My conferences last week were fantastic. I was equally pleased by the way some academic acquaintances might be turning into friends and by the fact that no one said anything, for five days, about Michael Jackson – not even when I got a bit tipsy and starting barking about an existential connection between karaoke and Dostoyevsky was he mentioned. I remain convinced that I am the only person on the face of the earth who thinks his life is the only interesting thing about him, far more interesting than his music which bores me unspeakably. But for this contention I gleaned no support from the Levinasians, among whom his name did not arise.
I did, however, work out how to put my thoughts about the Dawkins/Eagleton debate into a nutshell. It’s like this. Eagleton, who knows the history of theology well, believes religion is more philosophically subtle and true than Dawkins knows. And I have a large stake in this argument, as it’s religion of this complex, nuanced, insightful kind that is the basis of my thinking life and academic career. But the problem comes when I find that I have to explain this marvelous concept of religion not only to atheists like Dawkins, but also to regular Christian believers. And when I find myself in this position, I start to think there’s a lot to what Dawkins is saying.
A correlative argument occurs in some thinkers as a distinction between Christianity and Judaism. Christianity is, by this way of thinking, the childish, old-man-in-the-sky religion that Dawkins reasonably attacks, while Judaism is a “religion for adults” – it is the best realisation of the subtleties that Christians (like Eagleton) have been picking up from the Jews and using to make their religion more philosophically worthy. Once again the whole paradigm falls to bits when one speaks to actual, synagogue-attending Jews. The theory we do is great, but it doesn’t pan out in the institutions.
In the end I’m tempted to say that those of us who have staked our lives on this higher, more philosophical theology should be prepared to cut bait. Religion isn’t what we say it is, and we’d be better off reading straight philosophy.