Helmut Gollwitzer Miniseries: Lessons for Theology from Encounter with the Marxist Criticism of Religion, Part 1

I’ve been slowly working my way through Helmut Gollwitzer’s The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion (Scribner, 1970), over the past while. I did one post on it previously. I’ve enjoyed the read as a whole, but the last chapter stopped me in my tracks. For in this chapter, entitled “Christian Encounter with Atheism,” Gollwitzer teases out the lessons that theology ought to learn from an engagement with the Marxist criticism of religion. So, I’ve decided to put together an eight-part miniseries (one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight) on this chapter, highlighting the six points Gollwitzer makes, along with a treatment of his introductory remarks and his conclusion – which provide a context for the six points.

Kait Dugan recently teased me, saying - in a clearly derogatory manner - that my blog is "largely occupied with announcements and book excerpts." Perhaps this mini-series will go some way in answering her imprecations.

Gollwitzer argues that Marxism’s atheism and its Messianism (utopianism) are mutually implicating. Messianism provides a way of overcoming the crisis opened by atheism, and atheism is confirmed by that overcoming insofar as it demonstrates that no God is necessary for humanity’s salvation. So Gollwitzer:
[T]he one confirms the other: because God does not exist, a world must be constructed, first in thought, and then in reality, in which man does not need God, and so no longer regrets God’s non-existence…On the other hand: because this man has now decided to see his dignity in not requiring God, and can come to fulfillment without God, therefore he must also show that God does not exist (146).
What should be the Christian response to this constellation of issues? In what way should Christianity go about engaging with Marxism or, we might say more simply in a more contemporary North American context, atheistic secularism [Ed. note: Gollwitzer’s text is interesting as it stands, but don’t get hung up on his reference to Marxism of Communism – his discussion applies far more broadly]? Gollwitzer notes that the mere existence of a truly Christian community raises a question within such a society as a phenomena for which there is no explanation, undermining that society’s theoretical certainty about itself.

However, there is much more to say about this encounter, for it is an encounter that equally raises question to the Christian community about the truth of its existence. I leave you with the following length (to say the least!) quote. As always, bold is me (underlining as well, for even more emphasis):
[Christianity] must win from its faith the inner freedom to judge its own history relentlessly under the accusations of Communism, without thereby losing its glad confidence in its message, without prejudice and without anger admitting the Communists to the brotherhood in the solidarity of the godless, without thereby losing its freedom and courage to make clear and emphatic contradiction.

Above all, this community will have to abstain from the indignation which is widely felt today in Church circles, as if atheism were a new-fangled and vicious invention of the Communists. The original thing in it is merely that here atheism is taken seriously, whereas the Church and its position in society have long depended on the fact that the world around it is indeed atheist, but would not wish to do without its Christian decoration… But now, on the contrary, the consequences are drawn from the already long-present atheism of natural scientists, historians, psychologists and sociologist, from the materialism of the capitalist economy, from Christianity’s lack of influence on manufacture, commerce, and politics, from the schizophrenic division of man into a weekday heathen and a Sunday Christian, from the failure to implement Christian social doctrines (the gulf between white and coloured peoples, not bridged, but rather deepened by Christianity, the merely verbal reservations about the whole capitalist development)… This shatters the former feeling of security of the church, which had ever and again comforted itself with the secure anchorage of Christian morals among the people, and with the respect for Chritianity at least as a cultural and sentimental factor among those who were not practising [sic] Christians, and which therefore made confident claim to respect and privilege. Communism is without respect for what merely exists; it suspects that it might already belong to the past, and allows it to continue in existence only when it can prove its right to do so. This disrespectful and drastic questioning arouses alarm and indignation in the Church. This is a reaction of the ecclesiastical ‘flesh’… The spiritual reaction against it must consist in this, that the Church should not only admit, but inwardly accept the fact that this is how things stand, that Christianity is no longer taboo, but that every conventional status and reputation has been taken from it… The Church must take in the fact that the world no longer takes it from granted. But by the fact of ceasing to do so, the world is taking the Church with new seriousness – or at least there is given the possibility that it will take it with new seriousness. The Church can only inwardly accept this situation, if it understands the burden of being called in question by the world around it as God’s question addressed to it, as the question addressed to it in judgment and grace by its own Lord, who wishes thereby to revive it (148-50).



Kait Dugan said…
"Clearly derogatory"?! Clearly is clearly a very strong word.
Great post... looking forward to the upcoming contributions to this series! Did you, by any chance, see the recent series on Marx and religion over at The Guardian? http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2011/apr/04/karl-marx-religion

I hadn't seen that: thanks for pointing it out!

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