christian message, found on the cross of Christ as an ethical act. And its concern is in the end that other to whom we must show self-less love, a banal goodness that will overcome evil.

Five Snares

Apart from a simple failure of nerve, I shall outline six traps into which Eagleton stumbles, each of them with varying admixtures of theological and philosophical concerns: the seduction of fall narratives; the cul-de-sac of law and love; the troubled assumptions concerning the ‘other’; the chosen people; and the opposition of good and evil.

The Seduction of Fall Narratives

At a theological level, as I have argued elsewhere, Eagleton’s over-riding concern with ethics betrays the worst of his Roman Catholic background. It is a short step from ethics to the law, for ethics in Eagleton’s account is really a code of life for the religious left. Follow these guidelines – the law of love – which happen to be much the same in both Christianity and socialism, and you are on the path to salvation. For Eagleton this is a ‘scriptural’ theology, one tied into the Bible, rather than an ‘ideological’ one, which turns out to be that of the later Christian church. In making this facetious distinction, Eagleton subscribes to a fall narrative: the biblical theology is a more genuine, radical one, but at a specific moment the church betrayed those roots, took a sinister turn and offered a conservative ideology that was welcomed by the overlords of this world. Eagleton is not alone in reciting this creed, for among his comrades on the left who have written about Christianity, we also find it in the work of Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Kautsky and G. E. M. de Ste. Croix.[9]

The snare with this popular narrative of a theological fall (one shared with, Eagleton might be interested to note, any reformer within the history of theology) is that there is no uniform pattern of thought in the biblical texts upon Eagleton claims to base his theology. This odd collection of texts is thoroughly and deeply ambivalent, at cross-purposes with itself, loaded with competing ideas, approaches and political possibilities. To Eagleton’s argument for self-sufficient and disinterested evil and good (which are then opposed to one another in a dualistic system – with no sense of contradiction with his argument for the intrinsic nature of good and evil), I can simply pick up those texts, especially, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Job, where God is the source of both good and evil – as any thoroughly consistent monotheism needs to argue. Or I might note the contradictory and persistent theme that evil is an affront to God, an affront of which human beings seem particularly prone. As with anyone who wishes to construct some type of consistent theological system – although Eagleton’s is less consistent than most – he must pick and choose, opting for certain lines and ignoring others. And those lines tend to be ones that come out of Eagleton’s own Roman Catholic tradition.

The Cul-De-Sac of Law and Love

As far as ethics itself is concerned, Eagleton’s smooth prose slides towards the themes of law and love, the ultimate law being to love one’s neighbour as oneself.[10] In such an amorphous collection like the Bible, many texts might be marshalled to favour his position. I will fill a few in here, since Eagleton’s works seem to be remarkably free of actual biblical references. For instance, we find that Christ came to fulfil the law; he does not remove one jot or tittle (as the King James Version Authorised version would have it); the law is good, upright and just, and on and on.[11] And there are enough texts on love – agape, Christian love, which is supposed to be more political, social and spiritual than eros and goes much further than philia – to suggest that love is meant to save. Is not love stronger than hope and faith, as Paul argues in 1 Corinthians, a rather sickly text that is trotted out in one wedding after another?

Did not God so love the world that he gave his only son, as John 3:16 tells us? And is not that the ethical text par excellence? Eagleton seems to think so. But it is a truncated theology, one that favours texts concerning love, law and ethics, caught in a vicious cycle of the law – the result is, as we get in Eagleton – a code of behaviour for a much more spiritual left.
I am far less enthused with both ethics and love, partly due to their popularity today, but also for theological reasons.

To begin with, the word ‘ethics’ hardly appears in the New Testament at all. Or rather, ethikos and ethika cannot be found at all. Ethos does appear, but it is a lowly word, preferred by that very urbane author of Luke and Acts.[12] Its meaning: the customs and law, whether of the priests, the Jews, Moses, the fathers. At this level, it strikes me as passing strange that Eagleton can claim that ethics is an inescapable feature of ‘scriptural’ theology. But one may object that ethics appears implicitly in the law and love. It is a push, but let us grant that position for a moment. Yet what happens is that law and love, as well as the body, flesh, Jews and Gentiles, male and female, Jew and Greek and what have you, are actually transformed, as far as some texts conveniently ignored by Eagleton are concerned (texts favoured, it is worth noting, by none other than the well credentialed Marxist, E.P. Thompson, in his late enthusiasm for the radical theology of William Blake[13]).

Christ is the end – telos – of the law (Romans 10:4), since he negates it and thereby overcomes it – Hegel’s Aufhebung before Hegel. Elsewhere we find that we ‘not under the law, but under grace’ (Romans 6: 14 and 15) and ‘now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive’ (Romans 7: 6). Or even further, ‘a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ’ (Galatians 2: 16); ‘For we hold that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the law’ (Romans 3: 28). The theological term for this banishment and thorough reshaping, negation and overcoming, is grace – charis in Greek – and it works through faith, which is itself given by God as an act of grace. Grace as rupture, unexpected and undeserved, unable to be won through any ethical act, any obedience to a law, leaves ethics in tatters, at least as Eagleton presents it. Grace does not institute a new law code, slightly more enlightened and benevolent, calling on us to be good and loving; it simply dispenses with any such code.

On one point I agree with Eagleton: theology does have a thoroughly dismal view of human beings, which makes much sense of the piles corpses from warfare, starvation, disease and grinding poverty of the majority over, say, the last few thousand years. But that means no-one can do any good on their own, let alone earn salvation. That is purely for grace, for here – on a theological register at least – we do pass through the Real.

Producing the ‘Other’

On a more philosophical register, Eagleton is ultimately unable to slip past the idea that ethics concerns the proper relations with one’s others, or, as I prefer to put it, for greasing the mechanisms of society so they run more smoothly. In Eagleton’s eyes, Christian theology ends up offering a better way for us to relate to all those real, pulsing, throbbing others out there. It may be disinterested love and goodness, with no expectation of a reciprocal deal, but he is locked into the assumption that ethics concerns the way you and I act in relation to others. Such a position is caught on at least three snags: the role of ethics as a discourse that creates and perpetuates the other; the idea of a chosen people to whom everyone else is ‘other’; and the problematic distinction between good and evil.

Yet I would like to challenge the assumption that the ‘other’ is a given, asking how the ‘other’ is produced in the first place.[14] Stripped down to its essentials, ethics operates on the assumption that we actually have a self and others, an assumption that seems as natural as it is troubling. How do we relate to those others? What is the best way to ensure that such a relationship can produce a well-oiled and viable society? But how we produce those others in the first place? Obviously, I do not mean the discrete, bodied existence of human beings and non-human beings, but rather the category of the ontological ‘other’ to me, a subject.

A first answer is that the other is produced in the construction of the self. In order to come to a sense of being a subject, we do so by producing an awareness of others as distinct from ourselves. This narrative of subjective differentiation is as common as the approaches to it are varied. It has clear Hegelian resonances, in which the slave only comes to an awareness of being a slave in interaction with the master – as does the master. Each one becomes an other as the subject is formed, albeit a dependent one, since the subject would not have formed without that other.

Freud too offers a narrative, in which the subject forms by differentiating itself through the Oedipus complex, negating the father and weening itself off the fixation of the mother – the classic other. And Lacan would take this and turn it into the mirror stage in which identity forms by indentifying a distinct self, only to move onto the symbolic in which the estrangement of others becomes the mechanism for society, language and culture. Yet, in each case, the concern remains with the production of the self: troubled, barred, split it may be, but it remains focussed on the self, a narcissism through the other.

Yet I remain troubled by it, not least because it becomes a founding narrative, based upon a process of differentiation, producing a given situation in which ethics may then get to work. But what if we do a Foucauldian flip and ask whether the discourse of ethics is itself productive of the category of the other. Rather than coming to the scene after the fact of others, is ethics perhaps a productive feature of the other? In order to work in the way I have explored thus far, ethics must have an other with which to work.

Without an other – male or female, Muslim or Christian or Shinto, African or Asian or Indonesian, refugee or citizen, animal or plant or human – ethics would be out of business. In this situation we need to ask the question: who or what tells me they are ‘others’? Instead of ethics prescribing the way one should relate to a pre-existing category of ‘other’, does not ethics create the ‘other’ in the first place? I cannot see why a person from China or Serbia or Greenland is alien, a stranger to me. I do not see why the tree out my window, the chillies on the veranda or the kangaroos I meet on an early ride are foreign to me – unless of course there is a discourse that constructs them as such.

Chosen People

It may be objected: is it not common sense that there are selves and others? Is this not the way the world works? And should we not try to find ways for our selves and others to get on better than we do? Let me continue to trouble this natural assumption by connecting it with the theme of the chosen people.[15] As is reasonably well known, a persistent theme throughout the Hebrew Bible is that the children of Israel are God’s chosen people. Out of all the peoples of the earth, they are the chosen ones, whom God opts to assist, punish, love and save.[16] A narrative construction, to be sure, but it sets up a pattern of us and them, the favoured people and all the others, who then become the stranger, the alien, the ger so beloved by Levinas. That theme of the chosen people has been a remarkably popular one, recycled by one group after another, whether a faithful revolutionary remnant, the British Israelites or a stumbling superpower like the United States.

Now, we might object that the idea of a chosen people has been misinterpreted in such recycling, that it has been abused rather than used, for the Israelites chosen in the Hebrew Bible are the least of all peoples, the most undeserving and often the most sinful. Further, the task of the chosen people is to be a light to the nations,[17] offering themselves humbly to the task of enlightening all peoples and bringing them to God. Does this not undermine the theme of a chosen people, or at least turn it on its head? The trap with that theological response is that it is based on a mythical narrative, a political myth that works overtime to develop a collective self-understanding of a distinct identity. It matters little how lowly such a chosen people might be, they are still chosen.

Further, such a theme appears to be imposed over an unruly collection of texts that show, upon closer analysis, a profound anxiety about the identity of the chosen people. In narrative after narrative, it turns out to be a mishmash of different groups – they are in fact the strangers whom that over-arching narrative tries to externalise.[18] Add to this the historical consensus that Israel as an ethnic identity is quite late and that it arose as an indigenous grouping within Palestine – that is, that they are Canaanites or what we would now call Palestinians – and the theme of the chosen people becomes a matter of special pleading and brazen ideological construction. In sum, through the effort to create a subjective identity as a chosen people, this discourse too constructs others.

I give but one example of the way the narrative of the chosen people unravels within the biblical texts in question, showing how the other is produced. It comes from a relatively unknown story, the deception of the Gibeonites in Joshua 9. Here we find the Israelites under Joshua rampaging through the land of Canaan in that mythical account of the conquest. The Gibeonites hear of the exploits of Joshua and company at the walls of Jericho (as well as sacking the city of Ai); they knew they were next. So they equip some messengers with worn out, torn and mended sacks, wineskins, sandals and clothes, find some mouldy and dry provisions and the messengers set out on the short distance to meet Joshua (for his army was just around the corner). When the messengers arrive, apparently weary and dusty, they said: ‘we have come from far, far away, and we have much about your prowess in war; so make a covenant with us’. Just to reinforce the point, they say, ‘Here is our bread; it was still warm when we took it from our houses as our food for the journey, on the day we set forth to come to you, but now, look, it is dry and mouldy; these wineskins were new when we filled them, and look, they are burst; and these garments and shoes of ours are worn out from the very long journey’.[19] We can imagine them swooning from hunger and thirst as they speak and the Israelites rushing to make a covenant with them, assuring them of an alliance and assistance, giving them food, water, wine and a place to rest.

But three days later, the army comes upon the cities of Gibeon and the leaders of the Israelites, their stupid faces turning slightly red, confront the Gibeonites, ‘But you said you came from far away!’ The Gibeonites merely smile. Caught in a covenant, Joshua and the Israelites cannot kill the messengers or destroy their cities. In frustration, they make the Gibeonites hewers of wood and drawers of water.

Apart from the difficulty of extracting a moral from this story – the inestimable value of a good lie, a tall story that will get you what you want – the story shows despite itself a nervousness about what constitutes the chosen people and what the other. Are the Gibeonites strangers or members of the chosen? Is the chosen people a collection of disparate others, a situation that breaks down the very category of otherness? And why produce the category of stranger or foreigner except to produce a subjective identity?

Good and Evil

A third objection actually picks up an old point from Fredric Jameson (with a heavy debt to Nietzsche): ethics ultimately boils down to a theological opposition between good and evil.[20] Usually made in passing, Jameson has been castigated more than once for giving up valuable ground that the left might want to claim.[21] All the same, after reading someone like Eagleton, for whom goodness and disinterested neighbourliness are the keys to ethics, all of which is based on a retrieved theology, Jameson may have a point: running through all the complexities of ethical decisions, in which competing claims struggle with one another, is the basic distinction between what is good and evil, or at the least between what is better and worse. And given the intellectual heritage of these terms, especially in Western thought and practice, theology always seems to lurk in the background.

However much I agree with Jameson’s suspicion of ethics, I am not sure this is his best argument. All I need do is deploy the relativisation of theology to show that the opposition between good and evil is not restricted to theology, that the theological shape of that argument is but one shape it may take. So why raise the issue in the first place? The reason is that I would like to take on the purveyors of ethics who find they must fall back on theology, for Eagleton is by no means alone.[22]

So let us consider theology more closely, for we will soon find that the question of good and evil becomes rather murky. Take, for instance, the Bible, the various texts of which explore three options, two of which have been taken up by subsequent theological reflection: good and evil are embodied in two entities, God and the devil, along with their cohorts; good is what God does and is, evil is what human beings bring about through the exercise of free will; and God is the source of both good and evil.

The first is found only almost in the New Testament, which came together after an extraordinarily creative period of theological imagination. Spirits, good and evil, angels and demons, began rushing into heavenly and hellish spaces in the last couple of centuries BCE, racing for the last available berths in what would become an overpopulated part of the cosmos. Once there, they began a vigorous and vicious competition with one another and for human hearts, a struggle that spills over into the New Testament (you will not find them in the Hebrew Bible). On this score, good and evil fall into two camps, the sons of light and the sons of darkness. For human beings, it is a relatively straightforward matter of determining whence evil and good derive, albeit with some nagging questions: what is the origin of Satan and those deliciously evil spirits (hence the late, extra-biblical and retrofitted myth about the fall of Lucifer through pride)? How do you know it is an evil or a good spirit? And so on.

Needless to say, this spiritual universe found itself elaborated upon, extended and then preserved, so that it remains a vibrant element of Christian theology, at least in some conservative quarters, not to mention its extraordinary resourcefulness for literature, film and popular culture.[23]
Equally popular in subsequent theology, especially today among those urbane liberals who find all this talk of spiritual warfare between angels and demons a little quaint, if not deeply embarrassing, is the argument that human beings are responsible for evil. In the Bible it turns up in the story of the Fall in Genesis 2-3 (at least on a certain reading of that story), in the pronouncements by a prophet like Jeremiah or Ezekiel that we are responsible for our sins,[24] and in the call to metanoia in the New Testament. In this case God is the repository of good, but evil enters the world because God created human beings with the capacity to choose, with the free will to decide whether to opt for God or not, to obey or disobey God’s commands. And so when human beings choose to disobey, to turn their face from God, to go their own way, sin and evil enters the world. On an ethical front, this approach has more traction that the first with its flitting and cackling spirits warring over our souls. God may be the repository of good, the arbiter of absolute morality, but human beings have the option to act ‘ethically’ or not. For the Eagletons of this world, this situation opens up a whole swathe of complex ethical situations – how can I know that this choice will be the good one? what if my choice for goodness, love, justice and courage actually has some negative side effects? and is it not possible that even a choice for evil may work for good? – but it is still tied to a problematic theological framework.

But a third option, which runs deeply in the Bible, is far less popular for reasons that will become obvious. If one argues that there is but one God, that this God created all there is, then the conclusion must be that God is the source of both good and evil. It is a common theme in the Hebrew Bible, before the spirits began colonising heaven and burrowing out hell. Here we find, in the stories of King Saul, in prophets like and Ezekiel, in the stories of the wilderness wandering of Exodus through to Deuteronomy, or in the bewildering suffering of Job, that God brings evil upon people and as much as he might bring good fortune. Perhaps the most notable in this collection is Joshua 23: 15: ‘But just as all the good things which the Lord your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the Lord will bring upon you all the evil things, until he have destroyed you from off this good land which the Lord your God has given you’.[25] Now this is a far more interesting approach to ethics, one that we might want to retrieve in our own way. It leads in the end to what can only be described as – in the conventional patterns of ethical thought – as an unethical and unmoral position.

To begin with, as the ‘New Old Atheists’ (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris et al) are fond of reciting, the God of the Hebrew Bible is a proper bastard.[26] He is vindictive, jealous, petty, partisan, capricious and unmerciful, given to outbursts of mayhem and destruction without an apparent reason. Hardly the one upon whom to base an ethics committed to the good, let alone that dreadful collection of moralising platitudes known as ‘family values’. But that is only an initial and rather crude step; to go further I draw upon Ernst Bloch.[27] Yes, Bloch points out, this God is guilty as charged, but it is a Yahweh of the rulers and powerful, of theocratic tyrants, depots and kings. His fuming, contorted face, red with anger, is usually directed at those who rebel against those rulers; those who murmur and protest, who ‘disobey’ and go their own way, who win through by a ruse, are thumped down by plague, fire, snakes, yawning chasms, floods, and marauding armies eager for rape, plunder and gore. Yet there is another Yahweh who sides with the rebels and outcasts, who blesses Cain with his mark, who goes with the man, Adam, as he leaves the garden,[28] who blesses the poor and condemns the rich. Eventually, Bloch argues, this side of God becomes an ‘exodus out of Yahweh’, a protest that will unfold as atheism.

On this matter, Bloch is to my mind a far better theological thinker than someone like Eagleton, let alone the sundry intellectuals who make theology the source of their bread and butter. Ethics, however, struggles for traction on this rocky ground, for God is the focus of what is both ethical and unethical, both good and evil. Precisely what constitutes the good in this picture becomes almost impossible to determine, for rulers will prefer the God of order, measure and stability, one who ensures obedience and subservience, but the rebels will prefer a very different God. Who is to say what is ethical and what not? Ruler or rebel, tyrant or revolutionary? Ethical becomes unethical while unethical becomes ethical.


Terry Eagleton’s effort at producing an ethical theology for the left has led me to identify a range of reasons why his project, indeed why any but the most creative ethical project, runs comprehensively into the mud. Ultimately, Eagleton falls into a tired – no, well and truly buried – argument that was common in the nineteenth century. Ethics, it was argued, or a moral code for society, can be based only on Christian theology.

Casting anxious looks at the swelling mobs of anti-clerical protesters and openly secular social movements, church and political leaders opined that with the decline of Christianity so would the social glue of morals disappear. For all his trumpeting of a more radical ethics based on love and the death and resurrection of Christ, Eagleton makes largely the same argument (shared, incidentally, by conservative Muslims). Values have been dropped by the wayside, he argues, as capitalism and its empty consumerism have gained sway. We no longer have a robust metaphysical framework and ethics is left to wander about, thirsty and hungry, in a moral wasteland.

The solution is then a recovery of the Christian message. I have argued elsewhere that this narrative has a distinct autobiographical resonance, covering those morally vacuous years of smoking, drinking, womanising and flitting about the world as the proponent of the latest phase of high literary theory. But since the turn of the millennium, the explicit theological tone in Eagleton’s works has sounded ever more loudly, so that now he writes openly of the need for a bodily resurrection of Christ (for otherwise the message is meaningless), the power of the resurrection of Christ and the nature of God, and – a topic on which he has been a little cagey until recently – the solidarity of the sacrificial meal and love feast of the Eucharist.

Not only is this an adequate replacement for self-sacrifice, should we miss the grand opportunity to give our lives in service for others, but it is a pure blast from Eagleton’s past, when he used to argue for the value of the Eucharist. [29] The only thing missing is the old argument that the priesthood might become Leninist vanguard.[30] It is no wonder the archbishop of Canterbury reads him with approval.


1. Terry Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). Packed with quotation and exposition (perhaps to show that Eagleton does read every now and then), it is an odd collection that includes Francis Hutcheson and Aristotle, Shakespeare and Adam Smith, Heinrich von Kleist and Kierkegaard. Those crowding the scene of recent works on ethic son the left (both mild and militant) include: Gayatri Spivak, Luce Irigaray, Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Terry Eagleton, Slavoj Žižek, Alain Badiou are only some of those crowding the scene.

2. Theodor W. Adorno, Problems of Moral Philosophy, trans. Rodney Livingstone (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000).

3. Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper: A Memoir (London: Penguin, 2001), ———, Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Zizek and Others (London: Verso, 2003), ———, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic (Oxford: Blackwells, 2003), ———, After Theory (New York: Basic Books, 2003), ———, Holy Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), ———, "Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching," London Review of Books (2006), ———, Jesus Christ: The Gospels (Revolutions) (London: Verso, 2007), ———, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics, Terry Eagleton and Nathan Schneider, "Religion for Radicals: An Interview with Terry Eagleton," The Monthly Review 61, no. 4 (2009), Terry Eagleton, On Evil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). Often scattered in various reflections throughout these works, the most complete statement of what I no longer hesitate to call Eagleton’s theology may be found in Eagleton, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, pp. 5-32, which he is ‘reluctant to label … liberation theology’, even though he the connection (p. 32). See the detailed discussion in Roland Boer, Criticism of Heaven: On Marxism and Theology, Historical Materialism Book Series (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2007), pp. 275-333.

4. Terry Eagleton, "The Roots of the Christian Crisis," in "Slant Manifesto": Catholics and the Left, ed. Adrian Cunningham, Terry Eagleton, Brian Wicker, Martin Redfern and Lawrence Bright OP (London: Sheed & Ward, 1966), ———, The New Left Church (London: Sheed and Ward, 1966), ———, "The Slant Symposium," Slant 3, no. 5 (1967): 8-9, ———, "Why We Are Still in the Church," Slant 3, no. 2 (1967): 25-8, ———, "Language, Reality and the Eucharist (1)," Slant 4, no. 3 (1968): 18-23, ———, "Politics and the Sacred," Slant 4, no. 2 (1968): 18-23, ———, "Language, Reality and the Eucharist (2)," Slant 4, no. 4 (1968): 26-31, ———, "Priesthood and Leninism," Slant 5, no. 4 (1969): 12-17, ———, The Body as Language: Outline of a 'New Left' Theology (London: Sheed and Ward, 1970).Terry Eagleton and Adrian Cunningham, "Christians against Capitalism," in "Slant Manifesto": Catholics and the Left, ed. Adrian Cunningham, Terry Eagleton, Brian Wicker, Martin Redfern and Lawrence Bright OP (London: Sheed and Ward, 1966), Terry Eagleton and Brian Wicker, eds, From Culture to Revolution: The Slant Symposium 1967 (London: Sheed and Ward,1968).

5. Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics, p. vi, ———, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, pp. xi-xii, ———, Holy Terror, p. vi.

6. Eagleton, Figures of Dissent: Critical Essays on Fish, Spivak, Zizek and Others, p. 205.

7. Ibid, p. 120, ———, Sweet Violence: The Idea of the Tragic, p. 74.

8. Exodus 22: 21; 23:9; Leviticus 19: 34; Deuteronomy 10: 19.

9. Rosa Luxemburg, "Socialism and the Churches," in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks, ed. Mary-Alice Waters (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970 [1905]), ———, Kirche Und Sozialismus (Frankfurt am Main: Stimme-Verlag, 1982 [1905]), Karl Kautsky, Foundations of Christianity, trans. H. F. Mins (London: Socialist Resistance, 2007 [1908]), ———, Der Ursprung Des Christentums: Eine Historische Untersuchung (Stuttgart: J.H.W. Dietz, 1977 [1908]), G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, Christian Persecution, Martyrdom, and Orthodoxy, ed. Michael Whitby and Joseph Streeter (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).

10. Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics, pp. 291-2. ———, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics, p. 195-6, 272, 323.

11. For example, Matthew 5: 18; Romans 7: 12; 10: 4.

12. See Luke 1:9; 2:42; 22:39; Acts 6:14; 15:1; 16:21; 21:21; 25:16; 26:3; 28:17. Only two occurrences appear outside this collection, one in John 19:14 and the other in Hebrews 10:25.

13. Edward P. Thompson, Witness against the Beast: William Blake and the Moral Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

14.. On this matter Foucault was both correct and mistaken: he assumed that the radical question was to attack the givenness of the self Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 2: The Uses of Pleasure (New York: Vintage, 1985 [1984]), ———, The History of Sexuality, Volume 3: The Care of the Self (New York: Vintage, 1986 [1984]), ———, "How Much Does It Cost for Reason to Tell the Truth?," in Foucault Live, ed. Sylvère Lotringer (New York: Semiotext[e], 1989), ———, Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, trans. Paul Rabinow, Essential Works of Foucault 1854-1984 (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2000 [1994]); I suggest that the first step is the givenness of the other.

15. See also Slavoj Žižek, Violence (New York: Picador, 2008), pp. 53-5, where he points out that the more radical the attempt at inclusion, the more radical its exclusion of anyone who does not fit in or accept the terms of the chosen.

16, See especially Genesis 13: 14-17; 15: 1-20; 17: 1-21.

17. Isaiah 51: 4.

18, see Roland Boer, Last Stop before Antarctica: The Bible and Postcolonialism in Australia, 2 ed. (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2008), pp. 109-34.

19. Joshua 9:12-13; my translation.

20. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981), pp. 114-17, 234-6, ———, Late Marxism: Adorno, or, the Persistence of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 1990), pp. 86-7, ———, Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1991), pp. 289-90, ———, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005), pp. 58, 250. Jameson’s comments tend to be brief, noting the regressive nature of ethics and citing Nietzsche, Sartre and Freud as those who have shown the reactionary ideological function of ethics in which evil becomes all that the other.

21. for example, see Eagleton, After Theory, p. 143.

22. See also Milbank John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990).

23. See the excellent study by Wray and Mobley T.J. Wray and Gregory Mobley, The Birth of Satan: Tracing the Devil’s Biblical Roots (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 27-74.

24. Jeremiah 31: 29-30; Ezekiel 18.

25. Note also Genesis 2: 9: ‘And out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil’. See also 1 Samuel 16: 14-15, 23; 18: 10; 19: 9; Job 1: 6-12; Ecclesiastes 6: 2; Ezekiel 20: 1-31, especially verse 25: ‘I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life’.

26. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006), Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve Books, 2007), Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005), ———, Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006).

27. Ernst Bloch, Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom, trans. J. T. Swann (New York: Herder and Herder, 1972), ———, Atheismus Im Christentum: Zur Religion Des Exodus Und Des Reichs, vol. 14, Ernst Bloch Werkausgabe (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1968).

28. Eve, curiously, is not mentioned along with Adam when he exist the garden. See Genesis 3: 23-4.

29. Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics, pp. 195-6, 272, 323. Compare ———, The New Left Church, pp. 69-84, ———, The Body as Language: Outline of a 'New Left' Theology, pp. 39-40, ———, "Language, Reality and the Eucharist (1)," ———, "Language, Reality and the Eucharist (2)."

30. Eagleton, The Body as Language: Outline of a 'New Left' Theology, pp. 75-93

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———. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York: Knopf, 2006.
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———. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.
———. Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1991.
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