Helmut Gollwitzer Miniseries: Lessons for Theology from Encounter with the Marxist Criticism of Religion, Part 8

This is the final installment 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. Having treated them, he concludes with two more points that Christians and theologians should bear in mind when engaging with the Marxist criticism of religion.

  1. Harkening back to the discussion in the last installment, Gollwitzer notes that for Christianity to base its message on humanity’s “need” would be to play into the Marxist criticism: “That God is the means to an end, even if an ineffective one, is a point in which Feuerbach and Marx are one” (167). Of course, this breaks down when faced with a more sophisticated way of understanding the Christian God, one based on value and not need: “Anyone who wishes adequately to understand biblical texts must…understand that there are encounters which primarily have their significance as such, and in relation to which the consideration of value is only secondary” (ibid). The encounter in view here is, of course, one with God. That such an encounter is valuable goes without saying. But what Christianity cannot and must not do is attempt to demonstrate the truth or superiority of Christianity on the basis of this value. It must not do so because to make the attempt would be to deny the nature of the case, and it cannot do so because this value is only accessible from within the encounter, not without. So Gollwitzer (bold is, as always, mine):
    It is not man and his needs that can be the meaning of God’s existence, but God is the meaning of the existence of man. Therefore what man receives in the encounter with God is not visible outside of or before this encounter, not outside of “faith”. For only in this encounter does God himself become important to men, not because of his meaning, or any value, but He himself - and just this is the most supremely satisfying answer to the question of meaning (168).
  2. The payoff of the whole of Gollwitzer’s discussion is this: “What the atheist denies is not what the Christian affirms” , or at least not what the Christian ought to affirm, or would affirm if there was more clarity on the issue. So, Christianity must, in the face of the Marxist criticism of religion, undertake “a self-critical examination of [its] own previous statements” (172), and it has made many of the unguarded variety over the centuries. But this does not deny the other side (bold is mine, as always), and I conclude with the following long block quotation:
    The whole polemic of Feuerbach indicates that the Christian faith is interpreted as the ‘assumption’ of the existence of a God, as the hypothesis that there is such an existence, and only distinguishes itself from polytheism by its concentration on one instead of many. The triumph over the fact that the sputnik and the subsequent space-travellers [sic] discovered no such being in the world of space is only an element of bathos in anti-religious propaganda and a booby-trap. The possibility of such primitive argumentation is, however, based on the fact that they denial of God occurs on the same ontological level as that on which people can discuss the existence of Martians; here one can set up theories pro and con; here one can some day by testing discover what is right…The denial which finds expression in the assertion that ‘there is no God’ believes it is speaking about the Christian God, but speaks about something quite different…I make judgments about existent facts without thereby altering myself. But the denial of God cannot at all be spoken in this way as a meaningful sentence: the sentence “God is not” is either thoughtless chatter, or it is a self-cancellation in revolt; “God must not be”.

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