Marx | Church | Opium | Suspicion

Marx, along with Freud and Nietzsche, is regarded by Paul Ricoeur as one of the great masters of “suspicion.” But somehow Marx does not seem to have ever entertained the suspicion that ideology could have warped the thinking of the theologians and the interpreters of Scripture so that they ended up unwittingly interpreting it in a sense that served the interests of the ruling classes. Marx does not seem to have shown any interest in trying to find out whether distortion had crept into the Christian message and whether a new interpretation favoring he class struggle of the proletariat might be possible or even necessary.1

Opium den 1931 Paris, photographer: Brassai

I don’t know Marx as well as I should but I believe Fr. Segundo gives a fair assessment of Marx in the quote above. But I also want to be careful not to dismiss Marx because of his lack of suspicion regarding religion. I believe Marx had logical reasons, born from his life experiences, to not bother himself with digging deeper and developing a suspicious position in the manner we mean here.

In 1844, when he was only 26, Karl Marx took up the criticism of politics in a commentary of Hegel’s chief political treatise. In that document, Marx famously referred to religion as the opium of the people. A thousand times we’ve heard that phrase quoted. As expected, it set off a lot of Christians who ever since have claimed Marx’s ideas are incompatible with Christianity, thinking Marx is saying religion is merely a drug and if Christians will only pull themselves away from their stupor they might finally see reality. Other Christians felt Marx was showing his lack of knowledge about the social aspects of faith and if he were only willing to see then he would embrace the Christian gospel.

Let’s take a look at that phrase in context:

Religious suffering is at the same time an expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of men, is a demand for their real happiness. The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, the embryonic criticism of this vale of tears of which religion is the halo.2

By putting that phrase back into its immediate context we can see Marx’s understanding of religion is more nuanced than is often presented. Religion, rather being a mere drug of escape, becomes are kind necessary salve for real wounds, though not necessarily a solution to the cause of those wounds. Many Christians might disagree with Marx on this point, but it is an understandable conclusion for many who have had an experience of religion as a cultural force, which is most. As Michael Löwy says:

An attentive reading of the Marxian paragraph where this phrase appears reveals that it is more qualified and less one-sided than is usually believed. Although he is obviously critical of religion, Marx takes into account the dual character of the phenomenon[.]3

We can also see that Marx saw religion as symptomatic, that is, arising out of suffering. The implication is that if suffering were totally eliminated then religion would be no longer needed.

The more I ponder these words the more I think Marx was correct. First, religion is an opiate much of the time for many people, and I’m sure it made sense to Marx from the evidence around him. This seems undeniable. And the opiate nature of religion has been used by both oppressors and oppressed to manage, justify, excuse, and accept the structures of power. Many Christians push back because they don’t want to see this is true of themselves, but many more find a kind of escapist solace in forms of Christian worship that divert their eyes and minds from suffering and the material causes of suffering.

Second, it’s true that religion is a kind of sigh of the oppressed. “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.” We look to God for salvation; we seek healing and liberation. Christians are told God hears our cries. Many of our prayers are pleas to God for help. This sigh is built into our liturgies.

Third, when suffering is no more so also religion will no longer be needed. Christians believe that when Christ returns and there is a new Heaven and a new Earth and sin and all its effects will be vanquished. We will be in full communion with God, fully divinized, and thus will no longer need religion as a mean of perfection.

On the surface, Segundos’s assessment of Marx appears to make sense. Calling religion the opium of the people has the hallmarks of a quick dismissal, a rhetorical flourish and a wave of the hand at the local pub. However, given Marx’s theories of alienation and fetish, and given his formation under the philosophical force of Hegel and the Young Hegelians, it makes sense to consider his idea of religion being an opiate (he wasn’t the first to say this either) as a deep and rather insightful, though perhaps overly terse, critique of the society in which he lived.

Religion was not a merely personal, and certainly not a private, affair in 19th century Europe. Religion was overtly interwoven into the fabric of society. Marx’s father was a Jew who converted to Protestantism in order to have a chance at forging a career and supporting his family, a common choice for many German Jews at that time. Thus religion was a visible controlling tool used to create boundaries of social, political, and economic inclusion and exclusion and thus enforce a kind of caste system. Along with the “Jewish question” and the exclusion of Jews who remained faithful Jews, Catholics and Protestants warred against each other, not merely because of the Reformation but because of the Napoleonic wars which pitted the Catholic French against the Protestant Germans (and others). Many Germans were Catholic and this created tension for them in a post-Napoleon Germany. This created the world into which Marx was born.

A young Karl source

And consider this bit about his high school education in Trier

His classmates were divided into two groups, largely by religion. Most of the Catholics were from modest backgrounds, typically intending to go on to the Tier Theological Seminary and become priests. By contrast, the seven Protestants [of a total of only 32] in the class were from families of government officials, professionals, or army officers: they were heading for the university to study law, medicine, or public administration. Forty years laters, Marx would remember the Catholic pupils in his class as a bunch of “peasant dolts,” probably reflecting the opinion their Protestant classmates from more affluent and better-educated families had of them.4

Arguably, Marx must have felt he understood religion enough to take it for how it presented itself. That he did not approach religion with an attitude of suspicion is a significant gap in his thinking, certainly, but not illogical.

More importantly is the prevalent lack of suspicion by the Church of its own history and received interpretations. When suspicion is thoughtfully and seriously elevated, such as with Liberation Theology, many Catholics see it as a threat. It is sad but predictable that many Catholics, especially those in the so-called developed nations or in positions of social power, cannot fathom the idea that distortion may have crept into the Christian message and purveyed via seminaries, homilies, and formation. But the world, and the Gospel itself, is in need of interpretations that favor liberation, focus on material conditions, recognize class differences and the struggle of the proletariate, the poor, and the oppressed. In fact, they (especially the Church hierarchy) have too often actively supported the suppression of such ideas. (This has been well documented so I won’t go into it here.) Thus religion does, in fact, become the opiate of the people and the Church pushers.

We might fault Marx for his lack of suspicion when considering religion, but the more significant fault lies at the feet of the Church. But so does the solution.

1Juan Luis Segundo, Liberation of Theology (Eugene, Or.: Wipf And Stock Pub, 2002), 17.

2Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Marx-Engels-Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York, New York: Norton, 1972), 12.

3Michael Löwy, The War of Gods: Religion and Politics in Latin America (London: Verso, 1996), 4.

4Jonathan Sperber, Karl Marx: A Nineteenth-Century Life (New York, New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2014), 26-27.

Seven images of Joan

The following seven frames are from Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928). They occur just after Joan has been told that she will not be allowed to attend mass.

There are so many memorable moments in this incredible film that it is hard to pick out any one, but this brief moment caught me emotionally. It seems to exemplify the role that religion so often plays in claiming rights it can only pretend to own.

The spiritual disciplines of a married woman

Typically one does not go to Godard seeking a spiritual film. Not that his films are devoid of spiritual concerns (his 1985 film Je vous salue, Marie deals directly with spiritual concerns) but Tarkovsky or Bresson or Kieslowski are more typical choices for spiritual cinema. On the other hand, through a different lens as it were, Godard is a very spiritual director, particularly when it comes to his critiques of modern society. On the surface he catalogs – in his own dry humor – the many phenomena of our strange and extravagant late-industrial culture with all of its gaudy materialism, its objects, and its fetishes. And yet are not his characters often living out their new modern spirituality in a sea of things, words, actions, violence, sex, love, books, images, ideas, advertising, and every other signifier of something other? That something other may, in fact, be faith. The question, then, is what is this modern faith?

Godard’s cinema has always been a cinema de jour. His emerges from the endless world of the now. In this age where “God is dead” the drive within each of us for meaning, and finding that meaning in relation to something outside of ourselves, has not gone away. If we find no God we will make one, and as is always the case, we fashion our gods according to our own needs and desires, and in our own image. We then adopt forms of spiritual disciplines that serve our image of God and the imagined requirements of our new spirituality.

What is a spiritual discipline? There are numerous definitions but, in short, a spiritual discipline is a habit or regular pattern of specific actions repeatedly observed in order to bring one into closer relation to God and to what God desires for one to know. It is something one does as an act of devotion and a means of advancement or growth.

How do we see this playing itself out in Godard’s films? In À bout de souffle (1960), a paean to the Hollywood gangster film, Michel exhibits a kind of ritualistic and constant homage to the film gangster archetype, Humphrey Bogart. He goes through the motions, adopts character traits, tropes, stylistic postures, and language to inhabit the ideal of his film hero. His focus and devotion are fundamentally religious, and his actions play out like spiritual disciplines – immature and humorous at times, but spiritual disciplines nonetheless. What Godard gives us in his unique way is a portrait of the spiritual status of French youth in 1960. In a world where traditional religious options fade they are replaced by a new religion, that of the cinema. In the end Michel dies as a martyr to his faith.

In Une femme mariée: Suite de fragments d’un film tourné en 1964 (1964) Godard presents another kind of spirituality, that of the sexual body in a consumeristic world. Although sexuality is one of the oldest “religions” in human history Godard examines it within a thoroughly modern context. Charlotte, who is married to one man and in love with another, is juggling her relationships while gauging herself against the constant inputs she receives (accepts, seeks) from advertising – in particular, advertisements about female beauty and, especially, those pertaining to the ideal bust. Her life becomes a constant calculation of actions – maybe motions is a better word – to present herself both to the world and to herself. She becomes both priestess and offering at the altar of modern woman.

One scene in the film highlights Charlotte’s commitments. Here she is finishing her bath.


She meditates (on what we do not know) with perhaps an intelligent expression, perhaps vacuous. She exits the bath. The camera followers her legs. She dries off.


She then used scissors to trim her leg hair.


Then trims her already carefully coiffed locks.


She then trims her pubic hair.


The camera does not follow the scissors, but we hear them and assume she is not trimming her bellybutton hair.

European films of the 1960s gained a reputation in the U.S. for being risqué. Though tame by today’s standards, to have a woman trim her pubic hair, even if only suggested, would have called attention to itself, and Godard makes sure the camera holds long enough for us to notice. Within the context of the film this shot makes a great deal of sense. Her bathing and grooming, and the calling attention to the details of her actions present to us the actions of her spirituality, her disciplines. This is not a world without a god, rather it is a world of many gods (her husband worships airplanes and is a pilot) and her god is a combination of love, sex, her body, her image as woman, etc. In this quiet moment we are voyeurs to her prayer, to her communion.

More than Godard’s other films of this era Une femme mariée is a highly formalized, stylish, and unusually crafted visual fugue of body parts, actions and gestures, and environments. At times we are drawn toward comparisons with Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928) for its uncompromising formalism and spiritual quest of its protagonist, and to Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) also for its formalism, sexuality and the spiritual struggle of its characters in light of nuclear weapons. Godard takes the next step to characterize the spiritual quest of the modern woman (we should included men as well, though that is sometimes debatable with Godard) as neither traditionally religious/Christian or driven by existential terror, rather the new spirituality is a commodity based religion of self-image mediated through the world of late industrial production and consumerism. What makes this work, and elevates the film, is that Godard’s characters do not suffer the anguish of extreme religious piety or existential nihilism, rather they fully inhabit their world as accepting individuals who embrace the proscriptions of their circumstances – like peasants in medieval Europe, like good 20th century bourgeoisie.

In this way Godard stands as one of the more significant artists of the late modern/post-modern period. Later he would take these themes to greater and more political heights with such films as 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle (1967) and Weekend (1967). Godard, though thoroughly materialistic, may also be a more spiritual director than most – a consideration we do not consider enough.

Who inherits the earth?

Protesters outside the G20 in Pittsburgh
demanding fundamental change.

Consider these quotes:

“The great and chief end…of men’s uniting into commonwealths and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property.”

~ John Locke, 1689

“But as the necessity of civil government gradually grows up with the acquisition of valuable property, so the principal causes which naturally introduce subordination gradually grow up with the growth of that valuable property.”

~ Adam Smith, 1776

“Till there be property there can be no government, the very end of which is to secure wealth, and to defend the rich from the poor.”

~ Adam Smith, 1776

Pittsburgh police, defending the rich
from the poor at the G20.

If you didn’t know who wrote these words you might think they were from the pen of Karl Marx. Interesting. More substantive than economic systems and their ideologies (and their debates) is the concentration of power and its supporting hegemonies. In other words its all about who inherits the earth and how they keep it. Little do they know…

“Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth. ”

~ Jesus, c. 30

The gentle, or meek, have a different relationship to property and wealth than those who climb over others to make the world their own. It is not that they do not want the world, it is that they recognize having the world for their own is not worth being the kind of person who has no interest in loving others as their primary motivation. To love the world is to give up loving people. It is not a good trade – no matter how free the market. Gaining the world is not worth a lousy character, and no amount of economic ideology can convince otherwise.

Mr. Obama hamming at the G20.

Questions of character are always personal, but what about our institutions of power? We live in a world that places a kind of sacred halo around the idea of private property. We know that the Declaration of Independence almost contained the phrase “life, liberty and the protection of property.” I don’t want anyone to take my home away from me, but I have to think that the ownership of property and all its attendant rights (real or perceived) only gets understood as sacred in a world that has turned its back on truth. The irony is not merely that to gain the whole world is to lose one’s soul, but also to gain one’s soul is to gain the world.

There is that old adage that all governments lie. It is just as true that governments, first and foremost, exist to protect the haves and the things they own. Only secondarily, and usually through great struggle, are benefits secured for the have-nots.

I stand, in spirit, with the protesters who call for change and accountability from our governments and the captains of industry. I stand against the obvious seeking of power and influence for selfish ends. I stand against clearcutting forests and mountain top removal mining, and against the pollution of our air and water, and against insurance companies managing our healthcare, and subsidies to weapons manufacturers and to farmers of vast genetically modified monocultures. And I stand against the use of violence to solve problems, such as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (The list can go on and on.) On the other hand, I cannot demand that those in power give up the world, as it were, so that I might have it instead. Though my power and influence is small, I am not morally superior than they. Rather, they must give up the world because it does not belong to them.

Goodnight September Eleventh

“In a Parish” by Czesław Miłosz, trans. from the Polish by Miłosz and Robert Hass. Read by Haas on Fresh Air on NPR remembering 9/11.


Were I not frail and half broken inside I wouldn’t be thinking of them who are like me half broken inside. I would not climb the cemetery hill by the church to get rid of my self pity. Crazy Sophies, Michaels who lost every battle, self-destructive Agathas lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death. And who is going to express them. Their mumblings, weepings, hopes, tears of humiliation in hospital muck and the smell of urine with their weak and contorted limbs and eternity close by, improper indecent like a dollhouse crushed by wheels, like an elephant trampling a beetle, an ocean drowning an island. Our stupidity and childishness do nothing to fit us for this variety of last things. They had no time to grasp anything of their individual lives. Any principiam individuaisonous(ph) nor do I grasp, yet what can I do enclosed all my life in a nutshell trying in vain to become something completely different from what I was. Thus we go down into the earth, my fellow parishioners, with the hope that the trumpet of judgment will call us by our names instead of eternity, greenness and the movement of clouds they rise then thousands of Sophies, Michaels, Matthews, Marias, Agathas, Bartholomews so at last they know why and for what reason.


>Lord, Save Us From Your Followers


This is a plug for a little documentary/polemic that I found myself truly enjoying. I meant to post this months ago, but it got lost in the shuffle somehow.

Recently I watched a documentary three times in rather short succession; first by myself, then with my wife, then again with my daughter. (And then I loaned it out to someone, but I can’t remember who.) Each time it has challenged me, at moments moved me to tears, brought about conviction, made me laugh, and truly encouraged me. The film is Lord, Save Us from Your Followers by Dan Merchant (Writer/Director/Producer) and Jeff Martin (Executive Producer).

A large part of the film is an overview of how Christians are viewed in popular culture. This overview includes interviews and television clips of many people, including Bill Maher, John Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, and many others. Many of these clips are priceless and spot on. Dan Merchant also walked the streets in his bumper-sticker suit interviewing people.

Although the suit is a bit of a stunt, it did help people open up their thoughts.

Many ordinary people said, in short, that they like and admire Jesus, but they don’t like Christians very much. Funny thing, I am a Christian and I generally feel the same way. Tony Campolo had some of the best moments in the film. He is a devoted Christian who wonderfully discussed this contradiction we call Christianity. He states how all too often the “church” is an exemplar of hypocrisy while still being the “vessel” that has carried the gospel and preserved the Bible.

But what got me the most are the four end segments that focus on the ways some Christians have set aside all the garbage of the “Christian right” and looked instead to Jesus as their example.

Helping rebuild after hurricane Katrina:

Seeking forgiveness for the way Christians
have treated (and still treat) gays and lesbians:

Bringing help to starving communities, and
especially children, in Africa by bringing food,
medicine, and planting crops:

Comforting and helping the homeless:

Each of these segments brought tears to my eyes and deeply convicted me for my selfishness and self-absorption. They also challenged me to consider the kind of community, Christian or otherwise, I want to live in and how I might help make it happen.

I will recommend this film for anyone, but in particular for Christians. My suggestion is to watch it with a group and then discuss its implications afterwards. I don’t typically plug films on my blog, but I have to say this little, low budget film is worth seeing.

>christian imperfect subjunctive

>I grew up going to church. I still attend a church, but it is not the same kind I grew up with. I see a lot of that happening with Christians; growing up in one kind of church and/or denomination and switching to another as adults.

I’m sure there are as many reasons as there are individuals who make the switch. And there are are some big trends that have been well documented, such as Protestants converting to the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, and vice versa. For me, I can only account for my own experience.

I grew up in a Baptist church, a church that my family, including grandparents, had been long time members. That church experience has had a long term and profound affect on my life, including my theological propensities. As a kid I was very interested in sorting out many theological and Christian questions. I wanted to know who God was, how I was supposed to live, what it meant to be a Christian in this world, what values should be at the top on my list, and so on. I am still sorting out those things. The fact that I am still “in process” as it were would not bode well in the church of my youth, though that church as it is today may have changed.

There were a number of beliefs and actions that Baptist church emphasized, including the importance of being a member of the church, the importance of being baptized, the importance of bringing one’s Bible to church, and the importance of attending church. Other things included the importance of one’s “walk” with God, one’s personal relationship with Jesus, consistently having a “quiet time,” developing a life of prayer, reading the Bible for oneself on a regular basis, and evangelizing others. Underlying all these things were fundamental beliefs in the presence of a personal God, the lordship of Jesus, the inerrancy of the Bible, and the need for salvation of each individual, and so on.

There was also the culture which contained, maintained, and pushed certain ideas that, if directly challenged, would have produced some backpedalling and heavy qualifications but, nonetheless, were corporately held. Such as the demonization of Catholicism, and the strong sense that we’re still fighting the Reformation, and maybe most of all, and almost entirely unrecognized, the blending of apologetics & hermeneutics with the Enlightenment project (the belief in the power of human rationality apart from God to establish reliable, universally recognized scientific and moral knowledge).

My perspectives have changed on those beliefs and actions. Some I still hold to firmly, others I do not. More importantly to my personal journey of faith, I would say the definitions have shifted. For an example, most Christians believe reading the Bible is important. It is common for Baptists to feel the weighty expectation of bringing one’s own Bible to church on Sunday. But what does this really mean? As part of the Protestant tradition the Bible, read by the individual in the vernacular on a regular basis, is of the highest importance. What I found, however, was the tendency of those church members (including myself) to read their Bible frequently, but to understand it to say those things they have already been taught. In other words, the apparent act of reading had everything to do with merely reaffirming held doctrine rather than letting the text say what it means. To let the text say what it says is hard enough without the pressure and example of a subculture encouraging one to read, essentially, closed-mindedly. This is one of the biggest and most serious problems in Christianity as far as I’m concerned. Later, toward the end of my college years, I began to understand what it really meant to read the Bible with a mindset that would allow for my held beliefs to be substantially challenged, and it blew my mind, not to say rearranged my life as well – and I’m still not that good at it.

The reasons for my change is a long and involved story, but in short I can say that I was a person with many questions, in the midst of a crisis of religion (but not of faith oddly enough), I valued rationality as well as process, and then I found myself almost accidentally in a community that was committed to the radical pursuit of truth. I say radical because I have come to believe commitment to truth no matter where it may lead is fundamentally discouraged in Christendom and its numerous permutations. I must emphasize the critical thinking nature of this community because my shift was not so much about interpersonal relationships. Where I was coming from was loaded with good people and good relationships. I was not running from failed relationships or because I did not like the people with whom I was fellowshiping. My need to get away had everything to do with getting my head on straight and re-examining my theological assumptions and my worldview.

This community where I ended was called McKenzie Study Center and it is still around in some fashion. It was not unlike the famous L’Abri Fellowship. What that place taught me, or I should say the staff taught me, was a different philosophy of ministry, and that made all the difference. Because of my own experience I tend to think of my philosophies of ministry in terms of the “old way” and the “new way”, but the “old way” is still the primary approach in most churches I am sure. The old way has several characteristics that I dislike. These include: 1) the belief that all theological questions have already been answered, 2) apparent theological conundrums are mysteries and therefore touchpoints of our faith, 3) the role of the preacher is to proclaim the truth with passion, emotion, and rhetorical skills such that the listener is “moved” closer to God and truth, 4) a church service is not a place for questions or dialog – the preacher preaches and you listen, 5) struggling to understand and digest church doctrine is a sign of immaturity in the faith, 6) church is about an experience – created and carefully controlled by professionals, 7) the arts have a place in Christian life and culture as long as they are “in service” to God (if you have acting skills you can perform skits in the youth group, or music skills you can lead worship, etc.), 8) pastors are not to be “in process” about either their faith or their understanding of the the Bible, 9) in fact, the goal is that each of us get beyond being “in process” as quickly as possible because being a mature Christian is to have no more doubts or questions, and 10) going to church, reading the Bible every day, and praying a lot with conviction is critical for the life of any Christian.

I have just said a mouthful, and I know many Christians would take issue with some of these points. But my experience, and the experience of many others, confirms these things to be true. If a pastor or ardent churchgoer tells you otherwise they are confused or lying. There are many other aspects of our Christian culture, both present and past, that are un-Biblical and abhorrent. The wonderful irony, and what gives me much hope for myself and others, is that many, many people who regularly attend church and are immersed in the Christian subculture are people dedicated to knowing God, loving others, and working out their faith everyday in fear and trembling. And the church I currently attend is far from perfect, though it suits many of my preferences better than my old church. It’s not really about church anyway, it’s what underlies the reasons we get together and what it is we are trying to encourage.

I also must conclude by saying that not only is my journey far from over, and my seeking far from completed, but that my present “clarity” about Christianity is just as much run through with my own sinfulness as it ever was. I have come to believe that just about the dumbest thing Christians could ever do is hold themselves up as a model of righteousness or even of right living. What I hope for Christianity is that it would move out of the swamp and into a place where 1) we know that theology is an ongoing process and many questions must still be answered, 2) that “believing anyway” even though something doesn’t make sense is not a touchstone of faith but an issue to resolve, 3) that pastors must be committed to truth more than their charisma, 4) that church should be a place where questions are welcome and pastors will even stop their sermon to recognize a raised hand, 5) that the struggling to understand doctrine may be both a sign of maturity as well as confusing doctrine, 6) that church is a place for all of us to contribute in creative and different ways, that authenticity is far more valuable than professionalism, and that worship is not singing songs in church, 7) that the arts need no justification, 8) that pastors must be “in process” both personally and theologically, and that process should be made known and not hidden, 9) that our goal is not to get beyond being “in process” but that our process is the working out of our faith, including our doctrines, and 10) that our lives as Christians are first and foremost the work of God in us, all the rest is just extra.

If I had an eleventh point it would be that there are no formulas, including the list above, to making Christianity, or one’s journey in faith, better. There is only life and faith and God and us.