Commentary Magazine


The Politics at God's Funeral, by Michael Harrington

Faith Without Faith

The Politics at God’s Funeral: The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization.
by Michael Harrington.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 308 pp. $16.95.

In this book, Michael Harrington “cries wolf,” as he puts it, in order to warn us all of the potentially catastrophic consequences of the death of God, the “societal God of the Judeo-Christian West.” As human beings have come to realize that no Supreme Power rules “out there,” they have lost their sense of life’s meaning. The force that once legitimized standards, prescribed behavior, sanctified causes, and generally gave life its flavor—that force has disappeared and humankind knows dread.

Harrington’s own self-professed atheism does not disqualify him for the role of Cassandra. After all, Nietzsche, the thinker who most prominently proclaimed that “God is dead,” was himself hardly a believer, and Harrington thus finds himself in good, or at least profound, company. He does, to be sure, run the risk of telling a very old tale; one might wonder what remains to be said about the Deity’s alleged demise. Harrington, however, can legitimately claim to bring an unusual perspective to bear on the subject.

His approach compels some interest and attention because Harrington, at present the co-chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America, proudly professes to be a Marxist; a number of previous works of his have attested to the strength of his ideological commitment. Now Marxists are better known for celebrating than for mourning the death of God. Marx understood the decline of religion as one of the preconditions and signs of human liberation. His collaborator Engels found even agnosticism unacceptable, a kind of cowardice.

Harrington differs from his intellectual mentors, having learned that man cannot live by dialectical materialism alone. Acknowledging his Catholic heritage and upbringing, he considers himself “religiously musical.” He dedicates himself to deepening the insights of socialism, to providing it, as it were, with a tragic dimension, and to elaborating a Left humanism. These intentions have resulted in an attempt to articulate “the spiritual crisis of Western civilization” both chronologically, as a history of ideas, and according to subject matter, as a survey of fields like sociology, economics, and theology. This double aspect makes for some repetitiveness, but the two strands can be separated for the sake of analysis.

Surprisingly enough, Harrington’s history of unbelief begins with the devout Pascal rather than, say, the biblical fool who said in his heart that there was no God. Pascal was “the first to realize that God was dying” when he faced up to the infinite and chaotic universe depicted by the new science of the 17th century. (Nothing is said of Pascal’s abiding belief in Divine Revelation.) Thereafter, surprises cease as Harrington touches all the expected bases. We read of Kant’s assault on objective truth and his enshrinement of human subjectivity; of Hegel’s grand or grandiose humanism which secularized Christianity almost beyond recognition; and of Marx’s consummation of this line of thought. Marx saw religion as alienation: men had created God but thought that God created men; the revolution would bring about a time that had no need for such hallucinations. Harrington’s account also features the usual supporting cast: Voltaire, Schleiermacher, Goethe, and others. Nietzsche, as usual, plays the outsider, because he disbelieved in progress and therefore propounded a “catastrophic atheism.”

Harrington’s narrative account avoids subtlety but does not escape confusion. One never quite knows whether he thinks God died a natural death or was murdered. If He was murdered, who did it? Kant, Hegel, Marx, and Nietzsche are the leading suspects, but suspicion also falls on impersonal powers like science, history, and freedom. Nor is it all that clear that He is really dead. Thus one first learns that Kant “killed God” in the 18th century, only to discover that in 1898, “God was dying, but slowly.” Harrington takes insufficient care to block his Nietzschean metaphor, and therefore spreads bewilderment.

His survey of modern disciplines and institutions is clear enough, however. For example, Harrington persuasively shows capitalism’s tendency to secularize the world. He justly criticizes the attempts of sociologists to validate religion on the mere grounds that religiosity seems to appear everywhere and always. At his best, he is a summarizer of considerable talent. His discussion of 20th-century theology not only does justice to Karl Barth, but also shows him to be outside the mainstream of modern Protestant thinking, which seems, wittingly or unwittingly, to be preoccupied with “providing a Christian burial for the dead God.”

When dealing with such matters, Harrington usually keeps his Marxist predilections within reasonable bounds, though they are evident enough, as in his reluctance to assign any role to chance in history. Marxists are famous for saying “it is no accident,” and Harrington actually does say this a number of times. Things never seem just to happen; they happen “not so incidentally.” Moreover, Harrington assumes as a matter of course that human thought is influenced decisively by the historical setting in which it appears.

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In general, though, the many faults of The Politics at God’s Funeral have little to do with Marxism, which in any event has enough sins on its head without having to be blamed for Harrington’s astonishing sloppiness. In dealing with German, he has an Umlaut problem; when he translates from that language he sometimes mistranslates; he gets even the titles of books wrong; and he has not mastered the spelling of the name of Seymour Martin Lipset. If it is true that the Lord God resides in the minute detail, then Harrington’s way with details almost by itself amounts to a proof of God’s death.

Even if one manages to overlook Harrington’s carelessness, one still is faced with the obstacle of his trendiness, most prominently exemplified by his slavish concessions to radical feminism. It might be thought obvious to refer to God as masculine, but on the very first page of the very first chapter the author sees fit to apologize, in a long footnote, for this usage. Thereafter he takes care to sanitize his language in all the expected ways; God is not a spokesman but a spokesperson. It almost goes without saying that the book also includes salutary condemnations of racism as well as ethnocentrism, and that Harrington makes it clear that he worries about the environment.

Both carelessness and an excessive concern with being fashionable would be easy to forgive if the book had much to say that was new or true or both, but such proves not to be the case. Sheer conventionality constitutes its most glaring defect. Harrington’s scholarship breaks no new ground, notwithstanding the fact that he has included no fewer than sixteen appendices, a bibliography of hundreds of entries, almost thirty pages of notes, and a most respectable index. The scholarly apparatus becomes merely pretentious when one realizes the derivativeness of the author’s views (though he is generous in acknowledging his debts).

Harrington’s intellectual fatigue manifests itself all along but reaches its climax in the book’s final chapter, bombastically entitled “Prolegomena to a Political Morality.” He has previously called for “a united front of believers and atheists in search of a common transcendental which is neither supernatural nor anti-supernatural.” Now he seeks to provide some guidance for men as they seek to “create . . . common values” or forge a “consensus ideology.”

Were Harrington more open to the possibility that Nietzsche was right, he would comprehend the futility of his own quest, which takes God’s death for granted. First of all, Nietzsche showed poignantly that values that can be created are not really values. They do not readily yield meaning, since what is meant by “meaning” is something beyond our power to make. Then, too, Nietzsche declared that the death of God was tantamount to the death of all gods. Harrington divines as much when he writes that “the death of God has indeed pointed toward the death of all the higher values,” but he seems both unwilling and unable to follow Nietzsche to the depth of the latter’s thought.

He pays a heavy price for that failure. Impelled to come to the defense “of the very existence of values,” he nevertheless finds himself unable to provide a ground for them. Hence his conclusion amounts to little more than the socialist equivalent of a formulaic praise of motherhood. Harrington assuredly no longer believes in God, and he has found no substitute standard to which he can appeal. Nature has nothing to say to him and he has lost the innocence of a Hegelian-Marxist belief in history.

Where did Harrington go wrong? Perhaps the various credos of modernity caused him to surrender his belief in God too readily, too dogmatically. Nothing he understands could not be equally well understood, or better, by a believer who continues to have faith that God exists, inscrutable as always and mostly silent now. Such a believer might even be saved from some of the tired pieties that Michael Harrington has come to utter.

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