Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Our Ancestors were not Fools!

Would you buy a used car from this man?

Two of my old teachers are in the news - Stanley Fish and Terry Eagleton.

Fish taught me Milton at Columbia - but he was and remains a pragmatist skeptic. Eagleton taught me literary theory at Oxford - a Marxist skeptic.

So surprise, when in Fish's review of Eagleton's new book, the two take aim at the intellectual pretensions of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens - the apologists for the new atheism (they even had an ad campaign on London buses; that's Dawkins above).

So the Marxist and the Skeptic both argue that the triumph of modern thinking - liberalism and technology - still leaves a place for religion. 'Saying that the emergence of the telescope and the microscope outmodes religion is like saying,' Fish paraphrases Eagleton, that 'thanks to the toaster oven we can forget about Chekhov, or Milton, or Proust...' (you can fill in the blank).

Both Fish and Eagleton challenge the image of the religious thinker in the thought of Dawkins and Hitchens (or your favorite local atheist rabble rouser) - of someone who has acquiesced to a simple fundamentalism and, as friends used to say to me, has 'taken the easy way out.' Sure, there are those within religious communities who present such an image of self-righteous complacency - in my circles it's known as frumkeit. But more accurate is the the religious personality portrayed by Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. Though there were those - even in the forties - who saw religion as 'tranquil and neatly ordered, tender and delicate, an enchanted stream for embittered souls,' R. Soloveithchik portrays a religious personality obsessed, and sometimes even tormented, by questions.

Questions that as Eagleton writes, in a 'society of packaged fulfillment, administered desire and consumerist economics' are not likely to be thought - let alone raised. Theology may not always answer our questions, but it allows - with a lifetime of thought - for their refinement.

I have to confess when I first returned to Jewish observance, I was embarrassed to tell my old teachers. But now with the Skeptic and the Marxist out of the closet - it makes it a whole lot easier. Maybe things are changing.

Finally, Eagleton has his own confession - he wrote his book, he writes, in defense of his own forbearers - 'against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.' My ancestors, Eagleton now acknowledges, were not fools.

Perhaps this is something - all the more so one would think - for Jews to consider as well?


Anonymous said...

a religious personality obsessed, and sometimes even tormented, by questions.
Sounds like someone I know well.

Frikle said...

What do you mean by skeptic in this context?

In terms of toasters and Milton I think the comparison is exactly backwards. It implies there's something mundane and pedestrian about science.

Great blog, btw.

wdk said...

skepticism for Fish and Eagleton would be expressed in the hesitation to accept any thing resembling theological (or any foundational) truth claims... though i'm all for cultivating a Jewish skepticism - in which belief and critical thinking go together...

or am i dreaming again?