Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Gatekeeper - Terry Eagleton

One of my guilty pleasures is the reading of memoirs, especially those of theologians or philosophers. Occasionally some of them take themselves so seriously that they cannot offer any sense of humanity or tension in their lives. Either they never made a mistake and therefore have nothing "interesting" or human to share, or, they have such a carefully guarded "mystique" or reputation to maintain that they take care to brush out anything that would resemble a character flaw or error in judgment. Others have no such qualms and unabashedly highlight their shortcomings. Terry Eagleton, the enfant terrible of English letters and renowned literary critic, is  a little of both. He gives and he keeps in equal measure. His relatively short memoir, The Gatekeeper, is a witty and caustic view of his early years through to his student days at Cambridge and early tenure at Oxford. Born in the northwest of England to poor Irish parents and the only surviving child of three, he writes bitingly of his childhood years in a chapter called "Losers." Raised a Catholic and for a time an altar server in the local Carmelite convent chapel, he was required to be in attendance when the young novice now finally took the veil and disappeared into the convent for good; thus "the gatekeeper" of the title.

Eagleton's book is a fascinating interplay between his religious upbringing, his political awakening and his intellectual development. What is clear is that each facet of his life informed the other and that Eagleton has lost all reverence for any firmly held belief or position. What comes through, however, is a certain wistfulness which may be interpreted as a wish for more or even a wish for "truth." Wanting to admire his father, he finds it nearly impossible. "What I remember most of my father is silence. He was silent because he was agonizingly inarticulate, and deeply ashamed of it. One failure of speech thus overlaid another. He was cut off from communication, lacking language to excess. Perhaps I have compensated enough for that in my time. I am still not sure whether his silence was a rock or an abyss, strength or indifference. He was painfully shy and unsociable, yet also practical, rational, reliable and infinitely patient. ...He did not think much of artistic types like me. (p. 121) Eagleton's own experience in the role of the public intellectual borders on pure farce. "To be a public lecturer is to occupy a symbolic role rather than a real-life one, and almost nothing you can do can shake this identification. You could ostentatiously don a false red nose and start to pull on a pair of sponge-rubber trousers while being talked at by some mildly obsessive type after a lecture, but it would almost certainly be blocked out. And there are also the genuinely disturbed, who describe to you the messages they are receiving on the radio which the CIA have installed somewhere between their liver and lower intestine." Eagleton's account of his Cambridge tutor is hilarious although sad at the same time as it describes a man incapable of empathy or developing healthy relationships. Unfortunately, the caricature is often far too close to the truth in real life.

But it is Eagleton's love/hate relationship with religion that is fascinating because, no matter how caustic and cynical he becomes in his frequent and varied diatribes, he cannot let his faith go. Both extremist in its demands and mundane in its practice, Christianity both succeeded and failed gloriously in the attempt to convince the young Eagleton. As he says early on in the book, "In the end, I refused co-optation, but only just." Eagleton's body of work has ranked him among the most influential of the literary critics of the English-speaking world. His willingness to take on popular positions and personalities equally larger-than-life have led him to speak and write against the so-called exponents of "The New Atheism", Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, because as he would argue, they show an appalling ignorance of religion. St. Terry to the rescue? No, but he is fun and outrageous and just sometimes you feel that he wishes that he could overcome that "little" hurdle called belief.

The Gatekeeper is a fascinating read.  I look forward to the next stage of Eagleton's journey.             


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A New Political Discourse?

Events of the past week in Tucson, Arizona have horrified the democratic world. The murderous bullets of a deranged gunman have placed a large spotlight on what seems to be an increasingly nastly political contest between competing ideological groups in the USA. Some Canadian commentators have suggested that we here in "The Great White North" also reflect on the level of our own political discourse. My personal experience in the political realm has shown me that personal attacks are part of the life of a politician. If one chooses to enter public life in this way, one should expect to get attacked, sometimes viciously, for the views or actions one takes. Within the church one might expect that it might be different. It is the Body of Christ after all. But it is no different at all. My experience has taught me that in vivid technicolour.

But, I suggest equally vehemently, that our faith ought to make a difference in the way we conduct our political conversations, especially in those churches who claim to be part of the "peace church" tradition. Leaving aside party allegiances or even policies, let me suggest some ways we might commit ourselves to becoming more Christian in our conversation and/or political discourse:

1.) Always respect and listen to your debating partners. Why do they hold the views they do? Are there good reasons for what they support? Just because they support "Green", "Conservative", "New Democrat", "or "Liberal" policies does not make them wrong or worse then you.

2.) Never personalize an argument or a position. Once we start equating a perspective or a policy with a particular person, it becomes far too easy to demonize one another. We have heard it again and again with the "Harper Government", and the "Ignatief Liberals". But we are also beginning to hear it in provincial politics. Attack advertisements are effective; no question about that. But I would argue that they are not Christian. I believe that the church has a higher moral standard than that.

3.) If the debate should become incendiary, I would strongly suggest that churches protest the ad hominem attacks, the personalization of arguments, or the use of violent images or figures of speech. Use letters to the editor, phone-in shows and other opportunities to ask for civility. As people who espouse peace, our language should reflect peace and peaceability. If the political actors who seek to represent us fail to act in courteous, respectful or dignified ways or use their position to denigrate others, we as the church should speak up, refusing to accept a process which degenerates into name-calling or hostility. Not only that, but when our elected representatives use similar tactics in the course of governance or debate, we must hold them up to account then too.

I continue to believe that Christians have a place in the political arena. But in today's charged political climate, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain one's Christian perspective and demeanor. For Anabaptist/Mennonites, the difficulty is compounded by our history which has taught us to avoid public life. We have few good models or ethical guidelines for involvement. We are people espousing peace as a core belief. How about starting with our language? Let us commit ourselves to stop killing one another with words. Perhaps then we will begin to learn to listen to one another again. That would be a good thing.