Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Helmut Gollwitzer Miniseries: Lessons for Theology from Encounter with the Marxist Criticism of Religion, Part 2

This is the second of an eight-part (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight) miniseries on the concluding chapter of Helmut Gollwitzer’s The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion (Scribner, 1970).



For Gollwitzer, the Marxist criticism of religion sets six tasks for theology. The first of these tasks is to discern whether and to what extent the Marxist criticism of Christianity is on to something. So Gollwitzer:
[T]his criticism of religion makes us aware of a transition which is repeatedly to be observed in the various epochs of Church history – a transition from a critical challenging of the existing order by the Christian message to an ideological support of the existing order (151).
In other words, the Marxist criticism of Christianity, falling as it does under a broader criticism of religion in general, serves to reveal the way in which the church has lost its prophetic voice. Rather than confronting the powers and injustices of this world, the church all too often becomes the opiate of the masses. A true, living church can never be this, but a dead church always is. Along these same lines, the Marxist criticism of religion also
draws our attention to the singular limitation of most Christian movements of renewal…they limit the thrust of their attack and challenge to the sphere of the private person, remain socially conservative, attacking the heathenism of individuals, but not of institutions…the legitimate application of the gospel to the individual…runs in fact precisely and inevitably the risk of encouraging the illegitimate modes of piety, a selfish religious desire for salvation, a flight from the world, and a fatalistic submission and the like (ibid; bold is mine).
These days, this is perhaps especially truth in the North American context, whose Christianity has been decisively shaped by ‘great awakenings’ and revivals, and whose most pervasive religious impulse seems to be the desire for individual salvation - which translates quite easily, I might add, into a desperate craving for the assurance of political or social safety. Of course, all these limitations and dangerous impulses fed into the Marxist criticism of religion:
The Marxist accusations are a catalogue of actual Christian degenerations. One should attempt to read the theological and edifying literature of the nineteenth century with the eyes of a man like Karl Marx, before whose keen vision the trend of the times and the problems of the present and the future were evident in all their grimness, while there he could find almost nothing but blind ignorance! This ignorance he saw to be based on a piety which he all too hastily took for the real thing (151-2; bold is mine).
The corollary of this is the following: if the church wishes to avoid criticisms from Marxist or other atheistic quarters, it must purge itself of these dangerous mutations and demonstrate that the piety in question here is not, in fact, the real thing.

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2 comments:

Matt Frost said...

This is precisely the reason to read Marx, Freud, Nietzsche, Russell, &c - and even the new atheists, though I have less respect for them. They critique something that is actually there, or at least does appear to be the case. Diagnostic tools are always necessary.

W. Travis McMaken said...

Matt: definitely!