September 23, 2011

Biblical myth: Ernst Bloch meets Milton

I've started to work my way through Ernst Bloch's Atheism and Christianity: an intriguing attempt to reconcile ideological critique, Biblical exegesis, and the principle of hope (here, enabled by and contained within the Christian faith) that incites the revolts of subjected groups against their oppressors. My interest in this particular book comes not only from my interest in Bloch's work (including his exchanges with Adorno, Brecht and Lukacs), but from the similarities that his approach to biblical myth shares with that of Milton. 

As with Milton, the very failure of the heretic against the powers of authority is a guarantee of his utopian premise. The struggle is all. Rather than adhering to the “either/or” debate over religion and secularism, Bloch’s dialectical method recognizes that the contradictions within a situation carry within them the potential solution of that situation—the surplus of one situation, in other words, carries over into the corpus of another. Not only do religious myths mark the limitations of the historical world, they also allow us to pass out of “anamnetic circularity” into active potentiality. 

Taking his cue from Feuerbach, Bloch collapses the hierarchy of being embedded within orthodox theology so that “the Christ-impulse live[s] even when God is dead” (167). What is important is not some transcendent other, detached and uncontaminated by the world; rather it is the revolutionary impulse that founds this other-wordly reality that Bloch wants to endorse (in this way he carries the latter, often ignored part of Marx's famous indictment of religion to it's logical conclusion). According the Fredric Jameson, Bloch’s conception of utopia was one which would emerge out of a hermeneutical process of becoming: it was “an allegorical process in which various utopian figures seep into the daily life of things and people and afford an incremental, and often unconscious, bonus of pleasure unrelated to their functional value or official satisfactions.” As for Milton, Christianity for Bloch is also defined by a dialectic between freedom and necessity: liberationist impulses are always subsumed by the state, but in that process of sublimation one sees the active workings of human desire beyond the law’s authority. Bloch’s emphasis on the humanity of Christ offers another way in which we might interpret the contradictions of the Son of God in Paradise Regained (fully in the world, but wholly oriented in subservience beyond it). Much like Milton’s stark division between local hermeneutic practices and adherence to state-mandated worship (which, like Milton’s critique of Catholicism is sinful precisely because it accommodates the unquestioned transmission of doctrine, hierarchy and church traditions), Bloch understands the Bible as a dialectic between the Creator-God, on the one hand, co-opted by the state and the state church “whose all-seeing eye strikes not only fear (against which one can maintain one’s strength of opposition) but dread, which paralyses,” individualizes and alienates; and, on the other hand, “the religion of Exodus and the Kingdom,” which is carried to completion (i.e. to the end of religion) in the person of Christ.

As Bloch writes, perhaps looking back to Milton, “The best thing about religion is that it makes for heretics.”


  1. Great post. I have been biding my time to get into Bloch. The one question I have is whether you find he offers something that is missing in the current re-incarnation a la Zizek.

  2. Thanks, David. At this point, I'm not really sure-- I'm about a third of the way through the book, but I'm hoping to post on this topic later on.

    Could you be a bit more specific about what you're referring to by "the current re-incarnation a la Zizek"?

  3. As I understand the 'Atheism in Christianity' track according to Zizek it is a hegelian development in which the crucifixion stands as the death of God, which is the death of the Big Other, or the death of ideology and what is left is to navigate the 'community of spirit' (God is still dead and must be dead) in immanence towards a liberated humanity.
    Does that make sense?

  4. Yeah, I just wanted to make sure that was what you meant.

    Although he doesn't say it, I wouldn't be surprised if Zizek's Hegelian reading of the crucifixion was somehow indebted to Bloch. That said, Bloch associates this sort of fixation on Christ's sacrifice with the Pauline theory of atonement. He's much more interested in connecting Christ as "the Son of Man" to Moses and the Exodus (as well as other Old Testament figures of dissent, such as Job). The dialectic he sets up is between this guiding impulse of liberation and the authoritative, paternal deity (so, rather than a kenotic moment that grounds transcendence in the community of spirit, he speaks of "Jesus' exodus into Yahweh"). His consistent hatred of Paul reminds me of Nietzsche's, though Bloch obviously finds more value in the slave narrative that runs through the OT. One last difference: Bloch is also critical of Paul for reducing the "eschatological tension" necessary to the Son of Man's emancipatory message.

    As much as I like Bloch's various emphases, I think Zizek's reading of the "atheism in Christianity" is easier for the orthodox believer to appreciate (I also think Zizek is a much better reader of Paul). Bloch is utterly heterodox and unsystematic; he often leaves me scratching my head. Then again, I'm not quite done, so I have yet to see where this all ends.