Monday, December 20, 2010

John Wesley, Karl Marx, And The Full Life

One of the more important decisions my wife and I made this past year was that I would no longer work full time. After moving from Poplar Grove to the outskirts of Elgin, the commute to Belvidere was longer, my time with my family much shorter. Worse, from my own point of view, was the sense of disconnect, not just from my family, but myself, that I experienced. We looked over things, and realized that we could continue to make ends meet, albeit perhaps without some extra treats and gee-gaws, if I moved to part-time rather than full-time. We have made it work just fine.

To say that I experience my employment, in any time capacity, as alienation, would be an understatement. Were I a bit more confident, were our family situation more secure, leaving work completely would be marvelous. The compromise we reached, however, is satisfactory enough.

I find the connection between Marx's discussion of alienation in capitalist societies, in many ways, to have an affinity with John Wesley's discussion of the necessity for the New Birth. Marx is speaking of a socio-economic condition that leaves us strangers to that which most makes us human. Wesley is speaking of a spiritual condition that leaves us estranged from God. In both cases, there is, indeed, a solution. For Marx, it is a reordering of society so that labor, that which makes us most human, is no longer opposed to but rather supports a fully human life. For Wesley, the experience of the New Birth, acknowledging what God has done for and in us, awakens us to our new life in Christ, a new life lived in community with God and our fellow Christians, a life lived toward holiness, which Wesley understood as the further work of Divine Grace in the community of believers.

Both men saw the sad state of their fellow human beings. Both men felt compassion for the very real human suffering. Both men offered a diagnosis of the underlying condition - alienation, original sin - that cut through all the social and religious hype that helped so many rest uneasy with their truncated lives. The pabulum of the capitalist, the cheap grace of the State Church with its assurances that baptism was sufficient unto salvation are little more than the rhetoric of the powerful who offer us nothing but sickly-sweet bromides, veils for our eyes and blocks for our ears so that we cannot even see or hear the reality around us. We are lost. We know it. We cannot, however, define or understand what this lostness is, let alone what to do about it.

For Wesley, the New Birth was the work of God. With this "moment", as he calls it, we now have the opportunity to work toward that holiness of life and heart, as he calls it, that leads to eternal life. For Marx, the revolution leads to the control of the means of production, giving to the working class the power to make work, that which makes us human (he borrows from Feuerbach the term "species-being" to clarify the understanding of work as that which differentiates us from other animals), no longer alien to us, a power over us, but something fully human.

St. Paul wrote that Christ came not only so that we might have life, but that we might have it more abundantly. Wesley was working through his own understanding of what that meant. In much the same way, albeit in different language, with different concerns, Marx, too, was working through what it might mean, in a situation where an entire class of human beings is estranged from that which makes them most human, what it would mean to have a full life, an abundant life, a truly human life.

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