Kant and Bataille emerge as thinkers on either side of the industrial-technological revolution. Philosophers of the period in between, such as Hegel, Kierkegaard, Marx and Nietzsche, have argued that the meaning of both reason and the ‘sacred’ have undergone a radical transformation with this historical and existential revolution. For Kant, reason remains specifically aloof from temporality and history – indeed, as he alludes in the Critique of Judgement, reason emerges with the self-suppression of imagination, of temporal and spatial perspective, in the sublime. In parallel, his notion of the sacred or true morality, especially that portrayed in the Critique of Practical Reason, admitted no admixture with the imagination and motivations of experience – with temporality.
Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.Religion is the opium of the people.
Perhaps the most formidable obstacle in the task of retrieving a sense of the sacred in Marx consists in his repeated, and often polemical, statements against religion. Indeed, such an obstacle may in the end be one of our own making, as we are trapped within the labyrinth of our own historical understanding.
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Marx and the Revolution of the Sacred
Religious suffering is at one and the same time the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world and the soul of soulless conditions.
Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritualistic point d’honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, its universal source of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.
Perhaps the most formidable obstacle in the task of retrieving a sense of the sacred in Marx consists in his repeated, and often polemical, statements against religion – or the edited selections of his editors and guardians. Indeed, such an obstacle may in the end be one of our own making, as we are trapped within the labyrinth of our own historical understanding. Yet, assuming, for the moment, that religion and the sacred are the same phenomena, if we take his pronouncement that religion is the opium of the people – which I purposely left out in the opening quotation – in isolation, we may be lead to believe that Marx felt that at best religion – and thus the ‘sacred’ – is a narcotic, which while it may be utilized to alleviate pain, remains an illusory amelioration for a situation of humiliation and despair. Religion is an opiate in that it not only implies sedation from the pain of a life of exploitation, but also – ambivalently – suggests a systematic and strategic attempt to deaden or absorb any critical impulse to liberation. In this sense, Marx’s characterization of religion as an opiate is a forerunner of many of the most radical criticisms of religion and ‘negative’ theology in last century – Gutierrez, Miranda, Bultmann, Heidegger, Derrida, and Bataille. Each of these thinkers, in his own way, articulated a sense of the sacred in the wake of Marx and his deconstruction of religion as an ‘ideology’ – despite, perhaps,his own blindness to the regulative status of his own ideas.
The kinship which is shared by each of these thinkers is a disdain for mere religion in favour of the ‘sacred’. Religion simultaneously constructs a ‘picture’ (Bild) for contemplation (Anschauung) and an organization that cultivates our captivity to that ‘picture’ (Wittgenstein). The sacred, on the contrary, intimates ‘love’ (Badiou), ‘binding commitment’ (Heidegger), an engaged and affirmative eruption of liberation amidst finite existence. Religion constructs its eternal church as an everlasting perpetuation of the ‘picture’, of an idol – a captivating grammar of existence – while the sacred exults in this moment of lived existence, in the haeccitas of Duns Scotus. If religion is a ‘rational’ and ‘systematic’ orchestration of feeling and phenomena, the sacred is an attempt to seek access to a phenomenon beyond the array of objectification towards traces of the numen. Indeed, for Otto, one need only begin amidst this singular event.
In light of this preliminary distinction between religion and the sacred, it will be the task of Marx and the Revolution of the Sacred to excavate and disclose in the writings and historical activism of Marx an affirmative sense of the sacred which is alterior to his inherently negative conception of religion. With Marx’s empathy in his ‘sigh of the oppressed creature’, we can glimpse a sense of the sacred dissociated from a religious leviathan that merely serves to perpetuate suffering – we can begin to glimpse a sacred that exists as a radical commitment to liberation. In this way, I will contend that Marx’s criticism of religion as an ideology of oppression and sedation in no way forecloses on a possible relationship between his work and Twentieth and Twenty-First Century attempts to articulate a sense of the sacred in the world. There emerges in these latter attempts the possibility of an openness which discloses a topos for an encounter with a sense of a sacred not mediated by ‘ideology’ (or positive theology).
In this way, that which will be disclosed as the ‘unity’ and coherence in these encounters of Marx with different strands of contemporary theology and philosophy is the inner kernel of ‘love’ and ‘commitment’, of affirmation, against nihilism and oppression — it is this ‘inner kernel’ that is an openness to the sacred. That which is sought is an indication in Marx’s writings and advocacy of a personal expression and articulation of the sacred which transcends both scientific prognostication and political advocacy. What we seek is the deeper ground of the sacred in Marx.
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But some of the greatest achievements in philosophy could only be compared with taking up some books which seemed to belong together, and putting them on different shelves; nothing more being final about their positions than that they no longer lie side by side. The onlooker who doesn’t know the difficulty of the task might well think in such a case that nothing at all had been achieved. (Blue Book, p. 44-45)
It is often said that there has been relatively little work devoted to the relationship between Heidegger and Wittgenstein. It has also been argued that this is due, to a great extent, to the barriers of the ‘Analytic-Continental’ divide. Yet, over the last two decades interest in the relationship (or non-relationship) between the two philosophers has intensified and has been articulated in what can be provisionally laid out as four distinct streams of interpretation: Analytic, Pragmatic (both Analytic and Continental), Mystical and Phenomenological. What is surprising (or, perhaps, not surprising) about the discussion of the relationship, however, is the relative lack of awareness of each of the streams to the others, as they trickle blindly, impervious to the others. Indeed, it is not that there has not been any work on this relationship, but that the work has remained segregated by a network of blindnesses, barriers or dams. This network has served to impede any synoptic or perspicuous interpretation of the relationship.
The purpose of this essay will be to invite these streams to break their banks and coalesce into a larger river of interpretation – and by showing one way this could be done.
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