Terry Eagleton’s Jesus Quested Jesus: Responding to an Atheist’s Understanding of the Parousia of the Risen Christ

When you read atheist authors (or at least agnostic ones), and this is surely what Terry Eagleton is—someone recently told me, on FaceBook, that Eagleton had returned to the Catholic church, but clearly from his writing in this book, he is still in the clasped fist of Marx and the Devil—you will assuredly run across things, as a Christian reader, that kick hard against the goads. While I am being enriched by many of the insights Eagleton has written, even in exposition of Scripture, I ran across one of those paragraphs where it becomes clear that Eagleton hasn’t, as of yet, repented and bowed the knee to the living God in the Risen Christ. In the following quote from him you will see his view of Jesus’s ability to predict the future (an attribute of God), and actually what I take to be a very facile reading of Jesus’s voice in the Gospels. I will respond laterally, and point out the sort of petitio principii (circular reasoning) Eagleton engages in. Here he is talking about the specter and reality of death, and how an ethics can be nobly wrought even in its unrelenting teeth.

To take no heed for tomorrow is possible only by living in the knowledge of that ultimate tomorrow which is death. It is an invitation not to forget about time, but to be mindful of the end of time. Jesus, along with some of those who preached his gospel, seemed to have imagined that the kingdom of God was imminent, which proved to be a rather sizeable error. To their mind, history was simply eschatology. The church had simply to stand fast, surrendered in faith to the Lord who was soon to return. Even so, to live as if the Day of Judgement were at hand, and thus as if the only pressing matters were justice and fellowship, is not an ethics to be scorned. If there is to be any eternity, it must surely be here and now. ‘Eternal life’, writes Wittgenstein in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, ‘belongs to those who live in the present’. And since to live in the present, were it possible, would mean to live out of time, it is a way of anticipating one’s death. It is another sense in which, in Eliotic phrase, the moment of death is every moment.[1]

First off, I think Eagleton, just for his own health, would do well to put down his stein of continental spirits, and instead pick up, at first, the chalice filled with the pure milk of the living Word of God; only later to move onto meatier things. But beyond that, let’s respond further.

Clearly, Eagleton is imbibing the Quest for Jesus inaugurated by Albert Schweitzer, back in the day; you know, the eschatological Jesus who was clearly wrong and in ‘sizeable error’ about his imminent return. Further, and this is where we recognize the petitio principii, Eagleton presupposes that Jesus is ‘clearly’ just another [hu]man, which thus delimits the foresight of Jesus’s predictive pronouncements to the ‘near’ future. In other words, since Eagleton starts with his conclusion about Jesus being in ‘error,’ he uses his conclusion about Jesus as his major premise in regard to who Jesus is and his capacities. What these leads to is the conclusion not only that Jesus is just another man, but that because of this, Jesus could err; because to err is human after all. What if Eagleton started with orthodox grammar and premise about Jesus; what if he started with the Chalcedonian settlement and homoousion? If Eagleton started with the premise that Jesus was (and is!) both fully God and fully human, he might not have concluded like the original Jesus Questers did; he might have avoided the very limited notion of ‘time’ and ‘space’ that someone who happens to be God in the flesh could be operating with. This is my response: Jesus wasn’t mistaken about his imminent return, instead his vision of time/space and the future is at least as long as Yahweh’s in the Old Testament. Or did Terry forget that Yahweh had been preparing, through his covenant people Israel, for millennia, with Jesus’s first advent in mind. Do you see the analogy I’m drawing? God took thousands of years, when referring to his covenant people, to layer tradition upon tradition, prophecy upon promise, about the first coming of the Son. If Jesus is Yahweh in the flesh is it strange to think that when he spoke of his near and imminent return, that within his economy of things two thousand years, or a million years, are rather short spans of time for the eternal God; the One who is the same yesterday, today, and forever? But that’s what Eagleton gets when he presumes that the Jesus he is looking at looks like him staring back at him in the mirror, rather than the living and eternal God.

It is an interesting corollary, the second part of the Eagleton paragraph refers to eternity being now, and only in the horizontal immanence of the concrete present. I mean what is one to do if you reject any hope in the Risen Christ? You might as well attempt to make the best of now, even live your best life now, and write books about the virtues of Marx’s theology for the masses. I’ve seen this turn made by someone else; David Congdon has unfortunately arrived at this same conclusion about eternity. He has bought into the radically existentialized Jesus of Bultmann, and uncoupled concrete history from any sort of antecedent (eternal) reality in the living God. There are many sophisticated ways to live in unbelief (with reference to the living God Revealed in Jesus Christ), and unfortunately Marxist atheists, like Eagleton, or Existentialist theists, like Congdon, have found those ways. Moral: Don’t follow their lead. God’s Not Dead.

 

[1] Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), Loc. 1476, 1483.

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The Unnaturalness of Death in Light of the Life of God in Jesus Christ

As many of you know I was diagnosed with a rare and incurable cancer in late 2009 called, Desmoplastic Small Round Cell Tumor (sarcoma); or, DSRCT. By God’s grace that unsurvivable cancer was survived, and I remain alive to this moment. Death is an unrelenting equalizer that is respecter of no person; except Jesus Christ. Death is something we all have intimate knowledge of; some more than others. Some of us have been radically impressed with our own immortality and come out the other side; by God’s mercy. Death seeks nothing else but our demise; the squalid push into the abyss of non-being. But for Christians we have a hope, a hope in Jesus Christ that places death into the realm, in an ultimate sense, of something that has been conquered; conquered by the indestructible life of God in Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, the indestructible God made Himself vulnerable to the frailties of our humanity by becoming human for us in Jesus Christ. In this subsistence, one that he owns for now and all eternity, he faced this scourge of suffering and absence, and in the process put death to death. Indeed, as the Apostle Paul notes, death remains ‘the last enemy,’ but indeed, it is an enemy, that in an ultimate frame, no longer has sting. This isn’t to recognize that death isn’t an enemy any longer, indeed it is!; but it is to recognize that for the Christian we can boldly say, in its face, UP YOURS! But it isn’t just the Christian’s capacity to bodaciously stand up to death, and say SUCK IT, it is tempered by the sober reality that we still yet grieve in its ugly and ostensibly ferocious tilt.

Terry Eagleton, who I think is either an atheist/agnostic, or a Catholic (he definitely once was an atheist, and he seems to still have that sense in some of his writing), in his new book Radical Sacrifice has this to say about the Christian conception of death:

The Christian belief is that in tit-for-tat, handy-dandyish style, the Resurrection in turn brings death to nothing. Its intimidating power, like that of some ranting despot, is unmasked as bogus. No doubt there is something a touch too cavalier about Albert Camus’s comment in The Myth of Sisyphus that there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn; but it is true even so that  wit, satire and mockery are resources to be stored against one’s mortal ruin. Like the Law, death is an imperious, enigmatic, implacable power which threatens to reduce the human subject to so much dross, confronting it with the paltriness of its own existence and violently breaching its identity and autonomy. If the Law, along with the sin it unwittingly fosters, are for St Paul what brings death into the world, it is also an image of that mortality; and in the apostle’s view the two are vanquished together in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. The Resurrection is death not abolished but transformed, reinterpreted, refashioned and so objectively no longer to be feared – however much, like children terrified by a bogeyman they know to be an illusion, we persist in doing so.

Christianity may debunk death, but it also regards it as an abomination. It is abhorrent because it involves an irreparable loss, and thus confronts us with too little; but also because it expose us to an intolerable jouissance, and thus to too much. St Paul has no doubt in his First Letter to the Corinthians that death is the enemy of humanity, one which is outflanked and defeated not by vigorous combat but by being boldly embraced. The theologian Herbert McCabe speaks bluntly of death as ‘an outrage’. There is no way in which we can prove equal to its crazed immoderateness. Like the Freudian superego, its demands are absurdly extreme. Like the superego, too, it lacks the good sense to recognise that we are scarcely capable of acceding to them.

For the Christian Gospel, death is to be accepted but not endorsed. The philosopher Gabriel Marcel speaks of a ‘non-capitulating acceptance’ of it. We should not allow its two-a-penny nature to blunt our sense of its importunity, like respectable citizens who turn an embarrassed blind eye to some piece of Dadaist lunacy in their midst. It is violent, excessive and unmannerly, tearing us from our loved ones and consigning our projects contemptuously to the dust. The fact that it is also natural – the way the species bears in upon the individual, as Marx comments – is no consolation. Typhoid is natural. If we ought freely to submit to death’s indignity, it is not because there is anything in the least tolerable about it, but because to do so involves a form of self-giving, which is also the most estimable way to live.[1]

I was scared, to the point of being pushed beyond a ‘normal’ range of anxiety, the whole time I was infected with the death of my cancer. I knew that I would be in the presence of my Lord, soon and very soon; at least that is was what the prognosis said. I also knew that the Lord I served is the firstborn from the dead, and that if He wanted to give me a taste of the eschatological now, He could; He could heal me; and He did!

One thing I never thought was that death was ‘natural.’ Death is only natural for those without eyes of faith. The death of Christ tells us that death is anything but natural; it tells us that what God has ultimately deemed as natural—both as protos and eschatos—is eternal life and reconciled bliss with Him. This is what pressed upon me in my cancer. I knew death was not natural, and in that sense it remains ‘the last enemy.’ It is its unnaturalness that presses us up against the naturalness of God’s triune life. There is a sense of bleak forsakenness attendant in death that seems to rip asunder the fabric of life itself; i.e. God’s triune life. We hear this shriek of unnaturalness in Jesus’s final death cry on the cross eloi, eloi lama sabachtani ‘my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?’ Life is God’s life; life is what God has given us from Himself in the Grace of His life in Jesus Christ. To be slung into the Athanasian non-being flings us into a seeming pit where all that is natural is being disintegrated and dissolved into nothingness. Herein, death’s unnaturalness is seen for what it is in the very death of God become human, in Christ. I felt this unnaturalness, we all at various levels feel this unnaturalness, only to be reminded, as Christians, that those are only the real-life death shrieks of a forsakenness already unbegotten for us in the only begotten life for us in God’s Son. This isn’t to minimize the utter loss of death and its total dread; indeed, it is to fully acknowledge and interpret that in the light of Jesus Christ.

Did Jesus’s death only ‘reinterpret’ death for us, as Eagleton suggests? No, I don’t think so. Death has actually been vanquished by Christ entering into its non-beingness and subverting it by the being of His indestructible life; the life He has eternally shared with the Father by the Holy Spirit’s koinonia.

[1] Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), Loc. 1133, 1140, 1148.

The Radical Sacrifice of God in Apocalyptic Frame

I just started reading, not only Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, but just this evening, Terry Eagleton’s new book: Radical Sacrifice. They are in tandem percolating my wits in a certain direction and mode of feeling. This particular post will reference Eagleton’s work, in discussion with a burgeoning theological mode that someone like Philip Ziegler is at the forefront of developing; viz. I will bring Eagleton’s thinking into some con-versation with Ziegler’s work, and then not to mention, I will touch upon some of Karl Barth’s thinking as distilled by Robert Dale Dawson (meaning I will be drawing off of previous posts as I bring those into passing with Eagleton’s). The point I want to press has, once again, to do with Apocalyptic Theology, but in this instance, I want to fill that out with Eagleton’s thinking on sacrifice as irruption and representative of a primordial new. To start with I will help refresh our understanding of what apocalyptic theology entails; I will then illustrate that by referring to Dawson’s thinking on Barth’s theology of resurrection; and then use that to lead into Eagleton’s notion of sacrifice.

Here Ziegler refers us to two other thinkers to help us understand what an Apocalyptic Theology is after:

As Gaventa concisely puts it, “Paul’s apocalyptic theology has to do with the conviction that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has invaded the world as it is, thereby revealing the world’s utter distortion and foolishness, reclaiming the world, and inaugurating a battle that will doubtless culminate in the triumph of God over all God’s enemies (including the captors Sin and Death). This means that the Gospel is first, last, and always about God’s powerful and gracious initiative.” Inasmuch as it is an expression of specifically Christian faith, “apocalyptic theology always and everywhere denotes a theology of liberation in an earth that is dying and plagued by evil powers.

In the words of Donald MacKinnon, its subject matters in nothing less than “God’s own protest against the world He has made, by which at the same time that world is renewed and reborn.”[1]

We see this idea that the ‘world is renewed and reborn’ through God’s ‘invasion’ in Christ, the sort of ostensibly discontinuous discord between the world now and the world to come/came in Christ in Barth’s theology as well. Here Robert Dale Dawson unfolds how that looks in relation to Barth’s doctrine of resurrection:

A large number of analyses come up short by dwelling upon the historical question, often falsely construing Barth’s inversion of the order of the historical enterprise and the resurrection of Jesus as an aspect of his historical skepticism. For Barth the resurrection of Jesus is not a datum of the sort to be analyzed and understood, by other data, by means of historical critical science. While a real event within the nexus of space and time the resurrection is also the event of the creation of new time and space. Such an event can only be described as an act of God; that is an otherwise impossible event. The event of the resurrection of Jesus is that of the creation of the conditions of the possibility for all other events, and as such it cannot be accounted for in terms considered appropriate for all other events. This is not the expression of an historical skeptic, but of one who is convinced of the primordiality of the resurrection as the singular history-making, yet history-delimiting, act of God.[2]

I provide these two ideational vignettes in order, as I noted, to lead us into some similar thinking from Eagleton. The theme to grasp from these previous interlocutors is the idea of disruption; Divine disruption. There is a tumult that occurs in the crucifixion of God in Christ. The fact itself, that it requires God to enflesh, and assume blood and oxygen for us, ought to suggest to us that something alien (meaning radical and extraneous to us, by way of antecedent and determination) has occurred, of the sort that out of its ashes only something new and elevated could arise. In other words, the sacrifice of God’s Son for us, ought to let us know that the depth of sin’s pollution is beyond the scope of a simple remodel (of presently available materials — as if nature simply needed to be ‘perfected’); it ought to alert us to the idea that what was required was a decreation in order for a recreation to enter in and bring us to the heights that God had freely chosen to pre-destine for us according to His eternally gracious and lovely good will to be for us rather than against us in the election of His dearly beloved Son. It is in this vein that Eagleton helps us think about the in-breaking of God’s life for us in Christ, and the sort of radical irruption that necessarily occurred thusly. You’ll notice that Eagleton speaks in more profane and less theologically driven terms than I am.

The most compelling version of sacrifice concerns the flou-rishing of the self, not its extinction. It involves a formidable release of energy, a transformation of the human subject and a turbulent transitus from death to new life. If sacrifice is a political act, it is not least because it concerns an accession to power. As one commentator remarks, ‘almost all sacrifice is about power, or powers’. The ritual is indeed about loss and waste, but in the name of a more fruitful form of life. Julian of Norwich sees it in terms of childbirth, where pain is a prelude to joy. If sacrifice involves yielding something up, it is in order to possess it more deeply. As Hubert and Mauss observe, ‘there is no sacrifice into which some idea of redemption does not enter’. It is true that the institution has a number of retrograde features, as its critics have been at pains t point out. As we shall see, it has been for the most part a profoundly conservative practice. Yet there is a radical kernel to be extracted from its mystical shell. Sacrifice concerns the passage of the lowly, unremarkable thing from weakness to power. It marks a movement from victimhood to full humanity, destitution to riches, the world as we know it to some transfigured domain. It is this disruptive rite of passage that is known among other things as consecration. To make an object sacred is to mark it out by investing it with a sublimely dangerous power. If sacrifice is often violent, it is because the depth of the change it promises cannot be a matter of smooth evolution or simple continuity.

In this sense, the practice of ritual sacrifice nurtures a wisdom beyond the rationality of the modern, at least as its most callow. It sets its face against the consoling illusion that fulfilment can be achieved without a fundamental rupture and rebirth. The consecration of the sacrificial victim is a matter of wholesale transformation, not some piecemeal evolution. One cannot pass from time to eternity while remaining intact. Since the gods are totally other to humanity, any contact with them involves a metamorphosis as fundamental as the passage from living to dying. The idea of sacrifice broods among other things on the mystery by which life springs from death, seeking a passage through loss and devastation in order to thrive. Dennis J. Schmidt writes of how for Hegel, ‘conflict, contradiction, negation, sacrifice, and death saturate the life of the spirit so thoroughly that they define the very truth of the spirit’. In a similar vein, Miguel de Beistegui observes that ‘one should recognise that [for Hegel] the greatness of Spirit in history or of man in his action reveals itself primarily in sundering and in death, in sacrifice and in struggle, and that thought itself derives its depth only from taking the full measure of this tragic grandeur’. Pre-modern societies are conscious in a similar way of a secret complicity between living and dying. If the fumes of burnt offerings no longer waft to the nostrils of petulant deities in our own time, it is partly because modernity enforces a rigorous distinction between the two states.[3]

The basic gist I’d like to leave with is this: There is much more going on in the ‘death, burial, and resurrection’ of Jesus Christ than often meets the prima facie eye. There is, as Torrance would say, a ‘depth dimension’ to the reality of the Gospel that pushes deeper and more vertically, while operating within the horizontal flatland, than we often realize.

I think Eagleton’s initial thoughts on sacrifice, while from a different vantage point than a proper ‘apocalyptic theology,’ helps us delve deeper into the history of ideas of what might be informing the way we ought to think a biblical notion of ‘sacrifice.’ It helped illumine things further for me, and hopefully it has done the same for you! PAX CHRISTI

 

[1] Philip G. Ziegler, Militant Grace: The Apocalyptic Turn and the Future of Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2018), loc 162, 171 kindle.

[2] Robert Dale Dawson, The Resurrection in Karl Barth (UK/USA: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 13 [Emphasis is mine].

[3] Terry Eagleton, Radical Sacrifice (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2018), Loc. 138, 147, 154, 162 kindle.

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.

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.

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.