I’d differ from Sessions (and Terry Eagleton) on one point: while it’s true that both Marxists and Christians sustain themselves with hope for a better world, there’s an important difference in the content of that belief. In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr (a minister and former Marxist) noted that Marxism’s brilliance consists in highlighting the universal presence of human self-deception across history—but that its great folly is to imagine that this ever-present problem is soluble within the realm of human history. In other words, Marxists are highly attentive to how ancient, feudal, and capitalist regimes betray their promises to their citizens. The trouble is that they believe that these betrayals can be fixed by adjusting the constellation of institutions. …
Christians—in many cases, though not all—recognizes human exploitation as a permanent problem, a daily problem, a problem that can’t be wished away by abolishing private property or nationalizing particular industries. Christians recognize humans as simultaneously historical and transcendent beings. We grasp the possibility of universal ideals and perfect unity, but our wills are permanently vitiated by pride. We are both earthly and divine, but we are always prone to sinful self-deception. While Marxists seek final human fulfillment within the historical world, Christians—again, not all—look to a world beyond. Christians know that “there is no better world without belief,” but also that there may not be a better world with it, either.
That last line there was basically the crux of my essay; in fact, I was not at all saying leftist hope (or belief) and Christian hope have the same content. My goal was to describe a condition of sitting on the fringe of two similar but very different ways of explaining the world’s evil and looking to a better future, two “worldviews,” if you will, that I see as equally implausible. Christianity may provide the most coherent explanation of meaning and the future, but its promises of redemption and afterlife are still ultimately, alas, implausible. Marxism may deliver an incisive, indisputable critique of capitalist regimes, but its promises of a world without alienation, greed and self-interest are also, alas, implausible. I was driving at what is perhaps the darkest reality of all, which is that none of the available metaphysical narratives of meaning and future are plausible; thus, unless we are to perish in despair, we probably have to pick one without deluding ourselves that it’s true. As Madeleine L’Engle said, beautifully: “Far too often in this confused world, we are faced with choices, all of which are wrong, and the only thing we can do, in fear and trembling, is to choose the last wrong, without pretending to ourselves that it is right.”
My point about radical hope, i.e. believing and working toward a post-capitalist world, is that maybe, just maybe, it’s a little more satisfying than believing you must wait until the end of your life for a better world. Not that you’ll ever know the better world wasn’t there after all if you were waiting for it in the afterlife. But if by some wild chance a better world was possible on this earth, there’s also the chance that, as a leftist, you might live to see it. For all we know, the collapse of capitalism could be ten years or ten months away. But the Christian heaven or redeemed earth will always be shrouded in mist, whether we believe in it or not. I can’t be an orthodox Marxist any more than I can be an orthodox Christian, but I think it’s slightly better to believe that we might live to see something better than this capitalist mess than to believe that we most certainly will not.
Update: Conor replies here. The only thing left to say for me is that whether you find Christianity’s transcendental eschatology or Marx’s humanistic materialism more hopeful is a highly personal and subjective matter, so much so that I can hardly argue my own position with much conviction. Because it’s on one side one day and on the other the next.
David Sessions is the founding editor of Patrol. He covers religion for Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and is a graduate student in the Draper Program for Humanities and Social Thought at New York University. He can be reached at hdavidsessions at gmail dot com.
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