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After Theory
After Theory
Terry Eagleton
Basic Books, 2003
240 pp., $25.00

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By Eugene McCarraher


After Theory, Theology?

Pauline self-abandonment as a response to postmodern nihilism.

In a prefatory note to After Theory, Terry Eagleton tells us that the influence of one Herbert McCabe has been "so pervasive" as to be "impossible to localize." Rushing past this reference, reviewers have missed a clue, not only to the book, but to the trajectory of Eagleton's career. A sardonic and generous Dominican friar who died in 2001, McCabe was a renowned Thomist philosopher and theologian, an editor of the British Catholic journal New Blackfriars, and a socialist—an "obstinate ultra-leftist," as Eagleton once wrote fondly, who demanded "nothing less than the resurrection of the body." McCabe saw no contradiction or willful eccentricity in these commitments, rooting his radical politics in the Aristotelian-Thomist tradition. From this vantage, socialism was neither an extravagant ideal nor a historical necessity but the epitome of practical reason.

Along with the Marxist cultural historian Raymond Williams and his fellow Dominican Laurence Bright, McCabe mentored Eagleton and other New Left Catholics at Cambridge in the 1960s. Known as the Slant group (after the name of the journal they founded), these lefty Catholics produced some of the most imaginative political theology of the Cold War era. Insisting (against "secular city" fashions) on the indispensability of theology to social and political criticism, Slant recalled an earlier Anglo-Catholic Left that included John Neville Figgis and Maurice Reckitt, and anticipated much in the contemporary "radical orthodoxy" of John Milbank and Graham Ward. As Eagleton put it in The Body as Language (1970), the Church, precisely as the body of Christ, embodied "a revolutionary vanguard … working to dissipate the layers of false consciousness," while the Eucharist betokened "a symbolic transcendence of alienation."

Slant fizzled, however, and Eagleton left the Church in the 1970s, espousing a Marxism leavened by postmodern literary scholarship and cultural politics. Decked out in the latest intellectual fashions—poststructuralism, ...

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