Neil Hinnem: Do Christianity and Marxism share a common ground rooted in historical-dialectics? An assessment of José Miranda’s Marx and the Bible

It is unsurprising that José Miranda’s Marx and the Bible is an integral text in the corpus of first generation liberation theology. The work stands out for its close engagement with Marx and its considerable interpretative skill, written by a theologian educated at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome, who had previously studied sociology in the Frankfurt School. Undoubtedly the work has proved very controversial; even in its infancy it was rejected as a thesis submission by the Pontifical Biblical Institute. The key to this controversy lies in the conclusion of the book: that Marx is an ally of faith, which is correctly understood as dialectical. This essay will critically examine how Miranda’s theology and biblical exegesis can lead to this positive engagement with Marx.

Liberation theology and Marx.

Arguing that Marx should be used in the construction of a theology is of course not unique to Miranda. By using the tools of critical social sciences, liberation theology finds Marx’s critique of capitalism especially relevant to understanding oppression. As Bonino summarises, doing theology in the context of Latin America has led to the discovery of “the unsubstitutable relevance of Marxism”.1 Whilst it is true for some liberation theologians that the use of Marxist tools must be “disconnected from their philosophical presuppositions in dialectical materialism”2, Miranda stands within a tradition that emphasises the links between theology and Marx’s historical-dialectics.3 A ‘connection’ between the Bible and Marx can be found in their shared perspective on history. Miranda highlights the importance of the ultimum (or end-point) of history in both the Bible and Marx’s writings.4 He also highlights the limitless “subversion” of the Bible’s “acute sense of real history”.5 This subversion results in a common revolutionary thesis at the heart of biblical Christianity and Marx: since the evils in the world are not “natural”, as the “philosophy of oppression” that separates knowledge from praxis contends, they can be overcome through history.6 “Sin and evil”, writes Miranda, “are not inherent to humanity and history; they began one day through human work and they can, therefore, be eliminated”.7

Miranda’s theology: knowing God and praxis.

Miranda’s understanding of history is inseparable from his understanding that knowledge of God cannot be separated from an orthopraxis, a set of practices that respond to the concrete reality of the human situation.8 The obedience to the command-to-do-justice is knowledge of God, not a pre-condition, or a consequence, of knowledge.9 It is thus essential that God is not the unchangeable-outside-history, but actively intervenes in history, revealing God’s self in historical events. Miranda also reclaims God’s intervention in history as a plan – specifically, a plan for the sake of justice, understood as either liberating intervention or punitive punishment. In the book of Exodus, Miranda detects the scheme of God’s liberating intervention in history: it is a series of acts of justice responding to the cry of the afflicted (Exod. 22:21-4); a cry of real oppression “on account of their taskmasters”; thus, a cry to be free.10 It is important for Miranda that God’s intervention in delivering people from injustice is a common theme throughout the Bible. The intervention of God is not fragmented: it is a continuous, universal plan, encompassing the whole of human history in order to “achieve justice and right on the entire earth”.11

Common ground between the Marx and the Bible: historical-dialectics and revolutionary events.

The convergence between Miranda’s understanding of the biblical perspective on history and Marx’s historical-dialectics is found in the former’s emphasis on events. History is not an evolutionary process: rather, it is punctuated by revolutionary events. For Miranda, these events are the interventions of God in history for the sake of human justice, culminating in the Christ event, ushering all believers in the Kingdom of God.12 This event leads, consequently, to the Kingdom’s underlying hope, its absolute command, that justice be achieved. “In the historical event of Jesus Christ”, writes Miranda, “the messianic kingdom has arrived”.13

Importantly for Miranda, events in history are not “static…isolated points” but unique events in the universal plan of God.14 To conceive of events as isolated is to render the future as disinterested and unrelated to the present. As isolated future events cannot have an effect on the present, the result is the detachment of the “philosophy of oppression” from the imperative of history, a viewpoint “that does not allow itself to be affected by reality, for reality consists above all in the outcry of the poor who have been crushed by history”.15 As ‘Western’ ontology is primarily concerned with contemplation of the object and not the recognition of the relational Other, who demands moral attention, history can only be controlled by abstract catalogues and categories, which are owned in knowing, yet never challenged in action. Citing Ernst Bloch, Miranda writes, the “philosophy of oppression…is defenceless before what is present and blind before what is future”.16

Miranda reads Marx as suggesting, along with the Bible, that history is not cyclical, demanding an “eternal return of all things” in the upkeep of what are supposedly ‘natural conditions’, or a linear march of progress. Instead, history must be understood dialectically in the overcoming of contradictions through revolutionary events. As Miranda explains, true dialectics involves the intervention of conscience, understood as knowledge engaged in praxis – not mere moral contemplation – to change the world.17 For Miranda, the apostle Paul and Marx converge in the idea that love is operative in history, with the realisation of justice in the world being the fulfillment of morality (Marx) and the Jewish Law (Paul). Marx’s insistence on breaking with the structure of evil in capitalism is a reiteration of Paul’s call to break from the supraindividual structural sin that “gained control of the very essence of the Law”, thereby controlling the individual.18 Grace cannot come from the Law that is steeped in structural sin, but only from the realization of justice in response to the Christ event.19 The ‘philosophy of oppression’ is opposed by Marx for the same reason it should be opposed by authentic biblical Christianity: both highlight that there is a need to reject and not simply reform the system of oppression.20

Miranda’s criticism of Marx.

It would be unfair to apply to Miranda’s use of Marx the contention that certain elements within liberation theology were ‘borrowed’ from Marxist thought. This contention was originally formulated, in an “insufficiently critical manner”, by the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.21 Miranda is in fact critical of Marx; however, his critique stems not from Marx’s atheism, but from the insufficiency of Marx’s dialectics.22 Marx chooses to avoid the problem of death when he considers how the revolutionary event overcomes injustice; for Miranda, this is a failure to recognise that those who die are trapped in injustice, thus denying the universal and ultimate defeat of injustice. Although Miranda’s historical-dialectics argue for revolutionary events over evolutionary progress in history, the one God intervenes in historical events according to a pre-determined plan – thus, a causal link between events must be claimed. God’s plan is ultimately dialectical, since it is focused on the ultimate synthesis of contradictions in the establishment of justice, even over death, in the Kingdom of God on earth and the resurrection of the dead, actualised from within history.23 As Miranda summarises, “in a world in which there is no longer oppression…or injustice, death too will disappear…the authentically dialectical Marxist and the Christian who remains faithful to the Bible are the last who will be able to renounce the resurrection of the dead”.24

This is not to argue that Miranda’s understanding of the relationship between Marx and the Bible is without error. Although Miranda claims that he is not trying to read the Bible in light of Marx, elements of his interpretation seem primarily concerned with fitting certain aspects of the biblical message with particular positions related to Marx’s political philosophy. For example, Miranda claims that Marx’s vision of the society freed from authoritarian government following the proletarian revolution bears striking resemblance to Paul’s radical idea of transformation into a new creation. “In Christ, there is new creation: everything has passed away.”25 This idea is not understood ontologically, but in the creation of a new world through the establishment of justice in history – which also requires the Pauline emphasis on rejection of the Old Testament Law.26 It is in the creation of a new world of justice that the rejection of the letter of the Law becomes, for Miranda, a rejection of all laws, so that Paul is proclaiming “a world without law and without government”.27 This example highlights that the exegesis in Marx and the Bible is not always cogent and occasionally selective; that such a political reading of Paul is not considered in dialogue with the passages where Paul is perhaps most overtly political in his epistles; for example, when he pronounces: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for…those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”28

Another criticism levelled at Miranda’s selective reading of texts is Alistair Kee’s claim that Miranda fails to engage with Marx’s ontological criticism of religion. While Miranda “comes close…to a biblical form of historical materialism” by using a dialectic of salvation-justice/damnation-injustice, and while he criticises ‘Western’ ontology and epistemology for ignoring historical reality, he ultimately fails to address the criticism that one cannot even conceive of God.29 Furthermore, what underlies Marx’s criticism of religion is religion’s inversion of reality; that it offers knowledge of man and the world from elsewhere, “instead of explaining…from the empirical conditions and showing how definite relations of industry and intercourse are necessarily connected…with a definite form of religious consciousness”.30 Though the Bible and Marx might agree on the need for justice in history, the biblical command-to-do-justice, though it commands action in concrete reality, stems from a revelation of that which transcends reality: God. If Miranda wishes to keep with Marx, he cannot argue that the imperative of justice derives from biblical revelation, but that the Bible, as an element of ‘religion’, merely comes from the human experience of something real in concrete history, as “religion is from the outset consciousness of the transcendental arising from actually existing forces”.31

An apophatic Marxist theology?32

An interesting response to Kee’s criticism could be modelled on Denys Turner’s insistence that liberation theology should embrace apophatic theology to engage with a Marx, for whom God is not even conceivable: to dispose theology “of its language of affirmation” in order to dispose “the atheist of their language of denial”.33 Turner appeals to the works of Pseudo-Dionysius, Meister Eckhardt and John of the Cross to argue that apophatic theology does not affirm or deny the essence of God, and that only a theology based around a God solely accessible beyond language and experience can have any meaningful interaction with Marxism. The question then remains: does Miranda provide such a theology?

It is unquestionable that elements of a negative theology can be derived from Miranda’s exegesis. As God is not conceived ontologically for Miranda, God must in a certain sense be unknown: God-beyond-being. The “radical transcendence” of God would require that, though there is an immanent revelation of God in concrete history, the revelation of God occurs through openness to the other. This is how God is revealed. Through the command-to-do-justice, related to the Other as voice of the oppressed, a person can know God – yet, this knowing cannot be controlled by the self, as it always resides in the relation to the Other. As with Rahner, God’s inexplicable self-communication is the primal mystery of theology; yet, whereas for Rahner the mystery is conceived metaphysically, the mystery of God for Miranda is encountered in concrete reality, in relation to the Other.34 Therefore, the transcendence of God becomes a radical openness to the reality of the Other and not the horizontal transcendence, as criticised by Marx, of a God outside reality.

It would be a step too far, however, to claim that Miranda’s negative theology could be wholly compatible with Marx. Even though the immanent revelation of God in the command-to-do-justice is tempered by the radical transcendence of the Other, Miranda still views God as immanent in “the certainty that God directs history and intervenes in it”.35 Marx’s contention – that avoiding an inversion of reality demands that one cannot conceive of God – will always remain at odds with the idea of God controlling history. Undoubtedly, Miranda is correct in highlighting the convergences between a theological rejection of ontology and Marx’s rejection of reification, in addition to the importance of revolutionary events in a history that is heading to an ultimum. Nevertheless, Miranda does not recognise the seismic difference between his theology and Marx’s: that history is in some way determinist for the latter, and reliant on God’s command-event followed by the human response in action for the former. This in part results from Miranda’s reading of Marx as a thinker who has been misused by Marxists, who in turn assert the historical primacy of the economic realm36 and determinist materialism.37 Nonetheless, Marx is not the Christian humanist hoped for by Miranda. Instead, as Bloch emphasises, Marx believes that he is envisaging dialectics as a science, placing himself above post-Hegelian idealist reformers by predicting that the passage to socialism will occur in history.

Consequently, the reader has to agree with Kee: Miranda’s is “religious socialism, not scientific socialism”.38 This need not be a mark of condemnation: by presenting the God of the Bible as revealed in justice, Miranda respects the mystery of a God who necessarily escapes the control of the self and demands attention to the Other. Furthermore, Miranda’s emphasis on seeking justice within a dialectical-historical framework – in addition to the biblical, ethical prerogative of praxis – presses Christians to look beyond dogmatic prejudices in order to recognise as allies those who might identify themselves as Marxists, so long as their aim is to change the world for the sake of justice.

Neil Hinnem is a part-time DPhil student in Theology at Worcester College, Oxford.

1 José Míguez Bonino, Christians and Marxists: The Mutual Challenge to Revolution (London: Hodder & Stroughton, 1976), 19.

2 Leonardo Boff, Faith on the Edge: Religion and Marginalised Existence, trans. Robert R. Barr (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 75-6.

3 José Porfirio Miranda, Marx and the Bible: A Critique of the Philosophy of Oppression, trans. John Eagleson (2nd edn., Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2004), p. 201.

4 Ibid. 87.

5 Ibid. 246.

6Miranda identifies ontology and metaphysics with ‘Hellenist philosophy’, which he claims is the ‘philosophy of oppression’ at the heart of capitalism. Miranda uses the terms ‘Hellenist philosophy’, ‘Western philosophy’ and ‘philosophy of oppression’ interchangeably to denounce the separation of knowledge from praxis.

7Miranda, Marx and the Bible, 277.

8 Jon Sobrino, Jesus the Liberator: A Historical-Theological Reading of Jesus of Nazareth, trans. Paul Burns and Francis McDonagh (Tunbridge Wells: Burns & Oates, 1994), 189.

9 Bonino, Christians and Marxists, 40.

10Exod. 3:7 (NRSV).

11 Miranda, Marx and the Bible, 99.

12Yahweh’s historical plan is to change the concrete world into one of justice, meaning that ‘all partial realizations of justice’ are directed to the ‘eschaton, an ultimum.’ Ibid. 87.

13Ibid. 208.

14 Ibid. 84.

15 Ibid. 270.

16 Ernst Bloch cited in ibid. 271.

17Ibid. 269.

18Ibid. 250.

19‘I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification (or righteousness) comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.’ Gal. 2:21 (NRSV).

20 Miranda, Marx and the Bible, 252-3.

21 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ‘Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”’, Introduction.

22 Miranda, Marx and the Bible, 279.

23Ibid. 278.

24Ibid. 283, 285.

252 Cor. 5:17 (NRSV).

26Miranda makes this point in reference to Galatians 6:15. Miranda, Marx and the Bible, 255-8.

27Ibid. 257.

28Rom. 13:1 (NRSV).

29 Alistair Kee, Marx and the Failure of Liberation Theology (London: SCM Press, 1990), 210.

30 Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, trans. S. Ryazanskaya, (2nd edn., Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1968) 5:154.

31Ibid. 5:93.

32 Apophatic theology is also known as negative theology, and it attempts to describe God through what God is not, stressing God’s position beyond human comprehension.

33 Denys Turner, ‘Marxism, liberation theology and the way of negation’, The Cambridge Companion to Liberation Theology, ed. Christopher Rowland (2nd edn., Cambridge: CUP, 2007), 242.

34 Gaspar Martinez, Confronting the Mystery of God (New York, NY: Continuum, 2001), 245-251.

35 Miranda, Marx and the Bible, 278.

36Ibid. 259.

37Miranda argues that Marx presents the overcoming of contradictions in history by dialectics that are not determinist but that lead to the creation of ‘an intolerably acute conscience of the necessity of this justice, of its possibility, and its urgency.’ Ibid. 272.

38 Kee, Marx and the Failure of Liberation Theology, 254.

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