I am an admirer of Derek Turner’s writing and his work as editor of Right Now! and Quarterly Review. Yet I sense that he cuts John Gray undeserved slack in his review of Gray’s book, Black Mass: Religion and the Death of Utopia (“The Skeptical Mind,” Opinion, June). I have not read this book, nor do I intend to, but from Turner’s summation I gather that there really is not much to choose between Gray’s apparently bottomless skepticism and that of “Marxist professor Terry Eagleton,” cited by Turner to the effect that “progress is a myth, freedom a fantasy, selfhood a delusion, morality a kind of sickness, justice a mere matter of custom and illusion our natural condition.” This is the terminal nihilism and relativism characteristic of the left today, especially in its academic mode. Like Eagleton, Gray apparently makes what is now the common error among our intelligentsia of lumping “religion” (any religion) indiscriminately with “ideology” and rejecting them all as hopelessly utopian.
But the truest skepticism is skeptical even of itself. Leftists, disillusioned by the failure of one particular ideology, Marxism, have concluded that all truth claims must be bogus. This is obviously the reaction of an angry infant. Do Gray and Eagleton reject “progress”? Good! Because Chesterton was right to caution us that if we are to “progress,” we must be quite certain we are progressing toward Heaven and not toward Hell. The left was not wrong to contemplate improvement to the human condition; they just looked to the wrong place: the current vale of tears as opposed to the Kingdom yet to come. But this will be God’s Kingdom according to Christianity, the religion of our civilization for two millennia. The left’s error was in substituting a man-designed “utopia” or “ideal” society. But man’s flawed nature cannot construe an unflawed world.
So Gray and company appear to be throwing out the baby with the bath water. I am glad that they are against utopian social engineering. But to associate it with Christian soteriology is to confuse truth with falsehood, the real thing—providing spiritual and cultural sustenance for centuries—with the demonic imitation (providing only emptiness and death). To consider two opposites to be in fact variants of the same thing is to be indiscriminate, to think unclearly.
Mr. Turner Replies:
I am grateful to Professor Chaves for his kind remarks—although whatever hackwork I do pales into insignificance when compared with his reputation as an Orientalist.
In the review, I did criticize Professor Gray for designating secular belief systems as “religions.” But perhaps I was unclear in relation to Terry Eagleton. Unlike Gray, Eagleton is a staunch believer in “progress.” This is why Eagleton dislikes Gray so much, and conversely one of the reasons why I admire Gray, despite disagreements with many aspects of his outlook. I would much prefer Gray’s bracing disbelief in all systems and all ideologies—for which there are many conservative precedents, such as Balthasar Gracian—to Eagleton’s strange combination of economic socialism and aspirational moral mush. This latter is curiously similar in tone and content to the neoconservative moral mush that underpins the Iraq adventure. Unlike Eagleton, Gray would accept that “man’s flawed nature cannot construe an unflawed world.”
Gray may make mistakes, but he is unafraid to make them, or to learn from them, and is willing to stare into Maistre’s “abyss.” He is invariably honest, and infinitely more cultivated and alert than the likes of Professor Eagleton, or many mainstream conservative pundits. Even when you disagree, he makes you work out why you disagree.