Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

I live in Berkeley, one of the most religious cities in America. Its churches are being converted into mosques and Buddhist temples, but its one true faith endures. A popular yard sign states its creed: “In This House, We Believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, No Human is Illegal, Science is Real, Love is Love, and Kindness is Everything.” The sign is both profession and prophecy. Like the biblical Joshua whose promise it echoes (“As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”), my neighbors are in a holy vanguard. They have seen the future America, have identified its present enemies, and are leading us into a promised land.

The biblical politics of my secular neighbors would not have been lost on Ernst Bloch. Bloch was an atheist who believed Jesus was the Messiah, a Stalinist who disagreed with Marx, and a materialist who embraced natural law theory. For the moment you will have to take my word that this can make sense and that it is worth the modest effort to understand how. You would be within your rights to be skeptical. No doctrine has been refuted so often as Marxism, and the debates that consumed Bloch’s long life are dead. Yet the utopian spirit to which he gave original, sometimes brilliant, and more often bizarre expression has never been more alive, and to visit his work is to witness a moment when Christian faith began to transmute itself into the progressive creeds of today. 

In a series of books beginning in 1918 and ending shortly before his death in 1977, Bloch proposed that the central category for understanding politics is eschatology—our anticipation of a future society that will reveal the meaning of human history and redeem its fallen state. He named this kingdom “utopia” and argued that its arrival is the object of every human hope and the justification of every human suffering. Bloch lived under Hitler, Vichy, and the gaze of Walter Ulbricht, the Stalinist leader of East Germany, making his work an anguished commentary on the darkest moments of the twentieth century. But his millennial hopes, expressed in critical dialogue with Christian theology, continue to inspire many.

Bloch is a guide into the concealed theology of contemporary liberalism, whose outlook remains profoundly, if paradoxically, biblical in one respect. Having rejected a Christian understanding of nature, it retains an intensely Christian understanding of history. It sees human history as goal-oriented and our advancement as a series of conversions and liberations, the outcome of which is the creation of a community that can redeem our fallen history. Bloch appreciated, as deeply as any modern thinker, that this is not a secular understanding of time. It is a biblical story, told in the misleading language of progressive politics. But how can history have a moral direction at all? And how did Christianity come to be placed on the wrong side of it? Bloch offers a fascinating explanation of this theological reversal, showing us how a politics Christian in origin could become anti-Christian in intention.

The Principle of Hope is the greatest defense of Marxism ever attempted. Bloch wrote it during a decadelong exile in New York and Cambridge, completing it shortly before accepting a university appointment at Leipzig in 1948. It is, by unanimous consent, a repellently written book, composed of three volumes and 1,500 punishing pages of Marxist analysis. I do not casually recommend reading it. But for those with a tolerance for inscrutable syntax, opaque jokes, and clumsy neologisms, it is a work of extraordinary ambition.

Bloch seeks to explain all of reality. And his message is simple. He tells us what human beings are: They are hope. Hope is not something human beings do. Hope is what human beings are. For what do we hope? For Christians, hope strengthens the will to seek and attain happiness in union with God. It is a theological virtue that judges the promise of eternal life with Christ as more trustworthy than the plain observation that death is more powerful than life. “Although He shall kill me,” says Job, “I should trust in Him.” The Latin word for hope (spes) is related etymologically to its word for foot (pes). Christians live in hope because they are on a journey, finding no permanent home during their pilgrimage on earth.

Bloch places greater weight on hope than Christian teaching does or can. He regards it not only as a determination to act or believe, but as the first fruits of a still-ripening truth. It gives us a premonition, an “anticipatory consciousness” as he puts it, of a future reality. He is an apocalyptic materialist, and he is referring to an unveiling of this world, not the next. Hope expresses the human need not for a perfect relationship with God, but for healed social relationships. All hopes? Yes. The Principle of Hope is an encyclopedia of millenarian yearnings as expressed in folklore, dance, theater, music, fashion, and religion. The details are finally unimportant. In every case, Bloch uncovers the “forward-dawning” or “pre-appearance” of the same political order.

The word “communism” needs to be used now, but it is misleading, and Bloch is partly responsible. Up until the late fifties, he was a supporter of both the Soviet regime and the German Democratic Republic (he fled East Germany for Tübingen in 1961, just as the Berlin Wall was being built). He called the Soviet Union of the 1930s “an achievement about which one can say with all one’s heart, yes, yes, yes,” and his defense of the show trials is obscene. Yet he never joined the Communist Party, and his writings placed him under its constant suspicion and occasional surveillance.

It was the religious dimension of Bloch’s thought that did so. It was apparent from his first book, The Spirit of Utopia, and led to the straining of friendships with Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, and Louis Althusser, mandarins of what would be known as Western Marxism. Bloch’s use of Marx was selective and unorthodox. When he drew directly from Marx, it was not from the late “scientific” works of political economy like Capital, but from early letters that spoke romantically of humanity’s “dream” for a better life. This was Marx’s translation of Feuerbach’s projection theory of religion. Where the earlier thinker saw the Christian idea of God as the screen onto which we projected our intuition about human fulfillment, Marx cast that projection forward as the end of history. Bloch’s communism, if it should be called that, therefore verges on the mystical. He envisions a “communism of love” as the eschatological completion of our spiritual, not economic, development.

For Bloch, communism is a type of humanism, indeed, the strongest possible affirmation of human life. He imagines a community in which, for the first time, we understand, judge, and evaluate everything in human terms. George Kennan wrote of the Soviet Union that “here men determine what is true and what is false.” Bloch’s view is not so crude. Philosophically, he means that we should see the world in light of its relationship with our practical needs and highest social ideals. Bloch believes this is both liberating and humanizing; there is nothing “out there”—no alien law, system, or process—to which humanity must slavishly subordinate itself. Politically, he means there is no inherent obstacle—sin, selfishness, the lust for power—to building a community that reconciles freedom and equality.

Imagine a society in which we cooperate to foster and enable one another’s freedom, a society without relationships of competition or exploitation. Humanity is this hope—the dream of a common life of free reciprocity. In a world of universal fraternity, we will recognize, as Marx wrote, that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” We will also become different kinds of beings. Bloch is a futurist, and occasionally a prescient one. After the socialist eschaton, he prophesies, our relationship with nature will grow more peaceful, national borders will be eliminated, and the work of conquering human mortality will begin. This way of life (he calls it our “homeland”) is not just a utopian ideal but can be politically achieved.

Bloch’s optimism distanced him from his Frankfurt School friends Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, whose despairing 1944 book, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, concluded that under modern conditions, radical social change is impossible. Bloch disagreed vehemently, insisting that we could build a better future by aiming to redeem the past. How? It is the most important element in his thought and the deepest point of contact between him and our time. We can redeem history by establishing that it can make moral sense. History is replete with suffering and injustice. It is, as Hegel observed, a “slaughter bench.” And while we cannot correct past wrongs, there is a way we can atone for them. We can demonstrate that a moral community is possible and show thereby that history’s victims, and those who stood with them, are part of a progressing moral story. This story is eschatological; its meaning depends entirely on its successful final outcome. But if we can reach it—if we can build a community of real justice and equality—human history will have been justified. It will be shown to have been worth it.

Theodicy is the attempt to justify the goodness and providence of God in view of the reality of evil. Bloch is engaged in theodicy, too, but of a much different kind. His theodicy is humanistic. It is an attempt to make sense of humanity in view of its apparently senseless history. Only by creating a just community, Bloch posits, can we vindicate past and present injustices. Hope gives us the strength to undertake this massive, world-justifying responsibility. It refuses the limitations of the visibly possible and rebels with the conviction that a radically different way of life is attainable. Hope is therefore not the power to wait patiently for a home in eternity; it is the daring power to create a true and lasting home here on earth. Aquinas named this the vice of presumption, but for Bloch it is the one thing needful.

Thinking of politics as a form of theodicy gave Bloch’s work an unusual religious dimension. To the consternation of many on the European left, he insisted that Marxism required the aid of Christian theology, describing his thinking as a synthesis of the “cold stream” of Marxist analysis with the “warm stream” of Christian utopianism. This drew the interest of theologians such as Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and Joseph Ratzinger, who each praised Bloch for opening new paths for theological reflection in the arid intellectual climate of the communist East.

It is easy to see why. They were drawn to his view that humanity is essentially unfinished and able to reach its true end only through participation in a redemptive community. Pannenberg, an orthodox Lutheran, thanked Bloch for giving Christian theology “the courage to recover the category of eschatology.” Moltmann’s 1969 book, The Theology of Hope, borrowed even more liberally from Bloch’s open-ended metaphysics, crediting it for helping turn Christians toward a doctrine of God as the Future. Ratzinger, who taught with Bloch in the late sixties, praised him for reviving a view of history as the setting for human salvation.

Bloch reciprocated the interest of Christian theologians, but only up to a point. He distinguished sharply, and crudely, between the true political teachings of Christianity and its corruption by church doctrine. He emphasized, to a radical degree, the Christian understanding of time. Christianity revolutionized history—literally. It taught that history is not endlessly cyclical, as pagan thinkers believed, but linear and even redemptive. More important, it held that in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the end of all history has in a sense already begun, and within history itself.

Bloch did not discover this schema, of course, but he interpreted it in politically explosive ways. Christianity brought something new and previously inconceivable into world history: It revealed the possibility of radical social movements from below. It did so by depicting, and therefore disclosing, how human beings became capable of building a just community on earth. This community Bloch identifies not with the Church or the Kingdom of God. To the contrary, it is a community that learned, through a series of religious enlightenments, to critique every form of unjust authority—including that of God over man.

Bloch’s openness to Christianity rejected the dominant Marxist line that religion is always and everywhere a source of enslavement. This was not exactly Marx’s position. Marx detested Christianity—it teaches “cowardice, self-contempt, abasement, submissiveness and humbleness,” he complained—but he left open the possibility that it might take on emancipatory forms. This opening was seemingly closed by Karl Kautsky, whose 1908 book Foundations of Christianity was the most politically consequential study of Christian origins in the twentieth century. As the secretary of Friedrich Engels, Kautsky carried enormous authority. His book persuaded generations of Marxists around the world that Christian doctrine simply reflected the repressive class structure of the ancient world. Bloch thought otherwise.

His thinking came to expression in an astonishingly weird 1968 book, Atheism in Christianity, which announced that “only an atheist can be a good Christian; and only a Christian can be a good atheist.” A professed atheist since his Bar Mitzvah, Bloch was not the first to root his unbelief in Christianity. His reasons for doing so were nonetheless unique. He attributed his atheism to the esoteric message of the Bible, “the most revolutionary book of all.” The Bible’s teaching is politically atheistic, not metaphysically theistic. It reveals how human beings gradually acquired the ability to understand themselves and to order their lives entirely apart from divine rule. The Bible is a book “against God,” wrote Bloch, “but it gives to man, that which is man’s.”

To my knowledge, Bloch is the only philosopher to have used Jesus to defend outright atheism. The attempt is outrageous and strangely fascinating. Bloch’s Jesus is Promethean. He is not God become man, but a man who becomes a god. He does so by aiming to bring about the apocalypse by single-handedly fulfilling the political hopes of Israel. Bloch was influenced by the biblical scholarship of Albert Schweitzer, whose 1906 study The Quest for the Historical Jesus argued that Jesus expected the end of the world, about which he was catastrophically wrong. “Jesus laid hold of the wheel of the world to set it moving on that last revolution which is to bring all ordinary history to a close,” Schweitzer wrote, but “it refuses to turn, and He throws Himself upon it. Then it does turn; and it crushes Him.”

According to Bloch, however, Jesus achieves a lasting victory in his error and defeat. Through his life and death, this ill-fated Spartacus becomes the savior of humanity—not by reconciling humanity to God, but by freeing humanity from God. Bloch arrived at this remarkable conclusion by interpreting the Bible as the story of the awakening of human autonomy and its rebellion against all forms of oppression. Erich Fromm adopted a similar interpretation of the Old Testament in You Shall Be As Gods, but Bloch carried it forward in a more conceptually rigorous way. Just as Exodus reveals the evil of political tyranny, Bloch creatively reasoned, so Jesus reveals the evil of divine tyranny. Yet the story does not end there, because the political hopes of Israel do not die with Jesus but only grow in intensity and urgency. For what God did not achieve in history, followers of Jesus must now do for themselves. They must build, or at least summon, the eschatological kingdom of peace and equality. Bloch argues that this movement is not to be identified with the apostolic Church, whose conservative fears of social revolution led it to doctor the Scriptures (with mythical stories of a heavenly Pharaoh who encourages patience, humility, and submission to earthly pharaohs). Instead, the political mission of Jesus is carried by the countless millenarian movements that have accompanied and challenged orthodox Christianity throughout history.

Bloch’s church is antinomian and heretical. Its doctors are not Augustine and Aquinas. They are Joachim of Fiore and Thomas Müntzer. Its religious orders are not Benedictine and Dominican. They are Free Spirits and Levellers. Its holy sees are not Rome and Antioch. They are Havana and Berkeley. What unites this fellowship is their chiliastic conviction that the mighty are to be cast down and the humble exalted so that the kingdom will at last come. Like them, Bloch wanted to abolish dogmas and clergy in order to free Christianity’s repressed utopian spirit. But unlike orthodox Marxists, he also wanted to channel its religious energies toward progressive social reform. “The road ahead runs right over the priests,” he coarsely explained, “but not over the faith that turns men into believers.”

Where does the road lead? Bloch might have been describing the state churches of Europe. For Christians, it leads to merging their faith with the modern administrative state, offering it moral legitimation in its goal of freeing people from unchosen burdens and circumstances. But how does an apocalyptic politics give birth to the secular social democratic state? It makes sense only as the dialectical fulfillment of the primitive Christian spirit. Bloch merely shouts what many theological revisionists whisper: True Christianity is not a set of metaphysical propositions to which believers assent in faith and love. It is an emancipatory social project whose greatest act of charity is to perform its own institutional self-dispossession and cultural self-secularization. Hence Christianity uniquely fulfills Marx’s dictum, realizing that its purpose is not to understand the world, but to change it.

Bloch’s arguments and style were all his own, but his vision is recognizable. For those who share his faith, Christianity succeeds by failing. Born in revolt, it calls on followers to repeat its original rebellion, first against all forms of traditional authority and finally and most faithfully against itself. Bloch saw Christianity as the most revolutionary movement in human history. It opened the way to political goals that could not otherwise be discovered, creating what Immanuel Kant called the “immanent expectation” of “the victory of good over evil.” The God of the Bible offered humanity the saving hope of liberation from captivity. In doing so, however, God gave us the keys to his holy kingdom. We learned that we are meant, in Bloch’s words, to “walk upright.” And this subversive imperative leads believers to take leave of God in the name of God.

Unlike the German student movement of the 1960s, my neighbors are not petitioning to rename the local university after Ernst Bloch. A thinker once celebrated by Europe’s leading theologians and Marxists, he is now forgotten, appearing only in nostalgic histories of socialism and the word salad essays of postmodern literary theory. The bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth in 2018 will bring admiring reassessments of Marx’s intellectual legacy, but none of them, I can safely predict, will feature Bloch, his most interesting disciple.

Marx is somehow back. This time not in the militant labor unions and socialist summer camps of the old left, but in the journalism and podcasts of progressive millennials. Bloch is one of the many people they have not read, but they are his fellow travelers, however unwittingly. Their Marxism is not that of the economic doctrines and predictions of Marx himself. They are attracted, as Bloch was, to the Marxist vision of a society that heals our past and sanctifies our future. Professing secular views, they still see politics in essentially redemptive terms. “There is no anxiety or sadness or fear you feel right now that cannot be cured by political action,” a Democratic senator recently said, speaking for many young progressives. To adopt this creed is to join a chosen people, a royal priesthood, and a holy nation. It does not bear witness to God, but it seeks to create and protect meaning itself. For that is, ultimately, what their progressive causes are, and what gives them that paradoxical quality of absolute passion and utter fragility.

The politics of gender, sexuality, race, and immigration are increasingly eschatological. Their power and appeal depend on the belief that they advance a liberating moral narrative, inspiring a secular Exodus that will lead to a secular Pentecost. That is why they see history as moving in a single moral direction. It is not because they are determinists. On the contrary, history must progress toward greater individual freedom and social equality because any other outcome threatens the moral intelligibility of history itself. The stakes could not therefore be higher. Should the next emancipatory chapter fail to be written—or should a future Trump or Brexit alter its forward flow—it would not be a mere disappointment. It would interrupt a story that justifies their deepest commitments, and the theodicy in which they are engaged.

Bloch was wrong about almost everything. He idealized the Soviet Union, a country he never visited, and hated America, a country that gave him refuge. He was right, however, about one thing. We continue to understand politics, however distortedly and however lazily, through the fading outlines of salvation history. We impose upon it a familiar pattern: We identify oppressive injustice, we repent of our involvement, and we aim to build a morally enlightened community that sets history right. This pattern, and the exhausting requirement of reenacting it continually, gives our politics a palpable religious vitality. Don Cupitt, an atheist theologian, was right when he recently wrote, “Nobody in the West can be wholly non-Christian. You may call yourself a non-Christian, but the dreams you dream are still Christian dreams.” Such dreams can be good, and we should not wish to repress them. But severed from the Christian story of salvation, they lay upon believers a satanic responsibility.

Theodicy is a term first used in the eighteenth century, but its temptations are as old as creation. On the classical Christian understanding, only an all-powerful and all-good God can justify the existence of evil. We ourselves cannot. There is no secular theodicy because there is no secular eschaton. “No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering,” Bloch’s friend, Pope Benedict XVI, wrote in Spe Salvi. But many will try. In a lecture published shortly before his death in 2002, John Rawls, the most influential political philosopher of our time, made an extraordinarily revealing statement. Rawls, who had lost his Christian faith in World War II, said that “our hope for the future” rests with the success of political liberalism. It is a stunning statement: Human hopes now depend not upon the existence of God, but on the existence of contemporary liberalism. Far from being a breaker of spells, Ernst Bloch too lived his life under this, the oldest of all spells—the belief that we can be like gods. 

Matthew Rose is director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute.