The December 11, 2007, issue of Christian Century magazine, has an interview with theologian Nicholas Lash. Noting that Lash has written sympathetically about Marxism, the interviewer asks if Marxism is “still a philosophy that Christians need to engage.” Lash responds that there is no doubt that Christians still must engage Marxism:
Those who doubt that Christians still need to engage with Marx are as foolish as those who doubt that we still need to engage with Aristotle, Kant, or Hegel. At the heart of Marx’s analysis of the capitalist mode of production was his insight that it led, with almost mechanical inevitability, to what he called “the universalization of the commodity form,” the transmutation not only of things, but also of all relations, into commodities….”
Lash is British. Here in the United States, as we drift farther and farther to the right, most people simply dismiss Marx without seriously engaging his thought. Thus we have Christians and other religious persons in the United States decrying, say, the commercialization of Christmas (which is simply a specific instance of commodification), but refusing to engage in a serious critique of the capitalist system that has commercialized Christmas — understandably so, because after all it is not a good idea to be branded as a “communist” or a “socialist” here in the United States. Lash addresses the refusal of many U.S. Christians to take Marx seriously:
May I risk being a little polemical here, out of friendly exasperation? I can understand why, in a culture as driven and absorbed by messianic capitalism as is the United States, versions of socialism of any kind are hard to comprehend with sympathy. But please do not drag us [British Christians] in with you. There were, as any historian can tell you, the very closest links between 20th-century socialism in Britain and Christianity, especially Nonconformity…. We do not find Christian socialism in any way difficult to understand, because we remember it.
In my own Unitarian Universalist denomination, which is essentially a post-Christian denomination at this point, I see pretty much the same refusal to engage with Marx. Lots of Unitarian Universalists are worried about the commercialization of our lives, the breakdown in human community, the degradation of the environment, etc. But it seems we are culturally unable to draw on the analytical tools that Marx develops in Capital — tools which provide deep insights into things like the breakdown of community and the devastation of the planet.
Indeed, one of the weaknesses of current Unitarian Universalist theology, as it is practiced in our congregations, is that we pretty much ignore philosophers after Kant. The end result is that our theology, like our social justice programs, tend to be fairly irrelevant to the late capitalist situation. As someone who is concerned with developing a relevant Unitarian Universalist eco-theology, I’d have to say that it’s probably time for us to start reading Marx.