Welcome to my Crisis; or, Marx, Labour and Religion

After my father died, a couple of years ago, we had a fairly standard Anglican funeral for him in our local church. One of the things that struck me was how little the words spoken and the symbols affected me. No, I’m not pretending to be The Outsider. There was plenty of mixed up grief on show. But I did wonder if the traditional formulae about the resurrection – not to mention the eulogy’s equally traditional standard Anglican vague hope for ‘something’ beyond death – would either console me or get me angry. In fact, they did neither. They just passed me by.

Fast forward to a week or so ago, and I found myself, probably for the first time since that day, robed in an alb and stole, a guest preacher at an Anglican service. I’ve been involved in (some might say, clinging on to) a liberal church near the centre of Liverpool for some time. But my own church has no sermons, and, though I have occasionally presided at communion, I’ve been able to almost forget (or deny) that I am, in fact, an ordained priest.

Now, some small events have brought the memory of my father’s funeral back, right at the time I publicly step into an ordained role, however briefly. And it leaves me wondering: what the hell am I doing?

I hope readers will forgive the personal nature of how this post begins. I am really not trying to privilege my own, very limited experience. But my existential question is inseparable for me from things that obsess me academically too. When providence has died, when consolation in transcendence has cooled, what do we do with religion?

It was in this context that I was struck by remarks made by Richard Seymour, the Marxist writer, in a Facebook thread discussing his blog post on the niqab. Someone brought up Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, and Seymour replied:

‘Let me see: religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the spirit of spiritless conditions; it is the opiate of the masses. This seems to me to be, not the end of analysis but a good starting point for a materialist approach to religion. And if I start from a materialist approach, I have to look into religion not as a set of texts or static interpretations, but as a body of practices wherein people craft meanings and labour over ideas to make them adequate to their real life. Most religious people, I am willing to bet, are not devotees of scripture; they have a lived theology that is acquired from sermons, selective readings of this or that text, and wrought into some form that gives them a lived relationship to their social world. But even those who are devotees of scripture are engaged in an act of interpretation and labouring over meanings. The texts themselves are too indeterminate to provide a ‘true’ interpretation. (Notably, the only people who strongly believe otherwise are ‘fundamentalists’ and Islamophobes.)’

I also think this is a really promising ‘starting point’ for a materialist, but non-reductionist approach to religion: as a way of labouring over meaning, faced with the finitude of our flesh and blood condition. It is why – despite sharing much in common with Seymour’s outlook (we are both members of a socialist network which broke with the Trotskyite Socialist Workers’ Party over the latter’s cover-up of rape allegations against a leading member, but that’s another story!) – I still practice within a religious tradition. No doubt many Marxists and others would find this self-deluded or nostalgic, but I disagree.

As Adam’s post argued, Marxism need not be an economic determinism, but an attempt to open up radically different choices than those dictated by the logic of scarcity. Those choices will always have a taint of madness, of running up against limits and inventing ways forward. In that sense, I don’t think the way Derrida opened up the spectral nature of Marxism – and its implicit messianicity and religiosity – has ever adequately been addressed. At the time, it resulted in some pretty stupid reactions by academic Marxists, and a rather barbed response from Derrida. Renewing that conversation might help us avoid some of the soul-deadening technocracy or banal empiricist attachment to the one ‘truth’ which many churches and socialist groups are partial to.

No, I am not saying ‘Marxism is a religion’, which would be another boring reductionism. Rather, that thinking Marxism and religion together – and, for some of us, practising them together – might be a way of exploring, beyond consolation, what grace bodies can invent.

5 Responses to “Welcome to my Crisis; or, Marx, Labour and Religion”

  1. Gabriel Thomas Says:

    Since you begin with thoughts and feelings embedded in a personal narrative—in the biographical, you might say—perhaps it wouldn’t be inappropriate to respond (echo?) through something else biographical. Derrida, for instance, surfaces near the end of your post and in your closing suggestion (“a way of exploring, beyond consolation, what grace bodies can invent”) I hear something that recalls me to a moment in Benoît Peeters’ Derrida (2010; trans. 2013).

    In a letter of 1951 to his dearest friend at the time, Michel Monory, Derrida remarks to this very Catholic young man, who happens to be away on a retreat: “As so often, I wish I could do the same as you. But I can’t. […] [A]bove all, because I would…be too weak, if am not too anxious, not to transform prayer, silence, achieved peace, hope, and meditation into spiritual comfort; and even if this comfort would be the end (the conclusion and the goal) of a dreadful torment, I don’t feel and will probably never feel that I have the right — if prophecy isn’t stupidity in a case like this — to accept it” (Peeters 50).

    I find myself drawn to this demure refusal. Derrida worries that he’ll turn religion into “spiritual comfort,” which is a gesture both saintly and perplexing. “Saintly” because it subordinates the “comfort” of religion to the practices of religiosity; it values the work of prayer and meditation, the achievements of peace and hope, over an acceptance of relief from even “dreadful torment.” Yet “perplexing” because, while in the hagiographical tradition of the Catholic “Saint” this subordination, ultimately, consists in a subordination to the Will of the Father (accepting rather than expecting), I have the impression that Derrida has already moved beyond thinking about God or Divinity. In which case, what harm could there be in a little “spiritual comfort” that is without substance, without final reality?

    Perhaps, it is the “spiritual” that disturbs him. Perhaps, religion (Catholicism, here), in all its diverse practices and achieved states, should remain separate from certainties and “consolation”—from “comfort,” in a word. Which leaves me, I know, where you began. But this has been my starting place for thinking this sort of thing. And I suppose it raises one of the risks of such movement practically before such movement has gotten on its way: Will we always be “too weak,” finally, not to transform religion into consolation? Isn’t the task of religion, in some respects, precisely this relief from torment?

  2. Steven Shakespeare Says:

    Thanks Gabriel – I wasn’t aware of that letter. I would guess that, for Derrida, the idea of comfort or consolation would still be haunted by presence, or a divine presence – it would be a kind of salvation, where salvation meant keeping the body and soul safe, secure, pure. At the same time, of course, Derrida is aware of the other side of slavation: the ‘salut’, or address to the other, and the risk this involves to any identity.

    That aside, looking back on what I wrote, it strikes me that I can tend to romanticise a kind of asceticism, as if lack of consolation had some intrinsic value. In reality, I am no enemy of comfort, and, God knows, enough people urgently want relief from real torment. However, I’d still want to be conscious of this as a process of ‘labouring over meanings’, not solely a passive reception of the divine (which is often another gesture of self-sacrifice). An active consolation, through solidarity rather than escape.

  3. The Desire Called Gerry Healy Says:

    Steven, is it not indicative of the broader decline into political irrelevancy of British Marxism that today’s Trotskyists cannot even orchestrate a rape crisis and coverup properly? I’ll save you the “why-in-my-day-isms” but in my day such things were not carried out like a summer conference of the Young Liberal Democrats.

  4. Steven Shakespeare Says:

    I know. We didn’t even get diversionary show trials. Oh, hang on . . .

  5. Mike Grimshaw Says:

    Steven
    perhaps the way is that which i term- out of engagement with Vattimo’s weak thought and his marxist engement with religion- an Italian hermeneutics. In this we are somewhere between Ignacio Silone’s ‘christian without a church and communist without a party’ and Benedetto Croce’s “we cannot not call ourselves christian.’
    what we seek is the enacting of what can be termed materialist grace, a universal materialist grace that occurs as emancipatory action and thought, that takes as its starting point the idea that relgion is the claim of an alternative to what is.


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