Whose “God in the Quad?”

In the latest New Yorker, James Wood reviews Terry Eagleton’s response to the new atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et. al.), Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. The essay, “God in the Quad,” exhibits Wood’s familiarity with (and even a kind of backhanded sympathy for) Christian theology (with a bonus, on-the-money side reference to Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre thrown in). While not as tight as his literary criticism, here’s an essay on theology, by a critic, that could never have been written by, say, Edmund Wilson (who, despite his Calvinist heritage, seemed to have a tin ear for theology).

Wood is undoubtedly right: even Eagleton’s response to the screeds of Hitchens & Co. ends up playing by their rules. And it was refreshing–but somehow expected–to hear Wood call out Eagleton on his lack of interest in the Incarnation. But as a devil’s advocate for orthodoxy, Wood gets greedy on two counts.

First, the mission of the incarnate God was not “to secure us eternal tenure in heaven.” This betrays an understanding of the story bequeathed to us by Hal Lindsey (or Karl Marx). As even the staunchly orthodox Bishop of Durham has argued, the telos of the Incarnation is a new earth. If the resurrection means anything (as Wood seems to appreciate), it means Christianity is a kind of materialism.

Second, Wood somehow convinces himself that the Incarnation–God’s becoming flesh–amounts to idolatry. This is because he buys the slippery logic of Mark Johnston who mistakes idolatry and particularity. True, when God is “laden with” human attributes, created in our image, then idols are the result. But what if God takes on such finitude and particularity? If the eternal God gives himself in the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth (and admittedly, that’s a big if), then the Incarnation is an act of condescension rather than the effect of human construction.

Things might be still more complicated.