Posts Tagged ‘theological turn


Marx and Spirit

‘Spiritual matters are not disembodied, otherworldly affairs. It is the prosperous bourgeois who tends to see spiritual questions as a realm loftily remote from everyday life, since he needs a hiding place from his own crass materialism. It comes as no surprise that material girls like Madonna should be so fascinated by Kabbala. For Marx, by contrast, ‘‘spirit’’ is a question of art, friendship, fun, compassion, laughter, sexual love, rebellion, creativity, sensuous delight, righteous anger and abundance of life… Happiness for Marx, as for Aristotle, was a practical activity, not a state of mind. For the Judaic tradition of which he was an unbelieving offspring, the ‘‘spiritual’’ is a question of feeding the hungry, welcoming the immigrants and protecting the poor from the violence of the rich. It is not the opposite of mundane, everyday existence. It is a particular way of living it’.

‘He was, of course, an atheist; but one does not need to be religious to be spiritual, and some of the great themes of Judaism — justice, emancipation, the reign of peace and plenty, the day of reckoning, history as a narrative of liberation, the redemption not just of the individual but of a whole dispossessed people— inform his work in suitably secularised form. He also inherited the Jewish hostility to idols, fetishes and enslaving illusions.

As far as religion goes, it is worth pointing out that there have been Jewish Marxists, Islamic Marxists, and Christian Marxists who champion so-called liberation theology. All of them are materialists in Marx’s sense of the word. In fact, Eleanor Marx, Marx’s daughter, reports that Marx once told her mother that if she wanted ‘‘satisfaction of her metaphysical needs’’ she should find them in the Jewish prophets rather than in the Secular Society she sometimes attended. Marxist materialism is not a set of statements about the cosmos, such as ‘‘Everything is made out of atoms’’ or ‘‘There is no God.’’ It is a theory of how historical animals function’

‘The spiritual is indeed about the otherworldly. But it is not the otherworldly as the parsons conceive of it. It is the other world which socialists hope to build in the future, in place of one which is clearly past its sell-by date. Anyone who isn’t otherworldly in this sense has obviously not taken a good hard look around them.’

(Terry Eagleton, Why Marx Was Right, Yale University Press, 2011)


Tactical Religiosity

In the previous post I featured a picture of a woman brandishing a crucifix during resistance to the eviction of the travellers site at Dale Farm in Essex.  The protestor has subsequently been villified in right wing tabloids like the Daily Mail with the claim that, among other things, she is actually a Muslim convert rather than a Christian. Leaving aside the specifics of this individual, this is arguably part of a wider phenomenon which I term ‘tactical religiosity’.

We could define ‘tactical religiosity’ as something like ‘The use of religious symbols, language and/or ritual elements within social movements for political purposes, by people who are not necessarily religious believers themselves’.  Waving a crucifix at police and bailiffs might be one example, another would be the ‘What would Jesus Do?’  banner/meme at the current Occupy London protest by St Pauls Cathedral in London. Sure there are radical Christians involved in the camp, but a lot of people who wouldn’t define themselves as religious have been using arguments derived from the gospels, talking about Christ driving the moneylenders from the temple and so on.

I have used the term ‘tactical’ rather than ‘cynical’ because it’s actually quite complex – for instance there is a large fuzzy zone between ‘belief” and ‘disbelief’.  I don’t think it heralds a revival of old time religion in its socially reactionary forms, but perhaps a wider recognition that it might be possible to strip away some of the oppressive baggage of traditional belief systems and find things of value to an emancipatory politics.

‘Tactical religiosity’ could also be considered as an activist version of the ‘theological turn’ in critical theory.



St Augustine vs. Empire

At some point I may get around to writing about the ‘theological turn’ in contemporary critical thought, that is the increasing tendency for communists, anarchists etc. to refer to religious discourse. For now I will just be collecting together some examples, starting with this one from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (2000):

”While this Heavenly City is on pilgrimage on earth, it calls out all peoples and so collects a society of aliens, speaking all languages’ (Saint Augustine)

 …In this regard we might take inspiration from Saint Augustine’s vision of a project to contest the decadent Roman Empire. No limited community could succeed and provide an alternative to imperial rule; only a universal, catholic community bringing together all populations and all languages in a common journey could  accomplish this. The divine city is a universal city of aliens, coming together, cooperating, communicating. Our pilgrimage on earth, however, in contrast to Augustine’s, has no transcendent telos beyond; it is and remains absolutely immanent. Its continuous movement,gathering aliens in community, making this world its home, is both means and end, or rather a means without end.

From this perspective the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is the great Augustinian project of modern times. In the first decades of the twentieth century the Wobblies, as they were called, organized powerful strikes and rebellions across the United States, from Lawrence, Massachusetts, and Paterson, New Jersey, to Everett, Washington. The perpetual movement of the Wobblies was indeed an immanent pilgrimage, creating a new society in the shell of the old…  The primary focus of the IWW was the universality of its project. Workers of all languages and races across the world (although in fact they only made it as far as Mexico) and workers of all trades should come together in ‘‘One Big Union.’’’


Zizek – relating to our neighbours

‘The Jewish commandment which prohibits images of God is the obverse of the statement that relating to one’s neighbour is the only terrain of religious practice, of where the divine dimension is present in our lives – the prohibtion ‘no images of God’ does not point towards a Gnostic experience of the divine beyond our reality, a divine which is beyond any image; on the contrary, it designates a kind of ethical hic Rhodus, hic salta: you want to be religious? OK, prove it,  here, in ‘works of love’, in the way you relate to your neighbours’ (Slavoj Zizek, Iraq: the borrowed kettle, Verso, 2005).

Zizek is only partly right here – the Kabbalist notion of ‘Ein-sof’ refers precisely to the ‘divine beyond our reality, a divine which is beyond any image’. But it is also true that even the most esoteric of Jewish mystics have generally been concerned with the life of the community rather than with  mere self-development.

That is partly the explanation for the somewhat perplexing link between some currents of Jewish mysticism and ultra-orthodox interpretations of the Law.  How people behave with their friends and neighbours – down to the minutest details of dietary regulations –  is seen as being critical to the possibility of redemption, and the advent of the Messiah.

From my perspective, the subordination of 21st century human relations to the regulations of ancient times is not only alienating but reinforces ancient prejudices and oppressions. But at the same time there is, as Zizek observes, an acknowledgement that ‘relating to one’s neighbour’ is the key ‘terrain of religious practice’ (if not the only one), and therefore an ethic of caring for others and the value of human species life.

This is something that is lost in much ‘new age’ mysticism, where the focus is often much more of the search for individual self-enlightenment than on the needs of others, let alone on how we can collectively create the conditions where basic human needs for food, clean water, shelter, health care etc. are met for all.