[Marxism] Re: Ali Shariati and Liberation Theology

Haines Brown brownh at hartford-hwp.com
Fri Jul 14 10:55:13 MDT 2006

> On the issue "There's also an argument presented by some very ably
> (Penrose, for example), that materialism and religious faith are not
> incompatible and can be reconciled. The divine can be represented as
> being immanent in the world." This actually goes all the way back to
> the materialism of Spinoza and Spinoza's (in)famous assertion "God
> (or Nature)...". If we ontologically recode "God" as "Nature" as
> Spinoza did, then of course many of the criticisms disappear.

That is true, I believe. However, I think this reconciliation effort
must be seen in light of today's scientific culture and theological
culture. Outside Buddhism, perhaps, is it not a consensus that
religion entails a "godhead" that is absolute, and does not science
hold that everything is contingent? There may be individuals who
manage the reconciliation, but their achievement is unlikely to have
much effect on the thinking of others.

> On the issue "Another reason is that I believe the task of the
> socialist is to engage the world, not in the religious sense of
> imposing ideal values upon it, but to act in terms of the world's
> real potentials and limitations as the spring of action. The plain
> for socialist action is the contradictions of capitalism. Marxists
> should not be utopians or find themselves in the position of
> preaching an alternative future, but should be existential, fully in
> the world, not separate themselves from it," I think while
> Judeo-Christian or Islamic faith has this utopian quality, certain
> Hindu practices (and, I suspect, possibly Buddhist ones, though I am
> far from familiar with Buddhism) do not suffer from this utopianism
> and start from a being-in-the-world quality that could be of value
> to socialists. One can, for example, be an atheist Hindu without any
> contradiction. On this point, see the great Marxist scholar of
> Indian philosophy and religion, Debiprasad Chattopadhyay's work on
> the materialist schools within Hindu philosophy. <
> http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carvaka> has some references.

You are correct: I over-generalized. And I wish to thank you for the
citation, for long ago I got very interested in the naturalistic
dialectics taught in one or two Indian universities in about the 12th
century, but I subsequently lost the information. You may have pointed
me back to it. I also have a little interest in shamanism, and that,
too, may be thought of as an existential faith.

However, granted that some "religious" faith may work solely from
one's location in the world, I'm still made nervous about any
suggestion that faith can be reconciled with socialism. Socialism
posits our ability to transcend the world through engagement with
potentials that exist in the world, and I'm not sure Hindu practices
(about which I'm not familiar) finds in the world the source of human
power. If you believe I'm wrong to say this, please expand on Hinduism
a bit. Meanwhile, I'll explore your citation to see if I can come up
with an answer.

> " Many religionists work to improve the > world, but few aim at its
> transformation; in worldly terms, they are > reformers, not
> revolutonaries.
> Here, I think the Bhagavad-Gita provides a resource to break out of
> the "work-of-God, not work-of-man" dilemma that you presented (but
> doesn't Calvinism do so also in a way? I mean, in Calvinism, the
> "elect" are already chosen, but they still have to "work" in order
> to be elected -- something that has always baffled me
> somewhat). Anyway, here's a reference to Krishna's insistence to
> Arjuna in the Gita as to why the "work of man" nonetheless needs to
> be carried out even though God decides (the background was Arjuna's
> reluctance to fight in what was a "just war"):

The element in Calvinism to which you refer actually has very deep
roots in Christianity. Not the idea of election as far as I know, but
the need for human struggle as an adjunct to salvation. It's origin, I
believe, lies in the Benedictine Rule (6th c). There is much in it
about monks being from the masses and being workers. If I recall
correctly, there is something about the monk being a workman; his
virtues are his tools and salvation his wages.

A monk/archbishop in the 9th century, Hincmar of Rheims, once said
that the human condition is similar to rowing across a river in a
leaky boat toward salvation on the other shore. It is important that
we row very hard, for should we slack off, the boat sinks into the
black (an anticipation of Freud?) mud at the bottom.

There is much in 11-12th c. pilgrimage ideology that suggests that it
is as much the struggle that counts as actually reaching the goal. In
fact, in both Islam and Christianity, there is a strong element of the
need for concerted struggle in terms of one's actual circumstances,
not just aiming toward some ideal future state. For the Calvinist,
everything is foreordained, so working at salvation is implied by
one's being among the elect and is a manifestation of election, even
though the salvation is a foregone conclusion.

Again, this goes back to the notion that god is the only source of
human power. As Irish missionary monks insisted when in Frisia, if you
are a believer in god, you will grasp the technology (fishing weirs)
needed to get more fish. In Christianity and Islam (I don't know about
Judaism), human power in worldly affairs depends on god. However, I
don't know if there are cases where the person's worldly power is seen
to derive from the world.

You kindly provide and interesting quotation from the Gita, Chapter I,
"The Sorrow of Arjuna". However, it suggests that while action is
crucial, it avails nothing unless disciplined by the mind, which seems
to be able to inform action that is constructive through the mind's
detachment from the world.

> "'Therefore without being attached
> always perform the action to be done.
> Practicing action without being attached,
> a person attains the supreme.
> "'All actions being performed by the qualities of nature,
> the ego-deluded self thinks that the "I" is the doer.
> But knowing the truth, great-armed one,
> of the two roles of quality and action,
> "qualities work in qualities,"
> thus thinking one is not attached.
> Those deluded by the qualities of nature
> are attached to qualified actions.
> The knower of the whole should not disturb
> fools who are ignorant of the whole.
> "'Entrusting all actions to me,
> meditating on the supreme soul,
> being free from desire, free from possession,
> fight, cured of fever."

The ontological categories, mind and world, seem to presume the mind
is "supernatural". In daily life, of course, we feel that the mind is
supernatural because it does not reduce to the world, but can act upon
it creatively, constructively. But the issue seems begged of how it
can do that unless we start out with the assumption that the mind has
a power of its own that does not come from the world - it is a
supernatural power.

Even more specific, for example, is Buddha's last words: "Everything
that has been created is subject to decay and death. Everything is
transitory. Work out your own salvation with diligence." Here seems to
be a recognition that all things, taken in themselves, experience
increased entropy (decay and death), and salvation entails struggling
against that natural trend to reduce entropy (create order). But,
again, this begs the question, from whence comes that power to
struggle? There seems no implication in any of this that the power is

> On a final note, treating religious narratives not as univocal but
> rather as "floating signifiers" that can be vested with meaning
> (i.e. treated as metaphors) seem to be a useful way. In his amazing
> book "The Gospel in
> Solentiname<http://www.stanford.edu/group/arts/nicaragua/discovery_eng/history/solentiname.html>",
> this is what the liberation theologist Ernesto Cardenal recorded, it
> seems to me. He (and the people of Solentiname in Nicaragua) just
> start re-interpreting the gospels in a socialist way. (Arguably,
> this would probably be easier to do in polyvocal religious
> traditions which are more comfortable with interpretation than
> within religious traditions that emphasize the one true word, the
> word of God).

It seems to me you are saying that we can make of faith what we will,
for there's often enough ambivalence in religious tradition to justify
doing it. I'm sure that liberation theology can link Christian values
to socialist goals, and in fact I know a clergyman or two who
self-consciously do that (in terms of Black liberation). But, again,
I'm not sure liberation theology necessarily entails an assumption
that it is the world that empowers us. However, I suppose that if god
is immanent in the world, then one could say that the world does
empower us. Indeed, such a view seems clearly implied by
thermodynamics as well. But thermodynamics is not socialism, which
seems necessarily to specify that power in terms of class
contradictions within a specific economic environment.

Sayan, your very interesting post has led me to trim my sails a bit,
as you undoubtedly can observe, and I thank you for that. I am
compelled to agree with you that some religious traditions can point
to the world as an appropriate ground of our activity and in some
cases even see the source of our power as being resident in the
world. While I am forced to agree with you on this, I don't see that
such religious views carry us any further than what we already know
from thermodynamics, and they do not seem to embrace the kind of
empirical specificity that seems necessary to make constructive
action really effective.

       Haines Brown
         ET1(SS) U.S.S. Irex SS-482       

More information about the Marxism mailing list