Saturday, March 28, 2009

Roland Boer: Marxist Criticism of the Bible

Boer, Roland. Marxist Criticism of the Bible. London; New York: T & T Clark International, 2003. xii, 265 pp.
ISBN: 0826463274
0826463282 (pbk.)

Extracts provided by Google books:

Introduction: why Marxist theory?
Louis Althusser: the difficult birth of Israel in Genesis
Antonio Gramsci: the emergence of the 'prince' in Exodus
Terry Eagleton: the class struggles of Ruth
Henri Lefebvre: the production of space in 1 Samuel
Georg Lukacs: the contradictory world of Kings
Ernst Bloch: anti-Yahwism in Ezekiel
Theodor Adorno: the logic of divine justice in Isaiah
Fredric Jameson: the contradictions of form in the Psalms
Walter Benjamin: the impossible apocalyptic of Daniel
Conclusion: on the question of mode of production.

* * * *

In his introduction, Boer comments on the state of Bible studies and the role of theory within it. Apparently every fashionable theoretical conceit (my language, not Boer's) a la postmodernism is being trotted out these days, with the exception of Marxism, which remains marginalized. It becomes evident that Biblical hermeneutics should be considered a subset of literary criticism, and Marxist approaches merit greater attention.

Marxist studies of the Bible singled out are:

Norman Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh (1999)

Richard Horsley (on the New Testament), ed., Semeia 83/84: The Social World of the Hebrew Bible

Mark Sneed on class (1999)

Simkins on the mode of production (1999)

Gale Yee, Marxist-feminist interpretations of Bible, e.g. Genesis (1999).

The bibliography is not part of the Google preview, so this is the best I can do.

Marxist methods address a number of theoretical problems listed by Boer. Boer then summarizes the chapters to come.

* * * *

Boer reserves his highest praise for Adorno. Yay! Just as Adorno finds untenable paradox in Kierkegaard, Boer finds paradox in the attempt to link divine and social justice,a combination that does not compute. Adorno's technique of immanent critique and the teasing out of truth content which constitute dialectical criticism can serve the necessary cause of demythologization. Boer enumerates the various advantages of dialectical criticism. Adorno is relentless in turning Kierkegaard on his head, and in combating Benjamin's attempts to fuse metaphysics and historical materialism (pure theology would better serve the cause of Marxism!). Boer devotes some detail in analyzing Adorno's critique of Kierkegaard. Adorno finds ideological regression in the very theological premises of Kierkegaard's hermeneutics. Adorno links sacrifice to paradox, where Kierkegaard becomes undone. Sacrifice becomes demonic, and the logical conclusion of belief is nonbelief. Boer takes the example of Isaiah to deploy his interpretive method.

* * * *

There are also extracts from the chapters on Frederic Jameson and Walter Benjamin.

* * * *

It seems to me that there are important lessons to be drawn here, whether or not Boer intends the same lessons as I. Though his bottom-line subjective intentions are not clear to me, these are my priorities that I think Boer's work objectively addresses:

(1) The undermining of the legitimacy of liberation theology along with all other theology.

Marx dispensed with the entire future of liberation theology in advance, in the act of dispensing with Bauer and Feuerbach. Not that Marx preempted the need for further hermeneutical work and criticism on our species' symbolic productions, but that historical materialism is the inversion of myth and a permanent supersession of same. Liberation theology, death-of-God theology, process theology--all of this crap remains entrapped within the self-enclosed world of ideology just as surely as Bauer and Feuerbach were so entrapped. As poetical constructions they may be as good or bad as any other, but as truth claims they are all rotten to the core.

Marxist criticism did of course advance. Its most sophisticated stage is embodied in the work of Adorno and the early Horkheimer, committed to the decoding of idealism into materialism, and betrayed by the both of them in their unfortunately over-influential Dialectic of Enlightenment.

(2) The correction of lapses and misguided presumptions of Marxist tradition on the nature of religion, which, as far as I can tell, takes off from and remains largely guided by its relation to Christianity, not religion in general as it often seems to pretend. Furthermore, the notion of religion--Christianity, for all intents and purposes--as alienated compensation for man's thwarted best instincts is a highly limited view of its underlying violence and barbarism.

(3) A reversal of the decline of critical theory into narcissistic petty-bourgeois academic hack-work and absorption into the current climate of cultural decay and obscurantism, exemplified by postmodernism, and--to the point here--the appalling absorption of the work of the Frankfurt School into theology, a reactionary reversal of its original programme.

Secularism, Utopia & the Discernment of Myth

Boer, Roland. "Secularism, Utopia and the Discernment of Myth," Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies 7 (Fall 2005).

Roland Boer has written a number of books and articles on Marxism and religion, and has a blog, too. More on all that later. For the moment, this article . . .

Boer seeks a way to characterize properly the free-lance sensibilities of contemporary "spiritual experience". Four issues to address are: secularism, post-structuralism, utopian possibilities of religion, and the discernment of myths (after Ernst Bloch). I'm guessing that he really meant to write post-secularism rather than post-structuralism.

Post-secularism is manifested by the pervasive practice of asserting that one is spiritual, not religious. In the utopian realm, Boer seeks a shared language of spiritual experiences that do not erase differences. Secularism and post-secularism are inseparable and dialectically related. Contrary to the settled conception of secularization now, the concept was much contested in the 19th century prior to the interventions of Max Weber and Karl Lowith. Considering alternatives to the latter two, Boer begins with Walter Benjamin (The Origin of German Tragic Drama). Boer's description of Benjamin's notion of secularization is unintelligible to me, but it has something to do with the fall of theological/historical time into spatialization and taxonomy, termed "natural history". Benjamin's work reveals that religion has been (tacitly?) equated with Christianity, and secularization effectively equals the negation of Christianity. Religion is often assumed to pertain to the supermundane, supernatural realm, though it has taken on a broader meaning as well. Boer is unclear here, but he mentions anthropological studies and studies of religions outside of Christianity (and Judaism). All the analytical tools brought to bear on non-western non-Christian belief systems are actually secular translations of the categories of Christian religion.

Boer sees something pernicious in this, apparently, but his next move is to shifts to a discussion of Adorno's critiques of Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Key here is that . . .

The language of theology, appropriated by Heidegger and existentialism, has the distinct ideological role of producing patterns of subordination to an absolute authority, which became fascism rather than God and the Church. The theological language of existentialism - which drew its sacredness from the cult of authenticity rather than Christianity – becomes, for Adorno, an ideological schema particularly suited to fascism, for which it functioned not so much as an explicit statement, but as a “refuge,” a mystification that gave voice to an ostensible salvation from alienation that functioned as a virulent justification of oppression, the “smoldering evil” (Adorno 1965, 9) of fascism.
Boer equates this view to a critique of idolatry one can find in Adorno's writings. Proceeding further . . .
Secularization then becomes a process riven with contradictions, one whose rejection of Christianity relies on Christianity, and this, I would suggest, is one of the main reasons for the fact that secularization never quite seemed to succeed . . .
Boer's overall argument doesn't make a bit of sense to me. Mini-arguments here and there do, but the overall structure of the argument doesn't cohere. Here is one piece, though, that is exceptionally lucid, and socially accurate:
The flowering of the myriad forms of religious expression and experience for which the secularization hypothesis could not account is instead described in terms of spirituality, the properly post-secular religion. I don’t want to trace the Christian history of the term “spirituality,” but one of its features is that it relies upon the widespread knowledge of a whole range of religious practices that would not have been possible without the study of religions in the first place, without the endless cataloguing and study of religions from the most ancient, such as Sumeria and Babylon or pre-historic humans, to the most contemporary forms, such as the well-known Heaven’s Gate group that committed suicide, all shod with Nike shoes, when the comet Hale-Bopp appeared on earth’s horizon. Apparently emptied of doctrines to which one must adhere, or of institutions that carefully guard salvation, or of specific groups bound by language and ethnic identity, spirituality enables one to recover lost or repressed practices, such as Wicca or Yoruba sacrifice, but to pick and choose elements that seem to suit individual lifestyles or predilections. It allows one to designate the vitality of indigenous religions (which are no longer religion but spirituality), as a lost source of connectedness with the land, with nature, or other human beings. Unfortunately, however, spirituality’s private piety and devotion comes at the expense of any collective agenda. It also relies on both liberal pluralism and tolerance, as well as the profound reification of social and cultural life that is everywhere around us. You can practice your own particular spirituality in your small corner, as long you don’t bother me, we say. Like secularization, spirituality itself depends upon its own contradiction: both rely upon the religion they reject.
This is a dead-on description of all the upper middle class New Agers I've met in recent years.

Boer next shifts to a discussion of Utopia, taking off from the thought of Ernst Bloch. Again, there's a passage I can't make any sense out of:
What is often forgotten is that the hermeneutics of suspicion and recovery in political approaches such as feminism, post-colonial criticism and liberation theology owe a debt to Bloch. It seems to me that the effort to locate a shared language of “spiritual experience,” one that is sensitive to variations of social, political and cultural difference, relies upon a utopian project in the best sense(s) of the term.
One of Bloch's central insights was not only to discern utopian impulses, but to note that when they include yearning for a lost golden age, their regression has already set in. Utopianism should be future oriented.

The problem with seeking a shared language, as utopian hermeneutics does, is that religions embody mutually exclusive world views. And there is no unmediated experience. Attempts to transcend difference betray origins, as is the case with Rudolph Otto.

Once again, Boer's logic eludes me, but his next move is to seek a unifying principle in myth.
Even more than religion per se, the Enlightenment target of secularization was myth, a term that had acquired an unwieldy cluster of associations: untruth, confusion, fuzzy thinking, the ideology of oppression, and so on. Myth found itself driven from town to town, expelled by the enlightened burghers, only to retreat to the forests and deserts, the realm of Nature, where a few wayward individuals might have some use for it. Faced with the use of myth by the Nazis and other sundry fascists, with their notions of blood and soil and the Blond Beast, Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno saw only the negative aspects of the term. For Benjamin, the ultimate form of myth was capitalism, as he traced in The Arcades Project (1999), and so he sought a way beyond myth, a waking from the dream, that made use of biblical motifs. Unfortunately, he remained trapped within the myth of the Bible itself. For Adorno (1999), myth was the antithesis of utopia. Myth was the realm of the unitary principle, the abolition of non-identity that is characteristic of a world dominated by men. For both Adorno and Benjamin, utopia meant the end of myth.
Boer prefers Bloch:
For Bloch, myth is neither pure false consciousness that needs to be unmasked, nor a positive force without qualification. Like ideologies, all myths, no matter how repressive, have an emancipatory-utopian dimension that cannot be separated from deception and illusion. Thus, in the very process of manipulation and domination, myth also has a moment of utopian residue, an element that opens up other possibilities at the very point of failure. Bloch is particularly interested in biblical myth, for the subversive elements in the myths that interest him are enabled by ideologies both repetitious and repressive.
Further down . . .
At his best, Bloch’s discernment of myth is an extraordinary approach, for it enables us to interpret the myths of any religion or spirituality as neither completely reprehensible nor utterly beneficial. That is to say, it is precisely through and because of the myths of dominance and despotism that those of cunning and non-conformism can exist. It is not merely that we cannot understand the latter without the former, but that the former enables the latter.
Two examples from the Bible are given, the first concerning Eden, the second, death.
In the end, then, the value of religions like Christianity is that they have tapped into this utopian desire for something beyond death. Their mistake for Bloch is that they want to say something definite about death. But that something is hardly definite: it is mythology, and for that we need a discerning eye that can see both the liberating and repressive features of those myths.
I find Boer's conclusion most unsatisfactory and downright irritating:
If we follow through the dialectical relationship between secularism and post-secularism - a contradictory logic in which secularism turns out to rely on the Christianity it everywhere denies, a logic that appears starkly in a post-secularism that cannot be thought without secularism - then myth turns out to be the most urgent religious or spiritual question for us. Rather than the problem-ridden term “spirituality”, I have argued that Bloch’s hermeneutics of the discernment of myth provides not only a productive method, but also an approach to the utopian desire that lies behind any effort to find a shared “religious” or “spiritual” language. Such a language needs to be both critical and appreciative, for myths work in an extremely cunning fashion. It is a process that enables on the one hand the identification of those myths, or even elements within a myth, that are oppressive, misogynist, racist, that serve a ruling elite, and on the other, those which are subversive, liberating and properly socialist or even democratic ­ in other words, utopian.
I have a number of objections here, beginning with another instance of a chronic lack of logical clarity. How does Jewish secularism rely on Christianity? Or Indian, or Japanese? Suppose one rejects post-secular ideologies: New Age spirituality, etc.? Then how is myth the most urgent spiritual question, other than to neutralize it? Why should there be a spiritual language at all, shared or not? Why should anything subversive, liberating, or socialist be seen in mythical expressions in the 21st century? There's not an atom of it that is progressive in any way. Myth can only be productively scavenged retrospectively, by those not under its grip. Myth in any form is not adequate to the comprehension of contemporary society. Considering the problem more widely, popular symbology simply can't encapsulate the truth content of the state of our society at this time. Indeed, after the waning of the various countercultures of the 1950s-70s, I see nothing left for popular mythology to do. The good intentions of the past need to be salvaged as well as criticized for their naivete. (I've addressed this with respect to the individual mysticisms of avant-garde jazz musicians.) What myth is alive today needs to be killed off and dissected. In any case, Boer should be more clear and specific about what he's after.

Rosa Luxemburg on socialism & Christianity

The two texts of primary interest are:

An anti-clerical policy of Socialism (1903)

Socialism and the Churches (1905)

Note this very interesting essay by a prolific scholar of Marxism and religious studies:

Roland Boer, "Socialism, Christianity, and Rosa Luxemborg", Cultural Logic, 2007.

Boer finds that there has been too attention paid to the more sensational aspects of leading socialist figures' biographies and often not enough on their actual ideas. Such is the case with the martyred heroine Rosa Luxemburg. One biographer termed her linkage of early Christianity and communism a piece of historical sophistry. Boer is interested in a careful if skeptical examination, focusing on two major concerns:

(1) the political myth of an early Christian communism;
(2) the argument for freedom of conscience with respect to religious matters in the socialist movement.

Luxemburg's interventions were hardly merely historically and theoretically motivated. She had to convince Catholic Polish workers and peasants to ally themselves with the Social Democratic movement. The Catholic Church presented a formidable obstacle to socialism, and the triangulation of the Church in its competition and partial alliances with the bourgeoisie and the lower classes was a difficult one to negotiate. This accounts for the contradictions of Luxemburg's position. Sometimes she takes a straightforward anti-clerical position, but as her main enemy is the bourgeoisie, she at times argues that the clergy should take the side of the workers, but this is really to show the workers whose side they should be on were they true to their professed vocation. Boer finds her moralizing arguments questionable. Jeremiads against greed and selfishness in the abstract do not draw attention specifically to the character of social institutions, and concede too much to the theological language of sin and the metaphysical dichotomy of good and evil.

The preponderant balance of this article is devoted to analyzing Luxemburg's imaginative reconstruction of the early church and its similarity to the social democratic movement. Boer begins with a close reading of statements about the rich and the poor attributed to Jesus in the gospels themselves in comparison to the socialist perspective, looking for as close a match as feasible. The upshot, though, is that the fusion of the two perspectives carries over into the supernatural realm of eternal salvation and damnation, thus establishing a myth.

As for the church, the scenario is that the church of the exploited becomes a church of the exploiters. In reconstructing how this came to be, Luxemburg puts all of the Marxist method at her disposal to analyze the class structure and nature of production and distribution that characterized Roman and thus early Christian society. The transition in the church is attributed to the factor of size; at some point the partial sharing of wealth breaks down with the absenting of the wealthy from the poor communities and the growth of an intermediary clergy. The ascent of Christianity to a state religion sealed the deal, and the church has adapted to the rule of private property ever since. Luxemburg's characterizations of Rome (as driven by corruption) and of the medieval church are overly simplified. Yet this is an imaginative rewriting of history for popular consumption that evokes some admiration.

Curiously, Luxemburg repudiates anti-clericalism as a foundational position for socialism, as anti-clericalism historically is a tool of the bourgeoisie (especially in France). Furthermore, the bourgeoisie is inconsistent, for it never carries out a full-blown program of secularization. It may split the Church for tactical positioning, but will favor some church factions over others, empowering both itself and the church in the end. The bourgeoisie will also seek partial alliances with the working class (against feudalism) in the same manner and with the same objective of consolidating its own power. We end up with a contradiction between anti-clericalism and anti-anti-clericalism in Luxemburg's position, for the reasons described.

The argument for Christian communism is a myth, and while Boer shows skepticism for its veracity, he seems to admire its myth-making capacity, especially in the way that Luxemburg finds the early Church's situation analogous to the perspective of the social democratic movement. Apparently opinion has flipflopped as to whether the early church membership was predominantly poor. With close textual analysis Boer reveals the slip-ups in Luxemburg's argument. Neither Luxemburg nor Engels were the first or last to latch onto this political myth for their own social visions. The problem is, that by positing the original Christian community as a model, the degeneration of that mythical original community becomes mystified theologically as a fall, and the desire to enact a restoration, i.e. to look backward, is utterly reactionary.

Luxemburg, however, partially redeems herself by recognizing the distinction between production and consumption. A communism of consumption (merely distributing what has already been produced under the status quo mode of production) such as Christian communism had to be if it existed, is hardly a viable way to organize society, then, now, or in the future.

Finally, we come to the question of freedom of conscience (of belief and religious practice). Boer finds the notion suspect, because he dislikes the idea of the sacrosanct individual, and of liberalism in general. But he's finally willing to concede there's something in it after all, concluding that "only a fully collective program will enable the full realization of freedom of conscience."

All in all, Boer's analysis is quite illuminating. It is not crystal clear, however, exactly where he's coming from, his critique of political mythmaking notwithstanding. Some of the points he makes strike me as off in some way. Quoting Foucault, worries over essentialism, disdain toward liberal individualism (freedom of conscience) are eccentricities that call out for some suspicion.

It also seems that a punchline is missing. For one needs to ask: what is the state of a movement that requires mythmaking in the first place, and what are its prospects if the masses can only be won over on the basis of irrational appeals? And is the vision of Christianity in fact a savory one in the first place, or is it poison through and through, designed to appeal to self-deception, hypocrisy, and the logic of domination? And there's a more pointed question that Boer should have asked: was a Jewish intellectual like Rosa Luxemburg deluding herself that she could appeal to the better instincts of ignorant anti-Semitic Polish peasants by pandering to their religious mythology?

Roland Boer on Marxism & Religion (1)

I've recently discovered Roland Boer, who has written several books and articles on Marxism, politics, myth, and theology. He also has a blog:

Stalin's Moustache

One blog entry to check out:

Marxism and Religion: A Brief Guide

See also:

Criticism of Religion

Boer has a 5-volume series on Marxism and religion, titled Criticism of Heaven and Earth: On Marxism and Theology. Here he mentions some figures he writes about:

Lucien Goldmann
Fredric Jameson
Rosa Luxemburg
Karl Kautsky
Julia Kristeva
Alain Badiou
Giorgio Agamben
Georg Lukacs
Raymond Williams

Other blog entries of interest:

Criticism of Earth: On Marx, Engels and Theology

Political Myth: On the Use and Abuse of a Biblical Theme

. . . to which I've added a comment.

Political Grace: The Revolutionary Theology of John Calvin

Choice Biblical Morsels from Marx and Co.

A Communist Confession of Faith (while we wait for further news on NT Wrong)

. . . with comment from me.

Of Boer's articles online, to date I've reported on:

"Secularism, Utopia and the Discernment of Myth"

"Socialism, Christianity, and Rosa Luxemborg"

The next article up for review is:

"Terry Eagleton and the Vicissitudes of Christology," Cultural Logic, 2005.

. . . and there are more to be discussed.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Shaw on Ibsenism

The second edition of The Quintessence of Ibsenism (1913) by George Bernard Shaw can easily be found on Google books, e.g. via the link provided here.

However, this is not the most up-to-date edition, so I have provided the Preface to 3rd edition.

I have a few scattered memories from reading this book thirty years ago, most vividly, Shaw's derision of idealism. This cynical remark I remembered comes straight out of this preface.
"He might have thought the demolition of three monstrous idealist empires cheap at the cost of fifteen million idealists' lives."
The second chapter especially, on "Ideals and Idealists," is quite scathing about idealism, i.e. self-deceiving devotion to ideal values contradicted by reality in every instance, with respect to the institution of marriage. In a thought experiment Shaw postulates a community of 1000, out of which there will be 700 Philistines, 299 idealists (domestic failures), and one realist. The realist will be the object of opprobrium of all the rest. The following chapter, on "The Womanly Woman," could not be more scathing in its expose of the reality of gender relations and the social role allocated to women on contrast to the commonly accepted ideological obfuscation of same. Now Shaw is ready to embark on his explication of Ibsen's plays.

I suppose I remember this book as well as I do because I was impressed by Shaw's hard-hitting down-to-earth realism. While he never lost his edge in this respect, Shaw also diluted the realism of some of his plays with mystical nonsense about the "life force". Unless I'm forgetting something, you won't see that in his treatment of Ibsenism. Enjoy.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Uppity Adam

Thank you for not littering your mind

Atheist symbols

Looking for a graphic symbol for atheism? First check out "Atheist symbols" at Religious*

American Atheists

Empty Set (with variations)

Invisible Pink Unicorn

F***k'in A!

On the page for other non-theistic belief systems--Ethical groups, philosophies, spiritual paths, etc.--you will find:

Unitarian Universalist Symbol

Unitarian-Universalism * * * Universism

And don't forget this venerable religion:

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

And the symbol for humanism:

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Jewish atheist graphics

A picture is worth a thousand words . . .

Symbol of Jewish atheism

Symbol of Christian charity

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Jean Meslier archive

The Marxists Internet Archive has several texts by atheist priest Jean Meslier (1678-1733) collected in a Jean Meslier Archive:

The latest addition is the Conclusion (1728) to Memoire des Pensées et Sentiments in Oeuvres de Jean Meslier.

Note also a new print publication of the Marxists Internet Archive:

The Great Anger, Ultra-Revolutionary Writing in France from the Atheist Priest to the Bonnot Gang: A collection of texts and essays edited and translated by Mitchell Abidor. Published by Marxists Internet Archive Publications, 2009.

This is available from Erythrós Press and Media Store.