1. I’m a philosophy major, so this is me trying to understand different philosophies and their relationship to Christianity. This is also me exploring any rabbit trails these philosophers set me off on. As such, any and all conclusions here are entirely tentative. To borrow a phrase, the only thing I’m certain of is that I’m not certain.
2. This isn’t necessarily responding to Marxism itself. It’s more taking one critique that Marx levied against protestantism and religion and thinking theologically about that.
3. Also, the priest does not represent me. The priest represents potential responses I could see someone making.
4. And finally, I don’t know what’s up with this church, but whatever.
Karl Marx walks into St. Cornerstone’s Church of the First Baptist. It’s set up like a super cool contemporary church, with lights and cool music, but he sees the priest–yes, priest–approaching him in full robes. He would wonder what sort of a denomination this church is a part of, but he’s too busy thinking about all the alienated labor the building represents.
Priest: Karl, I didn’t expect to see you here.
Marx: Neither did I.
Priest: You know, I’ve been reading some of your work lately. It’s been very interesting.
Marx: Oh really? What part.
Priest: Well, I just finished up “On the Jewish Question.” I had many questions of my own as a result.
Marx: I’m surprised you read it. It does, after all, critique religion quite intensely.
Priest: You’re right, it does. But I’m curious about the critique. I actually found myself mostly in agreement with it and yet, well, I’m still here at church, preaching, doing the sacraments, and doing other priestly things.
Marx: Then I don’t think you’ve fully understood the critique. To preach religion is to ask men to see themselves primarily as individuals. Protestantism specifically has turned man inward to focus on his own guilt before some sort of God. It then portrays salvation as an individual salvation that reconciles one to God and demands moral behavior as a result. But such a theology reduces man to an individual, taking him out of his species-life.
Priest: I actually don’t necessarily disagree with any of that. I would just want to expand your understanding salvation.
Marx: I’m listening.
Priest: Well, let me start with a question. From your perspective, what is the solution to this religious problem?
Marx: We have to see people primarily on a species level. We are all part of political communities and this political being, this communal, social being in a relationship not only with ourselves but also with others, is who we really are. We have to realize that we can only be ourselves, only realize ourselves, in a political community. Religion refuses to allow this, instead making the individual’s personal spiritual relationship with the Divine the focus, rather than their species-life.
Priest: Well, I’m not entirely sure. I think the Bible sees an individual’s personal spiritual life as one part in a much larger fabric that is the reconciliation of the entire cosmos with itself and with God.
Marx: How so?
Priest: Well, think about the storyline of the Bible. It’s interesting that the Bible doesn’t ever let us think that people are primarily individuals. In fact, one of the first lessons the Bible teaches us is that we are irreducibly social beings. Adam, after all, had to find another human before he could cure his loneliness.
Marx: But then it immediately turns the focus inward onto the guilt of the individual!
Priest: Well, not quite. Genesis 3 shows a rupture in the entire community. The community, at that point, is revealed to be not just Adam and Eve, but Adam, Eve, God, and even nature itself. How? The ground is cursed and will now resist Adam as a result of Adam’s sin. Adam and Eve are separated and start blaming each other. God is separated from all of them. Right at the start, sin is presented not fundamentally as the incurring of guilt but as the fracturing of a relationship. After all, the punishment for Adam and Eve isn’t that they now have to feel bad about themselves, or that there’s a legal sentence passed against them, it’s that they’ve been cast out of a perfect relationship with nature (Eden), a perfect relationship with one another (Cain and Abel), and a perfect relationship with God. There are aspects of personal guilt, but the guilt is actually a manifestation of a deeper problem. If we experienced harmony with everything as we ought we wouldn’t be guilty or experience guilt.
Marx: You seem like you’ve removed any guilt at all from this.
Priest: Also not quite. See, this is where personal guilt comes in. Individually, we can all contribute to this alienation from each other, the environment, and God by sinning. Sin ruptures communities and sins are committed by individuals. These sins do incur guilt.
Marx: And see, this is where religion goes. The fundamental problem is always the individual.
Priest: You have a point. I’m still tempted to say no, though I’m walking out on a limb here. The fundamental problem could actually be seen as a refusal to recognize our embededness in community and our need for others. So, for example, Genesis 3 displays two human beings, in perfect harmony with themselves, each other, the environment, and God heading out on their own to find what will give them individual pleasure and satisfaction. They refuse to find themselves in a perfect relationship with God and a perfect relationship with everything else. They refuse to find self-realization in community, and instead look to something individual to solve this.
Marx: So salvation is the community. That’s my point.
Priest: Here’s where I definitely have to disagree with you. I think the mistake you make is by assuming that humanity’s individual life is the problem but their species-life is basically fine. But communities themselves can be ruptured.
Marx: But as you said, they’re ruptured by seeing ourselves as individuals.
Priest: And so for communities to be healed that individual sin (guilt) has to be healed. That’s not the end goal. That’s a step along the way. The perfect community isn’t salvation, the perfect community is what we would call heaven.