A snippet from my chapter on Max Horkheimer in Criticism of Theology:
To use terms such as ‘longing for the other’ can only get us so far, for they eventually beg for some content. Eventually, Horkheimer invokes specifically Jewish and Christian items such as God, the prophets and Jesus Christ. Horkheimer does not need some new spin on the question of God, taking the central doctrines of creation and God’s omnipotence to argue that allegiance to God means that no power, being, man or God can stand in the way of this higher allegiance. Even more – and here he becomes quite Protestant – human beings cannot influence God although they so often try to do so, through institution, rite, covenant, or any work or deed. As soon as someone, some political group or state claims that this omnipotence actually sanctions their own position, opinion or power, we know that the radical opposition required of the doctrine has been compromised.
As far as the ‘experience of the prophets’ is concerned, Horkheimer gives most of his attention to the ‘dangerous doctrine’ and ‘inflammatory speeches’ of the founder [Stifter] of Christianity, the prophet come lately who was murdered for his uncompromising attitude of mind, resistance to power and disdain for his own life. When Horkheimer looks back at Jesus of Nazareth – the ‘Nazarene’ as he tends to call him – and the early Christians, he does so with a mix of admiration, wonderment and perplexity – admiration for the revolutionary opposition to power, wealth and privilege; wonderment at how people can be so committed that nothing can stand in the way of their cause; and perplexity at the way in which that early impulse has been so comprehensively overturned.
In regard to admiration and wonderment, Horkheimer finds the sayings and acts of Jesus clear and unambiguous. Indeed, he hopes that even with the bowdlerised Christianity he sees everywhere around him, some – whether believers or not – might be found to offer resistance like the Nazarene. The founder’s position was inescapably insurrectionist and his early followers understood him in exactly this way: ‘he thought little of prevailing rules and customs; he acted contrary to accepted ways; he was much closer to the heretic than the orthodox’. Such an implacable position is, for Horkheimer, comparable to the Resistance during the Second World War, the moment that informs so much of his work. An extraordinarily dangerous undertaking, with treacherous death crouching in every doorway and at every corner, one joined the Resistance realising full well the consequences. We might compare it today with the ‘suicide-bombers’ unleashed by militant Islamic groups in their struggle with US imperialism – except that the ‘bombs’ for Jesus and the early Christians were words and acts that challenged the power of imperial Rome. Surely compromise was and is the easier option, preserving one’s life for a better day.
The reason why Jesus and the early Christians kept true to the cause and faced an almost certain death may be found, argues Horkheimer, in the certainty of heaven, which really means absolute justice guaranteed by the divinity, a place where the last would be first and all suppression and persecution would come to an end. And it was not that heaven was a distant and barely imaginable place; it was all too near and one entered it through the doorway of death, a brief passage that could be hastened by a cross, wild beasts of the arena and flames of the stake. Since all of us, especially the lowest and the poor in spirit, are made in God’s image, such a death was a way to be near God and become more like God. Above all, each martyr’s death – on the stake, cross, or gallows, or in the arena and the gas-chambers – was ‘a symbol of Christianity’, for each one followed in the steps of that first martyr, the Nazarene. Heaven – the place where the founder had so recently gone and where he awaited to welcome newcomers with salve for their wounds and to administer stern punishment for their torturers – gave concrete reality to justice, hope and love. Although Horkheimer elsewhere admits that he mourns the loss of a ‘superstitious belief in the Beyond’ and that he sees little gain in liberal theology’s retreat to myth and symbol, ‘heaven’ is, for Horkheimer, a primary marker of the love, hope and justice of an uncorrupted totally other.
Is there any value in this interpretation of a radical Jesus and an oppositional early Church? It is, of course, hardly new, being a persistent way in which Christ has been appropriated within and without Christianity since its earliest moments – a minority tradition, to be sure, but remarkably enduring. Martyrs would go to the arena to face beast, sword and flame in defiance of repression; the desert fathers and mothers would retreat into the desert in poverty, penitence and resistance to the increasing compromise of the Church with the state; Lollards, Taborites and Bohemian Brethren in the middle ages would form communes – in the tradition of Christian communism – and at times take up armed resistance; Thomas Müntzer and the peasants would wage a revolutionary war in sixteenth-century Germany in the name of Christ and the kingdom, as did the Anabaptists in the Münster Revolution in the same period; and political and liberation-theologians in our own day would follow in the same tradition, espousing a deeply political Christ and preferential option for the poor as central to the Christian message. Even mainstream biblical scholars today argue for a more or less political and radical Jesus, whether implicitly or explicitly insurrectionist, pacifist, or non-conformist. However, Horkheimer also stands in a Marxist tradition that goes back to Engels’s argument for the revolutionary nature of early Christianity. As for Horkheimer’s own take on this tradition, he is not so interested in the apocalyptic Christ who mistakenly expected the end of the world within a few years, nor does he play up the political nature of Jesus’s resistance in his own time (Roman Empire and Jewish religious system), preferring to let such politics mutter and rumble just behind the text.
But what of Horkheimer’s explanation for this implacable resistance to power, even to the point of death? Is it enough to argue that the nearness of heaven, anticipated in the hope of God’s justice, drove them to risk death? At one level, Horkheimer’s proposal answers a curious absence I will explore in Ste. Croix’s treatment of the same material (see Chapter Three). Despite his detailed knowledge of the sources concerning the early martyrs and despite the conclusive evidence that a good number of early Christians were voluntary martyrs, the only explanation Ste. Croix finds viable is that they were pathologically disturbed believers who welcomed death – anyone who would do so must be utterly deranged. What Ste. Croix misses in all of this is the motif of the imitation of Christ – those who were hung, burnt, beheaded and mauled to death did so in the belief that they were emulating their founder and that like him they would soon ascend to heaven. For Ste. Croix – a former believer in a rather sectarian and extreme form of Christianity – this is simply nonsense. By contrast, Horkheimer allows room for the powerful motivational force of such beliefs. Yet it is not quite enough to leave the reasons in that, rather idealist, shape. What is missing is an assessment of why these beliefs had traction, particularly in light of Horkheimer’s observations elsewhere that nature, need, and social and economic conditions provide ample nourishment for religious beliefs. Relatively short and painful lives (life-expectancy for peasants was barely 30), systemic colonial oppression, brutal crushing of revolts, mass-enslavements and inordinate taxes, as well as the cultural denigration of the colonised peoples – all of these were more than enough to give urgent credence to belief in a heaven in which all such earthly trials would be overturned and the colonial oppressors brought to justice. More than one person would find it enough of a reason to fight and die.
With all this talk of the founder of Christianity, Horkheimer brushes up against an issue that threatens to undo his careful delineation of a persistent and admirable oppositional figure. I speak of the criticism of the personality-cult that Horkheimer and Adorno explore in Dialectic of Enlightenment. In a few perceptive comments that draw upon Adorno’s elaboration of the ban on images in the second commandment of the Decalogue, Horkheimer and Adorno outline the way Christology has constructed the framework for the personality-cult in political movements ever since. Their argument is not that the divination of this human being is one that would be emulated time and again throughout the two millennia to follow, for that is by no means an uncommon motif across many cultures and historical moments. Rather, what is distinct about Christian theology (in its combination of biblical narrative and Greek philosophy) is that Christ is God who has become a human being and then returns to heaven to be one with God the Father. This theological schema sets up the possibility for the personality-cult, for any charismatic leader may thereby become a son of God, catching the ride, as it were, as Christ touches on earth and sets off for heaven and divine status. The implication of such an argument, at least for my point here, is that Christianity itself faces the perpetual problem of the personality-cult – not merely in terms of pope, reformer, founder of a new church, or even major theologian, but especially in terms of Christ himself. Further, the answer is not to be found in emphasising the humanity of Jesus, whether as teacher, healer, or resolute resistance-fighter, for Christology lays a dialectical trap for the unwary who make use of such an answer: Christology’s deep logic is that the more one emphasises the humanity of Jesus with all his earthly limits (and, I would suggest, his failings), the more one brings forth his divinity – and vice versa.
So where does this leave Horkheimer’s calling upon the founder of Christianity as a model not only for Christians but also for all who seek to break out of the mechanised and monotonous life of routine capitalism? Does his quiet stress on the earthly Jesus unwittingly push his various comments towards the divinity of Christ and thereby a full-blown personality-cult? A reader who pays careful attention to the moments when Jesus does turn up will see that Horkheimer is exceedingly cautious: he prefers to write of the ‘founder [Stifter]’ or the ‘Nazarene’ rather than ‘Christ’, the ‘anointed’ one (the Greek translation of ‘meshiach’ or ‘messiah’). And he does not speak of ‘Jesus’, which is theological code for the human, earthly Christ. Further, when the founder does appear it is nearly always in a collective context. He is one of a number, found among followers, or perhaps witnesses or martyrs of the early Church, or indeed the prophets of the Hebrew Bible. I get the distinct sense that Horkheimer wants to put as much distance as possible between this founder of a militant collective on the one side and a philosophically inspired Christology on the other, with its speculation over the divine and human natures of Christ, his role in the three persons of the Trinity, and concern over the economy of salvation, in which Christ comes to earth, suffers and dies and then becomes the means for salvation for all who believe. None of that elaborate gobbledegook, suggests Horkheimer; the model this founder offers is a modest one, a simple and persistent resistance to conformity with stultifying systems of economics and society.
This is, of course, the Max Horkheimer who co-wrote Dialectic of Enlightenment with Adorno and was the director of that hotbed of Marxism, the Institute for Critical Theory.