Wizened Theology: Walter Benjamin’s Theses On The Philosophy Of History I


A story is told of an automaton constructed in such a way that it could play a winning game of chess, answering each move of an opponent with a countermove.  A puppet in Turkish attire and with a hookeh in its mouth sat before a chessboard placed on a large table.  A system of mirrors created in the illusion that this table was transparent from all sides.  Actually, a little hunchback who was an expert chess player sat inside and guided the puppet’s hand by means of strings.  One can imagine a philosophical counterpart to this device.  The puppet called “historical materialism” is to win all the time.  It can easily be a match for anyone it if enlists the services of theology, which today, as we know, is wizened and has to keep out of sight. – Walter Benjamin, “Theses On The Philosophy Of History, I”, in Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, p. 253

Walter Benjamin

Walter Benjamin

My great theology professor at Wesley Theological Seminary, Josiah Young, when speaking of the crisis in western thought in the 19th century, spoke particularly of what he called “The Three Masters of Suspicion”.  He was referring, of course, to Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud.  There were others, of course: Ludwig Feuerbach, a contemporary of Marx and another Left-Hegelian one of whose 20th century editions of The Essence of Christianity includes a forward by Karl Barth applauding Feuerbach for his honesty at presenting 19th century theology in a way those Barth despised did not have the courage to do – as projections of the self-satisfaction and triumphalism of bourgeois humanity.  There was Darwin, of course, who cared little for religion one way or another, but when pressed, expressed his indifference in the politest terms mid- and late-Victorian Britons would allow themselves.  The three Masters, of course, had their disciples and followers, refiners and those offering alternatives.  For Freud it was, as Ernst Bloch constantly referred to him, “the Fascist” Jung, as well as Alfred Adler who attempted to fuse both Freud and Nietzsche.  Nietzsche would have perhaps the most infamous disciples of the 20th century, although many contemporary scholars believe Nietzsche would have been appalled and outraged that the uses to which his thought was put by the German Reich.

It was Marx, however, who did and continues to inspire those who see in the rough and tumble of his prose and half-thought-through ideas something worth not only preserving, but extending.  The factionalism among Marxists is infamous, even among Marxists.  There are the true believers who wish to treat his writings as Scripture, utilizing minimal hermeneutical techniques to tease out their application in our time and place.  For the most part, however, Marxist factionalism was as much a product of Soviet-era totalitarianism, attempting to stretch itself beyond its borders, while real and interesting Marxist thought went on either ignoring or thumbing its nose at Stalin’s insistence on control.

In his lifetime, Walter Benjamin struggled to support himself and his family with his writing.  He had tried pursuing an academic career, and even as the Nazi juggernaut pushed him further and further west, until in despair he sent his family to Spain and killed himself in a hotel room, he continued work on his great unfinished work, The Paris Arcades.  As much an aesthetic commentator as socio-political – although I doubt he would have understood such a division having much meaning – he wrote on a variety of subjects, from his friends Franz Kafka and Berthold Brecht to a little throwaway piece that is my personal favorite, “On Unpacking My Library”.  He also produced 20 “Theses On The Philosophy Of History”.  Unlike Marx, whose verbosity in his “Theses On Feuerbach” is well known, despite its distillation to one particular epithet in the 11th thesis, Benjamin’s theses are short, and while perhaps lacking clarity to our contemporary eyes, are nevertheless important precisely because Benjamin, like his friend Ernst Bloch and other mid-20th century Marxists, took both religion and theology seriously enough to consider it not only an adversary but a conversation partner.  Unlike Marx, too often glibly dismissed for his atheism – in fact, Marx wasn’t all that concerned with religion per se and while he took and passed the required theological portions of his exams while in University doesn’t seem to have troubled himself with the subject again – the last and current century is filled with Marxists who recognize both religion’s power and theology’s cunning; they engage it often to deny it power, to be sure, but they recognize it has power.  Few recognized this as clearly as did Walter Benjamin.  As something I’ve wished to do for quite a while, I will be working over the next days on each of Benjamin’s “Theses” in turn, paying particular attention when religion and theology arise as a subject matter.

Before I move through this first thesis fairly quickly, I think a quick note on why I’m doing this is needed.  Theology is not only wizened, as Benjamin noted almost a century ago.  It has become sterile, circling in on itself in an effort to sustain itself in the face both of a church that finds it irrelevant and a society and, in particular an academy, that finds it risible.  If theology is to find its vigor once again; if it is to be a lively forum through which we in the church come to terms with God’s revelation in our time, through our words, we must wrestle with the best non-Christian thought has to offer, take seriously its criticisms, and offer an alternative to the suspicion and disdain with which it is held, even by some who practice it.  There are few more gifted appreciative critics than Walter Benjamin who, while dead almost 80 years now, nevertheless can push us to consider how theology can find its youth, its vitality, and most of all its usefulness again.

In this first thesis in particular, Benjamin offers a view of capitalism as controlling not only the chess game, but the whole presentation of the game for the audience, perhaps once trapped in Plato’s cave.  Unaware of the manipulation going on, on-lookers are amazed at the ability of this automaton to answer move for move, finally to win, never guessing how the entire game is a ruse, a con.  That Benjamin pictures the “little hunchback” as theology, hiding its role in the farce performed for an amazed crowd, is not unimportant.  While described as “wizened”, Benjamin does not underestimate the power of theology to manipulate the masses in the service of power.  How often over the past century and more have we seen that?  How often do we see it, here and now, celebrating national holidays, singing songs in praise of our nation rather praise to God?  How many religious apologias can one find for capitalism and Americanism?  Theology has served to support slavery, wage slavery, the oppression of peasants in Central and South America, the oppression and segregation of the races in the United States and around the world, western imperialism in all its cruelty across the globe.  Even today, when we should know better, theology continues to support the subjugation of women and sexual minorities.  Wizened, perhaps, yet nonetheless clever in its service to its true master – late capitalism as it continues to astound an audience not ready to stand and see the mirrors and other tricks used to make of the magic a lie; to attack the puppet and discover within wizened theology playing its part in supporting the on-going oppression of the working class in service to its true master – the bourgeois in its dotage.

If we are to come to terms with what theology really is in its current wizened state, rather than insist it is something else, i.e., what one professor of mine called “the science of the church”, then we have to reckon with Benjamin’s parable.  Both theology as it really is, as well as its master, late capitalism, must be unmasked for the trick and trap it really is.  Before we concern ourselves with the many faults and falterings on capitalism in its senility, we in the church must return theology to its place as the servant of the people of faith, making clear the meaning of the Good News for the world, rather than the manipulative dwarf who work hand in hand with the powers-that-be to continue the farce that oppresses and kills millions.  We in the church should hear what Benjamin is saying, and rather than deny it work to rip the wizened dwarf from the puppet and grant it new life to its true master – the church of Jesus Christ.  Precisely because it serves the Risen One, the condition Benjamin describes, while certainly true (just ask the American nuns buried in shallow graves in El Salvador; just ask Archbishop Romero; just ask the base communities hounded by death squads across Central America), is not and cannot be what theology is, if it serves to make clear to the faithful Whose we are and what it is we are to believe and live.



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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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