Helmut Gollwitzer Miniseries: Lessons for Theology from Encounter with the Marxist Criticism of Religion, Part 5

This is the fifth 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 fourth of these tasks continues Gollwitzer’s sally against apologetics. The particular form of apologetics that attracts Gollwitzer’s ire now, however, is that which would link Christianity with religion as a general category and, attempting to demonstrate that religion is a necessary facet of human culture and development, thus hope to secure Christianity’s pedigree. As true as such claims may be about religion, and Gollwitzer is willing to entertain that possibility, he provides four reflections on the issue.

  1. Such arguments cannot defeat the immanentism of the Marxist criticism. To begin, who cares about this immanentism when leveled at religion? Christianity has no dog in that fight. Furthermore, a general defense of religion will not defeat this immanentism. So Gollwitzer: Christianity “cannot prove, or wish to prove, that the living God to whom the biblical word bears witness does not belong to the immanent conditions of the world, and is not a product of our need. It can, however, indicate that this is not so, by showing how in his revelation he distinguishes himself from the gods” (155). In other words, Christianity should show that its God is not one of the gods, leaving the latter to fend for themselves since “It is with the powers of this world, positive and negative, that we have to do in religion, not with the Creator himself, who must in his freedom encounter us, in order that we may have such dealings with him as to know him and be able to speak with him” (ibid).
  2. Secularism pushes these things further, although Marxism is only one form of secularism. Whereas in the past Christianity could assume the general religiosity of those it encountered, such is no longer the case. It would be a mistake for Christianity to think that it first had to reproduce this general religiosity among its hearers before proclaiming the uniquely Christian message. No, that message must be proclaimed in such a way as to bypass the need for this general religiosity. Of the secular person, Gollwitzer writes:
    Without his putting himself in a religious frame of mind, creating for himself religious experiences, awakening within himself a so-called natural consciousness of God, thus without his being compelled to adopt forms of consciousness which he can no longer recapture, he must be encountered in his life, which has become secular, by the good news from the Lord of the world, who has committed himself in the man Jesus of Nazareth to the world and the secularity of the stable and the gallows” (155-6).
    This, Gollwitzer maintains, is what Bonhoeffer was on about when he spoke of a “non-religious interpretation” of the gospel.
  3. What theology should focus on in the encounter with Marxism, then, is not the antithesis between atheism and religion, but the one “between the ‘God for us’ of the gospel, and the human refusal to live in the strength of the vital reality of this ‘God for us’” (156). In other words, it must call the world to repentance, to abandon the attempt at self-justification, which can take religious, secular, technological, and other forms. Nothing is ultimately gained if a culture or an individual converts from atheism to religion, so far as Christianity is concerned: “The only conversion with brings something new, is that form law to gospel” (ibid). The strength of this conversion is that it tears us away from all these forms of self-justification. It “ends our existence as functionaries of a front representing a world-view, and makes us messengers of the love which from above seeks every individual, the religious man as the atheist, as a creature beloved, which must leave the tense struggle against the feared non-being, to receive fellowship with him who places himself between the creature and non-being” (157).
  4. All this lies behind Gollwitzer’s concluding statement, which provides a very measure paradigm for Christian engagement with Marxist criticism. I’ll quote it in entirety:
    Thus it is possible without prejudice, without irritation, and defensiveness to discuss with the Marxists the phenomenon and the problems of religion. Not the Christian message but our human method of receiving and embodying it, the Christian religion, will there, so far as Christianity is in question, be dealt with, but it must not be withdrawn from criticism. In this, theology will be both the defender of religion over against the onesidedness, the superficiality and the fatuities of Marxist criticism, and at the same time the ally of this criticism against cruelties, stuffiness, terrorism and like inhumanities of the religious life (157; bold is mine).

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