Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Thursday, February 09, 2012

BIBLE: Genesis and Marx

Karl Marx went to great lengths to explain the human condition in socio-economic terms. In his view the world contains two kinds of people: workers and capitalists. According to Marx most of the evils of the world can be explained by the constant struggle between the workers (who are desperately trying to survive) and the capitalists (who are exploiting the workers in order to make more money). But the Bible gives a different account of why things are the way they are. Genesis puts a different emphasis on the importance of things. Genesis lays out a worldview where the most important thing is to establish a proper relationship with Yahweh, the creator of the universe. Marx believes the world is a wreck and the reason can be explained in strictly material terms: the struggle between workers and capitalists. But Genesis says there’s a deeper reason that the world is so messed up. It wasn’t created that way. Humanity has “fallen” from its original state of innocence and as a result dragged down the whole world with it. This is the primeval story of Adam and Eve. And that’s one reason Marx is adamantly opposed to religion. He believes workers have been duped by this “Adam and Eve” story about some far-off god punishing some far-off parents in a mythical Garden of Eden. For Marx religion is the spontaneous activity of human fantasy, of the human heart and brain. Religion reacts independently as an alien activity of gods or devils upon the individual. In Genesis religion is not “the spontaneous activity of human fantasy” but is instead the heart of reality: the human relationship with the divine. And developing a relationship with this god (we’ll call him Yahweh) is not an “alien activity” at all but is a natural response of gratitude to a divine creator who has given life and blessed humanity with a world that is essentially good. The message of Genesis actually agrees with Marx in some ways. If the world is messed up then it’s our fault, not God’s. Marx agrees but for a different reason: for Marx there are no gods, much less one big “God” of everything. Genesis claims that there is a god. In fact, there is ONE God and he even has a name: Yahweh. Any worldview must take this fundamental fact into account. It should be noted that some Great Books writers have accepted this interpretation. Kant, for example, says that conscience is the representative within us of the divine judgment. This is a faint echo of the Garden of Eden story still residing within our hearts. Marx flatly rejects this notion: Theology explains the origin of evil by the fall of man; that is, it asserts as a historical fact what it should explain. For Marx the origin of evil is not the fall of man but the rise of the capitalist, the ability of one class of people to exploit another class of people on a large scale. For workers the primary source of the problem lies not in our relationship to the divine but in our relationship to our work. So the proper question for Marx is this one: what is the value of our work? In our reading of Genesis we get an ambiguous answer. On one hand we see God himself working. At the beginning of creation God works for six days to make the heavens and the earth. Then on the seventh day he rests. This view of work implies that work is a divinely-sanctioned activity. Genesis also states that God created man in his own image. So when we work we’re doing one of the primary tasks we were born (created) for. This interpretation is the equivalent of the modern “work ethic” and says that work is a good thing. It develops good habits, produces wealth, and keeps us out of trouble. On the other hand, work can be viewed as the punishment given to Adam and Eve after they disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden. This interpretation gives little value to work itself. Marx rejects both of these views. There’s no need for God in Marx’s world, which is focused on the here-and-now of material reality. The author of Genesis probes more deeply into the mystery of existence and finds that the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. For Marx this is pure gibberish. For the author of Genesis it’s the ultimate reality.


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