Evil is supremely pointless


William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, famously asked why the devil should have all the best tunes, and proceeded to plunder them for his own missionary purposes. In his stimulating new book, Terry Eagleton seems to have asked himself why theologians should have all the best metaphors, and has proceeded to plunder them in his campaign to bring greater realism to an understanding of contemporary politics. Without repudiating the possibility of a supernatural dimension to Christian doctrine, his purpose in this book is to demonstrate how it can be used to express and interpret the human condition. Using technical theological language, his book could be described as an exercise in realised eschatology: ‘while there could no more be anyone “in” hell than there could be anyone in a material location called debt or love or despair’, hell is real enough, he says – and it’s not just other people. Central to Eagleton’s use of theology in this book is the doctrine of original sin, the only doctrine for which there is an abundance of empirical evidence. Christian anthropology, properly understood, is neither pessimistic nor optimistic – it is realistic; and in that triangulation, which is very important to Eagleton, there are the makings of a whole political philosophy. The human is a tragic animal, aware of the complexity of its own condition, yet never in complete control of it. Claiming to be free, we also know that our choices in life are largely determined by circumstances we had no part in creating.

more from Richard Holloway at Literary Review here.