I 66 ONLY began to
understand what Christianity was about when I left the Church," says Professor Terry Eagleton, the new Thomas Wartan professor of English at Oxford. Eagleton, for years the Establishment's chief spokesman for Marxist critical theory. is anxious to stress that his Catholicism has lapsed.
He was born a Catholic. His grandparents came over from Ireland "with their religion in their baggage" and he now, like other lapsed Catholics, occupies that particular parenthesis between the Church and secular society.
While still an undergraduate at
Cambridge, Eagleton, however, was one of a group of young Catholics making radical demands for change within the Church; for a re-evaluation of the earthly context of faith and a re-appraisal of the Church's response to injustice and social deprivation. They were looking towards what Eagleton calls "the transformation of the Earth" and struggling to develop a theology whose symbols could empower individuals rather than oppress them. They pursued these issues in their journal, Slant, and Eagleton wrote a stimulating and impassioned book called The New Left Church, in which he set out to show that the demands of Christianity are inseparable from the demands of the hungry, the oppressed and the dispossessed, and that for Christians to fully enter into the meaning of the Gospel, then these demands must be answered on earth.
For Eagleton, this means engaging in political combat on the political left. He cites Christ's anger against the moneychangers in the temple as an example of the necessity of a combatant Christianity, pitting itself against corruption and engaging itself in a ceaseless and revolutionary action of re-appraisal: "Vulnerability yes, but not passivity".
In his new entry in the 1992 Who's Who, there is no mention of those early books: The New Left Church, The Body as Language and the work with Slant. Eagleton's list of publications begins with Criticism and Ideology, published in 1976, after he had left the Church. Today, his view of Christianity challenges the "otherworldly" attitudes of institionalised religion; to Eagleton, the concerns
of secular and Christian communities must be insistently of this world.
"At the centre of the Gospel is the execution of a criminal and what that means is that if you speak out in this kind of world for love and justice, then they will do you in. The paradox of the Gospel is that if you don't love you're dead, and if you do love, then they will destroy you anyway."
"I am suggesting that the place of the Christian is with the dispossessed and not with the Establishment... any Christian who denies that, in my view, hasn't read the whole book".
For Eagleton, the years of the late 1960s are characterised by the belief that for him and for the other members of the Slant group, Vatican II had not been the catalyst for fundamental change that it had promised to be. Instead, it had given into a liberal impulse to educate rather than to radically re-think the values of the Church. What Eagleton now calls the "naive zeal and enthusiasm" of those Cambridge years was, he feels betrayed by the "suburb-anisation" of the Vatican Council, after which, as the political climate changed, there seemed less and less room for a radical position.
IT seemed that after Vatican ll had ebbed away, it was business as usual a lot of reactionary. authoritarian attitudes and institutions were still in place."
But there were changes resulting from the Vatican Council, even if for Eagleton, they did not go far enough. The development of
Liberation Theology in Latin America, for example: "One of the interesting things about Slant is that it predated Liberation Theology. but we didn't have the context in which it could operate. It has now surfaced in a place which makes more sense of it. It is all very well to sit in a suburb of Cambridge and work these things out but it is bound to be more abstract. Now it is set in a situation which is much more relevant"
If he is now "dubious about faith", Eagleton is certain about the vitality and reality of faith's context "It seems to me that faith has to root itself in common experience. The Mass draws its meaning from the community that creates it and if the Gospel is to have any meaning, it has to be of this world."
The importance of recognising that the Church and liturgy are signs of something else rather than ends in themselves are central to Eagleton's understanding of institutionalised structures. To elevate what is merely a material sign and give it the status of an idol is what he calls the "flip side" of Catholicism's uneasy fusion of the sensuous and the symbolic.
"The good thing about Catholicism is that it is physical and material... It believes in the senses and that's all in line with the message of the New Testament, which is that God is man. But you can also make a fetish of it, trying to cut God down to size."
The important thing, he says, is to maintain a "relationship with an object and a distance from it."
For Eagleton, the Church still
means the Catholic Church. He is insistent that he is a lapsed Catholic rather than simply a lapsed Christian. Catholicism, more particularly Irish Catholicism, is his context, even though his present place is on the sidelines: "I feel culturally Catholic, even though I don't know where I stand on belief... the Irish have a very Catholic way of enjoying themselves and I value that cultural tradition and milieu."
However, it is on the margins of institutions that he feels the truth, whatever that might be, is to be faced. It is with the powerless. those who cannot afford the false illusion of ideals of perfection. .
GOD is, as Eagleton points out, "a wounded God", and it is this idea of flaw that subverts the crystalline, hard-edged image of perfection that can be so alien to individual freedom and wholeness, making people forget that "God is not their accuser but their friend".
"There is a kind of idolatry built into our very language. Perfection is an ideological image and ideals won't do anything but rub your nose in your failure." But the Gospel, as he says, is unashamedly triumphalist about the better world to come, and it is not only in Heaven: "Where political radicals can hope for change, the Gospel is full of dogmatic certainty that a society of love and justice will arrive."
In his position on the edges, Professor Eagleton feels he has achieved the required distance from the Church to see it clearly; but then, as he says, "marginality is an illuminating place."