Christian Faith in Dialogue with Herbert Marcuse

Marcuse observes the tension between the notion of liberation and its possibilities of historical realization.
He maintains that “On theoretical as well as empirical grounds, the dialectical concept pronounces its own hopelessness” (One-Dimensional Man (ODM), p. 253). Marcuse draws this conclusion on the basis that “The human reality is its history and, in it, contradictions do not explode by themselves” (ODM, p. 253, emphasis mine).
He asks, “Does this mean that the critical theory of society abdicates and leaves the field to an empirical sociology … ? Or do the dialectical concepts once again testify to their truth … ?” (ODM, p. 254).
Marcuse is both critical of and sympathetic to the dialectical analysis of society. He suggests that “‘Liberation of inherent possibilities’ no longer adequately expresses the historical alternative” (ODM, p. 255, emphasis mine), while contending that “the critique of society would still be valid and rational (even if) … incapable of translating its rationality into terms of historical practice” (ODM, pp. 254-255, emphasis and brackets mine).
The tension between Marcuse’s notion of the rationality of the dialectical analysis of society and his recognition of the decreasing likelihood of any historical realization of its ideal does not quench his revolutionary hope: “the chance is that … the historical extremes may meet again: the most advanced consciousness of humanity and its most exploited force. It is nothing but a chance.” (ODM, p. 257).
Acknowledging that the critical theory of society remains negative, holding no hope and showing no promise, Marcuse continues to advocate the absolute refusal to accept the established system despite the political impotence of this refusal (ODM, pp. 255-257).
The New Testament hope for the future is quite different from that of Marcuse.
Marcuse’s hope is directed towards the end of capitalism.
The Christian hope is directed towards the end of sin.
Marcuse speaks of the irrationality of capitalism which is characterized by internal contradiction.
The Christian faith speaks of the irrationality of sin: “There can be no reason for sin in God’s creation and the gifts of God, or in anything that God has wished for man and has given to man” (Berkouwer, Sin, p. 136, emphasis mine).Sin, in Christian theology, speaks of the internal contradiction which is central to man’s being – man, created in the image of God, has rebelled against his Creator.
Marcuse maintains that organized capitalism has a deceptive character which is designed to cover up the social and economic alienation which it has created – “deceptive liberties (are) … made into a powerful instrument of domination” which “sustain(s) alienation” (One-Dimensional Man (ODM), pp. 7-8).
This, according to Marcuse, is “one of the most vexing aspects of advanced industrial civilization: the rational character of its irrationality” (ODM, p. 9).
According to the Bible, sinful man has a deceptive character which is designed to cover up his self-alienation from God – “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9); “All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave, they use their tongues to deceive” (Romans 3:12-13).
Marcuse holds that the complete overthrow of the capitalist system is highly unlikely.
Observing that the critical theory of society defined “the actual contradictions in nineteenth century European society”, Marcus insists that “Confronted with the total character of the achievements of advanced industrial society, critical theory is left without the rationale for transcending this society” (ODM, p. xiv, emphasis mine).
He analyzes advanced industrial society thus: “advanced industrial society is capable of containing qualitative changes for the foreseeable future … forces and tendencies exist which may break this containment and explode the society … The first tendency is dominant, and whatever preconditions for a reversal may exist are being used to prevent it” (ODM, p. xv).
* The Christian faith maintains that a radical reversal of man’s sinful nature is humanly impossible. The contrast between the “highly unlikely” and “humanly impossible” emphasizes that, from the standpoint of man’s radical alienation from God, the Marxist concept of alienation is not radical enough since man does not have the power within himself to overcome this alienation which lies at the centre of his life” (S H Travis, I Believe in the Second Coming of Jesus (SCJ, p. 232).
* Christian ‘this-worldly’ hope is quite different from the idea of a secularized eschaton inferred from history itself. Bertrand Russell, whose hostility to religion was uncompromising as Marx’s and who was “one of the intellectual leaders of the left in politics” during the twentieth-century, discounted, discounted the predictive element in Marx’s thought as “unscientific, in the sense that there is no reason whatsoever to suppose (it) true” with this scathing comment – “Marx professed himself an atheist, but retained a cosmic optimism which only theism could justify” (History of Western Philosophy, p. 816, cited in C Brown, Philosophy and the Christian Faith, p. 137).
* Christian ‘this-worldly’ hope is not based on any anthropocentric attempt to logically infer the nature of society’s future from a particular interpretation of its past history. A penetrating critique of the anthropocentric attempt to logically infer the nature of society’s future from a particular interpretation of its past is found in K R Popper, The Poverty of Historicism.
* Christian ‘this-worldy’ hope is entirely bound up with faith in Jesus Christ as the Liberator. Christian ‘this-worldy’ hope is set in the context of Christ’s redemption which “consists in being redeemed from and redeemed unto” (Berkouwer, Faith and Sanctification, p. 181, emphasis original).
* Christian ‘this-worldly’ hope sets about changing the world, believing that Christ’s redeeming power is already operative in this present world. Christian ‘this-worldly’ hope, believing that Christ’s redemptive purpose awaits its final consummation beyond this present world, may never identify itself with the kind of optimistic Utopianism which tends towards a premature anticipation of the fullness of that redemption.
S H Travis emphasizes that “We do not have to choose between this world and the world to come, because the purpose of God embraces both” (SCJ, p.250). Critical of the Marxist future expectation, Travis writes, “any quest for a perfect society which has no possibility of a life beyond death is illusory. It offers nothing to those who are sacrificed in the present time for the sake of those who are expected to enjoy the promised utopia. And even for those who experience the future perfect society, their enjoyment of it will be short-lived” (p. 233). He draws a contrast between this “illusory and short-lived” hope and “a real hope of eternal life with God (which) sets us free from anxiety about death, and frees us to work for the transformation of this world” (p. 250).
Berkouwer insists that our thinking and living should not be controlled by the ‘this-worldly’ – ‘other-worldly’ dilemma: “On the route of faith and action, along with hope, we see that the gospel we believe is far removed from the picture of a future without bearing on the present, a heavenly hope without concern for the neighbour and his world” (A Half Century of Theology, p. 214).
Understanding Christian hope thus, Christian theology can receive the Marxist critique if religion appreciatively without surrendering the religious foundation upon which its social ethic is built. The Marxist critique is to be received with a humble confession of sin and a greater commitment to demonstrating, through deeds as well as words, the love of God for the whole man.

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