For some time, I’ve been ambivalent about religion. Growing up in an evangelical church, and then attending a reformed college means a lot of my ‘emotional DNA’ is composed of something vaguely religious, although it’s a bit different than the typical story involves. Unlike Stephen Daedalus, my upbringing didn’t involve being forced to learn Greek or Hebrew to read the bible in the original; in fact, the bible hardly came up at all. Instead, youth group was more a series of morally-angled hangout sessions and activities. Biking and camping traps split up the occasional charity work or mission trips. Bible study sessions deserve quotation marks around them, since it was usually only the leader who had their bible with them; the rest of us were there to watch whatever game was on, eat and chill together. Still, in spite of the supposed lax approach to religion I was raised with, and even though I comfortably describe myself as an atheist, I remain haunted by my own spirit. Something about religion continues to resonate with me, and in ways that continue to surprise me and catch me off guard. Finishing Roland Boer’s Criticism of Earth, I felt as if I’d seen something of myself in a mirror composed of the myriad of footnotes to Marx and Engels’ collected works. It also reflected a thread that quietly ran through my own book I’d written a couple years prior (Dozeman 2020).
The fourth volume in a five-volume series on the relationship between Marxism and Christianity, Criticism of Earth goes straight into the heart of the question, thoroughly documenting for 300 pages all of Marx and Engels’ engagement with religion. Boer’s goal is not to force the two together in any sort of shotgun marriage, but to understand the process of the two of them wrestling with religion. Contemporary Marxists might see any reference to religion on the part of Marx and Engels to be an outdated reflection of their time, simply speaking in the language they had available. This is partly true, but misses the actual richness of historical context, since 19th century Germany was flush with Biblical criticism. In fact, it was arguably the primary mode of intellectual engagement and exploration, and it was this milieu that would give rise to much of contemporary hermeneutics a century later in figures such as Heidegger and Gadamer. Speaking of major German intellectuals in the 19th century, Boer writes
While the French radicals either rejected it and its institutions or developed a rather Christian form of communism, and while the radicals in England tended to slide from religious dissent to deism (with a good dose of anti-establishment polemic against the Church of England), in a Germany still saturated with the pietistic revival of the 1810s and 1820s as well as the well-known German backwardness in economics and politics, German intellectuals could hardly avoid fighting their battles with and through theology. More specifically: they waged furious controversies over the Bible, especially the New Testament and its Gospels. In short, the stories about Jesus in the Gospels were political gunpowder, precisely because political and ecclesiastical power hinged on this figure. To offer an immanenet analysis of these texts, one that made no reference to God as cause or agent, was a fundamental challenge to the structures of power which relied on transcendent justification. So the Bible was the terrain of battle for the knot of political struggles in the nineteenth-century Germany – over the state, politics, freedom of the press, secularism, immanence and transcendence, reason and religion. (11).
As an example, Boer gives us a short history of David Friedrich Strauss’ Das Leben Jesu proved to be a rather explosive text that was discussed well beyond the confines of Biblical criticism. Core to Strauss’ argument was that the Jesus story was a myth, which has the double-meaning of being both factually false while also being “a poetic expression of deeper truths that cannot be expressed in any other form.” (16). While a rather banal view today (especially in the wake of its popularization by figures such as Joseph Campbell), the text at the time proved to be a political bombshell, so much so that the books numerous editions show him trying to strike the right balance of subversion and safety (he was, after all, a professor in search of stable employment). Why did this text explode the way it did? Boer, following Marilyn Massey (1983), sees a radical democratic, anti-aristocratic thread running through the text, a thread that can help explain a lot of otherwise obscure German thinkers of the time (Losurdo 2019). In saying that Jesus was a sort of symbol that expressed obscure truths about the human condition in a more universal sense, Strauss would open a political Pandora’s box.
Not only did it’s undermining of any verifiable historical record of Jesus of Nazareth challenge the basis of both Protestant and Roman-Catholic assumptions about the Bible and Christianity, it also shook up the theological justifications for the hold of the old aristocracy on power and of the Prussian king himself. Even more, in developing a Christology in which the divine and human rested not with one man but with all humanity, Strauss was giving voice to a theological agenda with radical-democratic tendencies. Rather than God’s chosen ruler being, like Christ, a chosen individual, all may potentially rule. In short, Strauss attempted a reinterpretation of Christianity that questioned its cozy relationship with the power of the state. In making a shift from the heroic individual to the general community, ‘the potentiality seeming to belong only to one exalted human belonged, rather, to humanity itself.’ (Massey 1983, 79) Massey’s conclusion is that by ‘unmasking’ Christ not as the God-man of Christian doctrine but as the democratic Christ, as the one who shows that the human species itself is the embodiment of God-man, Strauss pointed to a model of popular sovereignty instead of the monarchy. (18)
It’s in this context that Marx and Engels’ pervasive interest in religion, theology and the bible gains a certain political relevance that can’t be quite as easily dismissed, especially as Boer finds throughout their correspondence references to many of these discussions, such as Engels’ 1939 remark that “I am now an enthusiastic Straussian” (21) I’d argue a similar dynamic was in play more recently with Kristin Kobes Du Mez and her Jesus and John Wayne (2020), a study in conceptions of masculinity and gender in American Evangelicalism that was, to put it lightly, controversial. The underlying dynamic is that texts ostensibly about niche topics turn out to be unwitting powder-kegs that embody larger social tensions and dynamics that are playing out.
With the stage set, Boer sets out to document the numerous references to the bible throughout their work. The first chapter deals with the numerous references throughout their shorter works, particularly their journalism, often invoking either scripture or the words of figures such as Luther to critique the church or state, poking at the moral contradictions of their times. Boer also finds in Marx and Engels’ early writings, The German Ideology, The 1844 Manuscripts, The Jewish Question and so on, a slow working out of their own historical materialist approach. The inversions and negations performed by Hegel and the young Hegelians are where Marx and Engels start to see how material conditions create the ideas that obscure those very conditions. So far so good, but what Boer also notes is that there’s also something subtle going on that will become a running theme throughout the rest of the investigation, and that’s what I’m particularly interested in teasing out. While it is easy to find Marx and Engels pointing out the reactionary nature of the clergy, the church and the (religious) state, and the occasional use of scripture to justify oppression and exploitation, the actual politics of the bible are a bit more ambivalent. What’s more, this ambivalence is something Marx and Engels occasionally stumble upon, albeit often accidentally in the form of unconscious slips that they either don’t notice or fail to follow up on.
While this ambivalence is present in the early chapters, it really blossoms in the final three chapters, chapter eight even being called ‘The Ambivalence of Theology.’ In it, we find discussion of an 1835 essay by Marx where he had to perform some exegesis on John 15 for a class assignment, as well as an 1842 article where he cites the bible to call attention to the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie. While in no case does Marx develop a liberation-theological approach here, we do find him wrestling with the political implications of the underlying theology in ways that Boer points out have echoes from throughout his later, more developed work, giving a biographical note to Marx’s later remark that “the criticism of heaven turns into criticism of earth.” (216)
More interesting is Boer’s analysis of Marx’s famous passage about religion as opium:
Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering but also the protests against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. (223; MECW III, 175)
The idea that religion is an opiate is a more complex metaphor than contemporary readers might assume, since it’s use was more commonly accepted in Marx’s time (even he used it). It’s widespread nature meant that there’s an ambiguity to Marx’s meaning to it, morally speaking. Following McKinnon (2006), Boer writes:
opium was the center of debates, defenses and parliamentary inquires, how it was used for all manner of ills and to calm children, how the opium-trade was immensely profitable, how it was one of the only medicines available for the working poor, albeit often adulterated, how it was a source of utopian visions for artists and poets, and how it was increasingly stigmatized as a source of addiction and illness. In effect, it ran all the way from blessed medicine to recreational curse. (224-5)
This all makes religions place in society far more ambiguous; it is simultaneously a sign and symptom of suffering, tied up in physical and economic suffering, while also being used by others as a source of creative vision. This ambiguity, for Boer, is also a part of religion as well. He brings a couple examples from Paul’s letters to argue his point about justification through faith, the word for justification, diakaioutai, has a certain ambiguity, since the justice normally thought to be supplied by the law is actually given as a gift from God (226). In other words, grace annuls the law, but there’s more ambiguity here. On the one hand, the anulment of the law by grace is something Paul sometimes backtracked on, a struggle that would be repeated by figures such as Calvin and Luther. Since grace annuls the law, it opens up a revolutionary democratic orientation, something that will not sit well with the ruling classes, so they have to roll back its implications a bit. This tension comes up in a number of ways, but the underlying point Boer is getting at is that these metaphors, along with various theological concepts, do not have a straightforward political meaning, revolutionary or reactionary, but instead are contradictory in nature. More crucially, Marx’s remark that “religion is a register of the theoretical struggles of mankind” (207) is materialized, since the theological tensions reflect material and political ones. Boer brings up the democracy of depravity and aristocracy of salvation as a leading example of the tension, (229) and leaves us hanging on whether grace is a destabilizing (and democratizing) event, or a reaffirmation of our society’s aristocratic structure.
The final two chapters deal with the late work of Engels, who grew up in a strict Calvinist background, one from which he would engage in a lifelong and “difficult process of self-exorcism.” (234) In these final pages of the book, we find numerous remarks and discussions throughout of spiritual matters that eventually culminate in Engels becoming an atheist, but never one completely disinterested with religion. Instead, quiet bridges between the two remain, such as in Engels’ response to Reverend F.W. Krummacher. A political radical in his earlier life, he often referred to his political activism as an element of his youth, something many an older moderate generally says about their younger days. Engels generally seems to agree with this idea of a break between youthful idealism and elderly moderation, but in other slips in his letters
Engels hints otherwise. Even though he seems to say that there is an unconscious return of this earlier life – Engels speaks of the former demagogy breaking through – he leaves open the possibility that there may in fact be some continuity between the earlier political radical and the later Calvinist preacher. But this is what one would expect for anyone who follows Calvin to some degree, for theer is a comparable tension in Calvin’s own thought, especially between what I termed earlier the democracy of depravity and the aristocracy of salvation. This moment in Engels’s ‘Letter from Wuppertal’ is, as far as I can tell, the first glimmer of an awareness that I have been uncovering in this chapter: the political ambivalence of Christianity itself. (283-4)
This glimmer would be fleshed out in many of Engels’ later explorations, whether on Muntzer’s peasant war in Germany or his later examinations of the book of Revelation. Regarding the former, another interesting slip happens. Engels wrote on the peasant war in Germany in around 1850, right after the failed revolution of 1848-50. While Engels was partly trying to understand how revolutions happen (or fail to), he was also interested in trying to understand the new communist movements broader context, how it was in its own way part of a continued effort for emancipation.
This is a delicate move, since Engels is all too aware that those earlier revolutions were inspired by the insurrectionary texts of the Bible. The advantage clearly lay in showing that the communists were not the new kids on the block, touting some new-fangled theory and practice that undermined the good old tradition. No, suggests Engels, for we have breathed life into the age-old aspirations of the downtrodden. The disadvantage is that such a move would undermine the determined efforts Marx and Engels had made to separate themselves from the theological trappings of earlier expressions of communism, which as they put it in the Manifesto, was nothing ‘but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat.’ (292)
Engels is then trying to navigate between two dangers, one of leaving the communists isolated from a longer history of class struggle, the other of being absorbed by other movements that might share certain aspirations but without the same understanding of how to go about it. In this way, similar to the remarks above, the turn towards religion becomes a way of working out a materialist approach to history. But further on, Boer catches Engels giving more credit to the politics of religion than he perhaps intends. Turning to Luther, we see someone of a peasant background going from a stormy radical to a more moderate reformer who ultimately sided with the nobility. (293) Given Engels’ own orientation, we can see this turning into a simple class-analysis, where religion is really just the ideas of the ruling classes, as they said almost a decade earlier in The German Ideology, but it’s not quite so simple. Engels writes
Luther had put a powerful tool into the hands of the plebeian movement by translating the Bible. Through the Bible he contrasted the feudalised Christianity of his day with the moderate Christianity of the first centuries, and the decaying feudal society with a picture of a society that knew nothing of the ramified and artificial feudal hierarchy. The peasants had made extensive use of this instrument against the princes, the nobility, and the clergy. Now Luther turned it against the peasants, extracting from the Bible such a veritable hymn to the God-ordained authorities as no bootlicker of absolute monarchy had ever been able to match. (296; MECW X, 419)
The point Engels is trying to convey is that Luther ultimately sided with the ruling classes, but slipped in is the idea that there is a betrayal which implies an original cause. As Boer puts it,
Engels’s intention is to show how Luther betrayed the peasants, but, in the precess, he lays bare, despite himself, the multivocality of the Bible...Elsewhere, he is keen to tie Luther in with the burghers and princes and to show the Muntzer was a radical agitator from the moment he first entered public life. It is convenient for Engel’s argument, but fails to appreciate that it was Luther who first fired up Muntzer’s imagination and anger. In other words, Luther’s own teaching and practice set Muntzer on his radical path. I would argue that Muntzer carried to its logical end one side of the political ambivalence Luther himself had discovered and then sought to close down. (296)
We see here again the theme of the political ambivalence of theology, capable of inspiring both revolution and reaction. Rather than give us an ultimate guide to life, the Bible is instead a reflection of the social antagonisms that produced it, and instead allows us to think those antagonisms so as to more clearly understand which side we might stand on.
It’s this ambivalence that really struck me as I was reading it. As someone who grew up in a Laodicean church, neither hot nor cold but lukewarm, my upbringing was defined by a personal struggle to take a side within certain social antagonisms. I didn’t grow up in one of the many reactionary churches that now populate the United States and went full-throttle for Donald Trump, but it’s engagement with social justice was scattered, limited, and apolitical. Mission trips and random charity work that tried to extend kindness but refused to think about the underlying conditions that made such work necessary in the first place. And yet the rhetoric I often heard struck a chord with me. There was still the sense that Christianity was something radical, a unique orientation that was in the world but not of it, a rejection of injustice and desire to be part of some sort of radical transformation. That underlying ambition, while disconnected from any serious program of transformation, cannot be eliminated, so it was simply turned into rhetoric with the occasional mission trip thrown in. But there was undeniably a deep aspiration to see justice that was planted in my by my churchgoing experience, one that would take some time to crystallize into a more fully-fledged communism. The relationship between my earlier upbringing and current political activism is ambiguous, but undeniably there, and occasionally confirmed by various texts, whether it be Marxist readings of the old testament (Boer 2017) or Paul as a critic of empire or debt (Stolze 2020) or creatively subversive readings of the Bible against certain power structures (Brueggemann (2014) or rethinking the ontological implications of God as love (Marion 2012) or that Jesus was the original deconstructor, and were he to come back today, his main target would be the church (Caputo 2007). While not all these texts were themselves revolutionary in their ultimate orientation (I am listing them roughly in order from most to least radical, although this is going to be another essay), all of them and more helped confirm my suspicion that the reactionaries had missed something in their own scattered readings of the Bible.
And yet, the reactionaries do read their Bible’s. There might be questionable hermeneutic methods in play, along with cherry-picking verses that suit their own needs, but the Bible does at times legitimate oppression and marginalization, and while it does demand we fight for justice, it isn’t always clear what exactly justice is. While I agree with the liberation theologian that there are revolutionary elements in the bible, and that a life led in the service of political revolution may be a legitimate response to God’s calling the dead as if they were alive (Romans), I am not convinced that revolution is the core of Christianity, as some such as Zizek or Sloterdijk do. It can serve revolution, but also reaction (some might say it can serve moderation, but moderation is always only reaction in moderate dress).
And it’s this ambivalence that I so appreciated in Boer’s analysis, where he refrained from taking a firm stance about the Bible’s politics and instead let the ambivalence and ambiguities stand and haunt. Part of this was no doubt because he would offer his own final analysis in his final book in the series (Boer 2014), but the ambivalence had a deeper resonance with me for another reason. I’m on record saying that textual ambiguity, a refusal to answer the very questions a text raises, can actually in its own way be revolutionary, since it leaves space for the reader to then engage in self-examination, the text merely giving them scaffolding that they are then able to work from. Boer’s text delivers a uniquely clear ambiguity, and that is to the texts credit. The personal is indeed political, but in the case of Christianity and Marxism, the relationship between the two is fragmented, indirect and inconsistent. While reactionaries would have it that the two are completely separate islands, and the liberation theologians would say that the islands are actually two parts of the same island, I would instead say that the two are separate islands that throw out ideas and inquiries scrawled on old paper and placed in bottles. Currents and storms carry them around, and many don’t return, but occasionally something shows up on the shores of each that connects in a surprising way. Since becoming an atheist, I’ve sometimes felt I was finally free of emotional shackles and illusions, that I was finally able to start living my true life, but the reality has been more complicated. Instead, religion has showed up even in the supposedly secular texts I was reading, a verse here or mention of God there, often illuminating both my present and past, where I was wrestling with the tensions and antagonisms I felt, psychological reflections of the world that surrounded me. I have no plans to leave revolutionary politics or return to church anytime soon, but the book did help me at least understand why these two segments of myself are so prone to conversing with each other, and if that conversation turns out to be mutually enriching for both sides, I won’t be terribly surprised.
Boer, Dick 2017. Deliverance from Slavery: Attempting a Biblical Theology in the Service of Liberation. Translated by Rebecca Pohl. Chicago: Haymarket.
Boer, Roland 2013. Criticism of Earth: On Marx, Engels and Theology. Chicago: Haymarke
--- 2014. In the Vale of Tears. Chicago: Haymarket.
Brueggemann, Walter 2014. Ice Axes for Frozen Seas: A Biblical Theology of Provocation. Waco: Baylor University Press.
Dozeman, Stephen 2020. Being Possible. Eugene: Resource Publications.
Du Mez, Kristin Kobes 2020. Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. New York: Liveright.
Caputo, John 2007. What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Postmodernism for the Church. Grand Rapids: Baker.
Losurdo, Domenico 2019. Nietzsche, the Aristocratic Rebel: Critical Biography and Balance Sheet. Translated by Gregor Benton. Leiden: Brill.
Marion, Jean-Luc 2012. God Without Being: Hors-Texte (2nd edition). Translated by Thomas Carlson. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Massey, Marilyn 1983. Christ Unmasked: The Meaning of The Life of Jesus in German Politics, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
McKinnon, Andrew 2006. “Opium as Dialectics of Religion: Metaphor, Expression and Protest,” in Marx, Critical Theory, and Religion: A Critique of Rational Choice. Edited by Warren Goldstein. Leiden, Brill.
Stolze, Ted 2020. Becoming Marxist: Studies in Philosophy, Struggle, and Endurance. Chicago: Haymarket.