Argument and advocacy

Marxism and religion - largely the Christian tradition of Europe - have rarely been even the remotest of friends. The mutual suspicion of an irreducible atheism on one side and complicity with the rulers of this world on the other have not helped matters. Thus, Bloch's reading of the Bible itself must involve a dual advocacy: Marxists need to take the Bible seriously as a revolutionary document, and biblical scholars and theologians cannot avoid Marxism in their interpretation. I have no trouble with the second side of the equation, in fact I have argued precisely the same for some time now, but I am less than keen on the first, as will become clear as I proceed.

Two moments in Atheism in Christianity give voice to the double-front of Bloch's struggle: an explicit apology for the Bible directed at Marxism; and then a call for a common front against the institutionalised forms of religion, a call that has its main appeal to Christians. Let me begin with the first, which seeks to counter the Marxist rejection of the Bible. For Bloch, an Enlightenment that rejected the Bible was more often a pseudo-enlightenment - the path of such a rejection led as easily to bourgeois rationalism as it did to Nazi neo-paganism and sociobiologism. For Marxists, Bloch argues, the Bible is a document that should not readily be discarded, since it is the Book of the peasants and workers who formed the base of the communist revolution.

Above all, however, it has revolutionary power. Thus, even the possibilities for appropriation by the rich and powerful, even the stretches of text that give justification for oppression, run over and counter to a subversive and questioning deeper stratum. In the end, the revolutionary peasants and oppressed classes have a better sense of what the Bible is about: their reading, in other words, is less a subsequent appropriation and more of an appreciation of the utopian nature of the stories themselves.

Bloch's point is that the 'Bible speaks with special directness to the ordinary and unimportant'.8 Despite its ambiguity, the Bible is the priests' bad conscience, condemning the way religious professionals have used it. Bloch claims a heritage of the Bible's revolutionary potential for Marxism from the peasant wars in Germany, France, Italy and England (the descendants of these peasants ensured the success of Marxism in Eastern Europe and the USSR). In fact, such a revolutionary tradition, in which human beings are by no means effaced before God, comes through in mysticism as well, the work of Meister Eckhart, along with Bloch's favoured Joachim of Fiore and the Hussites.9 However, when it is used for oppression, when it is 'often a scandal to the poor and not always a folly to the rich',10 then the texts interpolated by authority come into play. In the end, Bloch plays a double game here, for while he recognises the contradictions and class conflict in the text and its use, he is determined to find deep within the Bible a restless, expectant utopian stream.

But, along with Marxists, those who assume the Bible to be their own -believers and the Church - also need some persuading.11 The Bible's resolute critique of clericalism, of the various compacts with wealth and power, must

9 See Bloch 1972, pp. 64-5; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, pp. 93-4.

10 Bloch 1972, p. 25; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 53.

11 Bloch 1972, pp. 58-63; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, pp. 87-92.

remain. For the Church, as an institution of power, cannot but be part of the status quo. In fact, by stressing textual and historical conditions, he argues that Marx's famous criticism of religion in the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right is directed more at the Church and its ideological function. As far as religion is concerned, Marx was much more ambivalent, the well-known opium reference also allowing religion a role as the expression of misery and suffering and as protest against it. This point is so wellworn that it hardly requires comment any longer, although it is worth the imaginative leap to the freshness of an observation well after it has become tired and foot-sore. For Bloch, the only way forward is a common front between Marxists and Christians, for 'conversations between believers purged of ideology and unbelievers purged of taboo'.12

Atheism and Christianity may well be read as part of this conversation, attempting to persuade two audiences Bloch would rather see together. These days, there is a distinctly hoary feel about such efforts at Marxist-Christian dialogue, belonging more to the sixties and seventies when the Eastern Bloc still existed and the Churches sought a way towards tolerance and accommodation. After an intense interest in Germany and the USA in the 1970s, Atheism in Christianity has led something of a half-life in theology and biblical studies, the source of some key hermeneutical ideas that have forgotten their point of origin. I think here of the hermeneutics of suspicion and recovery, elaborated in his own way by Paul Ricoeur and then adopted by ecclesiastical feminism, liberation theology and political theologies in various reform programmes. Yet in the process of this adaptation, Bloch's central critique was lost: that the Bible and Christianity in general are inherently atheistic, that the contradictions within the institutions and its ideologies cannot but unravel. However, it seems to me that the time for the dialogue in which Bloch engages may indeed be now or at some time in the future, for its possibility is greater with the fading away of the old ideological blocs of the Cold War and the need to combat a renewed onslaught of capitalism. For Bloch, like Lenin, wants no Marxist fellow-travellers, a 'half-grown centaur with two body parts, Church and Party, joined only in "perpetual dialog"',13 but, rather, a genuinely disil

12 Bloch 1972, pp. 62-3; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 92.

13 Bloch 1972, p. 237; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 314; translation modified.

lusioned godlessness that comes face to face with the irrepressibly rebellious biblical texts.

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