Thoughts on Reading Bloch’s Atheism in Christianity over Christmas

As I am preparing to teach a slightly different version of my class on suffering and abstraction that uses the Book of Job as our guide, I am reading through some literature that I plan to assign for small groups to present to the class. Trying to catch that right balance between something they can actually begin to grapple with and that pushes them further than they have in terms of their interlocuters. One of the texts early on that seemed it may be interested Ernst Bloch’s Atheism in Christianity, and so after reading through sections of it a few months back I decided to pull his section on Job with a few pages from “Biblical Criticism as Detective Work” for one of the groups. I decided to take the book with me as I visit various family locales over the holiday in the hopes it may help me keep my sanity. (It is a strange, discontinuous experience to read about the radical message of Christ while Focus on the Family Radio plays in the background broadcasting some vulgar culture war feculence.) And, as nearly everyone who has recommended it over the years suggested it would be, the book has been very interesting moving with seemingly effortless ease along the vast history of Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism, and atheism. Still, I have been unnerved by the book at various points, in part the way the history of atheism in Christianity is presented in a universal way. Of course Bloch isn’t making simplistic claims about the progression of history and of course his presentation of history is one of antagonism. But there still seems to me in the text to be a fundamental continuity between everything presented and a number of valuations that I have had trouble following Bloch on. (Much of what I am claiming in here will be too quick and I am sure Bloch scholars could add some nuance or correct me on a number of points. I also make no claims to originality here.)

Perhaps my discomfort can be best encapsulated in a discussion of the opening epigraph: “Only an atheist can be a good Christian; only a Christian can be a good atheist.”
I’m tempted to simply respond to that with, “Yeah, exactly”, but that does zero interesting theoretical work. So, what exactly about Bloch’s theoretical system leads him to make such an unequivocal statement? Why is it that Christianity and atheism are taken as “good”? The Marxist Bloch sounds a great deal like Karl Barth when he writes, also in the epigraph, “Religion is re-ligio, binding back. It binds its adherents back, first and foremost, to a mythical God of the Beginningin, a Creator-God. So, rightly understood, adherence to the Exodus-figure called “I will be what I will be,” and to the Christianity of the Son of Man and of the Eschaton, is no longer religion.” What leads Bloch, with his Jewish heritage, to this affirmation of supercessionism and to see Christianity as part of a necessary dialectic with atheism for the production of hope? I say necessary because of the use of the “only” in Bloch’s statement. Why “only”? Well, because, like Barth claims, only Christianity overcomes itself as religion meaning that Bloch’s Marxism retains no place for religious consciousness beyond symptom and may engage with Christianity on the basis of its fundamentally a-religious status.

While he claims that, “The best thing about religion is that it makes for heretics” (again from the epigraph), he appears to prize what we could term “insider-heretics” and the play of institution with these insider-heretics that form a productive dialectic. Perhaps because of Peter Thompson’s interesting introduction to the book, I began to see connections between Alain Badiou’s engagement with Christianity and Bloch’s. Like Badiou, Bloch appears to side with the councils over the heretics who were anathematized and turned into outsider-heretics. This shows an interesting tension to the book, since Bloch sees a separation between the institutional form of Christianity (as religion) and the radical form of Christianity (no longer religion), but these councils are always part of the institutional makeup. I took this as the manifestation of the common tension in leftist theory of revolution where the question is always one of a complete overturning of everything, such that the revolution would bring about totally novel coordinates upon which we would evaluate everything and that vision of revolution that wonders if it wouldn’t be a good idea to keep some of the structures of the former regime; “ACAB” vs. “We may need cops after the revolution” or “The university must be overthrown as an alienating force” vs. “The university provides an important site of the development of revolutionary conciousness” or even “Universal health care is part of the tyranny of capitalism” vs. “It might be a good idea to keep everyone’s medical records” (to choose some examples that show the complicated reality of this tension). It is interesting to me that, while I would think Bloch’s account of utopia and hope points towards a kind of Maoist total revolution, his thinking on religion and the valorization of institutional-heretical Christianity suggests a kind of nostalgia and fidelity to a Leninist-Stalinist conception instead.

Perhaps what moves Bloch to this position is the way he values the incarnation as the central dogma of Christianity. The incarnation is often what Christians think is distinctive about their monotheism and makes Christianity superior to both Judaism and Islam (if only theoretically). Here we see a valorization, both Bloch and many Christian theologians claim, of the material world. For Bloch, of course, this is a kind of war upon transcendence, while for many of the Christian thinkers they still want to affirm that the value of the material world comes from God as the Other who bestows the value. This is an important difference, but it allows Bloch to make common cause with orthodox Christians in denouncing Gnosticism and Paganism. If I were to try and develop these ideas more I would need to focus on the way Bloch and orthodox Christianity has presented Docetism. Docetic Christology is common to both Gnosticism and Islam and yet the terms of Docetism for most scholars are still set by Christianity. Perhaps what is needed is a study that brackets the orthodox heresiology of Docetism and investigates the theory of matter present there. I suspect it is far from the usual presentation of Gnostic ideas as “flesh is icky; spirit is great”. (Though, as an aside, I did appreciate Bloch’s attempt to defend Marcion against the usual lazy charge of anti-Semitism that is caught up in the Christian presentation of Gnosticism as “way worse anti-Semities”.)

One last perhaps; perhaps it all comes down to the Marxist understanding and faith in history. For Bloch hope happens in history and the idea of history we have seems to follow a very Christian logic of conversion (as Daniel Barber is working out). The now must be sacrificed to the future, the future must be created out of the present, there must be a victory: “Communism will win.” Again, I know that Bloch’s theory of history isn’t so naively progressivist, but is it simply a toothless progressivism wrapped up in the language of hope? How’s all that hopey-changey stuff working out for us?

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4 Responses to “Thoughts on Reading Bloch’s Atheism in Christianity over Christmas”

  1. Alex Says:

    Quite appreciate your calling on his gnomic yet irritatingly good phraseology of the Christian-atheist line. Its one of those things that seems so neat that it resists nitpicking, but that is entirely necessary because a simple step back will reveal that it is worryingly vapid on analysis. The only, as you say, is particularly troublingly supersessionist and quickly throws all other religiosities under the bus, even when some of them began as more formally anti-transcendence. I’m thinking here of, say, Buddhism which, though obviously variable, found recourse to explicitly atheistic arguments (the denial of a creator God) early in its history (for example, Dharmakīrti), as well as indifference to such matters by its founder (focussing on the more primary reality of suffering). Dharmakīrti is an interesting example, because his attacks on the metaphysics of Brahmanism were also direct attacks on the caste system as being naturalised by those metaphysics.

    The relation to Barth reminds me of the quote about his reading of religion I highlighted a while back “The parochialism and abject ignorance of the advocates of the Barthian position is not only embarrassing, it is offensive to the dignity of the spiritual and religious lives of literally billions of fellow human beings”. Nice.

  2. Dave Says:

    Thanks for these thoughts–I don’t have too much to add, because I’m unfamiliar with this particular text. However, I don’t think the association of Bloch’s idea of hope with Obama is very fair. I’m pretty ambivalent about even Bloch’s conception of hope, because I don’t think there’s any reason to hope, but if you have never read it before, I highly recommend an extended conversation he had with Adorno that is published in a Bloch text called The Utopian Function of Art and Literature. The conversation is called “Something’s Missing: A Conversation between Ernst Bloch and Theodor Adorno on the Contradictions of Utopian Longing.” Roland Boer recommended it to me a few years ago and I’m still convinced that it’s up there among important first generation Frankfurt school texts. It’s publication date is quite interesting, too, given that it’s been relatively ignored. It took place right around the same time of Habermas’ first significant publications.

    This may be a needless nitpick, given that you are working through the religious material in Bloch and needed some way to end the post, but I’m not convinced that Bloch’s idea of hope can be collapsed into this idea of sacrificing the now for the future. I haven’t worked this out because I haven’t read the major texts on hope either, but at least in the text that I’m talking about, both Bloch and Adorno are pretty adamant that when the idea of utopia is thrown into the mix, what is essential is a critique of the present, and quite decisively not some kind of thing where the present is sacrificed for the future. There’s also a Spinozist rejection of teleology. It sounds like there are some significant problems with the religious material here, and I have my own problems with some of the stuff on utopia, but wanted to pipe up in some rejection of your last paragraph, as well as make a plea for people to track down this conversation and read it.

  3. Anthony Paul Smith Says:

    Sure, you are right that the ending is too clever by half. I did not mean to suggest any real connection between Bloch and Obama though. I suppose I’m not seeing a complete rejection of teleology in the work though, present in the vaporization of the Church (over the vanquished or other discursive traditions) and secularization (coming out of the dialectic of Church/insider-heretic). But will try to track down the conversation.

  4. Dave Says:

    Fair enough, it does sound like there are some problems with teleology in terms of his appropriation of Christianity, though it sounds like it’s more complex than the usual left theorists engagements. I have a bad version of the text that’s all marked up if you can’t track it down. Specifically what I mean is that Bloch think that there is no such thing as a utopia without multiple goals because there is no teleology in history. I don’t know if he talks about utopia in Atheism in Christianity–it doesn’t sound like it–but the way I would see it playing out is that he would place the religious utopia alongside other utopias (scientific, medical, technological, etc) and not give pride of place to it. Regardless of this, it sounds like there’s the usual privileging within his engagement with religion, so I realize that my comments are coming at a side angle.

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