The location was a small, but beautiful chapel in the grounds of Durham’s smallest college. The audience were a mix of the great, the good and the downright ordinary, (I count my self as being definately in the latter category). They consisted of primarily of Catholic, Theology and English types with the odd Protestant Mathematical Physics person who’d sneaked in to enjoy.
The afternoon started with some archieve footage of Terry Eagleton from a OU programme made about 35 years ago. It was an interview on literary criticism related to Yates’ Easter 1916 poem, which apparently has been a recurring theme for him over the years. In this interview there was an interesting discussion of the contextualisation of language and how literary criticsm relates to this.
Next Tom Casey, the president of Milltown Institute looked at “Has Theology Come Round Again?” This was a facinating paper on the way radical theology has much more to offer in terms of ideas than much secular leftish thought. The argument was there may well be an acknowledgement emerging amongst some, such as Eagleton, that radical theology has a role to play in developing the thought of the cultural left.
John McDonagh gave a wonderfully humerous paper looking at the way Eagleton’s work has dealt with Ireland. If nothing else it left me desperate to read Eagleton’s The Truth About the Irish.
Then it was time to listen to Eagleton himself. This was a great experience and one which made me treasure the fact I am essentially a “common lefty” because I got all his jokes, in a hilarious but deep talk. It was essentially an attack on “New Atheism” as advanced by Dawkins and Hitchens developed from his book Reason, Faith and Revolution. Within this he made the point that atheists are as obsessed with God as puritans are with sex.
The central point he seemed to be interestingly making was that Dawkins and co who promote a social Dawinism based on survival of the fittest and the myth of progress making us continually nicer are wrong but so are the assumptions of postmodernism. He seemed to be suggesting that Marxism was the only ideology which could meet the demands of the late modern situation and that within that radical theology has new ideas to offer. He gave a great description of Jesus based on the anarchist/ liberation theology models of Christ, (which I have to say I adhere to). I would, however, question this faith he places in Marxism in being able to keep the grand narrative whilst operating in a world which has, like, moved beyond the certainties of the past.
I did agree with him thought that it is fear which is the opposite to love and fear is one of the key components of fundamentalism. On this part I thought it would have been interest to contrast him against the work of Tariq Ali to see where their similarities and differences lay. It was noteable in the list of the intellectual left who were being slated Ali’s name was noteably absent.
There was a classic line about the new atheists knowing as little about religion as Madonna does about Leviticus. This was one of those classic one liners which required you to understand about low culture. He also put some great one liners in about US southern based religion, and unfortunately I wasn’t seated in the right place to see the “new testament” crowds reaction. Basically though as a couple of Christian, culturally aware, lefties me and TOH loved the afternoon though and spent lots of time giggling.
Eagleton’s talk was followed by one of those panel discussions which took the form of those 1980’s late night BBC2 and Channel Four shows where intellectuals sat and spouted. Have to say whilst some of what was being spouted was interesting and relevant alot of it did seem a bit well out of keeping with the interactive, accessible nature of the rest of the symposium.
All in all a great afternoon spent in great company honouring a great man.
Oh and if you’ve never read any of Eagleton’s work I refer you to this column in the Guardian recently on the subject of footie and how it is now the opium of the people.