Welcome to my Crisis; or, Marx, Labour and Religion

After my father died, a couple of years ago, we had a fairly standard Anglican funeral for him in our local church. One of the things that struck me was how little the words spoken and the symbols affected me. No, I’m not pretending to be The Outsider. There was plenty of mixed up grief on show. But I did wonder if the traditional formulae about the resurrection – not to mention the eulogy’s equally traditional standard Anglican vague hope for ‘something’ beyond death – would either console me or get me angry. In fact, they did neither. They just passed me by.

Fast forward to a week or so ago, and I found myself, probably for the first time since that day, robed in an alb and stole, a guest preacher at an Anglican service. I’ve been involved in (some might say, clinging on to) a liberal church near the centre of Liverpool for some time. But my own church has no sermons, and, though I have occasionally presided at communion, I’ve been able to almost forget (or deny) that I am, in fact, an ordained priest.

Now, some small events have brought the memory of my father’s funeral back, right at the time I publicly step into an ordained role, however briefly. And it leaves me wondering: what the hell am I doing?

I hope readers will forgive the personal nature of how this post begins. I am really not trying to privilege my own, very limited experience. But my existential question is inseparable for me from things that obsess me academically too. When providence has died, when consolation in transcendence has cooled, what do we do with religion?

It was in this context that I was struck by remarks made by Richard Seymour, the Marxist writer, in a Facebook thread discussing his blog post on the niqab. Someone brought up Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach, and Seymour replied:

‘Let me see: religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the spirit of spiritless conditions; it is the opiate of the masses. This seems to me to be, not the end of analysis but a good starting point for a materialist approach to religion. And if I start from a materialist approach, I have to look into religion not as a set of texts or static interpretations, but as a body of practices wherein people craft meanings and labour over ideas to make them adequate to their real life. Most religious people, I am willing to bet, are not devotees of scripture; they have a lived theology that is acquired from sermons, selective readings of this or that text, and wrought into some form that gives them a lived relationship to their social world. But even those who are devotees of scripture are engaged in an act of interpretation and labouring over meanings. The texts themselves are too indeterminate to provide a ‘true’ interpretation. (Notably, the only people who strongly believe otherwise are ‘fundamentalists’ and Islamophobes.)’

I also think this is a really promising ‘starting point’ for a materialist, but non-reductionist approach to religion: as a way of labouring over meaning, faced with the finitude of our flesh and blood condition. It is why – despite sharing much in common with Seymour’s outlook (we are both members of a socialist network which broke with the Trotskyite Socialist Workers’ Party over the latter’s cover-up of rape allegations against a leading member, but that’s another story!) – I still practice within a religious tradition. No doubt many Marxists and others would find this self-deluded or nostalgic, but I disagree.

As Adam’s post argued, Marxism need not be an economic determinism, but an attempt to open up radically different choices than those dictated by the logic of scarcity. Those choices will always have a taint of madness, of running up against limits and inventing ways forward. In that sense, I don’t think the way Derrida opened up the spectral nature of Marxism – and its implicit messianicity and religiosity – has ever adequately been addressed. At the time, it resulted in some pretty stupid reactions by academic Marxists, and a rather barbed response from Derrida. Renewing that conversation might help us avoid some of the soul-deadening technocracy or banal empiricist attachment to the one ‘truth’ which many churches and socialist groups are partial to.

No, I am not saying ‘Marxism is a religion’, which would be another boring reductionism. Rather, that thinking Marxism and religion together – and, for some of us, practising them together – might be a way of exploring, beyond consolation, what grace bodies can invent.