OUR SECULAR THEODICY
I live in Berkeley, one of the most religious cities in America. Its churches are being converted into mosques and Buddhist temples, but its one true faith endures. A popular yard sign states its creed: “In This House, We Believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love, and Kindness is Everything.” The sign is both profession and prophecy. Like the biblical Joshua whose promise it echoes (“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”), my neighbors are in a holy vanguard. They have seen the future America, have identified its present enemies, and are leading us into a promised land.
The biblical politics of my secular neighbors would not have been lost on Ernst Bloch. Bloch was an atheist who believed Jesus was the Messiah, a Stalinist who disagreed with Marx, and a materialist who embraced natural law theory. For the moment you will have to take my word that this can make sense and that it is worth the modest effort to understand how. You would be within your rights to be skeptical. No doctrine has been refuted so often as Marxism, and the debates that consumed Bloch’s long life are dead. Yet the utopian spirit to which he gave original, sometimes brilliant, and more often bizarre expression has never been more alive, and to visit his work is to witness a moment when Christian faith began to transmute itself into the progressive creeds of today.
In a series of books beginning in 1918 and ending shortly before his death in 1977, Bloch proposed that the central category for understanding politics is eschatology—our anticipation of a future society that will reveal the meaning of human history and redeem its fallen state. He named this kingdom “utopia” and argued that its arrival is the object of every human hope and the justification of every human suffering. Bloch lived under Hitler, Vichy, and the gaze of Walter Ulbricht, the Stalinist leader of East Germany, making his work an anguished commentary on the darkest moments of the twentieth century. But his millennial hopes, expressed in critical dialogue with Christian theology, continue to inspire many.
Bloch is a guide into the concealed theology of contemporary liberalism, whose outlook remains profoundly, if paradoxically, biblical in one respect. Having rejected a Christian understanding of nature, it retains an intensely Christian understanding of history. It sees human history as goal-oriented and our advancement as a series of conversions and liberations, the outcome of which is the creation of a community that can redeem our fallen history. Bloch appreciated, as deeply as any modern thinker, that this is not a secular understanding of time. It is a biblical story, told in the misleading language of progressive politics. But how can history have a moral direction at all? And how did Christianity come to be placed on the wrong side of it? Bloch offers a fascinating explanation of this theological reversal, showing us how a politics Christian in origin could become anti-Christian in intention.
The Principle of Hope is the greatest defense of Marxism ever attempted. Bloch wrote it during a decadelong exile in New York and Cambridge, completing it shortly before accepting a university appointment at Leipzig in 1948. It is, by unanimous consent, a repellently written book, composed of three volumes and 1,500 punishing pages of Marxist analysis. I do not casually recommend reading it. But for those with a tolerance for inscrutable syntax, opaque jokes, and clumsy neologisms, it is a work of extraordinary ambition.
Bloch seeks to explain all of reality. And his message is simple. He tells us what human beings are: They are hope. Hope is not something human beings do. Hope is what human beings are. For what do we hope? For Christians, hope strengthens the will to seek and attain happiness in union with God. It is a theological virtue that judges the promise of eternal life with Christ as more trustworthy than the plain observation that death is more powerful than life. “Although He shall kill me,” says Job, “I should trust in Him.” The Latin word for hope (spes) is related etymologically to its word for foot (pes). Christians live in hope because they are on a journey, finding no permanent home during their pilgrimage on earth.