Why Is God for Christians Good for Nothing?

Excerpt from Fall 2013 Bannan Institute Lecture

by Terry Eagleton |

The difference between theologians, I think, and old- fashioned nineteenth century rationalists like Richard Dawkins, is that when Dawkins holds forth on God, he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but doesn’t know that he doesn’t, whereas when theologians talk about God, they don’t really know what they’re talking about, but they know that they don’t. The difference, in short, is between unknown unknowns and known unknowns ...

For the greatest post-ancient theologian who ever lived, Thomas Aquinas, all talk about God is fuzzy, nebulous, analogous, metaphorical, hit and miss, blurred at the edges, and in the end, so much garbage. Useful garbage perhaps, like a couple of dollar bills you might find in the trash can, but garbage nonetheless, which of course is why Aquinas was finally to describe his own mighty Summa, perhaps the greatest work of theology ever written, as so much straw, and lay down his pen after producing about the equivalent, I think, of two or three novels a month in writing it, and fall silent for the few years or months remaining to him. As St. Augustine puts it in the Confessions, there’s really not much point in talking about God, but that’s no excuse for keeping your mouth shut either, although he said it rather more elegantly and also in Latin, which is even more admirable.

Since, in any case, I suppose God is the source of talk about himself, then he logically transcends it. We talk (don’t we?) about going to the horse’s mouth for the real story, but the irony of that is that horses don’t speak, and neither does God, except perhaps through people like Thomas and Augustine. In fact, don’t let this go beyond these four walls, but there are all kinds of things that God can’t do, despite popular reports of his omniscience or omnipotence. He can’t shave his legs, for example, because he doesn’t have any. He can’t fasten his shoelaces, prefer burgundy to madeira ... It’s not even clear that God is able to be good. For one thing, not many theologians worth their salt these days, I suppose, would claim that God was a moral being. God isn’t any kind of moral. Being moral is for creatures like us, who don’t know how to be happy, who don’t know what we really desire, and therefore who have to engage in interminable conversations about it called things like ethics and politics. God is luckily released from all that.

Professor Terry Eagleton engages audience members at his provocative Fall 2013 Bannan Institute lecture “Why Is God for Christians Good for Nothing?” Grace Ogihara

In fact, he isn’t of course a being at all, in the sense of a determinate entity within the universe. He isn’t any kind of entity. He’s neither within the universe nor outside it, and he isn’t an object, phenomenon, principle, or even a person in the sense in which Al Gore is arguably a person. So I think all good theologians then can surely agree with Dawkins and Dennett and the rest of that crew that God doesn’t exist. He isn’t any kind of existent entity. He’s the reason why there are any existent entities at all, rather than just nothing. He can’t be reckoned up with other things. God and the universe don’t make two. Whatever other mistakes believers might make, and they make quite a few, not being able to count isn’t one of them. Thinking that there’s one more object in the universe than there actually is, is not the kind of mistake that believers make, whatever errors and crimes they may commit.

So what good is God? ... the word good can be used of God only analogously or metaphorically. When we call him good, we don’t really know what we’re talking about. He certainly isn’t good in the sense that he doesn’t commit adultery, doesn’t say things like “Oh, Christ,” and always eats his five portions of vegetables a day. To say that he doesn’t commit adultery isn’t of course to say that he’s chaste, just as to say that he doesn’t curse isn’t to say that he’s impeccably verbally well-behaved. It’s rather to say this whole sort of language is simply no more applicable to God than it is to a badger or a baseball bat.

God isn’t a moral being, though he’s the source of morality in others, which is to say he’s the source of an ecstatic overflowing abundance of life. Morality, of course, having to do in the first place not with duty, obligation, responsibility, self-discipline, self-repression, and all those other rather grim-faced puritanical notions, but with human fulfillment, what human beings desire— how are they to know it, and how are they together to fulfill it? Duties, obligations, responsibilities, all that Kantian talk, may indeed have its place, but it has to find a place within that broader and deeper context of what morality is...

Morality is really all about learning how to live life fully, enjoyably, and superabundantly, whereas evil is a deficiency or defectiveness of life ... But because we are, of course, desperately opaque and impenetrable to ourselves, sometimes a lot more so than to each other, knowing how to fulfill ourselves is by no means an easy matter ... That morality is about pleasurable fulfillment is the good news. The bad news is if you’re going to take that seriously, you’re very likely to end up getting yourself crucified. Pleasurable fulfillment for everybody involves issues of justice. Issues of justice involve questions of conflict, and questions of conflict can well involve death. The message of the gospel is stark, simple, and utterly devastating. If you don’t love, you’re dead. And if you do, they’ll kill you ... At the center of Christianity is the tortured, reviled figure of a suspected political rebel who spoke out for love and justice and was murdered by the state for his pains ...

What good is God? Traditionally, good is a functional term, isn’t it? A good clock is one that keeps time. And a good knife, one that can cut. But what function does God have? To create the universe perhaps? To get things off the ground? Well, the doctrine of creation, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with how things got off the ground, whatever theological illiterates like Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett may think. Thomas Aquinas believed in the doctrine of creation but thought it perfectly plausible, possible, that the universe had no beginning, as indeed his great mentor, Aristotle, believed. He didn’t actually believe that, because of the first book of Genesis, but he thought it was perfectly possible. It wasn’t in any sense for him violating the doctrine of creation to believe that creation never had a beginning because it simply wasn’t for him about that.

God ... is completely useless, and that, of course, is the most precious thing about him. He’s his own grounds, reasons, ends, foundations, raison d’être, with absolutely no purpose beyond himself. He is, in fact, the supremely autonomous being.

thing about him. He’s his own grounds, reasons, ends, foundations, raison d’être, with absolutely no purpose beyond himself. He is, in fact, the supremely autonomous being. With the word autonomous, of course, literally meaning a law unto himself. He’s his own law. If atheist and theologian can agree on one proposition at least, it’s surely there’s no point to God whatsoever. What is he good for? Nothing. If we can speak of him as good, which is questionable, he’s good for nothing. He’s good for no reason, benefit, gain, practical advantage, instrumental end, simply good for entirely, purely entirely for its own sake. Or to adopt a more technical theological term, good just for the hell of it ...

Professor Terry Eagleton engages audience members at his provocative Fall 2013 Bannan Institute lecture “Why Is God for Christians Good for Nothing?” Grace Ogihara

So it is with people, human beings. Where they most resemble God is precisely in being pretty useless as well. That’s to say, in living, in realizing their energies and capacities purely for their own sake, which is to say paradoxically, that where we belong most to God is where we’re most autonomous, where we’re most self-determining. That’s where we belong to him most. Our dependency on him is the very ground and source of our freedom. Not the dependency of a servant or a slave to a master, rather as one’s dependency on good parents will become in the fullness of time, if we’re lucky, the source and ground of our free flourishing. There’s no freedom without a prior, deeper, and more radical dependency.

Are human beings good for nothing then too? Well, according to the New Testament, I think they ought to be. They should be good, but for nothing, for no reason, gain, self-advantage, no return ... Not only should one expect no return, but one should give more than requested. Walk two miles rather than one; give your cloak as well as your coat, as so on. These are deliberately surreal, extravagant, over-the-top gestures which are intended to make a mockery of exchange value, of tit for tat, of the strict equivalencies of the capitalist bookkeepers or the accountancy-minded Judas, whose surname by the way might just link him to the zealots. It’s an eschatological ethics, one that suggests that there’s no time for revenge, calculation, exact returns, tit for tat, and so on, because the Kingdom of God is almost upon us.

Terry Eagleton was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and on graduating became a Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, the youngest Fellow since the 18th century. He has been a Fellow of four Oxford and Cambridge colleges, as well as Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford. He is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor in English at the Universities of Lancaster and Notre Dame. He has written over forty works of literary and cultural criticism, published hundreds of articles, and delivered hundreds of lectures in many countries throughout the world. He is an Honorary Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge, a Fellow of the British Academy, a Fellow of the English Association and the holder of nine Honorary Doctorates of Letters. His books include: Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (2009), On Evil, (2010), Why Marx Was Right (2011), and The Event of Literature (2012).

Endnotes


  1. Terry Eagleton, “Why Is God for Christians Good for Nothing?,” lecture, 2013-2014 Bannan Institute: What Good Is God? series, October 7, 2013, Santa Clara University. This essay is an excerpt from the lecture; a video of the full lecture is available online at: http://scu.edu/ic/publications/videos.cfm
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