The following review of Ernst Bloch's Atheism in Christianity comes to us from Dr. William Keenan, who is Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences, Nottingham Trent University. He has published extensively on aspects of culture and beliefs and is currently engaged in research projects on atheism and on art.
Atheism in Christianity: The
Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom
With an Introduction by Peter Thompson
Translated by J. T. Swann
ISBN: 978 1 84467 394 0 Ppk
ISBN: 978 1 84467 371 1 Hbk
Since its original publication in 1968, Ernst Bloch's Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom has been the book to deal with by any serious quester after knowledge of the deep symbiotic relationship between those über-'Others', Christianity and Atheism. As an unabashed utopian Marxist thinker, Bloch (1885 - 1977) eschews that 'excess of hyper-rationalism or dogmatic materialism' his more prosaic atheist stable mates generally bring to discussions of religion. In the words of Peter Thompson, Director of the Centre for Ernst Bloch Studies at the University of Sheffield, in his excellent Introduction to this long unavailable classic, 'Ernst Bloch and the Quantum Mechanics of Hope' (i – xxx, i):
(R)eligion as both debate and way of life has not crumbled in the face of an apparently inexorable rationalist, scientific, modernising Enlightenment and the globalisation of the market economy, but retains a potency and strength which remains far in excess of its ability to explain.
Bloch himself rubbed shoulders with that unique coterie of enlightened radical Marxists - Brecht, Adorno, Benjamin, for example. Perhaps we have the embryo of some such today in Eagleton, Badiou, Žižek, Habermas and others for whom religion-averse aggressive sorts of atheistic fundamentalism are as intellectually uncongenial as the 'exclusively modern phenomenon' (Habermas 2001: 10) of their religion counterparts. Marx's own dialectical understanding of religiosity, captured well in his open-minded insight into 'the opium of the masses, the heart of the heartless world' pervades Bloch's 'detective work', as he himself called it, on the emancipatory – for which, read 'heretical', a favourite Blochian trope – potential within Christianity. Bloch's exegesis of the Bible is an insider's hermeneutic, unlike that verstehen-free religion-cynical spleen of Hitchens, Dawkins, Gray and other high priests of resurgent Darwinism.
For Bloch, scripture is soaked through with hope-filled narratives of transgression that challenge the cold moralistic pieties and hot consumer excessess of the modern world driven by the Puritan ethic and its capitalist manifestations. Not only were Amos, Jeremiah and the psalmists of yore wont to sound war trumpets against greed and godlessness, Christ's life was a continual battle against systematic brutalization, exploitation and hubris, whether incarnated in, for instance, temple-franchised money lenders, pharasaical pride, or denial of the human rights of widows, prostitutes, lepers and the anawim of the earth. Before liberation theology, Bloch was. Before feminists picked up the revolution power in the peasant girl Mary's prayer, the Magnificat, with its promise that the Almighty will 'cast down the mighty from their seats … exalt the humble … send the rich away empty', Bloch was affirming the capacity, inbuilt within humanity since the Creation, to create Kingdom-life now, on earth.
As a thought mode, atheism is commonly understood to be radically different in domain assumptions from 'religion'. '(C)ompeting caliphates', Peter Thompson calls them (xiv). Bloch's approach is deeply imbued with his strong humanistic Marxist conviction that dogmatic forms of both atheism and church-orientated Christianity simply talk past each other in a dialogue of the deaf. His 'utopia of the light', as Bloch refers to it (p. 231), is, to borrow a Habermasian expresison, the 'ideal speech community' of the Enlightenment, not in the 'half-baked' (p. 7) compromised version found in 'rationalistic bourgeoise' (p. 8) contexts that fall short of his messianic vision of full-blooded participatory democracy in which all voices, including religious ones, might be heard and respected. He writes (p. 10): 'The Enlightenment, therefore, will be all the more radical when it does not pour equal scorn on the Bible's all-pervading healthy insight into man.'
Setting aside the somewhat outmoded sexist language in Bloch's expression here and leaving the matter of biblical 'health' to one side, an 'Amen' to that tolerant sentiment seems theologically and politically appropriate when pursuing a sense of atheism in a multi-faith world that would not take the form of an anti-religious knee-jerk reflex. Nevertheless, as we might expect of a believer but not a belonger, Bloch's nuanced analysis imports a pervasive anti-institutional religion refrain: 'the Church is the institution least founded on enlightenment' (p. 9). Bloch's desire for a 'processual' approach to the 'end of alienation', in critique of the 'programmatic' emphases of Heidegger, Bultmann and Barth, is to see 'an end to static metaphysics' (p.54). Writing in 1968, significantly enough, he remains pretty much silent on how the institutionalization of such logocentrism within anti-utopian – read, hope-less – forms of life wherever they be found are to be effectively contested.
Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom is a tough read, made so by the author's intellectual capaciousness and capacity to range cavalierly between the languages of theology, philosophy and critical theory of his times. Perhaps discursive modes, even thought styles, have moved on apace since the post-war period in which Bloch embarked on his courageous adventure to put the best fruits of Christianity and Marxism in the same basket. Though an Index would have been a useful resource in a book of such range and intricacy, the republication of this sparkling study is timely and sure to launch a new wave of interest in bridge-building – or bridge-destruction - either side of the religion-atheism gulf war. Bloch's approach is literary, elusive, lyrical and, at times, a tad, it must be said, lugubrious and long-winded. He does not provide a clear map of a road to reconciliation between Atheism and Christianity, the two great roaring beasts of the modern jungle. But that is not Bloch's intention in any case. Nor does his book necessarly help us re-examine the role of Marxism in the postmodern era. As a 'classic' it is too time bound for that. We need to read it in context. It maybe a tract more for its times than ours.
We do, however, obtain from the book what is of lasting value, namely, a sense that if we look for it we can rediscover within either of the caliphates of religion and atheism redemptive illumination and empowerment. Taken together, as Atheism in Christianity: The Religion of the Exodus and the Kingdom reaches out to do, there is potential for a new world in the making. This is a richly evocative, demanding book to think with about massively important matters at the heart of human culture. In a characteristic Blochian Christo-Marxian, therefore fully, radically dialectical, sentiment (Bloch 2009, p. 166):
(T)here seems to be quite as much love here for the oppressed as there is justice for the evil-doers and salvation for those who have been freed … the same apocalyptic light which shines with anger on the wicked also lights the way to the wedding feast of the elect.
In his novel The Enchantress of Florence, Salman Rushdie (2009: 55) has an interesting, ironic take on atheistic colonialization:
'If you were an atheist, Birbal, the emperor challenged his first minister, 'what would you say to the true believers of all the great relgions of the world?' Birbal was a devout Brahmin from Trivikrampur, but he answered unhesitatingly . 'I would say to them that in my opinion they are all atheists as well; I merely believe in one god less than each of them. 'How so?' the emperor asked' All true believers have good reasons for disbelieving in every god except their own,' said Birbal. 'and so it is they who, between them, give me all the reasons for believing in none.'
Habermas, J. (2001) Glauben und Wissen. Frankfurt am main: Suhrkamp.