Reading a Catholic Marxist “On Evil”

depositphotos_12758395-Goethe039s-Faust-Faust-and-Gretchen-in-the-garden-Mephisto-listensOur bookclub happens most Wednesdays at Upstream downtown Omaha.  We have gone through a wide variety of books, including Bruce Shelly’s 700+ history of the church for laypeople, 131 Christians Everyone Should Know, The World Trade Created, Evangelicals and Tradition (DH Williams) and a lot of others.  Most recently, we are reading a book by a Catholic Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton.  It is called, simply, ‘on evil’, and it is an interesting analysis of evil from a peculiarly Marxist Christian academic perspective.

Before I say anything more about Eagleton’s book, I would like to say that bookclub is worship of God.  Christians, particularly Evangelicals, tend to talk a lot about their ‘heart’ relationship to God– and Christianity is in some respects very emotional for a lot of Christians.  That is not bad necessarily, but can be, if one allows entropy of the brain to set in and one loses the ability to critically think about novel ideas and creative thoughts.

Cultivating one’s mind and keeping fresh thinking happening is not unlike cultivating a garden.  But unfortunately, many of us neglect our minds like we neglect the garden– and the weeds set on, and soon the garden can become useless.  Churches sometimes provide opportunity for that, but more often than not they do not.  I know a lot of Christians who have a difficult time finding a place to be thoughtfully challenged and engaged.

And this is not just a church problem.  Most people don’t go to bookclubs of any sort.  Most people don’t read a lot of books.  I am an academic, and still even for me it can be a struggle to carve out time to read new challenging books.  These things don’t happen on their own– it takes intentionality and determination.  And I know a lot of people who find the idea of bookclub cool, but who still don’t decide to invest their time and energy into it.

Eagleton’s book is about evil.  It is a provocative book, and he is a clever and interesting writer.

In the first chapter, he identifies evil, like Augustine and others, with pride.  Those who do evil, he says, “are too proud to submit to limit.  They will not bow the knee to the finite, least of all to their own creatureliness.  This is why pride is the characteristic Satanic vice.  This is also why they are so terrified of death, which is the absolute limit of the human.” (26)  Like Adam and Eve, who wanted to ‘be like God’ through their taking of the fruit, we also seek ways to escape our finitude, and to become somehow infinite. Eagleton says,

To achieve the infinite (a project known among other things as the American Dream), we would need to leap out of our wretchedly disabling bodies.  What distinguishes capitalism from other historical forms of life is that it plugs directly into the unstable, self-contradictory nature of the human species.  The infinite– the unending drive for profit, the ceaseless march of technological progress, the ever-expanding power of capital– is always at risk of crushing and overshooting the finite….Capitalism is a system which needs to be in perpetual motion simply to stay on the spot.  Constant transgression is of its essence.

We attempt to be infinite through our technological progress- the IPhone 4, or whatever new amazing app we can get to expand our abilities.  Businesses like Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway are always on the prowl for more companies to buy.  If a company is not expanding, then it is not doing well, in the eyes of most.  And this applies to Churches as well: we ask if a church is growing or not, and the sure sign of a healthy church is a new expansion project– particularly if it is paid off.  This is why megachurches like the recent 130 million dollar campus in Dallas are revered ( ) by some.

Its not as though capitalism is evil for eagleton: “Capitalism is not the cause of our ‘fallen’ state, as the more naïve kind of left-winger tends to imagine.  But of all human regimes, it is the one which most exacerbates the contradictions built into [us]”  In the current system, we are free to amass huge amounts of money and to have little responsibility to society or others.

Eagleton refers to the prideful tendency to want to go beyond our limits as being ‘overreachers.  I think I do that all the time– not just through my consumer habits, or technology, but just by the way I sometimes live nonstop, trying to pack it all in.  I don’t want to miss out.  I don’t want to let something pass me by.  And so I try to be more than a finite human being…and it sometimes drives my wife crazy.

Faust is one figure that Eagleton talks about frequently.  Goerthe’s Faustus makes a deal with the devil that if he can reach a point of being really satisfied, then the devil can have his soul.  The devil gives him knowledge, power, money, women, and all kinds of things– none of which really satisfy Faustus’ thirsty soul.  But finally there is something that makes him really happy: the satisfaction of taking back land from the sea through dikes and windmills.  This somehow satisfies the urges within him– maybe his God given desire to work the land…

So at that point the devil gets Faustus and brings him down to hell– but God sends angels to rescue Faustus, because God is so fond of Faustus’ strong and determined spirit.   “He who strives on and lives to strive/ Can earn redemption still” (V, 11936–7).

That isn’t good biblical theology at all 🙂  But I sense in myself, and many of us can– that spirit of wanting more which seems to be unquenchable.  It is good to be ambitious.  It is bad for our ambition to be unquenchable and without a source of peace.  Many of us thrive in a constant state of overreaching…

We haven’t finished the book, and eagleton says a lot more provocative valuable things than I could ever summarize here.  But when it comes to the overreaching, it is important, I think, to remember one of my father’s favorite verses: “Be still and know that I am God”

May God have mercy on us All.


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