Set My People Free!—Ernst Bloch, Hope and the Bible

READINGS: Matthew 12:46-50 and Ruth 1:6-18 

From Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity (Verso Press, London 2009, original edition published 1972, pp. 71–72). 

What was, must be tested. It does not hold good of itself, however familiar, for it lies behind us. It holds good only so far as the Where-to continues to live before us in the thing itself. If the link binding backwards is false, it must be cut. All the more so if it was never true, but simply a shackle.
          It is telling, that even the loyal Ruth did not go back the way she came; she did not turn back, but followed the path of her own free choice. And on this point Jesus’ goodness itself strikes off at a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition. How small is [Jesus’] sense of belonging, even though he is the son of an ancient house and family. He has passed beyond it, broken with its power; no remnant of it still stands over him. The old father-ego itself comes to an end; the new-born are here with their fellows, leaving father and mother, following Jesus. “And stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brethren!’” (Matthew 12:49). An untamed ego has burst through, has broken out of the sober nest with its authorities. Only the chosen disciples are his relatives — but closer still to all of them is the common element relating them in a no-longer oppressive bond.

—o0o—

ADDRESS
Set My People Free!—Ernst Bloch, Hope and the Bible
Given at the morning service at the Memorial (Unitarian) Church 
and at evensong in Emmanuel College, Cambridge 

My wise Old Testament and Hebrew tutor at Oxford, Father John Davis, would often take the opportunity to remind his students that any person who knew only their Bible could never properly know their Bible. It was an important reminder to us that the Bible has always been inextricably enmeshed in, not only the cultures in which its various parts were originally conceived and written, but also in all the cultures that have received it since including, of course, our own twentieth and twenty-first centuries’ broadly secular, post-Christian Western cultures.  

Therefore, to gain the fullest appreciation of what the Bible is or can be and mean in our own time it is to vital to appreciate that it is a collection of texts which has been, and still is, valued as much by many non-Christians, humanists and atheists as it is by the Christian and, of course, in terms of the Old Testament alone — the Hebrew Scriptures — by the Jewish faithful.

So, today, in the spirit of ever fuller knowledge and understanding — a spirit central to university life — I would like to introduce you to something of the twentieth-century German Marxist Ernst Bloch's (1885-1977) radical reading of what for him was a very radical Bible. (It is worth noting that Bloch’s thinking was extremely influential upon the theology of hope articulated by the important German protestant theologian Jürgen Moltmann.)

In one of his last books, “Atheism in Christianity”, first published in 1968 and in English translation in 1972, Bloch offered a way of engaging with the biblical texts that didn’t slip into the sterile either/or debates between atheists and religious believers which have so characterised our recent history. Instead Bloch, unlike many of his Marxist contemporaries, always believed that the Bible remained a powerful, revolutionary book which contained within in it important resources needed by all people who, in hope, were seeking freedom from oppression. 

Bloch was struck by the fact that the Bible had always been able to fascinate and motivate “ordinary and unimportant people” to hear and respond to the Bible’s oft repeated call “to set my people free” and he felt that Christianity’s appeal for the oppressed was found not only in the Bible’s general utopian promise of freedom but also in the scriptures’ continual antagonism towards all forms of external, oppressive, hierarchical authority. Indeed, Bloch found in the book many stories that called, not only for freedom over and against all human-on-human oppression but also for freedom from all forms of oppressive, authoritarian and transcendent theistic conceptions of God. With this point we arrive at what is for Bloch one of the most radical qualities of the Bible. 

He wrote:

“There is only this point: that the Church and the Bible are not one and the same. The Bible has always been the Church’s bad conscience” [and, although the Bible has often been used as a cattle prod by the powerful it is vital to recall that] “the counter-blow against the oppressor is biblical, too, and that is why [the Bible] has always been suppressed or distorted, from the serpent on” (AiC p. 13). 

These insights encouraged Bloch to go on to say, in what are perhaps the two most famous and to some, still shocking, quotations from the book: 

“Only an atheist can be a good Christian; only a Christian can be a good atheist.” 

“The best thing about religion is that it makes for heretics.” 

It is clear we are here in the presence of a very radical reading of a very radical Bible. 

But, before going on to give you just one specific, very brief example of how Bloch interpreted the biblical text itself it is worth saying a word or two about the word “radical”. 

As most of you will know the word is derived from the latin “radix” simply meaning root. In our own European culture the predominant model we have in mind when we speak of roots is the arboreal one; a small seed that grows up into a great bush or tree. The image one well-suited to world-views in which reality was believed to be structured vertically and hierarchically.

But there exists another kind of root, the rhizome. Rhizomatic roots move horizontally and they continually send out new roots and shoots from their nodes — a biblical example of such a plant would be the lily of the valley. It has been noted (by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari) that “a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.” 

It has long seemed to me that Bloch thinks the Bible has something of this rhizomatic radicality about it. It is a collection of texts that was not predestined to grow predictably from a sole divine seed into predetermined and inevitable ideas, beliefs, dogmas and institutions that are self-contained, vertical and hierarchical but, instead, the Bible possesses a radicality that is highly plural, horizontal, devolved, this-worldly and capable of spreading out into all kinds of unexpected nooks and crannies, flowering here, now there always in unexpected, non-hierarchical, anarchic and impossible fully to control ways.

So, to finish my brief introduction to Bloch let’s now turn to a single example which illustrates how he interpreted two well-known Biblical texts. In a section entitled “An Unheard-of Saying of Jesus’: Departure-in-Full” he references both the Old and New Testament readings we heard earlier (Matthew 12:46-50 and Ruth 1:6-18). This is what he writes:

What was, must be tested. It does not hold good of itself, however familiar, for it lies behind us. It holds good only so far as the Where-to continues to live before us in the thing itself. If the link binding backwards is false, it must be cut. All the more so if it was never true, but simply a shackle.
          It is telling, that even the loyal Ruth did not go back the way she came; she did not turn back, but followed the path of her own free choice. And on this point Jesus’ goodness itself strikes off at a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition (AiC pp. 71).

What’s Bloch saying here? Well, he begins by reminding us that within the Bible there are continually to be heard voices encouraging us always to be testing what was, including even our most cherished, familiar, beautiful traditions, beliefs and practices and that, if and when we find they no longer hold within them a future, utopian direction and energy (what Bloch calls a “Where-to”) than we must cut our links to them; this is especially important if and when we discover that the thing in the past “was never true, but simply a shackle.” The two people Bloch points to in order to illustrate this process happening in the Bible are Ruth and Jesus. 

Bloch begins by pointing out that even the loyal Ruth “did not go back the way she came.” For Ruth there could be no simple return to her old tradition, that was for her now a kind of shackle. Instead for her there was possible now only a hopeful movement forward into a new form of life and into the formation of new relations with a new family. In order to be true to the utopian call to freedom she had heard she had no choice but to follow a path of her own free choice. It’s worth remembering here that the word “heretic” is derived from the Greek word meaning a “choosing for oneself” (“hairesis”). Recall here Bloch’s claim that “the best thing about religion is that it makes for heretics.” Ruth offers us an example of this occurring. 

Bloch then notes that this is also true of the central figure in the Christian tradition and that Jesus’ “goodness itself strikes off at a singularly sharp angle, away from tradition.” In order properly to heed the hopeful, utopian call of freedom he had heard, and which he proclaimed in the form of the kingdom of God in and among us on earth, Jesus, like Ruth, also had to chose a hopeful movement forward into a new form of life and into the formation of new relations with a new family. It certainly required him to leave behind all that he thought “was never true, but simply a shackle.” Here is how Bloch now goes on to speak of Jesus’ choice — Jesus’ heresy if you will:

How small is [Jesus’] sense of belonging, even though he is the son of an ancient house and family. He has passed beyond it, broken with its power; no remnant of it still stands over him. The old father-ego itself comes to an end; the new-born are here with their fellows, leaving father and mother, following Jesus. “And stretching out his hand towards his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brethren!’” (Matthew 12:49). An untamed ego has burst through, has broken out of the sober nest with its authorities. Only the chosen disciples are his relatives — but closer still to all of them is the common element relating them in a no-longer oppressive bond (AiC pp. 71–72). 

Bloch believed that within the Bible there are many other implicit and explicit calls for us to do likewise and to learn relate to each other in “no-longer oppressive bonds.” Bloch thinks we, too, must always be testing what was and, whenever we find things that were never true, we must let them go. 

In the end, for Bloch, the things in the Bible which remained true and filled with genuine hope for the future were all those stories and teachings that still have within them these emancipatory and utopian qualities encouraging us to be free from living any longer amidst any oppressive, authoritarian, hierarchical bonds; in other words in all the stories where we can still hear (dimly or loudly) the call to “set my people free” — and even when that is a call to be free of our old conceptions of God. They all formed for Bloch what he sometimes called “the underground Bible.” 

Now none of you here are, of course, required to follow Bloch in all of his perhaps startling, even scandalous set of conclusions — even Jürgen Moltmann for all his admiration of Bloch couldn't do that!

But please remember, I have offered you my words tonight simply to remind you, in a place where secular education and Christian faith overlap, that the Bible as a radical set of texts is not, and never has been, the property only of the Christian church and Christian believers. Instead it is a book that belongs to all human kind, one that can be used by atheists and theists alike as they seek to respond to the perennial call to “set my people free!” and, together, in a spirit of genuine hope, attempt to build a more just and less oppressive and authoritarian world.

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