Helmut Gollwitzer Miniseries: Lessons for Theology from Encounter with the Marxist Criticism of Religion, Part 7

This is the seventh 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 sixth of these tasks pertains to the question of meaning. Explanations of the world – worldviews, or metaphysics – attempt to provide security by means of bestowing meaning on brute phenomena. Ancient Christianity’s worldview/metaphysic was theological in two senses: first, because it made of use of God in explaining the world; second, because it viewed its explanation as identical with that which provides the world with meaning. Marxist makes use of science in a similar way, that is, as an explanation of the world that attempts to provide meaning. In the end, Gollwitzer says, “Marxism is a kind of positive Stoicism; more meaning [than that provided by science] is unfortunately not our lot, but at least we have this much” (160)!

Positively, theology must recognize the difficulty with which one moves from science, or brute phenomena toward meaning. A sense of “need” is similarly not a trustworthy guide. To treat it as such would be to reintroduce something like natural theology, which has lurked behind much of Gollwitzer’s discussion. Ultimate meaning, Gollwitzer insists, cannot be read of the surface – or even from the depths – of human existence. Rather, meaning requires an encounter and fellowship with God. On the other hand, it is not the case that this God-bestowed meaning is entirely disconnected from human “need,” for Gollwitzer. It does, however, add a new depth and aspect to that need, situating it in a greater context and, indeed, showing us what our true need is. So Gollwitzer:
it is not the case that the fullness of meaning experienced in the gospel is the answer to an already manifest question. What the gospel offers is the answering of a question and the fulfillment of a need which is only awakened by the gospel. Therefore it can be satisfied only by the gospel. We are thus confronted here by a circle which we are always coming up against when we concern ourselves with theology; the gospel is the answer to a life-question; relevant, fully satisfying answer, but the question only arises through the proclamation of the answer (162; bold is mine).
Or again, from a different angle:
the death-bringing lack of fellowship with God, and the devastation wrought by evil is visible before the encounter with God’s condescension in the gospel, in all the phenomena of estrangement, lack of fellowship, perversion of life, which cause the ever-repeated attempts to heal life, the religious as well as the atheistic ones. But how deep the injury is, and how inadequate, indeed, how destined to lead to further evil are the remedies offered for healing, this is only evident when God himself comes on the scene and his appearing at once judges our previous state as our own self-inflicted misery and removes it. Only in concrete encounter with the Word of God that speaks to us does man’s destiny become clear, and only in the light of this highest destiny of life in fellowship with God is the previous condition unmasked as the misery of the man who has forfeited his high destiny, and the also previously visible signs of defect and wickedness of life are exposed as consequences of forfeiting his destiny” (163).
What does this mean for Christianity and theology? It means that they must stick to their guns, so to speak; they are “thrown entirely upon…faith in the self-evidencing power of its message” (165). The church ultimately has only one tool in its toolbox, namely, proclamation of the gospel. Granted, that proclamation will take different forms in different places and times. But this plurality of forms must be only that. In no sense can the church base its proclamation of the gospel on a condition that is not itself created by that proclamation. All such conditions have been contested, and contested well, by Marxism and other criticisms of religion. There is no sense casting about in search of a new one, for anything one finds with not be categorically different than those that have come before. Instead, the church must recognize its vulnerable position, and remember the saying of its Lord that his strength is made perfect in its weakness. The church - and theology, - need not "demonstrate to blind eyes, so that these will then be opened by a free decision; it can only proclaim to blind eyes the message committed to it, in the hope that this call itself, and he who is proclaimed in it as the real one will open men's eyes" (ibid; bold is mine).


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