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Encounter in Humanization: Insights for Christian-Marxist Dialogue and Cooperation by Paulose Mar Paulose

Bishop Paulose Mar Paulsoe prefers to call himself a "secular theologian" because he communicates the Christian faith in secular language. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary for a dissertation on Bonhoeffer’s corrective of Karl Marx. He was a Bishop in the Chaldean Syrian Church in Kerala, India and served as President of the World Student Christian Federation. Published by Christava Sahitya Samithy (CSS), Tiruvalla-689 101, Kerala, S. India. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 12: A Call For Dialogue

The purpose of this study has not been to erect a platform from which to defend Christianity or to hurl invectives at Marxists. Rather it is to seek ways which will give to all of us an opportunity to live in fellowship despite our differences, and to understand those differences in such a way that the fellowship can increase even though the differences do not decrease. The corrective we made of Marx’s critique of religion and the challenge we presented to Marxism are not meant to proclaim the superiority of Christianity, or to prove that Christianity is better equipped with solutions to human problems. They are intended to remind both Marxists and Christians how profound human life is meant to be in the providence of God, how we have fallen short in our attempts to reach that profundity, and how we might help each other to attain that profundity.

By examining Marx’s critique of religion optimistically and without prejudice we found that Marxists and Christians can agree, in spite of several disagreements, that both are ultimately concerned for true humanity, especially for the rights of the poor and needy, the hungry and hopeless; both could agree that they strive to be "true to the earth".1 We observed that Marx’s atheism is primarily an anthropological affirmation; it is another way of putting human being in the centre of human interest and concern. We also found that Marx’s critique of religion indeed helps us to awaken from our dogmatic slumber. By making a Bonhoefferian corrective of Marx’s critique of religion, we demonstrated that whatever the traditional interpretation or historical function of Christian faith may have been, its essential ingredients allow for a radical affirmation of the person’s this-worldly being. The essence of Christian faith is even consistent with unqualified commitment to revolutionary struggle in the name of human beings against the forces of alienation. This corrective also served the purpose of presenting to the church a new understanding of itself and of the autonomous modern world, and it reminded us what it means to be a Christian in the world come of age.

This renewed understanding of faith has serious implications for our encounter with Marxism. Conviction about one’s own beliefs does not necessarily involve condemnation of the beliefs of others. If one describes oneself as a Christian it would follow that one would ascribe validity of the substance of that faith. And if one is convinced of the validity of one’s beliefs one should be free to commend them to others, and correct the positions of others if necessary. This does not mean that we reject the being of the other person, but that we affirm humanity. Such freedom to hold to ones own beliefs, to give expression to them in characteristic forms, and to tell others about them ought to be the privilege of all human beings. This calls forth a dialogue between Marxists and Christians.

The Church’s renewed understanding of herself and of the world makes it possible for her henceforth to enter into dialogue with everybody, without abandoning her "claim to exclusiveness", . . . which previously seemed to make sincere dialogue virtually impossible in advance both for the world and for the Church.2

As far as the dialogue between Marxists and Christians is concerned, it is the affirmation of our faith which motivates, and which should motivate Christians to enter into dialogue. Our faith becomes more meaningful only when we live in encounter with fellow human beings. "The Church is the sacrament of dialogue, of communication between men."3 Dialogue is a way in which we express our humanity. Those who believe in a God who is living and active must hold that His spirit is present in all situations. They therefore enter into dialogue in expectation and hope; not solely or primarily for the conversion of the other. The Christian enters dialogue seeking enlightenment and enrichment as he or she probes more deeply into ‘the unsearchable riches of Christ’(Eph. 3:8).

The history of the past three decades will tell us that both Christianity and Marxism have come to a new awareness of their positions. Today the church is stripped of the secular support of the "Constantinian era". It is aware of its minority situation in society. Even in the so-called Christian countries of the West the serious impact of the current trend of secularization has placed the church in a minority situation. We can no longer be masters of society. Our service is a service of "Socratic evangelism". Christians may no longer act as those who know everything better, or as those who know all truth, but as those who help to find the truth. As midwives they help bring truth into being.4

This new awareness of the church, for which Bonhoeffer himself is partly responsible, has not become an ideology; it has taken the form of action. In many European countries the turning point in the church’s encounter with Marxism was World War II. In concentration camps and in resistance movements there was the possibility of common action and common suffering, of mutual respect and eventually of understanding. The Second Vatican Council contributed greatly in changing the climate and encouraging reconsideration of traditional positions of Christians and atheists. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical, Pacem in Terris, has taken into consideration the question of the church’s dialogue with the world.5 The council established the Secretariat for Non-believers which seek to enter into dialogue with all forms of atheism. In 1966 WCC’s Church and Society Conference of Geneva recommended a dialogue between Christians and advocates of non-Christian ideologies. In the conference report there is even a passage which will remind us Marx’s famous declaration, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." The conference affirmed that Christianity

remains a discipline which aims not at a theoretical system of truth but at action in human society. Its object is not simply to understand the world but to respond to the power of God which is recreating it. . . Christian theology is prophetic only in so far as it dares, in full reflection, to declare how, at a particular place and time, God is at work, and thus to show the Church where and when to participate in his work.6

These developments show that the church is vitally interested in the thoughts and problems of this world.

The church’s newfound openness has shattered the chains of the social order of Marx’s time. Marxist thinkers have well responded to these changes. When the death-of-God theology stormed the theological arena in the United States, Vitezslav Gardavsky, then a professor of Marxist philosophy at the Brno Military Academy in Czechoslovakia, challenged his Marxist colleagues with a book entitled God Is Not Yet Dead.7 Though Gardavsky was not speaking for the Communist Party, it is significant that such a title came from a Marxist Philosopher. His book is both an argued defense of atheism and an attempt to understand what Christianity can offer to Marxism.

Luigi Longo, then Secretary General of the Italian Communist Party, said at the 11th Party Congress in January 1966:

We are now witnessing a transcending of the ideological positions of conservatism, which made religious ‘ideology’ of the ‘opium of the people’ and the change is the result of the new way the church is facing up to modern world.8

Even more revealing was the statement made by Dolores Ibarruri to the leaders of the Communist Parties gathered for an important meeting in Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) in April 1967. She said:

We cannot close our eyes to the changes in the Catholic Church which are going on before us. Should we still attempt to repulse forces (referring to Christians) who no longer want to be the opium of the people, but to change society? The Communists must give more respect to the political and philosophical thought of the Catholics.9

She was speaking out of her concrete experience in Spain, where many Christians were actively involved in the process of social change. In short, many Marxists still show their willingness to give serious attention to Marx’s statement: "the criticism of religion is in the main complete."

This openness on the part of Christians and Marxists has brought them together on various occasions for dialogue with each other. Thus in 1965 the Czech Communists, on the 550th anniversary of the martyrdom of John Hus, invited Catholic and Protestant scholars from the West to an international symposium on Hus. In 1966 the Roman Catholic publisher, Herder & Herder, Inc., brought out two books as its contribution to the Marxist-Christian dialogue.10 During their publication a dialogue took place at the Harvard Divinity School in which the two authors and several leading theologians and philosophers from the United States participated. In 1967 the Sociological Institute of the Czechoslovakian Academy of Science and the Paulus-Gesellschaft (an organization of theologians and scientists) invited two hundred Marxist and Christian philosophers, scientists and theologians for a dialogue at Marianbad (Czechoslovakia). These are only some of the dialogues which took place in the 1960’s between Marxists and Christians. Even though these dialogues didn’t produce noticeable joint action in service of humanity, they did create an atmosphere for mutual trust. But in 1968 both Russia’s invasion of Czechoslovakia and the United States’ escalation of the Vietnam War broke the dialogue and created an environment of mistrust.

The dialogue needs to continue. In a way, both Marxists and Christians are talking about the same thing: actual human being in the real world and society. But although they are talking about the same thing, they are doing it from different points of view. That is why dialogue is necessary. Marxists and Christians cannot proclaim their unique message to contemporary people unless they do it in dialogue with those who have differently oriented ways of understanding human beings. Thus the resources of both can be used for the development of humanity. Paul Oestreicher has said:

Christian Marxist dialogue is not essentially an activity in which the ‘goodies’ talk to the ‘baddies’. In theory it is a dialogue between two groups of ‘goodies’, each with a particular type of insight into the nature of truth. In practice it is a dialogue between ‘baddies’ who historically have often betrayed their own vision.11

Thus Marxists and Christians should acknowledge their sins of omission and practice metanoia. Marxist - Christian dialogue should be based on this metanoia.

Charles Savage points out the error in Marxist and Christian positions in these words:

Were we to caricature the traditional position of the Christians and the Marxists we might say: Christianity proclaimed a new heaven, but forgot about a new earth; while Marxism proclaimed a new earth, but forgot a new heaven.12

Dialogue’s purpose is to overcome these dual errors. It is an example of living together in the emerging pluralistic world society. It is a way of seeking truth. As Nicolas Berdyaev expressed his strong conviction;

truth cannot be imprisoned in any social net, socialist or capitalist, and. . . those who pursue the knowledge of truth step tiresomely and boldly out of neat prisons into worlds that have more to them than sociology or science could ever contain.13

Marxists and Christians should meet as people concerned with the questions and problems faced by humanity, to think and act together as human beings. The initiative for this can come either from Christians or from Marxists. Where other initiatives do not exist the Christians should take the initiative, both as members of humanity and as those who have experienced the redeeming love of God in Jesus Christ.

The dialogue does not imply the weakening or giving up of conflicting positions. Dialogue must be conceived and nurtured as the one viable method for dealing with ideological and social conflict; its only alternatives are isolation or annihilation. And yet we engage in dialogue not out of fear, nor as a diplomacy for human survival. As Harvey Cox said:

Even if there were no nuclear threat Christians and Communists should be conversing. We should converse not just to avoid death but to affirm life. Life is by its very nature dialogical and dialectical. This is the real reason for dialogue.14

The aim of such a dialogue is to develop both the conflicting positions according to their own respective logic and impulse, to help the Marxist to become more truly Marxist and the Christian to become more truly Christian by mutual questioning and challenge and by collaboration in the interest of mankind, wherever this is possible. A dialogue of this kind has only one necessary presupposition, a common conviction of the essential oneness and final victory of truth; and therefore openness, expectation and readiness to learn. The dialogue is necessary in order to clarify positions, to reaffirm the common humanity of all and to open oneself up to the possible truth in another’s position. As Reuel Howe rightly pointed out:

The truth of each needs to be brought into relation with the truth of others in order that the full dimension of the truth each has may be made known. Such is the task of dialogue.15

Dialogue has certain prior assumptions. Respect for the other, willingness to learn and change when necessary are basic necessities. The suggestion that Christians should be willing to change may cause some anxiety, but it may be that we go a step further in grasping "the breadth and length and height and depth" (Eph. 3:8) of the divine love in Christ by confronting Him in the brother for whom He died. As Social Democrat, Gustav Heinemann of West Germany, a prominent lay Christian, said: "Christ did not die against Karl Marx."16 What Heinemann implied was that Christ died for Marx, as He died for every other person. God who used the Philistines to teach the Israelites a lesson can also use Marxists of our time to speak to us. Both Marxists and Christians live under the sovereign lordship of Christ, though Marxists may not heed to this idea.

Dialogue is not intended to suppress our differences or to abdicate one’s own position. Rather the purpose is to discover how the opposition can be a dynamic force for genuine human existence and development, and not to see differences as obstacles to cooperation, co-existence, or even pro-existence. As Milan Opocensky remarked: "We need a dialogue with Marxists for our own spiritual growth and development, as they need us."17

Marxist-Christian dialogue should not be confined to philosophical or doctrinal issues, although dialogue on these issues will always be necessary. Genuine dialogue can never be confined to conversations between that small group of philosophers and theologians who might presume to represent entire communities of men. We also need a life of dialogue for the fulfillment of common task in the world. It is true only part of that task can be common. There are certain elements like the proclamation of the Gospel and the sacramental worship of God which Christians are unable to share with Marxists. But our responsibility to transform the world in accordance with the purposes of God is one that we share with all men of goodwill. The immediate problems of world - hunger, population explosion, illiteracy, pollution, energy, the spiritual confusion of our day, etc. demand an end to the hurling of condemnation and pronouncing of mutual anathemas. The church must be ready to witness to the lordship of Christ by cooperating with men of goodwill who are genuinely concerned to seek better ways of living and working -- no matter what their political, social, or philosophical convictions.

Thus it is a foolish way of raising the question whether Marxists and Christians should first achieve a certain consensus about philosophical issues and then secondarily apply that consensus in the social realm, or whether Marxists and Christians must first be engaged in the struggle for peace and justice in the world in order to achieve that common philosophical perspective. Both inquiries go hand in hand. The church must be prepared to enter into common cause with any group, regardless of caste, color or creed, in the task of restoring meaning and purpose to human life, under whatever rubric this task might be conceived, whether it be called salvation or liberation, redemption or humanization. This means that the church needs to be present in trade unions, political parties, and every other secular institution to promote justice and compassion.18 In this way ordinary men and women who are engaged in the actual life-situations participate in the dialogue. These life-situations are the places where our metanoia is tested. If we are afraid of cooperation with Marxists or people of other faiths because the existence of the church is thereby threatened we are of little faith, for then we do not believe in the power of the living God, but we judge instead by human standards. Faith in the living God who is lord of the world and of the church knows no fear concerning the future of the church. To a certain extent we can even endorse much of the Marxist drive toward secularization and humanization. But the basis for this endorsement is not a subscription to Marxist ideology, but that Christology which we recognized earlier in this study. Thus by our attitude of responsibility for the transformation of society and concern for others, we help to set the stage in which Gods Word can speak freely to man.

As we enter into dialogue both Marxists and Christians have to heed a specific caution. Marxists and Christians are not the only people needed in this dialogue; what is needed is a truly interdisciplinary approach. Not only must we invite the insights of other religions and political orientations, but the moral disciplines of religion and politics must also seek the wisdom of those disciplines of the arts and sciences. All must avoid the illusion that problems can be solved by any sort of clique, whether this be the Marxist - Christian clique or the scientist- Christian clique. Nor will solutions proceed from the simple reduction of differences. The solutions required by the real world must go beyond the mechanical harmonization of theoretical similarities. They must have a transcendent dimension. There are thousands of problems to be approached in humility, openness, sincerity and in willingness to learn. In short, Marxist - Christian dialogue is only a part of the church’s dialogue with the world. Exhorting the church to a genuine encounter with the world, Schillebeeckx says:

The Church does not simply have something to communicate. In order to communicate, she must also receive from and listen to what comes to her from the world as "foreign prophecy", but in which she none the less recognizes the well-known voice of her Lord. The relationship between the Church and the world is thus no longer the relationship of a matching Church to a ‘learning’ world, but the interrelationship of dialogue in which both make a mutual contribution and listen sincerely to each other. 19

As Bonhoeffer has reminded us, it is wrong to presume that only Christianity has the answers to human problems. But in all humility and sincerity Christians can join with others in seeking solutions to human problems, trusting in the lord of the world whom they encounter in Jesus Christ and in their fellow human beings.

Let us conclude this study by repeating two quotations from Bonhoeffer which best summarize his thoughts, and which direct our encounter with Marxism.

To be a Christian does not mean to be religious in a particular way, to make something of oneself (a sinner, a penitent, or a saint) on the basis of some method or other, but to be a man not a type of man, but the man that Christ creates in us. It is not the religious act that makes the Christian, but participation in the sufferings of God in the secular life. That is metanoia: not in the first place thinking about one’s own needs, problems, sins, and fears, but allowing oneself to be caught up into the way of Jesus Christ.20

. . . it is only by living completely in this world that one learns to have faith. One must completely abandon any attempt to make something of oneself, whether it be a saint, or a converted sinner, or a churchman (a so-called priestly type!), a religious man or an unrighteous one, a sick manor or a healthy one. By this-worldliness I mean living unreservedly in life’s duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world-watching with Christ in Gethsemane. That, I think, is faith; that is metanoia; and that is how one becomes a man and a Christian.21



1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. by R. J. Hollingdale (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 42.

2. Edward Schillebeeckx, God the Future of Man, trans. by N. D. Smith (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1968), p. 124.

3. Ibid.

4. Cf. Jan. M. Lochman, "The Church and the Humanization of Society," Union Seminary Quarterly Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 2, 1969, p. 135f.

5. For the complete text of the encyclical, see, Pacem in Terris: Encyclical Letter of Pope John XXIII, April 11, 1963 (Washington D.C.: National Catholic Welfare Conference, n.d.).

6. World Conference on Church and Society, Geneva, July 12-26, 1966: Official Report, op. cit., p. 201.

7. Vitezslav Gardavsky, God Is Not Yet Dead, trans. by Vivienne Menkes (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1973).

8. Cited by Charles M. Savage, "Critique Re-considered", Study Encounter, Vol. IV, No. 1, 1968, p. 4.

9. Ibid., p.5.

10. Roger Garaudy, From Anathema to Dialogue: A Marxist Challenge to the Christian Churches, op. cit., & Leslie Dewart, The Future of Belief. Theism in a World Come of Age, op. cit.

11. Paul Oestreicher, ed., The Christian Marxist Dialogue (New York:The Macmillan Co., 1969), p. 3.

12. Charles M. Savage, op. cit., p. 3.

13. Nicolas Berdyaev, Dream and Reality: An Essay in Autobiography, trans. by Katharine Lampert (New York: Collier Books, 1962), p. 125.

14. Harvey Cox, "The Marxist - Christian Dialogue: What Next?" Marxism and Christianity, ed. by Herbert Aptheker (New York: Humanities Press, 1968), p. 23.

15. Reuel L. Howe, The Miracle of Dialogue (New York: The Seabury Press, 1963), p. 121.

16. Cited by Paul Oestreicher, op. cit., p. 1.

17. Milan Opocensky, "The Case of Marxism", Religion and International Affairs, ed. by Jeffrey Rose & Michael Ignatieff (Toronto: House of Anansi, 1968), p. 92.

18. Cf. Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, op. cit., p. 221.

19. Edward Schillebeeckx, op. cit., p. 126.

20. LPP, op. cit., p. 361 (18 July 1944).

21. LPP, op. cit., pp. 369f (21 July 1944).

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