Month: July 2017

Marxism and Christianity : Introduction and Chapter One

My plan is not generally to precis the chapters of Turner’s book. Those who want to read it can do so for themselves. I want instead to reflect on themes it raises about Marxism and Christianity and their relevance to our current situation. However, there’s a lot of scene setting in the introduction and the first chapter, ‘Ideology’, so it might be good to summarise some of that, if only to orientate future posts.

Turner is going to argue for two claims in the book:

The identity thesis: (True) morality is (in capitalist society) Marxism.

The strong compatibility thesis: Marxism and Christianity are in asymmetrical relations of dependence on one another.

The identity thesis, in particular, is likely to strike many readers as implausible. It is worth, then, emphasising that for an entire classical tradition it would appear less so. The possibility of human flourishing, of living well, is – for Aristotle, for example – tied up with the condition of the polis in which somebody is situated. There is, for this tradition, no particular reason that living in accordance with morality in a given situation must be particularly easy, or even possible (so much for Kant’s view that “ought implies can”). If this is right, of course, much of what passes for morality is entirely misplaced. Turner concurs, writing in the 1980s,

Anyone who, like me, feels crushed between the moral cynicism of a Brezhnev and the moral hypocrisy of a Reagan and who finds in both something rooted in the very structure of our moral world will have identified the controlling concerns of this book. Perhaps also they will be able to identify its governing symbol, that it is, as Terry Eagleton once put it, in the silence of Jesus before Pilate, in his refusal to talk morality with the moraliser, that the true significance of morality may be articulated. (p. xi)

Morality, Turner concurs with the mainstream of Marxist tradition, is ideological in capitalist society. Morality appears as moralising. So too, alas, is Christianity manifest as ideological. I’ll say a bit about what the claim that a phenomenon is ideological amounts to in a moment. First, an aspect of Turner’s treatment of Marx that comes through in the first chapter deserves comment.

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Turner thinks Marxism is a science. That it is a systematic endeavour that aspires to, and often succeeds in, uncovering truths about society, a process that involves getting behind appearances to an underlying reality. This will feel quite alien to many on the contemporary left, and in particular the Christian left, who decry this kind of  or claims to objectivity in favour of more feeling-driven, vision led, and intellectually amorphous movements, often of the sort that Marx would have denounced as utopian. Marx himself rejects the dichotomy between the heart and the head, between facts and values; the talk of science might suggest bland amoral technocracy. But, for Marx, one of realities uncovered by the science of capitalist society is that the accumulation of capital is rooted in alienation, grounded in the failure of millions to flourish as they could. Description and value judgement coinhere. It is in this tradition that I take Turner to be writing. It is also evident in, for example, Herbert McCabe’s ‘The Class Struggle and Christian Love’, a classic of the Catholic left of the time.

The word ‘ideology’ as used in the Marxist tradition suggests a number of things. Ideology is (in some sense) false, untrue, or misleading. Ideology is lived out in our day to day lives. Ideology is a society’s consciousness of itself. It is by no means obvious that these all amount to the same thing, or are even consistently said of the same phenomenon. Turner’s task in the first part of the book will be to explore this, so that we might better understand the ways morality and Christianity are caught up in ideology.

Christianity and Marxism

I’ve written on a couple of occasions about politics and religion. In both cases I’ve talked about the apparent difficulty of reconciling aspects of political life, conflict and division, with Christian life and belief. Many of my friends and allies, both religious and political, would ask more fundamental questions of me. Isn’t the kind of politics I espouse, a basically Marxist socialism, basically incompatible with orthodox Christianity? (And an orthodox Christian is the only sort of Christian I have an interest in being, the alternatives striking me as wishful thinking).

marxism-vs-christianity

Well no, say I. Up until now I haven’t devoted a great deal of energy to trying to convince anybody of this. After all, Britain in 2017 is a very different place from its former self between the 60s and 80s, when the ‘Christian-Marxist dialogue’ was a going concern in theology faculties and on the fringes of churches. Christianity has receded from view in public life, meanwhile Marxism has declined in profile, ironically seeming to be a victim of the fall of those regimes in Eastern Europe that distorted and blighted its vision for so long. In these circumstances trying to reconcile the two intellectual might appear like trying to integrate steam trains with cassette players.

Things are changing a little. The left, albeit the non-Marxist left, is somewhat ascendant, to the extent that alarmist comments are being made to the (alas absurd) effect that the Leader of the Opposition is to be numbered amongst Marx’s disciples. At the same time, however, there seem to be various trends dragging explicitly Christian politics to the right, sometimes focused around sexual ethics in the style of the US Religious Right, sometimes around nebulous and dangerous notions of Christian Values.

In this context, I think it is worth giving some thought to the theory behind being both a Christian and the kind of socialist I am, both personally and in terms of pointing towards an alternative way of faithful engagement in politics.

And this is what I’m going to do over the summer on this blog. But rather than bore your with my unmediated reflections, I’m instead going to read Denys Turner’s Marxism and Christianity, offering thoughts here on each chapter.

Those of you who have no stomach for this kind of thing can at least be reassured that it will be over by the autumn.

The outcast dead, loved by God

There are two things I am clear about amidst all the angst and mud-slinging that passes for discussion of sexual ethics in the contemporary Catholic Church. First, that we cannot begin to say anything useful theologically concerning sex and sexuality until we have a decent philosophical understanding of human sexuality, which must of necessity be informed by our best scientific and psychological accounts of human beings and by the diverse experiences of our fellow human beings. Sexual fideism is no more attractive than any other kind. We, as a Church, palpably lack such a philosophical understanding at the present moment. Second, and perhaps more controversially, it is singularly unfortunate that the most heated debate around these issues in the English-speaking world is taking place in America, a country whose background puritan culture has a tendency to feed into the Catholic Church, issuing in a trenchantly defended and overly propositional form of Christianity. More settled expressions of the catholica are better able to shrug their shoulders and move on.

One thing about Christian truth, including whatever that truth might turn out to be with respect to sexuality, is that it doesn’t depend on us. It does require us to anxiously defend it against all comers, as though it were some fragile thing in constant need of our protection. Against this, the gospel of last week’s solemnity reminds us of the good news that the gates of hell will not prevail against the Church. This reassurance should both prick our pomposity and give us permission to relax.

In any case, the idea that truth requires our constant interventions on its behalf against pervasive falsehood really only makes sense if we are understanding Christian truth as solely a matter of words: of saying and thinking the right things. Now, this is deeply important, but it is not the whole truth about truth. Christian truth is also communicated by actions and ways of living; these show, in ways that mere words never could, who Christ is and what it is that he has done for us.

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It is for this reason that the quite disgraceful decree of Bishop Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, denying funeral rites to people in same-sex unions, is a crime against Christian truth. It communicates a lack of mercy, a lack of compassion, and a coldness in the face of human tragedy. It also, to my mind, betrays a bizarre theology of death and funereal liturgy, but that is a secondary matter: the issue here is what is being shown, not what is said. The Church, the fundamental sacrament of Jesus’ presence until he comes again, is being compelled by one of its pastors to retreat from those in need of its prayers and ministry. There is, according to the gospels, precedent: the disciples sending the children away, the Pharisee’s criticism of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet. In these cases those who would keep people away from Jesus were met with his rebuke. In the case of Bishop Paprocki, I can’t but hope that a similar rebuke is forthcoming from Rome.

As it is, a rebuke will certainly be forthcoming from the parents, lovers, brothers, sisters, friends, and children who will be denied the comfort, at an already distressing time, of commending their loved ones to God in the context of a Catholic funeral. They are mourning children of God, created in his image and redeemed by his Son: these, along with those mourning them, deserve respect and prayer. And they deserve not to be treated as pawns in a tawdry ecclesiastical version of the US’s culture wars.