By his own admission, Terry Eagleton is a bookseller's nightmare. "They simply don't know where to put me," he says. With good reason: the pre-eminent cultural critic and distinguished professor of literature at the University of Lancaster in England has published more than 40 books, including fiction (Saints and Scholars, Verso, 1987), cultural theory (The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Blackwell, 1991), history (The Truth about the Irish, St. Martin's, 2001), memoir (The Gatekeeper, St. Martin's, 2002), and politics (Why Marx was Right, Yale, 2011). His best-known book, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Univ. of Minnesota, 1983; 2008), has sold more than 750,000 copies and introduced generations of graduate students in English to the mysteries of deconstruction and post-structuralism.
Lately, though, Eagleton has turned his attention to Christianity and its critics, especially the so-called New Atheists, particularly his late friend Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. In 2009, he published a direct hit on these two thinkers—whom he affectionately refers to as "Ditchkins"—in Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate (Yale).
"I know enough about theology and Christianity to know these two were talking out of the backs of their necks,” Eagleton says. “[They] were relying on simplistic caricatures of Christianity that simply viewed religion and fundamentalist religion as the same thing."
Eagleton didn't come suddenly to this interest in religion. He grew up in a working class family in a Catholic community near Manchester. "As a Catholic, I was quite an outsider in Britain; when we moved to Dublin, it was just the opposite," he notes. He attended Catholic schools, serving as an altar boy at a local Carmelite convent where, according to his memoir, he escorted novice nuns to take their vows. As a teenager, Eagleton’s interests turned to leftist political and social activism. "When I was 14 or 15 I wanted to be a left-wing intellectual, which I have more or less become," he says.
At Cambridge, Eagleton began to see a relationship between politics and Christianity, and he encountered a version of Christianity that "made a sort of political and ethical sense to me.” Active in the left-wing Catholic group Slant, he published his first book, The New Left Church (Helicon 1966), under the name Terence Eagleton. It was a collection of essays—such as "A Marxist Interpretation of Benediction"—in which he explored the relationship between Marxism and Christianity.
Eagleton went on to read English at Cambridge. "I enjoyed literature and recognized its wider social implications,” he says. “It prepared me for what I did later, and it launched me into the broader humanistic inquiry I've taken up in my work."
In his new book, Culture and the Death of God (Yale, Mar.), Eagleton goes beyond his critique of the New Atheism to illustrate the ways in which theology raises foundational questions in a culture where political science, linguistic philosophy, and positivist science have run away from such questions. Says Eagleton,
"The average view of Christianity is such a caricature, and Christianity is in large part to blame for that, but I wanted to point out that a new configuration of faith, politics, and culture can be born out of Christianity's recognition of itself as a this-worldly religion that, like Marxism, is concerned with the fight for justice, redemption, solidarity with the poor and powerless, and making a better world in the here and now."
Will Eagleton continue to write about religion? His next book, tentatively titled Hope without Optimism, will be published by the University of Virginia Press (no date announced yet). It takes up many of the themes of Culture and the Death of God, but Eagleton admits he never knows what he's going to write until he finds himself in the midst of a project. But he jokes, "I have returned to religion in my dotage, I suppose, as my way of trying to win the approval of the Almighty."