Defending Christian Hope against Its Historical Contenders

In the preface to his 1968 book Marxism and Christianity, then atheist philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre1 MacIntyre eventual went on to convert to Roman Catholicism. opens with an incisive statement about the nature of Christian and Marxist beliefs:

“The second point worth remark is the extent to which Christians and Marxists both wish to exempt their own doctrines from the historical relativity which they are all too willing to ascribe to the doctrines of others. They thus fail to formulate adequately the task of discriminating between the truths of which their tradition is a bearer from what are merely defensive or aggressive responses to their social situation. But if they will not do this, then their critics have a duty to try to do it for them.”2MacIntyre. Marxism and Christianity, Apple Books. 8

In this part of the preface MacIntyre points out that both Christianity and Marxism share a fundamental commonality, they both make claims about their own systemic beliefs, their own “doctrines” that place the truth value of those beliefs outside the reach of the relative and contingent nature of historical and cultural conditions. They assert that their beliefs sit on a firm metaphysical (Christianity) or epistemic (Marxism) foundation, while the truth values of beliefs of other world views shift and move as historical currents ebb and flow. Christianity and Marxism make claims that seem to be untouchable by these shifting sands of social history, and act therefore as universal hermeneutical lenses by which all of human history can be properly interpreted, both at the cultural and individual level.

If this is the case, then for every generation of the Church it will be a fundamental task of the Christian apologist to answer the singular question that MacIntrye raises in this descriptive statement, namely, to what extent is Christianity, or more particularly Christian beliefs, the byproduct of cognitive reactions to particular historical and cultural conditions, and to what extent are Christian beliefs separate from or transcendent to those same historical or cultural conditions. In other words, if there are Christian truths, are they merely contingent ones that are valid perhaps only for a moment in time or for a particular culture in a certain place in time, or are they necessary truths that are valid regardless of any given historical or cultural situation. And, if there are such transhistorical truths, how does one discern or “discriminate” which ones are born by the actual Christian tradition, from those that are just beliefs conditioned by historical circumstances, and that can eventually be altered, amended, or even eliminated from the overall deposit of faith as the circumstances themselves change?3 one example of this might be the role of women in ministry vìs-a-vìs the doctrine of the Trinity.

This is a fundamental task for the Christian apologist trying to answer the skeptical voices of her day, whether that skeptical voice come in a rationalistic, modernistic tone, or in a post-modernistic, existential one. But, how we answer the rationalist and how we answer the existentialist will differ, and must differ, if we are going to successfully challenge the current Zeitgeist that seeks to undermine those transhistorical truths of the Christian tradition, as well as adapt our theology to meet its legitimate historical contentions. To answer the first type we must defend the truthfulness of Christian propositional claims, but to answer the latter type we will be required to defend the beauty of its vision.

Responding to Modernist Positivism & The Challenge from Science

For almost two and a half centuries, since perhaps the dawn of the Enlightenment with Rene Descarte, and through the advent of Darwinian Evolution in the late 19th century, Christianity has had to contend with one broad, yet very dominant philosophical view of reality: rationalism. Although other non-Christian intellectual movements were always afoot, e.g. 18th-19th century German Pantheism, rationalism has broadly shaped the course of Western culture, especially in Europe, the UK and the US for some time. More accurately though, it was not just the hegemony of human reason as the sole source of knowledge, but really the theories of empiricism that won the day, beating out its historical competitors, such as pure rationalism and philosophical idealism, to become the guiding light of modern social and political reality. While pure rationalism held that human reason alone, entirely apart from observation, could gain access to universal or necessary truths, and Idealism claimed that human consciousness was more fundamental than the matter it perceived; pure empiricism suggested instead that all knowledge arises out of experience, which means it arises through the senses.

This empiricism then, with the natural sciences operating as its functional arm, eventually culminated in what many philosophers know as “Logical Positivism” a philosophical view that asserted that any truth claim that could not be verified by scientific methods was essentially a meaningless claim. On the historical heals of David Hume’s skepticism and Immanuel Kant’s subsequent epistemic dismantling of metaphysical knowledge, logical positivism was the ultimate outworking of a rationalistic and hyper-empirical framework of knowing. Logical Positivists like A.J. Ayer sought for certainty about truth claims, and determined that only the methods of natural science and mathematical reasoning could deliver that certainty. This view effectively transformed most religious claims, and all kinds of other claims, into ones of a merely private and utterly mystical sort. Ultimately Logical Positivism fell apart as internal critiques mounted and as external critiques about the truth conditions of science itself were levied against it.4 see Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.

With regard to the challenges that more modest forms of scientific empiricism have made to religious metaphysical and epistemic truth claims, these have been responded to for well over 50 years now. They have been met with robust philosophical and theological answers, and it is these interactions that most Christian apologists today are familiar with.5 A prime example would be debates such as William Lane Craig vs. Sean Carroll, or Craig vs. the late Christopher Hitchens, or John Lennox vs. Richard Dawkins. As the rise of analytic philosophy in the late 19th and early 20th century provided post-WWII Christian scholars with tools to redevelop in a fresh way many of the classical arguments for Christian theism, so now one can find Christian philosophical resources answering the challenges of scientific empiricism with relative ease. The big names in this field are easily recognized by Christians who dabble in theology, philosophy or even biblical studies: Swinburne, Plantinga, Craig, Pruss, Adams, Alston, Stump, Van Inwagen et al., are well known analytical philosophers of religion who have specifically engaged in the defense of either theistic belief broadly, or Christian doctrine more precisely.

This movement has even spawned a more focused inquiry in the area of Christian doctrine called Analytic Theology, where the tools of analytic philosophy of religion are pressed into service to more carefully articulate core Christian doctrines such as the Trinity or the Incarnation.

This scientific empiricism that has challenged and continues to challenge the historical deposit of the Christian faith one could label as Modernistic Positivism. It is modern in that it reflects the core tenets of the early modern period, which emphasized the use of human reason as the main tool for accessing truth about the world. It is positivist in that it seeks through verification principles a positive understanding and description of reality, one that human beings could hopefully take in, grasp, and build off of. Today, there are still well known modernists who despite their atheism or agnosticism on religious or metaphysical claims maintain their belief that there is objective truth that can be accessed by the means of science, and that there are law-like structures that can be discovered by human investigation. Some who have a modernist bent will even suggest that religious systems like Christianity make true claims when it comes to morality, even if its metaphysics is false. They are moral realists in the fullest sense, even if moral values find their grounding in some object other than the divine nature or will.

To this historically conditioned modernist positivist view, it seems now that not only is there a robust and fairly charitable, ongoing dialogue, but that Christianity now even has allied itself with some of modernism’s more rigorous defenders. The reason for this is the unity found in the use of reason as a means to access truth. Reason, for many modernists, is not historically situated, at least not entirely, and while there may not be a “viewpoint from nowhere” in the words of one atheist philosopher,6 This phrase is attributed to NYU philosopher Thomas Nagel there are views of reality that can be shown to be more legitimate than others, more accurate than not, and more true than false. While Christianity may have been reeling in the mid- 20th century to meet the challenge levied against it by modernist positivism, it seems now to have held its own with regard to defending the universal truths that are born by its Great Tradition: e.g. that God exists, that God is Triune, that Jesus is God, that He rose from the dead, etc.

Outstanding areas of debate of course still exist in many realms of inquiry, e.g. the historical Adam and Eve, the reliability of the Gospels, the transmission of the Old Testament manuscripts, and modernist positivists will always raise objections to objective claims about metaphysical and historical truths, especially in their demand for more concrete forms of evidence for those claims. For the modernist positivist, dialogue will still be primarily a matter of discussing evidence and using reason to adjudicate truth values of propositions. But, these demands and this method can at least be met with some measure of force today, even if they are never fully satisfied by the tools of reason alone.

The larger problem that now looms before many Christian apologists however is no longer how to respond to a subsection of Western culture that embraces these increasingly irrelevant 19th and early 20th century philosophical views, but how to respond to what is quickly becoming the dominant philosophical view of our times, a view I will call postmodern existentialism.

Responding to Postmodern Existentialism & The Marxist Challenge

“But the essence of man is no abstraction inherent in each separate individual. In its reality it is the ensemble of social relations.”

Karl Marx

Christian apologists may feel they have been by and large battling men in white lab coats and grizzled logicians in the Russellian tradition the last several decades. Men in this rationalist tradition, and only infrequently women, have pressed Christian defenders, always looking for more evidence and more verification for their claims. Today, however, the tide has shifted yet again, and apologists find themselves confronted with a different face of atheism, one that is far more subtle in its manifestations and far more willing to operate as a replacement for religion than its modernist predecessor.

While the modernist positivist often still believes in progress based on a persistent and rigorous investigation of nature and its laws, the postmodern existentialist differs drastically from the Enlightenment hanger-on in her rejection of the idea that objective truth is attainable. All claims to truth are tainted by human innovation and thought, and therefore the only area of inquiry worth putting to the test is human thought itself. The postmodern existentialist therefore places far less emphasis on putting microbes under microscopic scrutiny and instead puts the social conditions of the biologist herself under scrutiny, in the hopes of finding out why the biologist will make certain conclusions about said microbe and not other ones. On this view, society itself is the lab rat, and everything else, to include philosophy, theology and even the natural sciences, is downstream from culture. On such a view it will matter who examines the nature and effects of the Coronavirus, regardless of whether they have identical academic credentials. But, it will not be their reason that leads them to varying conclusions, it will be other sociological properties that differentiate them.

For the postmodern existentialist then it is the human agent herself that constructs the systems in which she lives and externalizes and reifies (makes real) her own identity and essence. Man is animal for the postmodern existentialist to be sure, but he is an animal of his own making. To engage with this kind of philosophical worldview puts the Christian apologist in a very different epistemic and social arena than when dealing with the aforementioned modernist, since the modernist positivist still has an outward looking view of truth, while the postmodern existentialist finds all truth, even those outside herself, as products of her own thinking. This marks the inward turn from truth as verifiable fact subject to reason, to truth as “lived experience” subject to social and cultural conditions.

At the outset of this essay I suggested that it would be the task of every generation of the Church to have to show how Christian truth claims (at least some of them) are not subject to the shifting sands of cultural development, or mere byproducts of social conditions, but rather are transcendent, universal, timeless, and perhaps even necessary, e.g. the belief that God exists. However, there is a second task that each new generation of the Church will face if MacIntyre’s opening statement is true, namely, Christianity will have to persistently counter the arguments of the other worldview that claims to provide a universal interpretive lens to human history: Marxism.

My goal here is not to retell the history of Marxism, which must be understood in light of Hegel’s phenomenology and his view of the history of philosophy. A history that Marx thought needed to move from the realm of the abstract to the concrete realities of life. Marxist philosophy is philosophy actualized. That is why Marx’s focus was to present history as not a history of abstract ideas like Hegel, but one of economic stages. For Marx, it is the lower rung of material conditions that shapes and molds the human animal, and in shaping and molding the human animal, the very thoughts that that animal has, to include her religious thoughts, are also shaped. Thus, to change the lower rung of material conditions, is to change the constitution of the thinking animal. And, to change the thinking animal is to change the abstract thoughts the animal has, i.e. to change philosophy itself. Change the abstract thoughts and you change the very possibility of thinking about God. And, if as Feuerbach argued, God just is a replacement for the wants and needs left unmet in the individual human animal, and if those wants and needs can be met by the reshaping of the lower rung of material conditions, then you have a means by which thinking about God can itself vanish into oblivion. This is why, “in the course of building a communist society, the Marxist must fight religion because it will inevitably stand in its path.” (MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity, Apple Books 102).

As such, Postmodern existentialism is postmodern in that it claims (circularly) that human reason itself is shaped by the same lower level material and social conditions that Marx pointed out. And, because human reason is shaped by things like social location (e.g. poor or wealthy), or material composition (e.g. male or female, black or white) there are therefore multiple competing reasonings. And, if there is no transcendent Principle or Person by which to adjudicate these various human reasonings, then there is no way to really adjudicate which systems developed by different human groups or cultures are superior or inferior. Postmoderism essentially does away with normative claims in this regard. There just are systems of belief, grounded in different cultural ways of reasoning, and that is about all there is to say. This view accepts that history is fundamental, while philosophy and theology are contingent.

But because Marx also offered a practical theory of economics, Marxism becomes analogous to the natural sciences of the modernist. It provides the mechanism through which the postmodern utopian vision can be attained. That vision is conceptually however a Christian one. It is a vision of a Christian eschatology realized apart from the divine person of Christ:

“This belief [that communism is inevitable given the possibilities and resources of human nature] without which Marxism as a political movement would be unintelligible, is a secularized version of a Christian virtue.”

MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity, 92

Where the hardcore modernist failed in offering a replacement to religious faith, the postmodern existentialist steps in. After all, the scientific empiricist simply gives an account of material facts, leaving the human person and the human society at a loss to relieve the existential angst that weighs him down. What postmodern existentialism with cultural Marxism as its operational arm does is try to fill the God-shaped hole caused by scientific rationalism (i.e. the Enlightenment project). It is in this sense that postmodernist existentialism is existential. As such the task of the Christian apologist now must be altered to meet this different challenge, for it is not as much about offering evidence for truth claims about Christian doctrines, as offering a vision of the Christian hope behind those claims. Or, as MacIntyre puts it:

“Only one secular doctrine retains the scope of traditional religion in offering an interpretation of human existence by means of which men may situate themselves in the world and direct their actions to ends that transcend those offered by their immediate situation: Marxism.” (12)

Reimarus, Lessing, Strauss, Bauer, Renan and their 20th-century analytical successors like Russell, Ayer, Mackie et. al., may have generated the rational critiques of Christianity and theism respectively, but they did not provide much of an alternative to fill the gap. Deism or a contentless atheism never finds much foothold in the throes of humanity’s masses. For that a religious replacement is always needed, and Marx knew this.

Conclusion

In sum, there are two different paradigms of thought that the Christian must contend with: something like modernist positivism with the natural sciences as its operative arm, and something like postmodern existentialism with social or cultural Marxism as its operative mechanism. To combat the former, Christians have drawn, and quite successfully so, from the reservoir of analytic Philosophy to defend classical Christian truth claims against their scientific despisers. This project has been successful enough that one well-known Christian philosopher has been able to call it a “renaissance of philosophy of religion”7 I attribute this to William Lane Craig who mentions it often in his public debates over the past several decades in the academy. However, to defend Christian truth claims against skeptics who tend to make no attempt at a constructive vision to replace the Christian worldview is qualitatively different from defending it against skeptics who do make an attempt to construct a replacement vision. After all, “both Marxism and Christianity rescue individual lives from the insignificance of finitude…by showing the individual that he has or can have some role in a world-historical drama.”(MacIntyre, Marxism and Christianity, 110)

What the Christian apologist must do therefore is not just defend its transhistorical propositional claims, but also be in the position to offer the postmodern existentialist, the one who sees cultural Marxism as the best (or only) medium for realizing an essentially Christian vision, a better eschatological view, both of society and of the individual. Again, however, MacIntyre points out a common problem in both of these systems that offer such “transcendent” claims about the human condition, namely, there inability to articulate what the solution to man’s condition ultimately looks like:

“But just as Christianity has been much better at describing the state of fallen men than the glories of redeemed men, so Marxism is better at explaining what alienation consists of than in describing the future nature of unalienated men.” (92)

The Christian and Marxist narratives both give an account of the fundamental problem of human existence: alienation. But for the Christian it is alienation from an actual Creator. For Marx it is alienation from one’s own nature (whatever that may be) and from one’s neighbor. For the Christian alienation from one’s self and from one’s fellow man ends when the alienation from God ends. For Marx, alienation from one’s self and from one’s fellow man ends when labor is eliminated and all people have the same material conditions. On Marxism the “transcendent” historical assertion is made: change the material conditions change the humanity, change the humanity change the human relations, change the human relations instantiate an abstracted heaven on a concrete earth. On Christianity the metaphysically transcendent truth claim is made: change the relation to God change the human person, change the human person change the human relations, change the human relations do the will of God on earth.

To this end, apologists must offer a better articulation of what the end goal of the Christian life is. We must give a better account of what it means to be united in and to Christ, to have a true communion of the saints, and to relish for eternity in the power and glory of the Creator. We must remind and bring to mind that justice will be done, and that all things made right, and good, and harmonious, but only if we subject our own desires for justice to the providence and Lordship of Christ. To do this we must draw from a different arsenal than that of analytic philosophy of religion, we must do imaginative apologetics. We must create a vision of the life that can in part be fulfilled here through the love of Christ working in people, but that will also be ultimately realized apart from our own efforts when Christ Himself does return. Moreover, we must understand the desires of men to have justice and beauty, and respond with examples of each.

Finally, to challenge this new wave of Marxist thought we must fight fire with fire: we must be active in our theologizing, the way Marx argued philosophy must become active. We must step out from the realm of the abstract and demonstrate concretely what the Kingdom of God on earth will look like. Our biblical call to justice must counter in concrete and visible forms those voices who would call for a justice apart from Him Who is just.

Without a positive, imaginative vision of what comes after the Fall and even our own individual salvation, we may well find ourselves overwhelmed once again by the swelling tides of history, and facing yet another dystopian collapse.

“Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgements are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants….

Hallelujah, for the Lord our God, the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”

Revelation 19:1-2; 6-8