Christianity in the West is becoming Marxist. That is at least my claim.
Of course, “Marxism” carries many connotations, far too many to reflect upon here. But images ranging from Pol Pot’s Killing Fields, to Parisian intellectuals sipping sherry along the Champs-Elysees, can quickly come to mind. Either way, there are examples of Marxist thinking or Marxist activity that seem, on the one hand, to be brutal, bloody, and barbaric, and on the other, charming, sophisticated, and academic. Which version one might find oneself living with, likely depends on various cultural factors.
So, perhaps the statement that Christianity in the West is becoming Marxist is too bold, or at least too generic. Clearly I can’t mean that Christian churches (Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, or Catholic) are becoming brutal and ruthless in their advocacy for yet another socialism, at least not in the manner of a Che Guevara, someone whose reputation for ruthlessness and brutality has remained tragically obscure. No, on the contrary, such barbarity is neither part nor parcel of current progressive Christian movements. At least, not of any I am aware. Even if some progressive Christian leaders have expressed outrage at, say, the election of Donald Trump, I am entirely ignorant of any calls to overthrow the government through violence or force. At most one might find accusations against traditional Christians, that they are parochial or somehow bigoted, or against conservatives, that they are parochial or somehow bigoted.
Still, in spite of this seemingly peaceful movement, there is clearly an intellectual shift now prevalent in both the Catholic church (even to the highest levels of its hierarchy), and also the Evangelical churches in America. This shift appears to be a Marxist one, and that primarily in the realms of metaphysics and morals.
Marxist Metaphysics and Post-Metaphysical Christianity
As is often said amongst philosophers, “Marx turned Hegel on his head.” But, what does that mean? It’s a difficult statement to analyze, since Hegel’s philosophy itself is extraordinarily abstruse. But, the kind of German Idealism that Hegel cultivated could be broadly construed as a metaphysically (and theologically) rich system of thought where the universe was progressing through history toward a sort of absolute synthesis between the transcendent and the immanent, the objective and the subjective. This so-called “Absolute Spirit” was the inevitable and full actualization of God in the world. However, this grand final cause on Hegel’s view was a product of free human conscious activity, of reason perfected; reason that itself is primary in shaping the natural world in which reasonable agents live, and thereby bringing about the final state of things. In short, it is the activity of human reason that, once fully realized in the progress of history, fully actualizes the final cause of the cosmos. Human thought and the ideas it generates shape and ultimately perfect material reality.
For Marx, however, this is exactly reverse: material realities, and the social institutions that supervene or emerge from them, are what shape thoughts, ideas, and philosophy itself. As such, the Idealism of those that came before is truly flipped on its head. Now, it is not free, rational agents that will, or even can, shape the world to be a better place, it is the world, its environmental and social conditions, that primarily shape “free” moral agents.
With regards to metaphysical realities, therefore, where Hegel thought free human agents were co-agents in actualizing God in the world (a fairly pantheistic worldview), Marx, adapting Feuerbach’s view, sees material forces as providing the fundamental stuff that allows human beings to even have thoughts about God, a God, however, who does not really exist. Therefore, once this is recognized, i.e. that there are only material conditions and that material conditions shape the kinds of thoughts people have, and once those material conditions are altered, so too will thoughts about God be altered, and inevitably done away with.
What happens then on Marxist thought is metaphysics is denied its place among the pantheon of philosophical pursuits; since if Marx is right, metaphysical speculations are nothing more than supervening mental states on lower-level physical and social realities. This is not to say that human beings are entirely determined by material conditions, but it gives primacy to material conditions as the main source of human ideas, especially metaphysical ones. If that is the case, then the kinds of things the Bible speaks of (YHWH, the eternal Logos, Angels, Demons, a Jesus that possesses all of the attributes of Divinity, human souls or resurrections) are merely intra-mental constructs of human agents determined by the social and environmental conditions of their times.
Are Progressive Christians Marxists?
Clearly this is a question that can only be answered by someone who self-identifies as a “progressive Christian,” hence, to try and avoid any hasty generalizations about actual people who hold real beliefs, let’s ask the more impersonal form of the question “is progressive Christianity Marxist in the content of its beliefs?”
I think it is.
First, while progressive Christianity is clearly not of the same Marxist stripe as that of Pot or Guevara (i.e. in its unwillingness to desecrate human persons for the sake of its dogma), it does seem to be Marxists in its metaphysical commitments. Progressive Christianity seems to want to untether the words of Scripture from the ontological realities to which those words point. This is first an anachronistic reading of Scripture, for it is beyond unlikely that the prophets and scribes of the Old Testament, or the Apostles and their companions, were metaphysical anti-realists, at least about things like God, angels, demons, souls, etc. So, in this sense, it seems to me that progressive Christianity treats the language of Scripture not as semantic terms referring to immaterial realities, but as metaphorical terms only.
But, why is this specifically Marxist? After all, metaphors can refer to transcendent realities too. The problem is, I think, that progressive Christianity holds that while the ancients perhaps believed that these entities were real, that that very thinking was just a product of their physical, chronological, and social environments. In other words, the Hebrew prophets and the New Testament Apostles (and likely Jesus himself) thought about God in manner “x” not because manner “x” bears any universal, unconditioned Truth about God, but because thinking about God in manner “x” was literally a byproduct of the lower-level realities (socio-economic conditions plus social institutions) in which the prophets, the Apostles, and Jesus lived.
Therefore, if all thought about God, and the religious institutions that emerge from that thought, are subject primarily to the physical and social conditions that help construct thinkers and their institutions, then clearly we can have novel, even contradictory, formulations of God and novel supervening religious institutions, if we have physical and social conditions quite foreign to those of the authors of the Bible. Not only can we have novel views of God, but we inevitably will have them. In this way, I think progressive Christianity is truly a Marxist Christianity: the words of the Bible are mainly products of immanent physical and cultural forces, not revealed truths about a transcendent reality and its denizens; truths that we discover rather than construct.
On such a view then, if the physical and cultural forces of today are vastly different than those of the 8th century BC, or 1st century AD (which they obviously are), then our concept of God and His work in the world can and should change accordingly. On this count, it seems that Marxist Christianity should be able to better address the social woes of our times, because there is this flexibility to the concept of God and His work that changes as time and culture changes.
Unfortunately, I think this view is woefully inadequate, not only in its relation to truth, but also in addressing the problems that it so desperately seeks to answer.
The Problem with Marxist Christianity in Addressing Social Justice
Social Justice is a moral issue. On that we can all agree. Gross imbalance in social, economic, and political power between individuals and communities tends to result in things like chattel slavery and Holocausts. To not want justice in society, is to be narcissitic at worst, apathetic at best. As members of Christ’s society, the Church, relational justice (i.e. a proper balance or shalom between people and their communities) should be a deep longing for us to cultivate, and communicate.
However, in order to actualize such peace in society, where justice is achieved in light of both human failure and wickedness and human creativity and courage, there must first be moral formation in the individual who lives and acts in a society. But, without a metaphysical or transcendent moral principle or Person to guide the individual in the formation of her own soul, i.e. in personal virtue; without a compass that can point us true North, from where or in what manner do we become the kind of people that have both the knowledge and the character to be on the side of justice when we interact socially? To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, how does the ship that cannot sail properly, become a beneficial member of the fleet?1 see C.S. Lewis “The Three Parts of Morality” in Mere Christianity, Book 3 Chapter1.
Secular responses have tended to place the source of moral knowledge in society itself, either in the forms of “rationally” constructed contracts, or “quantifiable” measures of pleasure for the maximum number of people. But, can society really be the sole source of our own personal moral formation? That seems to place an incredible burden on people; to be the unique source of ethical knowledge and moral modeling for each other. If this is true, if there really is no metaphysical principle to discover, or divine Person who reveals to us something about Goodness, Beauty, and Justice, then to fix society’s woes, we must turn to…society!? But, how can a car engine fix itself, or a heart suffering from congenital disease be healed without a surgeon’s hand?
This is not to say that Progressive Christianity fails to take the moral teachings of the Bible, and especially those of Jesus of Nazareth, seriously. However, if those moral teachings are but byproducts of immanent social and physical realities that generated the thoughts of their professors, then even the words of Jesus are, at best, interesting and provocative, at worst, unhealthy and harmful. But, so are the words of Aristotle and Nietzsche. Thus, the progressive Christian need not feel beholden to the words and teachings of Jesus, any more than they might feel beholden to the words and teachings of Rush Limbaugh or Oprah (I’m assuming, though, that most progressive Christians will prefer the latter).
In sum without any transcendent Reality to guide the formation of one’s own moral life, to right one’s own ship, to communicate with and be communicated to, the individual member of society is left to her own devices to cobble together what society has to offer and take that back to the community she lives in. But, even here, this “cobbling together” of various moral or ethical views, plays, at best, an informative role. It is neither imperative in nature, nor can it have any kind of causal effect on the person’s character, for again it is not ideas that are shaping us or our societies, but primarily material goods and services. It is the stuff we have that is fundamental to shaping our “souls,” not a Holy Spirt, or even a universal Reason. Hence, the further call amongst progressive Christians for a wider distribution of wealth and services, regardless of whether individuals have earned them or not.
Conclusion: Christian Marxism Cannot Solve Our Social Justice Woes
In the first chapter of the Letter to the Romans, the Apostle Paul makes it quite clear that when human beings reject God, they begin to immanentize His attributes (or His actions) in things in the world.
18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world,g]”>[g] in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.
The first thing Paul lists with regard to our placing the glory of God into the world, is “images resembling mortal man.” Certainly more can be meant here than just statuary, even if statues of men and women have often been objects of adoration. Also, even though we have no present-day pharaohs or caesars to rule over us as divinized god-men, we can easily, as Marx I think did, try and imbue society itself with the glory that belongs only to the Creator. After all, before Octavian became the divine Augustus, there was already the notion of “ROME” in all her glory. And, more recently, we have been told by one political leader in particular that indeed “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”
Therefore, there are two things that Marxist thinking tries to wrest out of the hands of the Creator, and place in the world: the communion of the saints, and the very Kingdom of God. It is no wonder that Marxism has often been called the “failed religion,” as Elizabeth Scalia warns:
Communism, attempted without the infinite capacity and infinite hope that comes from working with and for the infinite God, becomes a mere movement of man, consistent with the nature of man, which is imperfect, selfish, and self-rewarding.
The failed Marxist experiments involved human schemes to prohibit “anti-social behavior” and enforce codified “kindness” supported by informants and intimidation; they enforced a spirit-killing, drive-killing acquiescence but offered no hope for real communism. Action compelled by government can never transcend itself, because the person has nothing to draw on from within, or look to from without.
Without the Holy Spirit prompting the human soul toward the willing surrender of goods and gifts”not for the good of “the state” or “the party” or for some general idea about feckless and unwieldy humanity, but for the sole use of God and the service of his glory”the compelled surrender of humankind serves only to frighten, to inhibit, to shackle and bind, rather than to loosen or free. It feeds the instinct to hoard, rather than hand out. It creates the Gulag.2 Elizabeth Scalia, “Why Marxism Always Fails” in First ThingsNov. 16, 2010.
Any Christian subculture is susceptible to this desire, the desire to instantiate God’s final plan for the world apart from real belief in or actual relationship to God. For to relate to language about something cannot be the same as relating to an actual something.
The non-Christian culture, however, if Paul is correct, is doing this explicitly all the time, either through the “divine right of kings” or political messianism, or through the secular re-creation of society (and even individual persons) in our own imagination and likeness. As progressive Christians lean further and further into Marxist and neo-Marxist (i.e. Critical Theory) thought, the tendency will be to neglect the vital role of the Holy Spirit in both personal moral formation, and in the ultimate reconciliation of man with God, and man with man.
In conclusion, Marxist Christianity cannot save us from our social justice (man-man) woes. Why? Because it rejects the only two things that can truly change the heart of man and the society he resides in: the ontological reality and causal efficacy of man’s Creator, and the plan of salvation and liberation that the Creator has initiated in His creation.