First in an Open-ended Series

When the american thinks of European contributions to current religious thought, he thinks German. Since the nineteenth century, when the seminar system of the German universities injected a new standard of rigorous scholarship into American graduate schools, America has never ceased to be awed by the imposing edifice of German thought. Who else produces “Handbooks” that are invariably encyclopedias, and reference works so detailed as to preclude completion?

In theology particularly, where the American inferiority complex reigns with no little justification (superficial, pragmatic modernism vs. superficial, pious fundamentalism), German religious thought seems to dominate without competition: the three B’s, Barth, Bultmann, and Bonhoeffer, and their reactors and semi-reactors: Cullmann, Stauffer, Pannenberg, Moltmann, and the post-Bultmannians.

But German scholarship in general has shown an appalling loss of the forest of values in the trees of documentation (scientific experimentation on human beings during the Third Reich); and someone has wryly commented that America has become the elephants’ graveyard of old German theological heresies. Perhaps the time has come to look to another linguistic area for insights on current religious thought. In this and subsequent articles—at irregular intervals—we shall observe major examples of French religious thinking.

Three years ago, Lucien Goldmann died suddenly at a relatively young age, fifty-seven. Born at Bucharest, he had become one of the most important Marxist thinkers writing in the French language. While studying at Vienna in the 1930s he came into contact with the early writings of Herbert Marcuse; as a student in Paris, he found it prudent to leave the country to avoid Nazi persecution, and was released from internment in a Swiss refugee camp through the efforts of Jean Piaget. He took his doctorate at Zurich, producing a dissertation on Kant and dialectic thinking.

What turned Goldmann into a convinced, lifelong Marxist was his encounter during his “Swiss period” with the work of Georg Lukacs, who offered an alternative to Nazi barbarism and the dogmatic Marxism of Stalin. Goldmann strove to integrate Lukacs’s “open” and humanistic Marxism with Piaget’s genetic epistemology. After the liberation, Goldmann returned to Paris, took a second doctorate, and published a series of studies that established his reputation as a serious and sensitive thinker, concerned with the implications of ultimate philosophical and political commitment on all realms of human activity. In May, 1968, he took part in the student revolts which brought the French nation virtually to a standstill—and which, ironically and dialectically, through a backlash effect, put DeGaulle back in power with an even stronger mandate from the people to restore order. Two years later atheist Goldmann and Catholic DeGaulle stood at the bar of judgment, both doubtless surprised to be there, but for different reasons.

Article continues below

Goldmann was haunted throughout his career by the problem of God. He spent seven years on a work entitled The Hidden God, a Study of the Tragic Vision in the Pensées of Pascal and the Theatre of Racine (Le Dieu caché). This work is regarded as a landmark in the Marxist analysis of literature. The thrust of Goldmann’s argument is that Pascal and Racine rightly opposed the rationalist vision of the world characteristic of Descartes and the mechanists: for Pascal and Racine, God is “hidden,” dialectically present and absent at the same time in an awesome universe. This God is more important than all empirical data and sense objects, and his presence devalues the world while his simultaneous absence leaves the world as the only focus of man’s attention. This is the tragic vision: man has no choice but to strive to realize an unrealizable value. For Goldmann, over against “orthodox” Marxist thinkers (who castigated his analysis), this is the fundamental element in the true Marxist dialectic: Marxist commitment involves the same choice as Pascal’s wager—“risk, the chance of failure, the hope of success.” There is no final proof, either way, but Goldmann, in contrast with Pascal, opts for an immanent (not transcendent), materialistic (not spiritual) understanding of the whole of reality. If Marx turned Hegel upside down, Goldmann may be said to do a parallel inversion of Pascal.

Orthodox Marxists are quite right to view Goldmann’s understanding of dialectic as a betrayal of their traditional position, but this is what makes it so interesting. Here we have a Marxist who is willing to admit that no decisive evidential case can be made for Marxist commitment, and that ultimately the Marxist responds to the same “tragic vision” as the artist or writer, though in a different way. In other words, Goldmann offers good reason to believe what most non-Marxists have long suspected, namely, that Marxism is not a scientifically based world-view but an aesthetic commitment: the cry of the Communist Manifesto for societal change at any cost, not the involuted reasoning of Das Kapital.

Article continues below

But is Pascal’s Christianity (or our own) likewise a “wager” apart from evidence, with no neutral way of determining what evidence means? This fundamental issue was sharpened in a debate that Goldmann had in 1958 with Eric Voegelin, a conservative political theorist and believer in transcendence. The occasion was an international colloquium on philosophy of history (L’histoire et ses interprétations, ed. Raymond Aron, Mouton, 1961). Goldmann: “I should like to know the basis of your value judgment. One could regard the idea of transcendence as a decadent phenomenon.” Voegelin: “Historically, there is an experience of transcendence.” Goldmann: “There have been in history thousands of experiences which critical analysis has afterwards reduced to the level of illusions. Religion doesn’t need to be connected with the idea of the supernatural.”

Is the Christian claim reducible to illusion? Is it an option no more compelling than its opposite in a world of tragic vision? Pascal himself certainly did not think so, for his Pensées are replete with evidence for the uniqueness of the Bible, its perfect definition of the human dilemma, its fulfilled prophecies concerning the Messiah, and the historical veracity of Christ’s miraculous birth, ministry, and resurrection. Goldmann has reminded us that materialism and Marxism are houses built upon sand. Let us remind the world that the Christian wager is not a blind leap into the unknown but commitment founded on rock—on the only foundation, even Jesus Christ our Lord.


Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.