On the dialectic of Paul’s reactionary and revolutionary political theology

Back in 1911, Anatoly Lunacharsky – in the second volume of Religion and Socialism – offered what is arguably one of the more astute political readings of Paul’s theology. Lunacharsky calls him the ‘poet of early Christianity’.

In sum, the argument goes as follows: In response to the delay in Christ’s return, Paul constructs an idealized, mystical, and other-worldly theology that spiritualizes a very earthly and political movement. The heavenly face of Christ now overshadows the worldly person (1911, 53). Yet by means of that spiritualization Paul breaks through to a more international and democratic form of Christianity. It is no longer ethnically and nationally limited, for it belongs to all. The analysis of Paul becomes even more subtle, for in internationalizing Christianity, he overcomes yet another tension, now within early Christianity. That form may have been resolutely communistic, yet it was trapped within a fierce nationalism and hatred of foreign oppressors. Paul’s response both moves away from that early communism and negates its fiercely nationalistic focus. Indeed, he was able to do so only through an anti-communist spiritualization. And yet, at this higher level (Aufhebung) Paul offers a new revolutionary doctrine: justification by faith is itself deeply revolutionary, for it destroys the privilege of the rich and powerful (1911, 55). Finally, it is precisely this mystical theology that makes of Paul the great myth-maker, producing a reshaped narrative of the dying and rising Christ, a myth that Lunacharsky admires for its sparkling poetic power (1911, 41-45, 53, 58-60).


4 thoughts on “On the dialectic of Paul’s reactionary and revolutionary political theology

  1. Very interesting interpretation by Lunacharsky. Seems to parallel his German colleagues (Kautsky- Foundations of Christianity) although the spin on Paul is different- as an internationalist. However, somehow I identify with the pre-Pauline this worldly nationalism. It was a question of national liberation from Roman imperialism.

    1. He’s happy to leave the socio-economic stuff to Kautsky et al but is more interested in the inner workings of Judaism and Christianity, and goes well beyond Kautsky and others in the Second International. It’s quite refreshing to see a Left Bolshevik discussing the intricacies of theology in some detail and with some genuine insight.

      1. A Russian edition will out soonish, edited into post-language-reform Cyrillic; English translation a little later. It’s part of Sergey’s project when he arrives in Newcastle early next year.

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