The Ghosts in the Material. A Critique of Materialism by a Materialist Placed Into a Theological Frame of Knowledge of God

I am continuing to read Terry Eagleton on Marx. I just came across a very interesting critique of elitism, and of materialism itself; a critique made, indeed, by the materialist par
excellence, Marx. Let me share it with you, and then I’ll close with some commentary (as usual).

The materialist’s response to the sceptic is not a knock-down argument. You might always claim that our experience of social cooperation, or of the world’s resistance to our projects, is itself not to be trusted. Perhaps we are only imagining these things. But looking at such problems in a materialist spirit can illuminate them in a new way. It is possible to see, for example, how intellectuals who begin from the disembodied mind, and quite often end up there as well, are likely to be puzzled by how the mind relates to the body, as well as to the bodies of others. It may be that they see a bap between mind and world. This is ironic, since it is quite often the way the world shapes their own minds that gives rise to this idea. Intellectuals themselves are a caste of people somewhat remote from the material world. Only on the back of a material surplus in society is it possible to produce a professional elite of priests, sages, artists, counselors, Oxford dons and the like.

Plato thought that philosophy required a leisure aristocratic elite. You cannot have literary salons and learned societies if everyone has to work just to keep social life ticking over. Ivory towers are as rare as bowling alleys in tribal cultures. (They are just as rare in advanced societies, where universities have become organs of corporate capitalism.) Because intellectuals do not need to labour in the sense that bricklayers do, they can come to regard themselves and their ideas as independent of the rest of social existence. And this is one of the many things that Marxists mean by ideology. Such people tend not to see that their very distance from society is itself socially conditioned. The prejudice that thought is independent of reality is itself shaped by social reality.[1]

What an insightful critique of a materialism idealized. The same is true of Christian theology; or it can be. This is one other reason why thinking from God’s embodied existence in the flesh of the man from Nazareth; this is why thinking that starts with the resurrection of God’s humanity in Jesus Christ is so important for all theological endeavor. It keeps theology, the wisdom of God, tethered concretely in the material world that God created and recreated. There is no ideology in a genuinely Christian frame; in other words there is no abstract knowledge of God parasiting off of the backs of broken and suffering people. God has so entered into material/physical reality that it can only be said to be suffused with his grandeur and glory as that is revealed in the punched up face of Jesus Christ. Here is where the hidden God becomes the revealed God, and the wisdom of God comes to be known in the weakness and foolishness of God. It isn’t built upon someone else’s discursive machinations about some Big Other we correlate with the living and revealed God; no, God’s knowledge is a Self-knowledge that can only be known as we come to participate in his life through his Self-mediation in Christ by the Spirit—only God can reveal God.

The way I theologized this may sound strange given Marx’s context and thought-frame. But I think his frame has interesting lines of trajectory; secularly parabolic in nature, even. We could commentate on some of the theopolitical implications of Eagleton’s insights on Marx, but I’m not going to do that right now (Eagleton’s own commentary should suffice for the moment).

[1] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 2011), Loc 1506, 1514 kindle version.


The Parody of Light in Marx’s Theology: How Marx’s Leisure Displaces the Sabbath-Rest of the Living God

I am continuing to read Terry Eagleton’s book Why Marx Was Right, he offers some interesting commentary on what Marx believed the ideal of a communist system ought to lead to: leisure. Not that leisure would come from being lazy or non-work but that it would produce a society where wealth was so prevalent and self-sustaining—based on the cultivation of prior systems of production—that the ideal of leisure would be reached. Here is how Eagleton describes these things in Marx’s ‘theology’:

Yet only the economic in the narrow sense will allow us to get beyond the economic. By redeploying the resources capitalism has so considerately stored up for us, socialism can allow the economic to take more of a backseat. It will not evaporate, but it will become less obtrusive. To enjoy a sufficiency of goods means not to have to think about money all the time. It frees us for less tedious pursuits. Far from being obsessed with economic matters, Marx saw them as a travesty of true human potential. He wanted a society where the economic no longer monopolized so much time and energy.

That our ancestors should have been so preoccupied with material matters is understandable. When you can produce only a slim economic surplus, or scarcely any surplus at all, you will perish without ceaseless hard labour. Capitalism, however, generates the sort of surplus that really could be used to increase leisure on a sizeable scale. The irony is that it creates this wealth in a way that demands constant accumulation and expansion, and thus constant labour. It also creates it in ways that generate poverty and hardship. It is a self-thwarting system. As a result, modern men and women, surrounded by affluence unimaginable to hunter-gatherers, ancient slaves or feudal serfs, end up working as long and hard as these predecessors ever did.

Marx’s work is all about human enjoyment. The good life for him is not one of labour but of leisure. Free self-realisation is a form of “production,” to be sure; but it is not one that is coercive. And leisure is necessary if men and women are to devote time to running their own affairs. It is thus surprising that Marxism does not attract more card-carrying idlers and professional loafers to its ranks. This, however, is because a lot of energy must be expended on achieving this goal. Leisure is something you have to work for.[1]

As a general axiom I’d think it safe to say that all human beings desire more leisure and less work. But what’s not surprising, given Marx’s atheism, is that his prescription for human flourishing is generated by ‘under the sun’ thinking; as if the horizontal is all there is. For the Christian is leisure the ultimate goal? No; we’ve been recreated in the risen humanity of Jesus Christ for good works that we might live in them, in him. For the Christian in this in-between leisure is not the telos, is not the aim of our lives; instead, the aim is to live in the work of the Father in Christ ‘overshadowed’ by the Holy Spirit resulting in the completion for which creation was always already commissioned—for koinonial existence living in the shared life of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit by the grace of God for us.

We might see a sort of parody between Marx’s vision and the Holy vision of God in Christ. Work is indeed required if the ‘pleasures at the right hand of the Father’ are to be enjoyed forevermore. But the work is not a self-generated or self-realizable reality; it is not something that is immanent within an isolated individual or isolated community (even of the global sort). The work that God envisions is only something that he alone can (and has) accomplish[ed] for us in our stead in Jesus Christ. The end goal of God’s vision for what it means to be genuinely human and flourishing is what that looks like in Christ’s vicarious humanity for us before the Father; a humanity that finds its source, or ground in the divine life itself (anhypostatic/enhypostatic); a humanity that God has seen fit to seat next to himself in the Son’s assumed humanity. There is eschatological leisure for the Christian, but it is a leisure that finds resplendence only in the all-sufficient all-sustaining work of God for us in Jesus Christ. Marx seeks to displace God’s place with an abstract conception of humanity thus giving humanity a divinity that it could never have of itself naturally (Gen. 3.5). God indeed wants humanity to sabbath-rest in his presence, and find utter enjoyment as we live and move in the space his triune life provides for us as he graciously has brought us into that mediated through the humanity of Jesus Christ; but this is not something that our work can produce, only his for us.

As I continue to read about Marx’s theology (that’s what I’m calling it) it certainly has a sort of parasitic reality to it; I mean it is easy to see why Marx’s thought has been called ‘Christian heresy.’ It reminds me of the Beast in the book of Revelation; he attempts to parody the reality of God’s triune life by way of offering a kingdom that replicates God’s Kingdom in Christ without having God in Christ at the center. I can see why some Christians are attracted to Marx’s thought precisely because it has wicks in it that look like the light of Christian critique; i.e. in regard to political theory. But ultimately since the source has more in common with the angel of light rather than the true Light of the world, the trajectory it will ultimately set, if ingested, cannot be one that honors the living Christ. Any system of thought that does not START with Jesus Christ, as far as I am concerned, can only produce rotten fruit; even if in the mean time it might appear to be producing wheat.


[1] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 2011), Loc 1426, 1433, 1440 kindle version.

Engaging With Karl Marx’s Utopia and the Future: With Some Constructively Christian Eschatologizing

Marxism. Utopia. Realities shunned by Americans in the main; well at least until lately. I am reading Terry Eagleton’s Why Marx Was Right. Not because I want to become a Marxist, but because I want to understand Marx and the subsequent developments of Marxisms better. One concept that is often caricatured, among others when it comes to Marx’s doctrine, is the concept of Utopia. I haven’t given much thought to it myself, other than to give in to the common idea that utopia represents some sort of a heaven on earth. But as Eagleton points out, at least for Marx himself, this really couldn’t be further from the truth. So for the rest of the post we will hear from Eagleton on Marx’s understanding of Utopia and the Future.

“So will there still be road accidents in this Marxist utopia of yours?” This is the kind of sardonic enquiry that Marxists have grown used to dealing with. In fact, the comment reveals more about the ignorance of the speaker than about the illusions of the Marxist. Because if utopia means a perfect society, then “Marxist utopia” is a contradiction in terms.

There are, as it happens, far more interesting uses of the word “utopia” in the Marxist tradition. One of the greatest English Marxist revolutionaries, William Morris, produced an unforgettable work of utopia in News from Nowhere, which unlike almost every other utopian work actually showed in detail how the process of political change had come about. When it comes to the everyday use of the word, however, it should be said that Marx shows not the slightest interest in a future free of suffering, death, loss, failure, breakdown, conflict, tragedy or even labour. In fact, he doesn’t show much interest in the future at all. It is a notorious fact about his work that he has very little to say in detail about what a socialist or communist society would look like. His critics may therefore accuse him of unpardonable vagueness; but they can hardly do that and at the same time accuse him of drawing up utopian blueprints. It is capitalism, not Marxism, that trades in futures. In The German Ideology, Marx rejects the idea of communism as “an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself.” Instead, he sees it in that book as “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.”

Just as the Jews were traditionally forbidden to foretell the future, so Marx the secular Jew is mostly silent on what lie ahead. We have seen that he probably thought socialism was inevitable, but he has strikingly little to say about what it would look like. There are several reasons for this reticence. For one thing, the future does not exist, so that to forge images of it is a kind of lie. To do so might also suggest that the future is predetermined—that it lies in some shadowy realm for us to discover. We have seen that there is a sense in which Marx held that the future was inevitable. But the inevitable is not necessarily the desirable. Death is inevitable, too, but not in most people’s eyes desirable. The future may be predetermined, but that is no reason to assume that it is going to be an improvement on what we have at the moment. The inevitable, as we have seen, is usually pretty unpleasant. Marx himself needed to be more aware of this.

Foretelling the future, however, is not only pointless; it can actually be destructive. To have power even over the future is a way of giving ourselves a false sense of security. It is a tactic for shielding ourselves from the open-ended nature of the present, with all its precariousness and unpredictability. It is to use the future as a kind of fetish—as a comforting idol to cling to like a toddler to its blanket. It is an absolute value which will not let us down because (since it does not exist) it is as insulated from the winds of history as a phantom. You can also seek to monopolise the future as a way of dominating the present. The true soothsayers of our time are not hairy, howling outcasts luridly foretelling the death of capitalism, but the experts hired by the transnational corporations to peer into the entrails of the system and assure its rulers that their profits are safe for another ten years. The prophet, by contrast, is not a clairvoyant at all. It is a mistake to believe that the biblical prophets sought to predict the future. Rather, the prophet denounces the greed, corruption and power-mongering of the present, warning us that unless we change our ways we may well have no future at all. Marx was a prophet, not a fortuneteller.[1]

Before I say anymore, Eagleton’s perspective of the biblical prophet is half-baked and relies upon a certain anti-super-naturalistic approach to Holy Scripture and its Prophets and Apostles. If someone reads the Bible it is clear that its prophets and apostles believe that they are referring to something concrete and future; something that they weren’t experiencing yet, but knew because of who God is, and because he keeps his promises that they someday would, as a people, experience his promises to them. It was upon this basis that they not only forthspoke but also foretold future realities; of most significance with reference to Jesus Christ. So Eagleton is just wrong on this score (as he wrote this originally he was either an atheist or agnostic; I’ve heard of late that he may well have returned to the Catholic church).

Nevertheless, he helps to provide greater clarity in regard to what Karl Marx believed ‘utopia’ and the ‘future’ entail as realities. I think, at least with reference to Eagleton’s telling of Marx, there is some wisdom in recognizing that attempting to divine things about the future—even in the name of Jesus—can become idolatrous. Idolatrous in the sense, as Eagleton notes, that we are looking for stability and security in some abstract conception of a forthcoming history as we have designed and divined that. It is in the shadow of this idol that ethics, foreign policies, geo-political postures, perceptions of other nationalities and races, and a host of other shibboleths can be fostered and allowed to fester. As Christians we can learn something from this sort of perspective about the future, even from a materialist like Marx. It isn’t that Christians don’t have a proleptic-future oriented looking view in regard to eschatological reality; it is just that a properly Christian orientation to such things will recognize that that reality is not something that we determine or that is at our behest. Christians will recognize that God in Jesus Christ himself is the eschatos, the last thing that is not absent or in a faraway land, but that he is personally present with us in eucharistic form spread abroad in the hearts of his people by the Holy Spirit. In other words, Christians, while standing in a genuine hope for the future—i.e. the bodily resurrection secured in Christ’s resurrection for us—have not been left as orphans; we live from the future of God for us in the risen and vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ. This is not something that we could have ever secured, or divined, but it is something God could. As such, we live lively lives not of our own possession, not of our own construction, but lives put to death and risen again, over and again from Christ’s life for us. This is important: we live in a vulnerable state in regard to our grasp on the past, present, and future, but the grasp on our lives by God’s great big hands are indeed secure; yet not a reality that we have control over, but instead one that we trust can keep us from being plucked out.

Marx can provide some intellectual and even spiritual foil for the Christian, even as the materialist and atheist that he was. But he should not be given too much shrift. He rejected the living Christ, and the living God; so his perspective will be skewed, he did not have the resources to supply people with the hope that God alone can and has in Jesus Christ. Yet, I think it is important to get Marx right, particularly in regard to the nuance he had with reference to realities like utopia. By engaging with the nuance he had we might find some fruitful lines of self-criticality even as Christians. If God could use the Abimelechs, the Assyrians, and the Athenians to work his purposes; he certainly could use a Marx.

[1] Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right (New Haven&London: Yale University Press, 2011), Loc 774, 782, 790, 797 kindle version.