Paula Burghgraeve, Religiosity in atheism

in Leo Apostel, Rik Pinxten, et al., Religious atheism? (E.Story-Scientia: Belgium 1982)

Once this thesis is accepted, the meaning of the Bible is seen in a different light. It is no longer merely concerned with history of man and of his relation to god. It turns into a history of man situated in a social and economical background. Above all, it is a history of the man who breaks free from tutelage and domination.
Having interpreted the Bible in this way, Bloch can trace an evolution towards a definite type of atheism which is not devoid of religiosity. This is the type of atheism that is strongly linked with Bloch's doctrine of hope. In its elaboration this doctrine refers to marxism. From the argumentation that he develops, Bloch can conclude that a renewed understanding between Christians and atheists is not merely promoted by dialogue. True Christianity and true marxism have much in common in their contents. If they start from this common substance they can take each other seriously.

To Bloch, Christianity in its pure version (detached of all compromises with the ruling classes) is a doctrine that allows man to surpass himself by the perspective of a better future. Christianity offers ethical rules which act as a guarantee that the world becomes viable to each individual. It is not concerned with ethical rules which would show the individual how he can individually be better off than other people. The eschaton of Christianity can be compared to the utopia that takes shape through the human act of thinking. Yet it has a higher value than pure Utopia. Utopian thought as such remains wishful thinking. This, Bloch says, discredits Utopia. God's kingdom has nothing to do with wishful thinking. It is concerned with a new world the Christian believes to be realized in the future. In order that Utopia accomplishes its function, the conviction that it can be realized is necessary. Bloch sees as a minimal prerequisite the belief that the world and man are changeable entities and that change can be pushed into a definite direction by man. ...
The eschaton is both total change and change wished for. It is the new earth, the new heaven, the new man, all detached of the earth, heaven and man that exist now. The Christian Utopia of god's kingdom unifies the basic elements proper to functional or concrete Utopia.
Moreover Christianity, in Bloch's interpretation, displays another characteristic that fits in with his doctrine of hope. The author is conscious of the fact that hope for a better future needs food to prevent it from turning into despair. Man must believe he has some impact on the changes in himself and in the world. This means that man need not wait for help of god to realize the change wished for. In the interpretations of the Old Testament and the Gospel, Bloch traces the evolution from an unemancipated, servile, god-fearing man, completely submitted to fate, on to a man who identifies himself completely with god. This means that man himself decides what good or bad, what is desirable or reprehensible. This means as well that man does not accept evil any longer: he tries actively to avoid it or root it out.
This aspect of Bloch's interpretation explains his goodwill towards Christianity. By allowing the identification of man with god, Christianity leads up to atheism.

In the texts that Bloch devotes to Christianity we can trace the following positions.

  1. Original Christianity is characterized by:
    • the belief in a future change of all being;
    • the possibility to deny god as an entity by the identification of the man Jesus with god;

  2. Compromise Christianity is characterized by:
    • the abandoning of the eschaton which is replaced by a doctrine that is interiorized and aimed at hereafter;
    • the possibility to deny god as an entity by the identification of the man Jesus with god.

To Bloch these two forms of Christianity give way to two forms of atheism.
The former is affiliated to popular Christianity. The atheism that springs from it holds on to the eschaton. Therefore it preserves the essence of the Christian doctrine, ie. the new world and the new man on which the religiosity of true Christianity concentrated. This argumentation enables Bloch to claim that wherever there is hope, there is religion. [E. Bloch, Atheismus im Christentum p. 13]
The second form of atheism is linked with the Christianity of compromise. The denial of god also removes the hereafter that substituted by the tangible eschaton. Here, Bloch says, the void prevails. This pedestrian atheism is as far from Bloch as the Christianity of compromise that generated it, according to him. Bloch's doctrine of hope tries to provide the oppressed with the means to safeguard themselves against despair. The oppressed should at least hold on to the eschaton. Popular Christianity and the religious atheism that sprung from it, can serve this purpose. The religious atheism is professed by marxism which is totally structured to the purpose of the struggle for a better world. To stress the connection between true Christianity and marxism, Bloch replaces Marx's expression "religion is opium for the people" in its context. [cf. K. Marx, Einfuhrung zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie and E. Bloch, Atheismus im Christentum pp. 63-68]
From this context, it appears clearly that Marx is concerned with the forms of religion that inhibit man in his development. It is those forms of religion which make man fearful and submissive, that Marx combats. These do not include true Christianity according to Bloch.

Not to indulge in despair, not to creep away for the ruler, not to fall into the trap of slavish submission: all this can only be achieved if man learns to hope. Bloch thus turns the eschaton into the common creed of the true Christian and the true atheist. This claim he pushes to the limit as he can write in his introduction:

"Only an atheist can be a good Christian,
but at the same time only a Christian can be a good atheist."
[E. Bloch, Atheismus im Christentum p. 13]

An essential condition to avoid despair is to hold on to the eschaton. Bloch also couples the active involvement of man in the realization of the eschaton to this condition. The Christians have been waiting for its realization for two thousand years now. This is long enough to make man sink into a comfortless pessimism without any perspective. Apparently something has gone wrong with the realization of "the better world." The author treats this at length in his doctrine of hope. In this doctrine he points out that the realization of a better world is not based on a complete break between old and new. The new man and the new world grow slowly and gradually out of the man and the world that exist now. To circumscribe this evolution, Bloch introduces a series of categories. The eschaton of the Christian is termed the "ultimum" (ultimate) in Bloch's doctrine of hope. The ultimate is the final aim of the process leading to the creation of what is totally new. The ultimate, Bloch says, is the situation in which man obtains control of nearly all the alternatives of development in the world. These alternatives have been constructed deliberately by the man who is actively involved in the changing of what exists and what is known into what is consciously wished for and what does not yet exist. This is the movement directed towards the "novum," in the no man's land between present and future. The novum is "the new" discovered within the known world and it gradually tears itself away from it with help of man, to acquire a proper form and substance. The man who is actively interfering with his surroundings to transcend the evident and foreseeable, orients himself towards the ultimate. But the very impossibility to shape the ultimate overnight, draws the attention of man completely to the novum. The Christian can adopt this orientation too. The pessimism that a true Christian may feel as well as the religious atheist because of the absence of the eschaton or the ultimate, is avoided if action is determined by militant optimism.
Militant optimism aims at the ultimum as it steps from one novum to another. It contains no exaggerated enthusiasm for dream-visions which are not directly linked with the existent reality. It does not allow for the pessimism proper to the acceptance, out of lack of fantasy, of the existing and known reality.
It is the pragmatic attitude of the religious atheist and of the true Christian, both carried forward by their faith in ultimate or eschaton.

The dialogue between the religious atheist and the true Christian can, if we start from the points of agreement just traced, be orientated towards the search for appropriate action to be taken in common by both, in function of the eschaton or ultimate to be reached. In order to get closer to the ultimate, the religious atheist concentrates on the discovery and the realization of new aspects of being (= novum). These aspects are selected in function of the ultimate. If the ultimate (or eschaton) is rejected, we are stuck in a pedestrian atheism without perspectives (or in compromise Christianity). This brand of atheism, Bloch claims, offers no future perspective to man. The author does not see how atheism without an ultimate could give a sense to life without limiting it strictly to the individual. Compromise Christianity wants no change. Atheism without an ultimate obstructs the surpassing of strictly individual wish-dreams. To Bloch, this cannot lead man to devotion for the other. This lack of devotion means lack of struggle against exploitation and oppression. That is Bloch's conclusion.

The implications of accepting the eschaton.
We have followed Bloch through his interpretation and have tried to render his thought as faithfully as possible. In the course of the evolution of Bloch's thought a few axes can be outlined. We want to look critically at these axes and finally to proceed to an evaluation of his work.
In the first place it strikes us that Bloch distances himself consistently from several forms of belief. The belief in spirits, in forces which manipulate us consciously, in gods or in one god, in hereafter and so on: he reduces all these forms of belief to the same denominator. These beliefs are superstitions. They are harmful to the man who puts up with different kinds of secular oppression under the stress of these superstitions.

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