Chapter 1: Marx and Bonhoeffer on Religion

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

Chapter 1: Marx and Bonhoeffer on Religion

This study is presented as a contribution to Christian -Marxist dialogue. Marx proclaims the autonomy and affirms the self-transcendence of the human being. Both these are deepened and challenged by Bonhoeffer’s theological understanding of Incarnation. What is being investigated here is the extent to which Bonhoeffer’s theology will help in the development of an adequate theological approach to Marxism. This study seeks to elaborate a Bonhoefferian corrective of Marx’s critique of religion.

There are certain areas of similarity in the writings of Bonhoeffer and Marx. For example, Bonhoeffer’s criticism of metaphysics echoes Marx’s denunciation of religion as "a reversed world consciousness." The "opium of the people" in Marx is not unrelated to the "cheap grace" in Bonhoeffer. To a certain extent, both Marx and Bonhoeffer consider religion a particular stage in human historical development. Marx believed that when class oppression ended the "false consciousness" that arose from the alienation of the human being and reflected in religious systems, would disappear. Bonhoeffer thought that religion was nothing but a "garment of Christianity" which it wore during a particular epoch of human history, and that we are now moving f0 a time of "religionless Christianity".

Nevertheless, these apparent similarities should not be overemphasized. Though both Marx and Bonhoeffer criticized religion the differences in their respective critiques are remarkable. Marx’s critique of religion stems from the notion that the idea of a creator God hinders the limitless future and impoverishes the perspectives, endeavours and struggles of human beings. Human creativity cannot reach its potential in such a God, i.e., outside the human. Accordingly, Marx’s concept of transcendence consists essentially of endeavours and activities aimed at going beyond the given reality, the world as it is; overcoming it practically and transforming it to the benefit of humanity. Transcendence opens the way for the future. However, Marx does not regard this opening of a new future as an incursion of the divine into human history. He conceives transcendence to be a dynamic human reality, a self-transcending formation of the meaning and values of human life. Thus the objective of Marx’s critique of religion is the affirmation of human creativity and automony.

Whereas Marx completely abandoned the concept of God by his critique of religion, Bonhoeffer tried to reinterpret the concept of God so that it would be understandable to the autonomous modern person living in a "world come of age". According to him, it was the Incarnation which made possible the coming of age. He recognized that the world’s coming of age consisted of a knowledge of God which seeks to follow God where He has preceded us. This requires that we act responsibly in the situations where God has placed us. It was this recognition of the world’s coming of age that led Bonhoeffer to a critique of religion. He did not want to abolish religion, but maintained that if the Church is to be relevant to our time it must be ready to criticize itself and re-examine its traditional beliefs find practices. The paradoxical expression "religionless Christianity is not to be understood as a movement against the organized Church, rather it is a new way of life in which the Christian will practise the "secret discipline," for "Jesus calls men, not to a new religion, but to life".

There is a notable lack of reference to Marx in Bonhoeffer’s writings. However, we may employ Bonhoeffer as a catalyst for a meaningful encounter with Marxism. Whereas Marx considered that God stood in the way of human freedom and autonomy, Bonhoeffer demonstrated that it is precisely God who grants freedom and autonomy to human beings. He does it by making Jesus the point of disclosure of God’s transcendence. He believed that a world isolated by its illusion of autonomy, which does not take seriously the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, is only a utopia of ambitious people. Bonhoeffer directs our attention to the figure of Jesus of Nazareth, who humbled himself and made himself of no account, as a norm and standard for revolution and humanization. The task of revolution and humanization is accomplished not by overthrowing the world but by its reconciliation with God. The reality of the world can be confronted and overcome by the perfect love of God, as it is revealed in Jesus Christ. The transformation of the world is thus achieved by participating in this Jesus "being there for others". These are the outlines of a Bonhoefferian corrective of Marx. And yet, this is not just a corrective to Marx, but a clarion call to the church to awaken from its dogmatic slumber and come to a new understanding of Christian witness in our time.

The corrective is developed examining the writings of Karl Marx and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Since it is impossible to divorce Friedrich Engles from any consideration of Marxist philosophy, his writings also are taken into account. Although all the works of Marx are utilized, special emphasis is given to his early writings. This does not mean that we subscribe to the theory held by some that Marx’s early writings are basically different from his later writings and that there is a discontinuity in his thought. In fact the continuity of Marx’s thought is the topic of the opening chapter in this study. Marx’s thinking was very much influenced by his predecessors, and without reference to Hegel and Feuerbach his thoughts cannot be properly understood or interpreted. We do this as briefly as possible. In analyzing Marx’s critique of religion, caution has been taken not to confuse our understanding of Marx through a premature Christian apologetic. This approach is necessary to understand Marx’s criticisms in the right perspective. The chapter on "Transcendence According to Marx" deals with the deeper dimensions of Marx’s critique of religion as these might be applied in the fulfillment of Marxist programme. We then make a theological evaluation of Marx’s critique of the religion and find out how much the church can appropriate from this critique.

Our next step is to examine Bonhoeffer’s critique of religion. All the writings of Bonhoeffer are used, with special emphasis on his prison writings. Dissatisfaction has been expressed in various circles of the theological world about the fragmentary nature of the prison writings. Here the writer agrees with John Phillips when he says,

Perhaps what [Bonhoeffer] was communicating to us in spite of all of his immersion in the German way of doing theology was a desire to do theology off the top of his head and out of his guts rather than by deciphering scrolls. (John Phillips, "The Killing of Brother Dietrich", Christianity and Crisis, Vol. XXIX, No. 2, 1969, p. 26.)

It was Bonhoeffer’s realization of the world’s coming of age that made necessary for him a critique of religion and that led him to a new understanding of the church. He found the guidelines for this new understanding of the church in what he calls "non- religious interpretation". But by this new kind of interpretation he did not reject the idea of the church; but the way of life in the church which he envisioned, he called "religionless Christianity". Accordingly, we develop these three interrelated themes -- world come of age, nonreligious interpretation, and religionless Christianity. The chapter on "Transcendence According to Bonhoeffer" develops Bonhoeffer’s Christocentric view of human life. It is from this Christocentric view of human life that we offer our corrective of Marx’s critique of religion and present a challenge to contemporary Marxists.

Both Marxism and Christianity have come a long way from the time of Marx in their attitude toward each other. In the light of this unfolding development we discuss, in the concluding chapter, the necessity and promise of Marxist-Christian dialogue, and suggest how the mutual challenge could serve the interests of both in pro-existence.