Karl Marx, Karl Barth, and the Inner-Life of Christian Sanctification

As a Christian I am concerned with the ‘inner life’; my inner life. If this concern is not properly ordered or placed into a properly formed Christian Dogmatic, with a properly construed theological-anthropology, then this concern could reduce to something like a so called modern ‘turn-to-the-subject’ or an overly pietistic concern with perfectionism. But I am intentional about avoiding such errors by working at thinking things through, indeed, a properly shaped Christian Dogmatic; which then impinges upon and implicates a properly formed Christian spirituality. The inner-life, for the Christian though, I maintain, is very important.

In the premodern, and in particular in the mediaeval time it was popular to think about the inner-life through what is called a tripartite faculty psychology (made up of affections, intellect, and will). In modern times it is becoming popular, at least for some Christian theologians, to think in terms of what is called non-reductive physicalism; so to think of the soul-body as an integrated whole, and develop theological anthropology and subsequent models of Christian spirituality (by way of recognizing its contours) from there. What I have come to realize is that much of what I have been being exposed to, by hanging out (online mostly) with young Barthians (and some older ones), and being exposed to so called ‘progressive’ or ‘leftist’ Christian thinking is that the theological anthropology shaping that trajectory is much more like what we find in the materialism of Karl Marx rather than what we find in orthodox Christian thinking; and more importantly, than what we find in the Bible.

Karl Barth’s own theology lacks the type of attention to a properly formed conception of the inner life, and as such suffers from a weakness when it comes to real life Christian sanctification. This has made me really think about the relationship between the attractiveness of Marx to so many of these so called Barthians (and other ‘ians’ ensconced in the same ethos); while there are many important differences between Barth and Marx in regard to theology in general, and theological-anthropology in particular, there seems to be a sort of resonance between the lack of focus on the inner life of human beings in both of their respective ways of thinking. In other words, there seems to be such a focus on “embodiedness” that there is neglect when it comes to the soulish realities; realities, I’d contend, that are of primary concern when it comes to Christian sanctification in Holy Scripture. I’m not, on the other hand, denying the reality or importance of recognizing that Christianity is indeed focused on an embodied conception of what it means to be bodied and physical human beings; but I am noticing that a certain sort of physicalism (not simply non-reductive), or materialism seems to be informing and present in the minds and hearts of many of these folks I have had contact with over the years.

In order to help us understand what I’m referring to with more clarity let’s turn to Terry Eagleton now as he helps develop an entrée into Marx’s own inklings on a materialist-anthropology.

Materialism for Marx meant starting from what human beings actually were, rather than from some shadowy ideal to which we could aspire. And what we were was in the first place a species of practical, material, bodily beings. Anything else we were, or could be, had to be derived from this fundamental fact.

In a boldly innovative move, Marx rejected the passive human subject of middle-class materialism and put in its place an active one. All philosophy had to start from the premise that whatever else they were, men and women were first of all agents. They were creatures who transformed themselves in the act of transforming their material surroundings. They were not the pawns of History or Matter or Spirit, but active, self-determinating beings who were capable of making their own history. And this means that the Marxist version of materialism is a democratic one, in contrast to the intellectual elitism of the Enlightenment. Only through the collective practical activity of the majority of people can the ideas which govern our lives be really changed. And this is because these ideas are deeply embedded in our actual behaviour.

In this sense, Marx was more of an antiphilosopher than a philosopher. In fact, Étienne Balibar has called him “perhaps … the greatest antiphilosopher of the modern age.” Antiphilosophers are those who are wary of philosophy—not just in the sense that Brad Pitt might be, but nervous of it for philosophically interesting reasons. They tend to come up with ideas that are suspicious of ideas; and though they are for the most part entirely rational, they tend not to believe that reason is what it all comes down to. Feuerbach, from whom Marx learned some of his materialism, wrote that any authentic philosophy has to begin with its opposite, nonphilosophy. The philosopher, he remarked, must accept “what in man does not philosophise, what is rather opposed to philosophy and abstract thought.” He also commented that “it is man who thinks, not the Ego or Reason.” As Alfred Schmidt observes, “The understanding of man as a needy, sensuous, physiological being is therefore the precondition of any theory of subjectivity.” Human consciousness, in other words, is corporeal—which is not to say that it is nothing more than the body. It is rather a sign of the way in which the body is always in a sense unfinished, open-ended, always capable of more creative activity than what it may be manifesting right now.[1]

We can see certain currents of thought, as Eagleton tells it in Marx, that fit well with the modern desire to think “post-metaphysically”; these are currents that in some ways I have some sort of lurid affinity for myself. I do happen to think that a non-reductive physicalism is probably the best way to construct a theological-anthropology these days (rather than a tripartite faculty psychology etc.), but I think I see more than that in many of these thinkers of today (the ones I’ve been mentioning). I think I see more of an actual physicalism, of the Marxist materialist type, informing the lack of focus on the inner life, and the traditional notion of sanctification and walking in the holiness of God when that comes to personal and individual attention. Indeed, I sense almost zero spirituality in and among the folks I’m thinking of; as if the living Lord has been reduced to material reality only symbolized by the Christ of faith. In the mode I’m thinking of everything seems to be materialized and externalized and existentialized rather than spiritualized by the Christian God who is ‘spirit’ (cf. Jn 4.24).

To be clear, I am only thinking out loud about my own experiences and senses I’ve had with various thinkers over the last many years. Most of these thinkers are of Marx in one way or another, so I think there might be something to my observations. Do I think Barth and Marx offer a similar spirituality? Not really. But I do think that Barth’s lack of attention to sanctification and the Christian life in general is a serious lacuna in his work. As far as Marx goes, I do think he might have some insightful things to say about how humans function on a purely empirical basis, but beyond that I’m not interested in referring to him or synthesizing him with Christian theology in the main.

One more word. You might be wondering why studying Marx is important. Because, his presence is increasingly everywhere. If you pay attention to the so called social issues in the public square then the current rupture in the North American society between right and left can generally be correlated with a rupture (as far as political theory goes) between Marxism and Capitalism. One more word; I’m just as critical of Capitalism as I am of Marxism.

[1] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 2011), Loc 1462, 1469, 1477 kindle version.

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One thought on “Karl Marx, Karl Barth, and the Inner-Life of Christian Sanctification

  1. Pingback: Karl Marx, Karl Barth, and the Inner-Life of Christian Sanctification — The Evangelical Calvinist | James' Ramblings

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