The Blame Lies with the Christians: Helmut Gollwitzer’s Engagement with Marxist Criticism of Religion
The most important question to answer in the English-speaking theological world when writing about Helmut Gollwitzer is, unfortunately, who is (or was) Helmut Gollwitzer? Even more unfortunately, however, this relative obscurity also seems to be the state of Gollwitzer’s legacy in Germany. Reflecting on the unavailability of Gollwitzer’s writings in German bookstores merely a year after his death, Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt attributed Gollwitzer’s rapid disappearance to the breakneck speed of the media news cycle and to the contextual character of Gollwitzer’s theology: “[Gollwitzer] himself linked his theological work so closely with the course of time that it can, with the time, pass quickly.” But while his contextuality resulted in Gollwitzer’s eclipse in Germany, it is precisely this contextual character that makes him a fruitful conversation partner in the present North American context, especially in terms of his fertile reflections on Marxism and Christian social responsibility.1
Helmut Gollwitzer and Marxist Thought
Gollwitzer first encountered Marxist thought in a serious way during his time in Gymnasium in the 1920s. Through personal contact he discovered that “pacifists are not necessarily cowards, despicable socialists are not necessarily November-criminals, and Jews are not necessarily damned by God. . . . From then on I began reading Marx and engaging in discussion with fellow leftist students.” Later in his studies, Gollwitzer would be influenced by Karl Barth, whose own democratic socialist sympathies are well known. But perhaps the most dramatic episode in Gollwitzer’s engagement with Marxism came during his time as a prisoner of war in Russia following the Second World War. Gollwitzer prefaced his memoirs from that period with a brief reflection on how he used the term Marxist. He explained that the proper object for this term is not a democratic socialist political party—such groups appropriate Marx’s thought piecemeal, and thus “are not real Marxists”—but “dogmatic Marxism, a politico-philosophical system whose genuine heirs . . . are to be found only among the Leninists.”3 So while Gollwitzer feels free to learn from Marxist analysis, he also recognizes the true scope of Marxist thought as an all-encompassing ideology.
It is this dogmatic form of Marxism that Gollwitzer engages directly in The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion. The Marxist criticism of religion, which Gollwitzer will criticize in turn, is built upon Ludwig Feuerbach’s criticism of religion. For Feuerbach, religion and its gods are metaphysical objectifications “of unsatisfied human need.”4 They are projections of humanity’s longings, abstractions that allow humanity to relate to itself and satisfy those longings. These projections—religion, in other words—are an exercise in meaning making whereby humanity tries to come to terms with the world by coming to terms with itself. This method of meaning making is problematic for Feuerbach because it attempts to satisfy basic human longings in the wrong way, that is, by an appeal to unreality. Marxist criticism of religion is the weaponization of Feuerbach’s criticism.
Whereas Feuerbach’s reflections on religion are primarily concerned with the question of truth, Marx’s approach to religion is interested in results; it is “a fighting doctrine” produced by “practical interest in the changing of this world into a human one.”5 For Marx, the key interest is to discern whether religion serves or inhibits that impulse toward making concrete improvements in world-historical conditions. Marxism only accrues theoretical or metaphysical weight subsequent to and in the service of such practical considerations. Gollwitzer traces six steps in the Marxist thought process as it moves from practical considerations to its dogmatic rejection and criticism of religion:6
First, Marxists begin with the absolute goal of changing the conditions in the world. They believe this requires the creation of a disciplined community that is willing to strive unreservedly for that end. This community must believe that they can achieve this end if they are to work toward it unreservedly.
Second, religion and the idea of God complicate the Marxist belief in total commitment because they introduce another force into the world and make that force responsible for humanity and the world’s conditions. Rather than understanding the world and humanity as resulting from such a force, it is more effective to understand humanity as responsible for itself and therefore in a position to change itself and its world.
Third, a typically religious outlook regards certain aspects of nature and history as fundamentally unknown, unknowable, and therefore unchangeable, whereas the practical concern to promote change requires that people understand the world as fundamentally knowable.
Fourth, religion colludes with the powers that dominate human life, thereby bestowing on those powers an inviolable aura that undermines unreserved commitment to the absolute goal of changing the world. In order to promote that commitment, people must recognize that the powers that dominate human life—and religion, which helps maintain them—are ultimately human constructs and therefore contingent. Gollwitzer captures this dynamic when he explains that “The revolution needs criticism of ideologies, the ruling group needs ideological rigidities.”7
Fifth, religion is particularly problematic because it tends to relativize earthly things in the service of heavenly things, thus undermining the unreserved commitment required. It must therefore be resisted to underscore that the proper meaning of human existence is found in the absolute goal of changing conditions in the world.
And sixth, penetrating to the deepest kernel of Marxism, Gollwitzer suggests that the critical thing for promoting unreserved commitment is not only that one accepts the criticism of religion but that one likes it as well. In this way, the absolute goal of changing conditions in the world moves from being a practical consideration to being a metaphysical one insofar as it produces a comprehensive picture of the world built on the notion that there simply is nothing beyond the world’s concrete and material character.
Atheism is thus built into Marxism not so much as the result of a theoretical thought process but as perhaps the fundamental axiom of its whole program. Marxism’s absolute goal requires a particular picture of the world, and so it produces an ideology or, as Gollwitzer rightly points out, a religion: “Marxism becomes a substitute-religion by becoming a substitute source of meaning.”8
Gollwitzer’s criticism of the Marxist position focuses on this question of meaning making and asks, does it succeed? His answer is negative. The issue Gollwitzer finds with the Marxist picture is that it only provides meaning to people who are able to actively work toward changing world conditions. If an individual cannot be actively engaged in this work—whether through old age, disability, et cetera—there is no conceptual structure in place to prevent a Marxist from treating such an individual merely as a means to an end. The individual is simply material, to be valued so long as he or she is useful but disposed of when he or she is no longer useful. Gollwitzer puts it in more theological terms: Marxism’s “this-worldly eschatology can give no foundation for the dignity of man today as a person.”9 This deep ambivalence about individual human dignity undermines individual human freedom, which almost necessitates that more-or-less totalitarian forms of Marxism will develop. In contrast, Christian accounts of humanity as created by and intended for service to God oppose this drift in Marxist thought by establishing the individual’s dignity as outside the contingency of world-historical occurrence: “Our fellow-man must be acknowledged as the boundary of our transforming activity, and for this he must be revealed to us as standing in another relation which is not at our disposal. It must be shown to us that the concrete man does not belong to us, nor to my best goals, nor to society and its greatest figures. His humanity, its unassailability, is secured when he belongs to a Master whom we cannot assail.”10
The Theological Fruit of Marxist Criticism
That Gollwitzer has his criticisms of Marxist ideology does not mean he is blind to the penetrating sociopolitical insights it offers. When it comes to what Christian theology ought to learn from its engagement with Marxism and its criticism of religion, Gollwitzer again walks through a six-step thought progression.
First, Gollwitzer very clearly makes the point that Christian theology cannot take an aggrieved stance with reference to Marxist criticism because “the Marxist accusations are a catalog of actual Christian degenerations.”11 Christianity has far too often in its history functioned in precisely the way that Marxist criticism alleges: as an ideological prop for oppressive and even inhuman social conditions. As a function of the Christian community, theology must recognize its culpability here and reorient its frame of reference.
Second, this reorientation means that theology must distance itself from the sort of apologetics it traditionally employs. Gollwitzer understands his own criticisms of Marxism as a sort of necessary ground clearing, and he thinks that certain similar types of defensive moves are acceptable. However, for Gollwitzer it is unacceptable to position God as a means of necessary explanation in the world or to apply what is often called a god-of-the-gaps approach. It is one thing to demonstrate where other intellectual orientations are overreaching, as with Marxism in Gollwitzer’s time and those who are often referred to as New Atheists in our own time, but tying God to a particular understanding of the world only invites trouble as scientific understanding advances.
Third, that same sort of reticence must also be exercised with reference to philosophical accounts. In other words, just as Christians should be wary of building God into scientific accounts of the world, Christian theology should avoid treating God as an aspect of a particular metaphysical picture. As an example, Gollwitzer explains that this happens whenever theology “includes the faith in creation under the inquiry about an explanation of the world. For then . . . the article of our faith about the creation is understood as an assertion of reason, God is a function of our self-understanding and our understanding of the world.”12 Gollwitzer is thinking here especially about how Christianity and idealism became fused together in Germany on such questions, but there are also corollaries in the North American context. For instance, a recent poll in the United States found that 46 percent of the population rejects any form of evolutionary theory, opting instead for a belief that God created the world in its present form.13 This constitutes a rejection of overwhelming scientific consensus in favor of a particular blend of Christianity with non-materialist and inherently teleological natural philosophies.
Fourth, Christian theology must not accept how Marxist criticism simply includes it with other species of religion. Nor should Christian theology attempt a defense of religion. Gollwitzer takes it for granted that Feuerbach’s deepest insight—that religion deals with humanity’s self-understanding rather than with God—is basically correct. Indeed, it simply is the case that religion is part of the immanent conditions of this world, and Christian theology should not attempt to prove otherwise. This holds true also for Christianity insofar as it takes a religious form. But religion is not a necessary precondition for Christian conversion, as Gollwitzer emphasizes: “The non-religious man of the present does not require first to be led to religion, transformed into a religious man, in order then to take a second step along this way to come to the Christian faith.”14 The actual point of conflict, then, is between a religious picture of God and the picture provided by the Christian gospel—the conflict between the proclamation of God for us and humanity’s rejection of such a God. Christian theology must maintain this point both against all human religiosities, perhaps especially “Christian” forms, and against Marxism and its criticism of religion.
Fifth, Gollwitzer explains that Christian theology must not be too attached to its scientific status. This is a more particularly German concern that arises from the inclusion of theology departments in German universities. The positive point in Gollwitzer’s discussion here is that Christian theology should not view itself as in conflict with the sciences. Indeed, he understands that theology’s proper contribution is one of resistance to scientific dogmatism and overreaching, to those times when science takes on a religious character. Theology also cannot seek to restrict scientific findings to boundaries that it has predetermined are acceptable. To do so would be to jettison faith in God as creator, a doctrine that affirms the world as it is rather than as it is imagined. Consequently, “the scientific attitude is not incompatible with Christian faith, but with the superstitious faith in science, and with the subjection of science to the demands of a need to believe, which finds an ideological satisfaction in it.”15 We see here a further salvo against the tendencies of both New Atheists and Creationists in our own context, who respectively inflate and arbitrarily limit science’s explanatory scope.
Sixth and finally, Christian theology must properly understand how the gospel it proclaims and elucidates functions to provide meaning for human life. Gollwitzer’s criticism of Marxism is that it does not provide a sufficiently deep account of life’s meaning. But he also recognizes that he can make that criticism only on the basis of what he believes to be the superior account of meaning that is provided by the gospel. Marxism succeeds in establishing meaning for many people, and Gollwitzer can only oppose to it his own Christian account. Foundational here is his insight that the purported truth of the Christian account of human life’s meaning is not self-evident but can only be acknowledged on the basis of an encounter: “it is not the case that the fullness of meaning experienced in the gospel is the answer to an already manifest question. What the gospel offers is the answering of a question and the fulfillment of a need which is only awakened by the gospel. Therefore it can be satisfied only by the gospel.”16 Just as Christian theology cannot prove the truth of the gospel it proclaims by wedding that gospel to a particular scientific, philosophical, or religious account of the world, so it must eschew natural theological claims about the meaning of human life. Instead, “it can only proclaim . . . the message committed to it.”17
Consequently, this refusal to build God and God’s existence into a generally accessible picture of the world takes the teeth out of the Feuerbachian and Marxist criticisms of religion as they pertain to Christianity. But perhaps that is a story for another time.
Marxism and Biblical Hermeneutics
Thus far I have traced Gollwitzer’s engagement with Marxism’s criticism of religion very briefly in terms of his biography, his understanding of Marxism and its shortcomings, and his programmatic vision about Christian theology’s proper response to this criticism. As part of the discussion of this programmatic material there was cause to occasionally mention particular doctrines and contemporary analogues. Those with ears to hear will make further connections to the contemporary North American theological and political landscape for themselves. But I would be remiss should I fail to provide at least one example of a concrete traditional theological locus where Gollwitzer’s thought has been decisively shaped by his engagement with Marxism.
Given that many Christians in North America approach the Bible in a rather fetishistic manner, perhaps the following discussion of Scripture by Gollwitzer is the most appropriate example. He suggests in this passage that class interests and demands for economic justice should function as something of a hermeneutic tool for reading the biblical texts as witnesses to God’s word:
Both the historical difference and the human character, as well as the human limitation and fallibility, of the “witnesses of the first order” leave us, though bound to them, also free from them. We do not believe in the Bible, and it is not for us God’s word bound between the two covers of a book. Such an understanding of it would result in a legalistic relation to it that would contradict the evangelical freedom to which it bears witness . . . . Luther coined the famous formula for this, that not everything in the Bible is equally important and binding for us, but that we should seek for “what deals with Christ,” . . . to see whether, and in how far, it causes us to perceive a relation to what is revealed in the Christ event. This inquiry must not be omitted . . . . The distinctions and decisions to which it leads (i.e., its positive or negative results) are, in the first place, our own; we are responsible for them, and perhaps they are caused by limitations in our individual outlook. The church must give us the freedom to express our negative judgments, i.e., to use “detective biblical criticism,” to point out, even in biblical texts, an accommodation to class interests, which serves to soften the radical character of the original message, and which for that reason must be exposed and corrected in our exposition. At the same time, we must give the church the freedom not to accept our results without question and make them obligatory, but rather to leave the text criticized by us in the canon. . . . Thus it is precisely the nonidentity of the Bible and God’s word that protects the freedom of God and our human freedom.18
Helmut Gollwitzer’s work is a timely and invaluable resource in the contemporary North American sociopolitical climate, which is dominated by economic hardship for the many while the moneyed elite amass ever-greater hordes of wealth. As one who engaged deeply and critically with Marxism and its criticism of religion, Gollwitzer can serve as a guide for our own sometimes painful but always necessary efforts to rethink theology and Christian social responsibility—indeed, to rethink the gospel in its manifold significance—for our own time and place.
1. Marquardt, “‘Was Nicht Im Dienst Steht, Steht Im Raub’ Zum Ersten Versuch Einer Gollwitzer-Biografie Von Gottfried Orth,” Evangelische Theologie 57, no. 2 (1997): 162. Also note that I briefly discuss the resonance between Gollwitzer and contemporary sociopolitical impulses elsewhere: see McMaken, “Occupy Wall Street Is Doing the Church’s Work: Helmut Gollwitzer and Economic Justice,” Unbound: An Interactive Journal of Christian Social Justice, January 16, 2013, http://justiceunbound.org/journal/occupy-wall-street-is-doing-the-churchs-work/.
2. Gollwitzer, Skizzen Eines Lebens: Aus Verstreuten Selbstzeugnissen Gefunden Und Verbunden Von Friedrich-Wilhelm Marquardt, Wolfgang Brinkel Und Manfred Weber (Gütersloh, Germany: Christian Kaiser Verlagshaus, 1998), 40. Reference to “November-criminals” alludes to a nationalistic social myth in Weimar and Nazi Germany that blamed Germany’s loss in World War 1 on those on the home front—like pacifists, Marxists or socialists, and Jews—who undermined the war effort especially by overthrowing Kaiser Wilhelm’s government.
3. Gollwitzer, Unwilling Journey: A Diary from Russia, trans. E. M. Delacour and Robert Fenn (London, UK: SCM Press, 1953), 10. Paul Oestreicher compares the attention that Gollwitzer received as a result of this publication with that received by J. A. T. Robinson a decade later in Britain after the publication of Honest to God. Oestreicher, “Helmut Gollwitzer in the European Storms,” introduction to The Demands of Freedom: Papers by a Christian in West Germany, by Gollwitzer (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1965), 7.
4. Gollwitzer, The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion, trans. David Cairns (New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1970), 53.
5. Gollwitzer, The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion, 14. Understanding Marx’s criticism as a weaponization of Feuerbach’s is perhaps in keeping with Marx’s own comments: “I approve of Feuerbach’s aphorisms, except for one point: he directs himself too much to nature and too little to politics” (Shlomo Avineri, The Social and Political Thought of Karl Marx, Cambridge Studies in the History of Theory and Politics [Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1968], 10). Thanks to the Rev. Chris TerryNelson (PCUSA) for directing me to this remark.
6. See Gollwitzer, The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion, 98ff.
7. Ibid., 99.
8. Ibid., 101. We see this sentiment emerge in Gollwitzer’s prisoner-of-war memoirs, particularly from his interactions with others in and around the camps. For example, Gollwitzer comments concerning one “Heinz A.” that “Marxism has become for him a decisive spiritual experience.” Gollwitzer, Unwilling Journey, 135–36.
9. Gollwitzer, The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion, 118. Philosophical resistance to the notion that the individual is a means to an end is perhaps most associated with Immanuel Kant, whose categorical imperative is designed to ward off this very danger. He puts his categorical imperative into practical form as follows: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as means only” (Kant, “Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals,” in Basic Writings of Kant, ed. Allen W. Wood [New York, NY: Random House, 2001], 186; 4:429). Of course, all this may also be understood as a gloss on that basic human moral insight, attested in virtually all major religious traditions, known as the Golden Rule.
10. Gollwitzer, The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion, 130.
11. Ibid., 151. Consider also his comment from earlier in this text: “The Marxists fell into error, but the greater part of the blame lay with the Christians. . . . The burden of proletarian unbelief lies on our shoulders” (92).
12. Ibid., 154.
13. See Frank Newport, “In U.S., 46% Hold Creationist View of Human Origins,” June 1, 2012, http://www.gallup.com/poll/155003/Hold-Creationist-View-Human-Origins.aspx. For a penetrating study of the North American debates concerning religion, science, and philosophy on the question of human origins that highlights deep compatibility of evolutionary science with Christian faith, see Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2007).
14. Gollwitzer, The Christian Faith and the Marxist Criticism of Religion, 155. One thinks of similar comments made by Karl Barth. See Barth, “Christianity or Religion?,” in Fragments Grace and Gay, ed. Martin Rumscheidt, trans. Eric Mosbacher (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011), 27–31.
15. Ibid., 160.
16. Ibid., 162.
17. Ibid., 165.
18. Gollwitzer, An Introduction to Protestant Theology, trans. David Cairns (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1982), 59–60. The title of this book as published in German is Befreiung und Solidarität: Einführung in die Evangelische Theologie / Liberation and Solidarity: An Introduction to Protestant Theology. Perhaps the publishers of the English translation felt that the original title, with its clear display of class consciousness, would inhibit sales. The irony is palpable.
W. Travis McMaken is an assistant professor of religion at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. He resides there with his wife and two sons. His monograph The Sign of the Gospel: Toward an Evangelical Doctrine of Infant Baptism after Karl Barth is forthcoming from Fortress Academic Press.