Thursday, October 28, 2010

Is My Rejection of Marx "Extreme"?

I had a nice email from a friend who wrote:

Your comment on Marx in the Mere Orthodoxy interview puzzles me because it seems so extreme. Shouldn't we avoid the simplistic postures of acceptance or rejection? Shouldn't we try to discern whether there are Christian uses of Marx's critique of religion?

I wonder if you'd change your mind if you read Merold Westphal's section on Marx in Suspicion & Faith, most of which can be read on Google Books. Click below.

Part III Marx and the Critique of Religion as Ideology

Here is my reply:

Thanks for the kind words. I appreciate your willingness to engage in dialogue.

I find your comment that you find my rejection of Marxism "extreme" to be difficult to understand. Marx's critique of religion is extreme in my view and to reject it seems like modesty itself. Marx is attacking your religion as evil and you as a culpable dupe.

I read Westphal's chapter and I still find it impossible to see anything profitable or true in Marx's critique of religion. It merely confirmed via a sympathetic reading of Marx what I already thought Marx was saying.

Marx is not really critiquing something abstract called "religion" that we can define in whichever way suits us. He is attacking the state church of Prussia and by extension all countries in which Christianity exercises any public role - as Westphal makes clear by his reference to Marx's comments on America. The problem is not the specifics of church-state relations; it is the influence of Christianity on public attitudes at all. And it is not any particular ideology or philosophy advocated by the church - as if the church could just get a better one - but rather the nature of the Gospel itself that offends. Marx is offended by the teaching that humans are sinners who cannot build Utopia themselves but must seek salvation by the hand of the Lord in God's own good time. This injures his pride and constitutes a barrier to his acceptance of Christianity.

As Westphal rightly points out, Marx's critique is not only metaphysical but primarily moral in nature. His comment that the moral critique would still stand even if the metaphysical claims of Christianity were true shows that Marx is not interested in submitting his will to God even if God exists. What Marx hates is that Christianity encourages patient endurance in the face of suffering and discourages the revolutionary roll of the dice. The comment on p. 152 is instructive: "Marx is telling the story of the ways in which religion not only endures but eventually embraces evil." This shows that Marx's real problem with religion is not that it causes oppression by doing evil (manifestly it does not always do that), but that it encourages patience with the world.

Christianity (especially in its Augustinian forms) is pessimistic about Utopia in this fallen world and counsels caution when zealots want to launch the revolution. The sword granted to the state is for the maintenance of justice but Christians know that even when there is injustice, it could be worse. How? If there was no longer any state, but rather a revolutionary vanguard liberated from law and functioning with no limits on their power, which is what we see in 20th century Marxist states.

Marx is a gnostic dreamer - like the Anabaptists of Meunster - who believes that to tear down the state, the family and the church will permit the goodness of human nature to surge to the fore in the classless society. He is right to view the Church as a bulwark against his dreams of revolution and in performing this function the Church is not oppressive or evil but rather a bulwark of freedom and the protector of humanity. I love the church for doing precisely what Marx condemns it for doing.

The 19th century, which Marx found so oppressive and evil, was the Victorian age of social reform led by Christians. It was an era of peace - in stark contrast to the bloody, dark 20th century in which the "bourgeois oppression" so scorned by Marx was replaced by the socialist revolution in many countries of the world. The result was the famines in the Ukraine, the Gulag, the cultural revolution and the killing fields of Cambodia - 100 million people murdered by their own governments all of which were the vanguard of the revolution.

Men released from the limits of law paying no heed to the "fairy tales of religion" felt free to impose their will on society without restraint and the result was worse than all the evils of 1500 years of Christendom all packed into one miserable century.

Religion is an obstacle to socialism. Amen to that.


bensonian said...


I, too, appreciate your willingness to engage in dialogue. Compared to you and Merold Westphal, I know very little about Karl Marx. I read THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO in my philosophy program at Wheaton College and selections from GERMAN IDEOLOGY in my great books curriculum at St. John's College (Annapolis, MD and Santa Fe, NM).

When you said "I fail to see anything Christians can learn from Marx," I felt compelled to introduce you to Merold Westphal, a Christian philosopher in the Reformed tradition, who has managed to see things Christians can learn from Marx. Which chapter did you read from Westphal's book, SUSPICION & FAITH? Part III, entitled "Marx and the Critique of Religion as Ideology," contains 15 chapters (almost 100 pages). Perhaps more of the section needs to be read before you weigh in.

Westphal maintains there are Christian uses of modern atheism that help us see the condition under which religion "reduces God to a means or instrument for achieving our own human purposes with professedly divine power and sanctions." Marx invites personal and corporate self-examination. Here's how Donald Wiebe of Trinity College (Toronto, Ohio) reviewed the book in Theology Today (

Atheistic suspicion may be helpful to the Christian in recovering the Bible's own built-in polemic against those forms of religion corrupted by instrumental interests . . . .

Westphal maintains that Marx's evidential atheism is also open to criticism but argues that Christians have much to learn by understanding what Marx means in his reference to religion as "the opium of the people." Even though Marx fails to note that religion can function as protest, it is the recognition of the role religion plays in the legitimation of social structures that can be of great benefit to the Christian. According to Marx, Christians think they adopt religion because it is true, but the truth is that they have adopted it because of its instrumental value to them in their everyday lives here and now. In not being aware of this, Christians also fail to see not only the ways religion endures evil in this world but actually eventually embraces it. This means, Westphal points out, that Christians "must go beyond asking whether our beliefs are true and our conscious intentions respectable to asking the really hard questions. How does our theology function?"


Craig Carter said...

Thanks for the note. You write:

"This means, Westphal points out, that Christians "must go beyond asking whether our beliefs are true and our conscious intentions respectable to asking the really hard questions. How does our theology function?"

While you or Westphal may be used to encountering Christians who only wish to argue about the truth value of Christianity, I want to assure you that I am more than willing to meet you on the ground of "how does our theology function?" There seems to be some kind of a priori assumption on the part of many Christians that religion - specifically Christianity - functions in Western culture as a "structure of oppression." We use a great deal of Marxist language without even being aware of its provenance. We read the Bible through Marxist lens without realizing it. For example, try telling Jim Wallis that Amos is antithetical to Marx and you will get incredulity rather than careful exegetical argument.

I want to defend the way in which Christianity has functioned during Western history and at the same time I want to argue also that the way Marxism has functioned is tyrannical and oppressive. They accuse Christianity of doing what they themselves are guilty of doing. If anyone is guilty of "false consciousness" it is Marxists themselves.

bensonian said...

Craig: I haven't satisfactorily addressed some of your points.

(1) Yes, Marx is attacking my religion as evil and me as a culpable dupe. While his attack may not be true of Christianity all of the time, that doesn't mean it isn't true some of the time. Marx, then, is an impetus to corporate self-reflection. Given the deception of the human heart (Jer. 17:9), it's possible that I'm duped by ideological uses of Christianity. So Marx is also an impetus to personal self-reflection.

(2) Yes, Marx is attacking the public role of Christianity. He's wrong to say that Christianity shouldn't have any influence on public attitudes. But he may help us to see more clearly where that influence is ideological rather than biblical (See James Davison Hunter's critique of the Christian Right and Christian Left in "To Change the World'.)

(3) You repeatedly conflate Marx with Marxism, a rhetorical strategy that the critics of postmodern thought use when they conflate Derrida with the irresponsible deconstruction of wayward disciples like Mark C. Taylor. You and I both detest the "tyrannical and oppressive" experiments with Marxism in the 20th century, but let's carefully distinguish the ideas of Marx from the practices of Marxists.

(4) Yes, Marx is an enemy of the Gospel. But rather than denounce him as a "madman," shouldn't we try following Jesus' teaching to love our enemy? That entails a hermeneutics of charity, where we try to learn what we can learn from him, rather than a hermeneutics of suspicion, where we claim nothing can be learned from him because he is soooooo "dangerous."