, , , , , , , , ,

Latte Labour has been running a great series on the convergence (personal for him, political for the rest of us) of Marxism and Christianity. Much of the content concerns itself with classic Marxist criticism of religious discourse:

I think that Marx’s account of alienated religion is correct, and backed by a mountain of empirical evidence. People do invest God with human properties (this, note, is the precisely the opposite of the move made by the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation); people do, moreover, look to some future afterlife for a happiness denied them here and now. God, for many, is a bloke (always a bloke) who behaves pretty much like a passive-aggressive petty dictator and who designed and made the world in much the same sense that Clive Sinclair designed and built the C5. Like the Thatcherite entrepreneur, this deity also has a beard (as Keith Flett will be delighted to learn). He is like us, only bigger. And he will make everything OK in heaven, so bear your poor pay and sexist boss with good grace.

But what really caught my attention were the comments regarding the implicit Marxist criticism of the New Atheists. Essentially, the movement from the Feuerbachian critique of religion as theologized anthropology to Marx’s social criticism is a move these particular atheists have yet to make:

But, as Jesus might have said were he formed by reading Eagleton rather than Ezekiel, alas also for you New Atheists! This smug crowd are nothing more than the Feuerbachians of our own age, without the nuance. Precisely like Feuerbach they attend to the criticism of religious consciousness at the expense of the criticism of political oppression and economic exploitation. Turning the Marxian explanatory order on its head, they see religious illusion as primarily the cause of these evils, not as an effect of them. Religion, claimed Richard Dawkins shortly after 9/11, strapped the explosives to the bombers. In so doing, he occluded a clear understanding of the social conditions which give rise to fundamentalism, and stands subject to Marx’s critique.

Absolutely excellent analysis, and placed historically in a way I haven’t considered before.

However, the coda of this particular post featured something my Protestant inclinations found unfortunate: what Robert Sokolowski calls the “Christian Distinction”:

if God gives rise to material, extended, temporal things, indeed to space and time themselves, then God cannot herself be one of these things. Or so argues a long tradition of religious thinkers including Maimonides and Aquinas. There is a problem, though. We can only speak and think, and for that matter worship, using concepts developed in our exploration of the material world. It is inevitable that our talk about God is somewhat unsuited to the task – we say God is strong, but we do not mean he can tug a truck, she has no body. “We can know that God exists”, writes Aquinas, “but not what he is”. This conceptual evasiveness is inevitable, but – so this tradition thinks – there is a danger in not taking these second-hand images of the divine with a healthy pinch of salt.

Now, of course I’m not going to say absolute and exhaustive knowledge of anything is available to the human mind (let alone concerning deities), but the Barthian (including Ebeling’s theological theory of language) point still remains: God’s self-revelation in the history and person of Christ is the tool which enables us to speak correctly of God as a person with a history. True, if we had a God like that of Aristotle or Plato, analogical language would be strained and a Christian distinction would be necessary, but the actual Christian distinction (the fact of incarnation and death) is what enables us to, against Aquinas, know what he is. The questions becomes, not is this God subject to critique? (a sort of theological diplomatic immunity), but instead is this particular God found guilty? It is my belief that, considered correctly, the logic of incarnation-death-resurrection-community escapes the marxist critique not through category distinction, but through actually coming to terms with the critique (I see this as a fundamentally Protestant distinction, but perhaps thats unfair). The consequence of this “distinction” manifests itself in the subsequent quote from Catholic philosopher-theologian Denys Turner:

All, as it were, demand that we should love in divine darkness, in a world deprived of any ultimate meaning which is at our disposal, for either, as in Marx, there is no such transcendent meaning, or as in the mystic, there is, but it is not at our disposal.

According to the Christian distinction, there is always an as-of-yet unheard or unknown absolute, forever removed from human knowledge. I can’t help but think this position is fundamentally antithetical to the marxist position (as opposed to the “family resemblance” assumed above). In Zizekian terms, the marxist analysis follows the feminine logic of Incompleteness (there is no transcendent meaning), while the latter (the mystic) follows the masculine logic of the constitutive exception, as the fallback position of the Wholly Other situates all claims to knowledge while refraining from suffering the same fate itself. I find this to be a major impediment towards developing any kind of theological materialism worthy of founding a new form of political thought. In short, don’t do that.

Speaking of Marx, here’s an amusing interview recently conducted with His Beardedness at what one can only assume is a centrally located Seattle coffee shop.