From the Nov/Dec, 2014 issue of Touchstone


Post Mortem by Graeme Hunter

Book Review

Post Mortem

Culture and the Death of God
by Terry Eagleton

Yale University Press, 2014
(234 pages, $26.00, hardcover)

reviewed by Graeme Hunter

There is a fashionable way to write cultural history and it has two non-negotiable rules. The first is to treat the "death of God" as a historical event of the late nineteenth century. Under no circumstances must you point out, or even seem to suspect, that God is not the kind of being who could die. For example, the cultural historian Peter Watson has written a 600-page history of recent thought with the subtitle: How We Have Sought to Live Since the Death of God. And in all those hundreds of surprisingly interesting pages it never occurs to Watson to wonder what kind of death God died. Was it prolonged or painful? Did he die in good spirits or was he afraid?

But back to the rules of writing cultural history.

The second one is like unto the first. You must believe as fervently in the existence of sorcerers as you do in the death of God. You do not have to use the term "sorcerer." That is simply what I call people who bring things about simply by saying that they are so. Cultural historians find it easy to believe in sorcerers, because they (the historians) confer on them their magical power. But there are a couple of additional rules about who can be made a sorcerer. The candidate sorcerer must, like God, be dead. And you can only make him a sorcerer sacramentally, that is, while you are acting as a cultural historian.

It is normally required that the candidate have been nasty, disliked, and foolish in life, while being regarded today as cool and avant-garde. However, these sorcerers need not resemble the ones we remember from storybooks. They are not necessarily deformed; they do not cackle or fly on brooms; they cast no spells. But the sorcerers of cultural history do possess powers that would make their storybook counterparts envious. They have, or rather receive through anointing, the astonishing ability to make things true simply by saying they are so.

Eagleton Anoints Nietzsche

If you would like to see an application of these rules, let us suppose you were writing a work of cultural history involving the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. You must never say that Nietzsche spoke of decline in religious belief in the colorful metaphor of "the death of God." Instead, you say something like this:

What Nietzsche recognizes is that you can get rid of God only if you also do away with innate meaning. The Almighty can survive tragedy, but not absurdity. . .  Abolishing given meanings involves destroying the idea of depth, which in turn means rooting out beings like God who take shelter there.

What people are saying about Touchstone:

These very words actually can be found in Terry Eagleton's new book, Culture and the Death of God, and they follow scrupulously the rules for writing cultural history. We see Eagleton here posthumously anointing Nietzsche with a sorcerer's power. We are encouraged to picture Nietzsche striking a gallant pose on some windswept, rain-lashed autumn heath, probably dancing at the very edge of a yawning abyss, and reflecting as follows: "I could of course unleash tragedy on the world, but God would likely survive that. What he couldn't do without is depth. Bingo! I'll abolish depth."

"But that is impossible," I hear you cry, "How could anyone abolish depth? It's not even the kind of thing that could be abolished." But, for sorcerers of Nietzsche's degree, nothing is simpler. He has only to abolish meaning, and depth goes despondently, but unresistingly, along. And note that if depth was abolished in, let us say 1892, when Nietzsche's Zarathustra appeared in full, then it was abolished for all past time, as well as for the present and the future. Everything we ever thought significant vanished, or turned into gibberish in an instant, just because Terry Eagleton anointed Nietzsche with sorcerer's powers.

Nietzsche is not the only one on whom cultural historians bestow such powers, but there is an unwritten rule that one should be parsimonious in one's anointings. One dead philosopher per book is a good rule of thumb. You don't want one sorcerer abolishing something or other, while another brings it back to life. Nietzsche is Eagleton's sole anointee and he is single-minded: he kills meaning once and for all, and kills God with the same stone.

Such is the fashionable way of writing cultural history. It is exceptionally silly and, if you have granted me your attention so far, you may well be wondering why you have bothered. What purpose could Touchstone have in permitting Hunter to babble about such preposterous things?

Armed by Reading

Yet I think there is a good reason to take note of them. Postmodern cultural history is a fashionable genre of writing, and you pay a price if you choose to tune out what is currently being said and thought. Oddly enough, it is readers, rather than abstainers, who are better armed against writing fads. Readers know what's on offer and get a chance to think about it. Abstainers absorb it second-hand, without thinking, and often without limit. Just the other day I heard a man mention his friend's misfortune in opening a bottled water business "just when plastic bottles became bad." It awoke in me a vision of those plastic bottles, clear, clean, and functional, jiggling in never-ending line down some conveyer belt to be filled with wholesome spring water . . . when, all at once, they turned bad.

Likely that is not exactly what the man I overheard believes happened. Probably he has never thought very much about what he means. But that is what he says happened. Out of the mouths of babes in the woods come the sayings of cultural historians. You will avoid talking that way more easily if you know what you are saying.

A Parade of Failures

But there is another reason, a secondary one, to read some of these people. Cultural history is a genre of writing, and as such can be done well or badly. If you are going to read any of it, you might as well pick the best, and Eagleton is among the best.

The story he tells in this book begins with the Enlightenment and ends with tomorrow. It is told in strict adherence to the rules of the genre, which I have just explained. But from now on, this review will follow the humdrum conventions of reviewer's English, a genre in which occult powers are never attributed to human subjects, living or dead, and in which one tries to have reasons for what one says.

Eagleton's book is a survey of cultural history since the Enlightenment, focusing on the many substitutes that ingenious intellectual dysfunctionals have concocted for God, and on the unexpected and often entertaining ways in which their concoctions blow up in their faces. With a geniality reminiscent of Montaigne, Eagleton seems to relish this parade of failures, delighting in their passing mop and mow. For a Christian, no pageant can be more pleasant or more refreshing than this comical procession, led by Eagleton in a mock triumphal march.

We begin with the Enlightenment's attempt to crown reason and dethrone the Church, a movement captured in Voltaire's call to arms, Écrasez l'Infâme. The difficulty came in getting the word out beyond the clutch of disaffected intellectuals who were propagating it. To succeed in Voltaire's project of crushing the infamy, the philosophers of the Enlightenment needed to win over popular opinion. Ordinary people, however, were more partial to their religion than to what Voltaire and his friends called "reason." "Reason is a stuffed dummy," one disenchanted figure of the Enlightenment said, "which howling superstition has endowed with divine attributes."

How, then, were right and wrong to be explained, if reason wasn't up to the task? When God was still alive, of course, right and wrong could be anchored in the different covenants he made with mankind. But God was dead, and now reason, too, had failed the bien pensants of the Enlightenment. What motive for goodness could they offer people now? The doctrine of "sentimentalism," its proponents hoped, would have more of the common touch than reason had, since everyone has feelings. The problem here is that everyone has different feelings, and sentimentalism led immediately to relativism and pointed forward to moral collapse. As another observer put it, the Enlightenment seemed to be "caught between the smiling lunacies of the Man of Reason and the sodden effusions of the Man of Feeling."

So begins Eagleton's entertaining account of the long search for what he calls "viceroys for God." It began in the Enlightenment and continues today. Nature, spirit, culture, art, the sublime, the nation, the state, science, humanity, Being, society, therapy, and even sport have all been suggested by someone as a foundation for our collective lives, and none has proven to be up to the job.

A Ray of Truth

The surprise Eagleton always expresses at each failure is seasoned with just enough delight to make us wonder whether we are not enjoying some of the heavenly merriment of Psalm 2:4 ("He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: The Lord shall have them in derision.")

Eagleton also enjoys pointing out the instrumental character of almost all the alternative foundations proposed for human life after the "death of God." The proponents of these alternatives don't believe in them any more than they do in the Deity. But they do want us to believe in their proposals, because they see that no society can long survive without beliefs about how it ought to live.

Eagleton brings his strange pageant of failed ideas to a close with a surprisingly salutary word, not at all in keeping with the cultural historical fashion—even a rebuke to it:

What the New Testament adds to common-or-garden morality is not some supernatural support, but the grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities. The sign of that dissolution is a solidarity with the poor and powerless. It is here that a new configuration of faith, culture and politics might be born.

Orthodox Christians know of many other inconvenient aspects to Christianity, besides its solidarity with the poor and powerless. But that's a start. A ray of truth breaks in upon the imaginary world of cultural history, with its dead God and anointed sorcerers, against which Christians need inoculation. You could get your inoculation here. •

Graeme Hunter teaches philosophy at the University of Ottawa. He is the author of Radical Protestantism in Spinoza's Thought (Ashgate). He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.

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“Post Mortem” first appeared in the Nov/Dec 2014 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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