Helmut Gollwitzer, Marxism, and the Transcendence of God

This piece is part of a series of responses to the book Our God Loves Justice: An Introduction to Helmut Gollwitzer by W. Travis McMaken. We will be posting five responses to the book as part of this series. Our third contribution is from J. Scott Jackson.

J. Scott Jackson is an independent scholar and theologian who lives in Northampton, Massachusetts. He blogs at DET (http://derevth.blogspot.com).


What is the kingdom of God and how might it relate to struggles for social, economic, and political justice today? The life and thought of Helmut Gollwitzer, the 20th century German pastor and academic theologian, offer fertile ground for exploring these questions. Unfortunately, Gollwitzer’s work is woefully neglected today in the Anglo-American milieu, despite his proximity to such pivotal thinkers as Barth and Buber and his immersion in such key theology and political ethics as the debate between socialism and capitalism, the rise of liberation theologies, and the antinuclear movement.  W. Travis McMaken’s masterful study of Gollwitzer’s life and thought -- Our God Loves Justice -- covers much ground in beginning to remedy this neglect. In addition to situating the German thinker in his own contexts, McMaken draws Gollwitzer into conversation with such recent progressive movements as the rise of U.S. politicians who claim the mantle of democratic socialism as well as such anarchic stirrings as the Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter movements. From his work in the 1930s with the German church resistance to his solidarity with student protests in the 1960s, the Gollwitzer that this book portrays cuts an impressive and sympathetic figure for those (like me) who seek to integrate traditional theology and liberating praxis. In this post I focus more on the “theology proper” side of that equation, never forgetting McMaken’s admonition: Even the most abstract theological claims are ever contextually embedded, and thus inherently political.

From his initiation in Münster as Barth’s student (later, assistant) to his retirement in Berlin in 1975,  Gollwitzer remained an eschatological theologian, whose life and work embodied the already/not-yet character of faith and discipleship. On first blush, the not-yet pole of this dialectic might seem to predominate. This makes since in light of his intellectual biography and the existential and socio-political crises that forged it from the rise of National Socialism on into the Cold War. Gollwitzer’s theology meshes with a life-perspective that acknowledges dislocation and painful change as the rule of life rather than the exception. Thus, he affirms the radical transcendence of the God who remains totaliter aliter even in revelation and salvation, who encounters the human believer in the darkness of faith, who bids disciples to embrace a future riddled with uncertainties. He spurns any static theological ontology -- the God of Israel and Jesus Christ can never becomes a common feature of nature or experience to be taken for granted, or rendered controllable by objectifying concepts. Yet Gollwitzer, if I may put it this way, never takes dialectical theology itself undialectically; naked transcendence is not the whole story, and this fact bespeaks his debt to Martin Luther -- as mediated, especially through Barth and somewhat secondarily (as McMaken develops especially in his footnotes) Bultmann. To draw upon on Barthian terminology here, God is free only and always in God’s love toward God’s creatures. This One becomes real to us in the shattering density of an I-Thou encounter (Gollwitzer draws upon Buber on this point.) But, crucially, he takes a step all too often neglected in academic theology: He makes the leap to praxis. He engages -- better, perhaps, he plunders Marxist categories to unmask the exploitation of surplus value of labor that drives the technocratic and dehumanizing force of  capitalism. He respects and engages James H. Cone’s black power theology before that becomes a cool thing for white Christian intellectuals to do. He joins in solidarity with student protests. In sum, he shows how a right apprehension of the uncontrollable God issues in a transgressive, revolutionary praxis in pursuit of justice, peace, and equality for all.

McMaken’s section on Gollwitzer’s eschatology (see pp. 115-120) is concise -- all to brief, in my view; it left me with questions, to which I return below. But for its brevity, this section is not inconsequential but rather crystalizes the overall argument of the book, showing how Gollwitzer bridges theological claims and practical commitments. The set-up for this part of his argument is Gollwitzer’s critical and constructive engagement with Marxist theory. (McMaken has told me he presents Marx as a Protestant theologian to his students at Lindenwood University; now I think I understand a little better what he means by that.) At the tail end of the eschatology section is an apologia, controversial in his day as in ours, for democratic socialism as the normative shape for authentic discipleship in the socio-political sphere. But just what is socialism anyway? No need to dig out your Heilbrunner text from Economics 101. Gollwitzer’s definition is fairly broad but straightforward, and McMaken lays it out: “a socialist is someone who ‘maintains that a better society than the current one is possible and necessary’” (p. 105). Such a statement, on the first pass, might strike one as both a bit hoary and wistful but, as the rest of the book makes clear, Gollwitzer is anything but vague about what it means in practice -- that is to say, the true Christian is never satisfied that any program, any law, any polity has sufficiently captured or realized human progress; the true believer, driven by God’s insatiable love for justice, remains sharply critical of the powers that be and profoundly hopeful, even in those desperate wee hours of the morning when the garden-variety bourgeois “progressive” succumbs to a morass of self-pitying and self-flagellating cynicism.

Perhaps more than some of Marx’s “orthodox” and doctrinaire followers, Gollwitzer apparently took seriously the master’s eleventh thesis on Feuerbach -- that authentic philosophy aims to change the world -- retooling its wisdom in a Protestant theological key -- Eschatological theology is not naked theory: It is a fighting doctrine. Moreover, as a corrective to any reductively social constructivist rendering of human life in community, he reiterates the claim, found throughout the Synoptic Gospels that true religion is a matter of the heart. The socialist path he envisions entails a life-long metanoia, a process of conversion in which believers renounce all privilege and pretence and embrace solidarity with the oppressed. Unlike a truncated vision of charity, good intentions are not enough; the concomitant gesture is to work tirelessly to dismantle the systemic structures that created such the disparities of privilege and want in the first place. “[D]emocratic socialism,” McMaken explains, “embodies in concrete social structures the gospel’s priorities of justice and peace aimed at love -- in this case, a concrete political love” (pp. 115-116).

A theological question arises: How does this concrete socialism program relate to the transcendent kingdom of God? The first movement is decisively negative, disruptive, and deconstructive: Perception of the kingdom mobilizes liberation and justice movements by standing against not only existing structures of domination and inequality but also against all ideologized programs that would seek to remedy this imbalance without challenging the underlying logic of oppression. McMaken revisits Gollwtizer’s (sometimes surprising) critique of Marxist utopianism. The dialectical theologian affirms and uses the categories of economic analysis, so useful for pinpointing the ills of capitalism and technocracy, while rejecting anything that smacks of a totalizing worldview or an oppressive ideology, as he experienced it in Soviet Marxism. He partakes in the trend of some Cold War-era theological ethicists (i.e., Reinhold Niebuhr) to characterize Eastern-style statist Marxism as pseudo-theology, religious fanaticism of the worst and most deadly sort. Marx and Engels famously built upon Ludwig Feuerbach’s depiction of religion as a projection of unrealized human aspirations onto the canvas of a transcendent Other; Gollwitzer, it would seem, turns this Feuerbachian critique of religion back upon certain interpretations of Marxism themselves. The key problem is a truncated vision of the end of human life: “Marxism’s hope for the future is a hope without the transcendent” (p. 117). McMaken writes:

Marxism as a substitute-religion can be a powerful source of meaning, especially for those who are alive enough in their suffering, or to the suffering of their neighbors, to see its source in capitalist structures that have been and are legitimized by religious--and specifically, Christian -- institutions. But when compared with true Christianity, rather than with this counterfeit Christianity, Marxism as a substitute religion possesses a serious handicap: Christian hope is “much more radical and all embracing” (pp. 116-117).

In place of the God who love who loves justice and acts decisively to bring it about, the Marxist true believer is left with the cold comfort of a “secularized eschatology.” What is the consequence?

Human beings are left alone in their revolutionary struggle for liberation, and the only validation of meaning left to them is the progress of their struggle. But progress cannot bear this burden; the utopian dawn recedes doggedly into the future, the horizon darkens, and a resigned nihilism descends (p. 117).

Assessing these criticisms would take me too far afield. Suffice it to stress that Gollwitzer was deeply engaged with Marxist theory from his years in a Russian camp onward; as he would eventually recant his embrace of reformist capitalism, as McMaken shows, Gollwitzer would make more and more use of Marxist categories, but always with some critical reserve.

The thinness of Marxist accounts is especially apparent in a truncated anthropology that shortchanges individual dignity and agency; human beings become mere means to a greater social end. McMaken writes: “The solution to this quandary, then, is to understand humanity as directed outside of itself by way of a transcendence that disrupts the earthly-historical horizon” (p. 118). Given the eschatological character of God’s being in revelation, all human distinctions and programs, root and branch, are relativized and set aside. In turn, the divine revelation that dissolves all human idolatries gives them a new, positive basis.  “God’s Thou-objectivity remains always nonobjectifiable so that history is opened to a surplus of meaning, and creaturely life is imbued with a surplus of value as an end in itself” (ibid.)

This dialectical perspective, though, raises the question of how a transcendent God can be said to relate meaningfully to human history. Can the Wholly Other God seen in the mirror darkly truly mobilize efforts toward progressive social change? Why wouldn’t the proper response to such a God rather take the form of a detached and quietistic mysticism? If all cats are gray in an electoral process, how do we discern which ones win our votes? I think one way forward might be to retrieve a Pauline emphasis on a space for the new creation that is opened up by the transvaluation of all values that is the gospel. There might be no program, method, or party that can infallibly resolve the quandaries of life, but there is a certain shape or at least a trajectory to the Christian life. The Kingdom life, in dissolving all idolatries and reified systems, serves as “the form of life that God wills for God’s creatures” (ibid).

A properly eschatological reserve helps prevent the reduction of the kingdom to any finite vision of human flourishing. Gollwitzer offers a helpful typology. First, “absolute utopia” names the Christian hope in the transcendent kingdom. This utopia is “true socialism,” God’s ultimate vision for the shape of life on earth; it can never be fully realized in practice nor through human agency. Second, “relative utopia” pertains to an ideal vision of society that informs worldly practice; this form of socialism forms a finite analogue to absolute utopia. The third sort of utopia consists in a “social revolutionary program” -- the specific, strategic, and communally negotiated process of discerning the best proposals for promoting justice and human flourishing.

One might argue that this dialectical political theology is only fortuitously related to classical Christianity and its traditional doctrines and practices; I don’t think that has to be so. No mere abstract categorical imperative, the kingdom of God is, first of all, the content of the kergyma that animated primitive Christianity. McMaken writes: “It is the life of love with God and neighbor that Jesus proclaimed and embodied, which includes both a repairing of human failings and an affirmation of the value of creaturely life” (p. 118). Still, McMaken’s exposition here raises, for me, further christological questions: It might seem that the personal being and vocation of the Savior would form the natural loci for clarifying the connection between the transcendent God and the concrete demands of social justice. Building upon this account of Gollwitzer, might we depict Jesus is the one who embodies the kingdom of God not merely as dissolution of idolatries but also as self-giving love? Might we see the Son of God, enfleshed in our own common history, as the unique and unrepeatable embodiment of the transcendent Thou in our midst? Might there be resources in Gollwitzer for making this further step, whether he himself does so or not? I don’t know. At any rate, in his preface, McMaken throws down this gauntlet: If his book persuades even one person to engage Gollwitzer seriously, he efforts will have been be a success. His book as a whole makes a compelling case that at least some of us should make that effort.

[The top image was used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 License, was taken by Stiftung Haus der Geschichte , and is available at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ALudwig_Binder_Haus_der_Geschichte_Studentenrevolte_1968_2001_03_0275.4240_(16900018369).jpg]