Ernst Bloch was a German Marxist philosopher, notable for his reflections on the theme of 'Utopia'. In this book he serves up a meal of one part theology, one part biblical criticism, and one part political philosophy. Not all of these ingredients are of equal quality, but when mixed together in this fashion they produce a memorable and satisfying experience.
Bloch's argument is that the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, while proclaiming a belief in an 'On-high' God of sovereignty and control, also contain subversive elements that can express and empower the liberation of oppressed people. He makes use of modern Biblical criticism to distil what he considers to be the valuable stratum of unedited messages in the Old and New Testaments that escaped the censorious hands of the priestly caste, messages of rebellion and freedom. He finds this in the Exodus story, the book of Job, the 'authentic' stories and sayings of Jesus, and the book of Revelation. He believes that the forward-looking, eschatological hope in the Bible should be released from the restrictive cosmological and mythical elements. Then Christians will realise that they were really Marxists all along, and dialectical materialists will be able to reclaim the sense of 'transcensus', the reaching out of the human spirit above itself, which is often lost in 'vulgar Marxism', the atheism that becomes coarse and nihilistic because it is mired in a mechanistic view of the universe.
As a Christian, I enjoyed Bloch's work immensely. He is right to place the centre of Christianity in its eschatology, and to rail against the use of the doctrine of 'God' to imprison people and deny them justice. His theological vision is more attractive to me than that of many Christian groups. And he is deeply knowledgeable about the Biblical text and the methods of modern criticism, and so able to build a thought-provoking exegesis of the passages he treats. However, his theological reasoning is too often one-sided and occasionally incoherent. The trope of blaming the Apostle Paul for all the faults of Christian theology is a very tired one indeed, and there is infinitely more to Christian reflection on the Cross of Christ than just a call for submissiveness to domination. Bloch's disciple Jurgen Moltmann explored these issues in far more depth and nuance. I also found Bloch's choice of 'heroes' in the story of the church strange, particularly his praise of the Gnostic Christian sects, who despised the oppressed, common people in a more thoroughgoing manner than anyone before or since. And reading this book, you would believe that priests in the Temple or Church had done nothing all day every day except oppress the people. While religious institutions are inherently conservative, they often provide frameworks of meaning and hope for generations of oppressed people who do not have the wherewithal to bring in the revolution.
Finally, in his use of the Bible, however interesting, Bloch relies too much on a highly selective use of source criticism to excise (some might say oppress) viewpoints that he finds objectionable. There is a saying that he who goes looking for the true, historical Jesus always finds himself in the end, and Bloch is no exception, though his Jesus is just as attractive and inspiring as Bloch himself. But a little more skepticism about the results of Biblical criticism is in order.
I have criticised this book on several fronts, but as I said earlier, taken together it is a very helpful work. An atheist who takes Christian theology seriously and sympathetically, and looks for reconciliation between believers and unbelievers, is to be commended. I do not believe that the utopia that Bloch hoped for will arise from the dialectic of history, but I do agree that without eschatological hope there is in the end no meaning for the human race.