The return to theology

In the closing arguments of both Atheism in Christianity and The Principle of Hope, Bloch returns to theology, albeit in his argument for the atheistic logic of the Bible. Yet this argument is, to my mind, the most symptomatic of all, for his theological turn raises all sorts of questions about the nature of his biblical criticism. Note carefully that the title of his most sustained engagement with the Bible is not Atheism in the Bible, but Atheism in Christianity, Atheismus im Christentum. And the questions Bloch covers in its closing pages are the theological ones of atheism, teleology, transcendence, sin and death.

Here, we witness perhaps the boldest and most risky move of all - a dialectical inversion of the central doctrines of Christianity, a homeopathic reading that pushes the concepts to their extreme until their 'truth' emerges. After running through the impossibility of the biblical exodus out of Yahweh in Orphic, Stoic and Gnostic beliefs, Bloch returns to what is now a theological opposition in continuity with the two lines he traces in the Bible: astral myth and logos myth. If astral myth - in which the fundamental stasis of the cosmos remains untouched - provides no way forward, the logos myth allows him to begin a transvaluation of one theological category after the other.115


Bloch's well-known 'religious atheism' is not some soft-headed reversion to paganism. Like Zizek after him, Bloch fully endorses the break with paganism enacted, as he sees it, in the Bible. Lumped under the sign of 'astral myth' - chthonian matriarchal religions of the moon, fertility cults of the dying and rising god, patriarchal religions of the sun, Canaanite and Greek myths, cyclical fertility myths - Bloch notes both the biblical leftovers and the Bible's ability to cut through the whole seduction of paganism. And his argument is that the Bible first enables human beings to face the realm of divinised heavenly bodies and not fear, as the angels say to the shepherds in Luke's birth story.

Bloch's hero is Feuerbach, who enables human beings to begin to claim the heavens for themselves by arguing that the gods are transposed hypostases of human desires. Feuerbach's genius is that he focused on 'the radically human line in Christianity'.116 Through his 'anthropologisation' (or, as Moylan calls it, 'dehypostatization'),117 Feuerbach put forward a distinctly utopian image of human beings, a homo absconditus who yet awaits full emergence. Only possible by passing through Christianity, 'Feuerbach's atheism, then, aimed both to destroy a strength-sapping illusion, and to fan the transforming flames which would change the theologically created inf nity of man back into a truly human one'.118

But what kind of atheism is this? Not the moral atheism of the Enlightenment in which the problem of theodicy led to the conclusion that God could not exist in the face of undeserved suffering, nor is it historical, psychological or poetic atheism that Bloch notes as possible answers to the questions posed in the book of Job - for an unfeeling, cruel universe exists with or without

115 See also Bloch 2000, pp. 212-18; Bloch 1985, Volume 3, pp. 267-72.

116 Bloch 1972, p. 210; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 281.

117 Moylan 1997, p. 105.

118 Bloch 1972, p. 211; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 282.

God.119 What interests Bloch is the Utopian drive beyond inhumanity, and atheism must deal with the same group of theodicical questions.

Can there be no understanding of the harsh clash of misery and the drive to overcome it, no insight into exploitation and its progressive dialectics? And does not dialectical materialism itself need some justification for invoking such a dreary and repulsive process? Where does this realm of necessity come from, with all its long oppression? Why is the realm of freedom not suddenly there? Why must it work its way with so much bloodshed through necessity? Why the long delay?120

What he decries are both the 'unrealistic folly of optimism' and the 'equally unhistorical nihilism'121 that are characteristic of so many forms of atheism. Rather, atheism protests not merely against a god who is responsible for these things but that they exist at all. For this reason, the religious revolutionaries draw him in: prophets, mystics, religious founders, particularly Moses and Jesus, and the theological revolutionaries like Munzer. So the exodus out of Yahweh then becomes a model for another exodus: 'there is always an exodus in the world, and exodus from the particular status quo. And there is always a hope, which is connected with rebellion - a hope founded in the concrete given possibilities for a new beginning'.122

Yet the 'protest atheism' Bloch seeks has its first moment in the Bible. Of course, atheism is, in one sense, not possible in a world that lives and breathes the sacred, such as we find in the Bible, but Bloch finds there the seeds of a trajectory - Bloch quotes Romans 5: 5; 8: 18; 1 Corinthians 2: 9 and Ephesians 4: 13 - that only comes to full realisation well beyond the Bible - in the atheistic messianism of Marxism:

The existence of God, indeed God at all as a special being is superstition; belief is solely that in a messianic kingdom of God - without God. Atheism is therefore so far from being the enemy of religious utopia that it constitutes its precondition: without atheism messianism has no place____

119 See Bloch 1972, pp. 120-22; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, pp. 164-6.

120 Bloch 1972, p. 121; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, pp. 164-5.

121 Bloch 1972, p. 121; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 165.

122 Bloch 1972, pp. 121-2; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 165.

Atheism is the presupposition of any concrete Utopia, but concrete Utopia is also the remorseless consequence of atheism. Atheism-with-concrete-Utopia is at one and the same time the annihilation of religion and the realisation of its heretical hope, now set on human feet.123


The catch with all of this, as many have argued, is its over-riding teleology -another theological category Bloch seeks to transvalue into historical materialism. Unfortunately, Bloch rests heavily on early twentieth-century biblical scholarship, which argued that the Bible broke decisively with the cyclical time of its Ancient Near-Eastern context. Instead, we find, they argued, the first moment of linear, historical time in the Hebrew Bible, something Bloch turns all too quickly into his teleology. And then, in a massive rush, Bloch draws in nearly everything from the earliest documents of the Bible to Hegel, an encyclopaedic sweep we see repeatedly in his texts. But the distinction between two times is highly problematic, not merely since we find both perceptions of time in the Bible and in the Ancient Near East, but also because it imposes foreign categories on the text. And I cannot help but think that Bloch's call for a discernment of myths should have made him much more wary.

Many have found teleology the most troublesome aspect of Bloch's thought. Moylan, for instance, argues that it shows a rift between his rigid Marxist teleology and a more fragmentary, disruptive utopian expectation. Moylan favours the latter, which he feels under the teleology.124 I am not sure it is so easy to make this distinction, since utopia is, for Bloch, a temporal and historical concept. If anything, what we need is a dialectical treatment that would see both as mutually necessary. Yet, it seems to me that Bloch's debt is less to Stalinist orthodoxy, as Moylan suggests, than the systematising temptations of theological categories over the more variegated biblical material. For the whole idea of teleology is more theological than biblical, and Bloch elides chiliasm and teleology, assuming a massive continuity that constitutes a pro

123 Bloch 1972, p. 240; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 317.

124 Moylan 1997, pp. 112-13. Moylan problematically turns this critique into one that valorises liberal plurality over against communist totality.

found problem. On the one hand, it is not possible to ignore the theological content of the Bible; and yet, the assumption that the Bible is part of a larger theological discourse ignores the rifts between the Bible and theology, the appropriation of a literary text by a religious tradition that did not produce it. Beneath all of this is not only my argument that it is necessary to develop a non-theological biblical criticism, but that theology creates more problems for biblical criticism than possibilities and opportunities. In other words, Bloch's value is that he raises the theological issues in biblical interpretation, but the catch is that his reading of the Bible is limited by unexamined theological assumptions.


As we have seen, Bloch takes the category of transcendence into new territories, human, non-human and temporal. Thus, while God's transcendence is but a code for human transcendence (deus absconditus actually means homo absconditus), it becomes a temporal transcendence, oriented to the future. But Bloch does not stop here, for even nature and matter have utopian pretensions. If certain moments of Western philosophy have spoken of self-transcendence from matter, from Aristotle's dynameion, 'being-in-possibility', to the 'earthly spirits' of Avicebron, then, for the Bible, the Eschaton descends into this world: 'nowhere is the Omega of Christian utopianism so untran-scendent and at the same time so all-transcending, as in the "New Jerusalem" of Revelation 21.23'.125 In all this, he prefers the Latin verbal infinitive transcendere to the substantive transcendence, for, whereas the latter indicates a state, the former speaks of a forward-looking process, a paradoxical transcendere without transcendence.126

Bloch is obviously trying to stretch Marx's critique of mechanical materialism beyond its original shape. However, is not the effort to reload key theological terms like transcendence not caught up in the difficulties of secularised theology? This will become a central question for Adorno, but it is relevant here too. Such theological terms are not so easily divested of their semantic associations, for their content is not like milk in a bottle which one

125 Bloch 1972, p. 229; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 303; translation corrected.

126 See Bloch 1972, pp. 237-9; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, pp. 315-17.

can merely pour out and replace, say, with wine. No matter how unrelenting the effort to remove any former content, a residue remains that clings to the terms. Adorno urges us not to relax our ideological suspicion for a moment, but Bloch can be caught napping all too often. This brings me to two related points. The first is theological: the elevation of 'man' in God's place, or matter in place of spirit, has all the potential for totalitarian and oppressive politics that can now be justified by such an ideology, for this 'man' can behave as though he were God. There is, as Moylan points out in a different context, a tendency for Bloch to revert to the hypostatisation he elsewhere criticises so well.127 And it happens when he moves from the discernment of biblical myths to overtly theological categories, for he seems to give up his carefully crafted discernment of myths at the same time. Should not his arguments for human transcendence, and, indeed, his teleological atheism, also be subject to the suspicion that he casts over myths of servile obedience and the justification of earthly lords? For the danger of secularised theology is to replicate those patterns of ideological justification of power and authority so characteristic of theology itself.

Faith, hope, sin and death

Bloch continues to roll one theological category out after another, including faith, hope and sin. But the most intriguing are his thoughts on death. There is nothing all that new in his comments on faith and hope - openness to an undecided future characterised by discontented hope. Bloch's insistence on the notions of evil and the 'Satanic' within Marxism are welcome but, again, not particularly new. But his point is valid: with atheism God's protagonist and his allies disappear as well and evil becomes unidentifiable. Such a diminution, a reduction to psychological or economic causes, is evil's greatest triumph, for it can do its work unnoticed. So Bloch calls for a doctrine of evil within Marxism, one that recognises how trenchant the opposition may be to socialism.

But I am fascinated by his reflections on death, the most honest of any Marxist that I have seen. For Bloch, 'death depicts the hardest anti-utopia'.128

127 Moylan 1997, pp. 115-16.

128 Bloch and Adorno 1988, p. 9.

As 'a highly inadequate end, generally breaking, only very rarely rounding off, the human life',129 it saps the energy of anyone who sets out to change the world.130 Death is, as David Roberts pointed out to me in discussion, the point where any materialist position faces its hardest task. Eschewing a solution in a collective notion of continued life, Bloch distinguishes between the act of dying, which is itself part of life, and death as the resultant state. The former generates the odd apprehension, but the ontological status of death engenders sheer horror. So Bloch seeks a source of courage in the look forward to the Novum: death ought to be viewed as a departure, an open question. Interested in neither the 'positive dogmatism' of Christianity or a materialist 'dogmatic negativity', he comes out as an agnostic regarding death: the journey is simply an unknown, and anyone who attempts to say what actually takes place has another agenda. Rather than the traditional image of the resurrection to a new life or, indeed, the retrospection that immanent death produces, he stresses that death should be regarded as an open question for which we have no answers.131 Atheism, therefore, does not preclude the possibility of something beyond death, for 'the status viae lies far beyond death, which hardly represents an inflexibly formative status termini'.132

And yet, Bloch wants to do more than that, invoking the notion of 'life force [Lebensmuts]', a potential or capability for reaching beyond the limits of an

129 Bloch 1972, p. 249; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 329; see also the discussion in Bloch 2000, pp. 255-66; Bloch 1985, Volume 3, pp. 318-31.

130 In their fascinating discussion, 'Something's Missing', Adorno also argues that one of the key questions for a utopian consciousness is the possibility that people no longer have to die (Bloch and Adorno 1988, p. 8).

131 So also Adorno in the discussion with Bloch: 'I believe that without the notion of an unfettered life, freed from death, the idea of utopia, the idea of the utopia, cannot even be thought at all____There is something profoundly contradictory in every utopia, namely, that it cannot be conceived at all without the elimination of death; this is inherent in the very thought. What I mean is the heaviness of death and everything that is connected to it. Wherever this is not included, where the threshold of death is not at the same time considered, there can actually be no utopia. And it seems to me that this has very heavy consequences for the theory of knowledge about utopia - if I may put it crassly: One may not cast a picture of utopia in a positive manner. Every attempt to describe or portray utopia in a simple way, i.e., it will be like this, would be an attempt to avoid the antinomy of death and to speak about the elimination of death as if it did not exist. That is perhaps the most profound reason, the metaphysical reason, why one can actually talk about utopia only in a negative way, as is demonstrated in great philosophical works by Hegel and, even more emphatically, Marx'. Bloch and Adorno 1988, p. 10.

132 Bloch 2000, p. 265; Bloch 1985, Volume 3, p. 330.

individual life. It is, in other words, 'the courage to break free from this devil's guesthouse, this world'.133 Human beings can come close to this potential only in a utopian, i.e. socialist environment where the as yet unimagined social and economic conditions will enable human transformation. This, in fact, runs close to Marx's notion of species essence and the transformation of that essence in communism. In the end, Bloch provides here a materialist translation of another theological concept - resurrection. Eternal life, then, may be understood not as an answer to death but as the 'deep presence of something that has not yet appeared'.134

The weaker version of this necessary but astonishing effort to deal with death would be that human beings contain within them a utopian desire, and the value of religions like Christianity is that they have tapped into this. However, I suspect that Bloch pushes towards a stronger version, in which a collective socialist transformation that has not yet arrived will provide the context for the realisation of such a life-force, a society that was itself brought about as the result of that life-force. Of course, there are a pile of questions -will people still long for a greater transformation? Is such a life-force itself not generated by the religions in question? And so on - but what interests me is the effort to transform a theological category into a viable historical-materialist category.

Most commentators have been nonplussed by all the discussion of death and life-force. Geoghegan feels that he shuffles about too much, while Roberts suspects that Bloch must rely on some form of religious mystery.135 As I have argued, Bloch's arresting move is to argue that atheism does not necessarily mean that death is final, and conversely that religion does not have a monopoly on death. He is, in the end, agnostic on the question of the fate of the individual after death.

What we have, then, in the final two chapters of Atheism in Christianity, is a brief systematic theology that seeks 'to inherit those features of religion which do not perish with the death of God'.136 Yet what Bloch wants is not the abolition of Christianity within Marxism, but a mutually transforming alliance in some utopian future. An 'alliance between revolution and Christianity', the

133 Bloch 1972, p. 252; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 332.

134 Ibid.

135 Roberts 1987, especially p. 108.

136 Bloch 1972, p. 266; Bloch 1985, Volume 14, p. 347.

'table of labor' and the 'table of the Lord'137 on the model of the peasant wars, would enable a Christianity in touch with its origins in religious freedom and a Marxism in touch with its roots.138

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