Saturday, January 22, 2011

Christianity, Marxism, And The Persistence Of Religious Protest

I decided it might be a good idea to pause and ask a really good question: Why am I at all interested in Marxist discussions and appropriation of Christian theology? Whether one considers Marx's ideas of a piece, or periodic with an early, more humanist Marxism juxtaposed to a later, more scientific approach, one thread that runs through his work is, at the very least, a hostility to the Christian religion as it was reified in industrial capitalism in western Europe.

I will state upfront that I think the other side of the equation, the Christian churches and their various theologians, have been all-too-eager to accept the indictment of Marx and his followers (they have been less enthusiastic toward Freud, but that is a subject for another day). All too often this agreement has been too vigorous, too shallow. Because they have sought it out, many theologians have found, within the text of the Bible, in the history of the faith, and in certain theological categories tools that can liberate not only this same dehumanized mass, but itself from the fate of going the way of the dodo. While there may be a genuine desire on the part of many to work for the liberation not just of those under the bootheel of late industrial imperialistic capitalism, for the most part I honestly believe it is rooted even more in a desperate attempt to keep the Christian religion alive, even vital, in the face of the protest against its use as a tool to degrade human beings.

Bad faith is never a good reason to do anything, especially a bad faith rooted in a shallow guilt and a desire to remain "relevant" rather than faithful.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc is so far in the past there are people in the US of legal voting age with no living memory of it. We have lived far too long under the lie, "There is no alternative" (TINA, as it has been shortened, was a favorite of Margaret Thatcher). There is a rich, vibrant history of Marxist thought, from the founders to our own day, and this is the precise moment it may well indeed speak to us who have the desire to hear of a better way, a more human way, of being together.

The Christian churches, in all their variation, are now, as they have always been, on all sides of various fences. The powerful and the powerless, the leaders and the herd of dehumanized masses who want only to live fully human lives find solace within the walls of the churches, comfort for their pains - social, psychological, physical - in the soothing words and outstretched arms of both clergy and laity. The challenge before us, really, is one of honesty. Were we Christians honest, we would admit not only that the churches have been complicit, sometimes overt leaders, in the exploitation of human beings for the sake of the powerful; we would admit, further, that it doesn't take a whole lot of effort to find support for such action within the text of the Bible and the categories of theology. The effort to lift out and read the Bible, the history of our theology and practice, those parts that favor a different view of what it means to be Church, to be a Christian, while noble and certainly finding support in various parts of the text, undermine themselves at precisely the point they deny any contradiction within the text itself, let alone in the history of the faith.

Like the far-too-shallow appropriation of large elements of liberation theology by North American Christians, the rush to accept the judgment that we have, indeed, been guilty of monstrous crimes against humanity in the name of God - implicating God, too - misses the point. We cannot rid ourselves of the distasteful past. We cannot wash the blood from our hands. We can work with those texts and categories that offer a way out of the abyss, but we should do so honestly, and with more depth than I think, heretofore, has been done.

In reading these Marxists and the ways theology informs their work, even as they deny any reality to the content of the truth claims of theology, I have discovered that, at the very least, much of the on-going protest against "God" and "religion" is not anything "radical". The God-deniers and church-bashers far too often are wed to an ideology that is hand-in-glove with those forces that continue to oppress and subjugate large parts of humanity. The shallow scientism of Dawkins and Harris, the sophistry of Daniel Dennett, and the imperialistic war-mongering of Christopher Hitchens are not at all radical critiques of religion and the evils it visits upon humanity in the name of humanism. Quite the opposite; Hitchens and Harris are enthusiastic war-boosters, with Harris going so far as to endorse the torture and murder of Muslism on grounds that can only be called genocidal. Dawkins beef with Christianity - its ridiculous creationist, young earth nonsense - has pushed one biologist past the point of endurance. The result, however, is an endorsement of an equally dehumanizing scientism that is itself part of the structure of liberalism that buries far too many human beings under its own groaning weight.

Furthermore, St. Paul did instruct us to be all things to all people, to be as wily as foxes. If there are, in fact, resources for imagining and living the Christian faith that can be found in Marxism - resources not only for judging those whose lives are rooted in human exploitation, but comforting and even struggling with those envisioning a better, more human/humane world - then, by all means, they should be given a third, or even fourth, look. That there are Marxists who struggle with theological issues, whose effort to consign religion to history's dustbin are thwarted by the reality that the many faces of religion include one that lives with, sides with, the exploited, dehumanized tools for the enrichment of the few, we owe it to ourselves to learn from them. Even if we cannot agree with all they say, by rooting around in the attic of western thought we may find some garments to drape across the tattered, withered frame of Christian thought and life.

Virtual Tin Cup

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