Thursday, September 20, 2007

A thought from Karl Marx

I am up to my eyeballs in reading for my 15 hours of graduate classes this semester. In the midst of all the required reading, I am enjoying one book very much: Practical Theology: History, Theory, Action Domains, by Gerben Heitink, a Dutch theologian. Much of the volume is new information to me--truthfully, a whole new way of thinking about doing theology in dialogue with human and social sciences and other "practical" matters.

In one particularly interesting chapter on the impact of social concerns upon the church's theology, Heitink provides a brief survey the theories of Karl Marx in their Enlightenment context. I confess that I am largely ignorant of the primary sources related to Karl Marx. I have been dependent upon the evaluations of others, largely in the context of studying Latin American and feminist liberation theologies. The only phrases of Marxist literature I can quote to you are: "Religion is the opium of the people," and "Proletarians of all countries, unite!"

I was intrigued, therefore, to be able to read the first of those famous sayings in the context of Marx's larger argument. I have not thought it through completely, but I am not entirely sure that Marx doesn't have a point. I am not saying I'm sympathetic with his economic view of history or his proposed socialist system, but I do think he may have offered a meaningful criticism of what he perceives as "religion" in his day (even if he did so with different motives). Marx says:

"Indirectly the battle against religion is the battle against the world which has religion as its spiritual aroma. The religious misery is the expression of real misery, but also of a protest against this real misery. Religion is the sigh of the creature in distress, the soul of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless situations. It is the opium of the people. The abandonment of religion as illusory happiness requires the establishment of true happiness. If we require someone to give up his illusions about his situation, we demand that he give up the situation that makes the illusions necessary. The criticism of religion is thus, in its essence, the criticism of the valley of lament, which has religion as its aureole*."

It appears that Marx does not distinguish between forms of religion or expressions of religious faith. His answer to the problem of religious "opium" is to rid the people of the opium--"require someone to give up his illusions," meaning his illusions of God in general. I cannot agree or support this conclusion.

But, if I can find fault with some forms of "religion" as well (which I can), then there may be some room to agree with Marx in his condemnation of that which is only "illusory happiness." If I see "religion" as a substitute for genuine, reconciling, redeeming, life-transforming relationship with a loving God, then Marx is right: "Religion is the sigh of the creature in distress, the soul of a heartless world, as it is the spirit of spiritless situations. It is the opium of the people."

Contrary to Marx, however, I would suggest that it is necessary to purge ourselves and our congregations of the folk religions, unnecessary dogmas, and silly sacred cows that form a faulty basis for our own "illusory happiness." If we trade these "miseries" for Someone worth knowing and loving, then we will not be without our regular "valleys of lament," but rather than have religion as its "aureole*," we will have Jesus. That's something worth having, I think.

Despite the numerous faults in the socialist ideology Marx fathered, I think he may have stumbled across a truth in the midst of it all. What do you think?

*Aureole comes from the Latin word aureola, which means "golden crown" or "bright circle," or even "halo." Aureole may be used technically to refer to the corona, the gaseous envelope around the sun or other stars.


UnderMidnight said...

I cannot remember the qoute of his...something about you can get people to suffer all manner of indignity if they have the promise of heaven to look forward to.

So, for him, religion was a tool of the elite to get the working masses to exist in such dehumanized fashion, part of the superstructure I guess. Getting rid of religion would be destroying the system of control and freeing the people from a spiritual slavery.

UnderMidnight said...

I never responded to your asking what we think about Marx.

Marxism is a fantastic critical tool and I find it very useful in this respect. I first learned of Marxism properly in a literary theory class.
Walter Brueggemann's commentary on 1 and 2 kings uses a bit of a Marxist approach, which is really useful concerning the monarchy.

Concerning religion I think he is spot on and Christianity is not immune from severe indictment when it comes to having been used for ignoble purposes.

I don't think this is necessarily a problem with Christianity as it is a fact that tyrants understand the power of religion and how to use that power to their own ends.

Michael Westmoreland-White said...

I have often told people that Marx's "religion is the opium of the people" statement is true of certain types of religion, including much that calls itself evangelical Christianity.

Like Undermignight, I find much of Marx's analysis of capitalism and poverty and propaganda, etc. to be invaluable--though I do not buy into Marx's utopian solutions. I am a democratic socialist in economic philosophy.