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.
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