Thursday, October 15, 2015

Marxism, Materialism, and Biblical Literalism

While Paul was waiting for Silas and Timothy in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news that Jesus was the Christ.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.
Acts 17:16-21

Paul’s experience in Athens reminds me of my time at Wesleyan. Like the Athenians, we loved nothing better than “telling or hearing something new.” And, like Paul, we loved to argue and debate with anyone and everyone.

At Wesleyan’s College of Letters, our debates were sometimes deep and significant, at other times they were shallow and superficial. But always, they were intense.

One of my enduring memories is of a particularly intense discussion in response to a paper presented by a visiting scholar. I have no idea what the paper was about or who the presenter was. I remember that I had trouble following the logic of his argument, and I was listening closely as various professors made their formal responses. What stood out to me was that each of the respondents used the word “abstruse.” 

One after another they thanked our visiting scholar for his “complex” and “abstruse” analysis of whatever it was that he was analyzing. Eventually, as students entered the discussion, they echoed the professors’ judgments of this “complex” and “abstruse” presentation. And one by one they apologized, using the most scholarly sounding language, for not really understanding what this obviously brilliant man was saying.

As the discussion went on, one of our professors, Norman Rudich, became increasingly agitated. He rubbed his eyes as if trying to see through the fog of scholarly jargon. “Just because we don’t understand something,” he said with obvious frustration, “doesn’t mean that the argument is abstruse. It may just lack clarity.”

Other professors worked hard to make nice, but most of us were relieved. Dr. Rudich was almost totally blind, which only added to the symbolism. The Emperor had no clothes and it was the blind man who saw it first.

Norman Rudich was a professor of Romance Languages and Literatures at Wesleyan for more than thirty years. But he was best known for teaching Marxism. He was a committed Marxist and a devout atheist. 

In my junior year I took his Marxism course. It was a great intellectual exercise and later when I was studying Latin American Liberation Theology, it was important to have a context for understanding the Marxist analysis used by the Latin American theologians. Still, it was a strange experience. I don’t think any of us who took that course were true believers, but I was a special case. Dr. Rudich’s commitment to philosophical materialism and atheism made it impossible for him to admit that there was anything good in Christianity. Though he was basically a gentle man, his intellect and his certainty made him an intimidating figure. I never dared to ask him what he thought about Paul Tillich’s critique of Marxism as a secular religion.

I could understand the intellectual appeal of atheism, but I was convinced that materialism would never go anywhere. The idea that nothing is real beyond what we can see and touch seemed impossible. What about poetry? Can you reduce Shakespeare to materialism? Emily Dickinson, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Robert Frost, Walt Whitman. What about music? Mozart reduced to buzzing atoms and molecules. And what about love? 

Materialism seemed to make the world flat. Lacking depth and meaning. 

Much to my surprise, materialism has found new life. Almost no one claims to be a materialist, but many seem to see the world that way. Some of the new materialism comes with the new atheism, but many atheists are not materialists. Surprisingly, much of this new materialism comes from people who call themselves Christian.

Christian literalism is in many ways a new form of materialism. It reduces God to an object that exists along with other objects. In its quest for certainty, literalism gives us a god small enough to fit neatly into a materialist view of the universe.

In his blog called “On the Way,” Presbyterian pastor Kenneth Kovacs defines the literalism I am talking about:

Literalism is the belief, the philosophy, the attitude, the assumption that truth can only be found in exactness and certainty.  It’s an obsession (and it can be an obsession) with what is actual, literal, with the “letter of the law,” with the need to nail down (sometimes, actually) what is true and not true and then defending that “truth” at all costs. Literalism is a way of being and believing that seeks to maintain a tight “hold” on reality. It’s a way of being that is suspicious (perhaps paranoid) of anything that smacks of analogy or metaphor, of anything that leaves open the possibility of multiple meanings, of plurality.  For the literalist there can only be one interpretation of a text, whether sacred (such as the Koran or the Bible) or secular (such as the U. S. Constitution), only one meaning, only one way to believe and one way to be in the world.  The literalist will take a metaphor and try to turn it into a thing, an idea, a historic fact.  Or, a literalist fails to understand the meaning of a metaphor because s/he is, well, a literalist.

The god of Christian literalism cannot be seen and touched in the same way that we can see and touch other objects, but he (always “he”) can be observed, predicted and even manipulated, with certainty. The god of Christian literalism is not the One that Paul Tillich speaks of as the Ground of our Being, or the Ultimate Reality in our lives. The god of Christian literalism is not Being Itself. For the Christian literalist, symbol and mystery are replaced with a god who is small enough to be known with certainty, but ultimately is not worth knowing.

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