Jul 15, 2023
“Bakunin was fierce in his profession of atheism; but unlike his Marxist counterparts, he was not shy about using the language of Judeo-Christian theology to make his points.”
250 years ago, philosophical atheism came into its own. Judeo-Christian hegemony, though often honored more in name than in act, had dominated Europe since the closing centuries of the Roman Empire. Now, for the first time, it had a worthy challenger.
Rather than reform Christianity (again) or import yet another new religion from the East, Europe’s intellectual elite began to question and then dismantle the entire theological enterprise. The process occurred unevenly over various nation states, ethnic groups, and social classes; it’s still very much a work in ‘progress’ today.
The early success of Christianity must be attributed in part to specific conditions operative in Mediterranean society at the time. Likewise, its demise! The early advances justly attributed to the Scientific Method ‘made the world safe’ for a new, secular, and empirical concept of truth.
Likewise, the identification of the Church with Europe’s Ancien Régime put it squarely in the crosshairs of emerging pro-democracy movements. If the king must go, why not the bishops?
While the newly emergent atheism came in a Baskin and Robbins-array of flavors, Dialectical Materialism, i.e., Marxism, became dominant in the later half of the 19th century. And why not? As the name suggests, this new philosophy took process away from the providence of God and placed it squarely in the province of Nature and Society. It also fiercely denied the reality of a transcendent realm or of any non-material substance (e.g., spirit).
Judaism was quicker to respond to the threat of secularization than Christianity. By the middle of the 18th century, Hasidism had taken root and begun to grow; it was not until 1880 (the Papacy of Leo XIII) that Christianity first put forward a cogent response. Valuable time was lost.
Since Leo, the intellectual engagement between the two competing world views has been torrid. However, it has for the most part been unproductive. (Exceptions: Teilhard de Chardin, Liberation Theology). Like eight-year-olds in the school yard, the rival gangs never tire of screaming insults back and forth.
For the most part, though, they’re not even speaking the same language. Imagine a ‘charter school’ in Belgium where half the kids are hurling insults in Flemish while the other half prefer to insult in French. That’s approximately the state of ideological discourse today.
Mikhail Bakunin is a notable exception to this over-simplified version of intellectual history. Often called the Father of Anarchism and a leading 19th century thinker in his own right, Bakunin was fierce in his profession of atheism; but unlike his Marxist counterparts, he was not shy about using the language of Judeo-Christian theology to make his points. This allows theists to engage with Bakunin in a way they often can’t with other 19th century atheists.
Our interest in Bakunin’s theology is rooted in the hope that it might serve as the basis for a dialog between Judeo-Christians, and Modern Secularists. Anarchism has much to teach Christians, and the Judeo-Christian tradition has a lot to contribute to the exposition of modern political theory. Together, we envision these two ideologies as the twin bases of a new spirit of intellectual cross-fertilization, so desperately needed now in the tumultuous 21st century.
By comparison, 12th and 13th century Europe was a Golden Age in the intellectual history of the West. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam generously cross-fertilized, allowing the emergence of towering intellects like Aquinas, Maimonides, and Averroes. Could the same happen in our time?
Written in 1871, the year of the Paris Commune, Bakunin’s God and State is the clearest statement of his theological principles; let’s sample some of his ideas:
“Humanity is nothing other than…the highest manifestation of animality…The power to think and the power to rebel…constitute(s) humanity in man (sic).”
“But here steps in Satan, the eternal rebel, the first freethinker and the emancipator of worlds. He makes man ashamed of his bestial ignorance and obedience; he emancipates him…urging him to disobey and eat the fruit of knowledge.”
Bakunin anticipates Sartre in defining human beings in terms of their existential freedom (aka free will). In this, he preserves what is foundational in Judeo-Christianity as well.
“God being everything, the real world and man are nothing. God being truth, justice…man is falsehood, iniquity… God being master, man is the slave…The idea of God…is the most decisive negation of human liberty, and necessarily ends in the enslavement of mankind, both in theory and in practice…For if God is, he is necessarily the eternal, supreme, absolute master, and if such a master exists, man is a slave.”
Here Bakunin is a victim of his epoch. He understands social process primarily as conflict, and he cannot imagine a relationship between God and the world (humanity) that is anything other than an instantiation of the ruler-subject, master-slave paradigm.
Bakunin appears to present a ‘zero-sum’ model of society. If one is free, another must be enslaved; if one is prosperous, another must be poor. Bakunin applied the ideas of certain liberal economists (e.g., Malthus and Riccardo) to anthropology, cosmology, and theology.
In these areas, I think Bakunin misses the mark. After all, as an anarchist he is ‘duty bound’ to believe that social order can emerge unforced, based on cooperation and justice. However, he apparently cannot imagine such organic order emerging alongside Judeo-Christianity.
Of course, Judeo-Christians offer a very different account of things. God and humanity are on the same side; they cooperate in pursuit of common goals (values). In a sense, they (i.e., we) are symbiotic.
As an anarchist, Bakunin detests any form of human authority; but as a scientist, he enthusiastically embraces the authority of natural law:
“Yes, we are absolutely the slaves of these laws. But in such slavery, there is no humiliation, or rather, it is not slavery at all.” Here again, Bakunin is anticipating Sartre, this time with a notion akin to ‘facticity’, i.e., being-in-the-world.
“For slavery supposes an external master…while these (natural) laws are not outside of us, they are inherent in us; they constitute our being, our whole being…” Did Bakunin realize that he was echoing a theme that occurs throughout both the Old and New Testaments?
“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts, and I will be their God and they shall be my people.” (Jeremiah 31:33)
The first five books of the Old Testament, the Torah, considered together, are an uninterrupted exposition of Natural Law. The Written Torah (Scripture) is meant to be a reflection of the Oral Torah (Nature): as above, so below!
“The liberty of man consists solely in this: that he obeys natural laws because he himself has recognized them as such…”
The best way to attack an ideology you disagree with is to mischaracterize it, to build a proverbial straw man. Doctrinaire Communists did this to Christianity; Christians did the same to Communism. The ‘Commies’ we feared and hated in the 1950s were for the most part phantoms created by the imperial state and by a church playing defense.
Marxists’ characterization of Christianity is often likewise distorted and prejudicial. In a few spots, Bakunin seems to give in to this temptation. He pretends not to understand ideas like Incarnation and Trinity; but for the most part, Bakunin presents a reasonably accurate summation of Judeo-Christian theology. Potentially, it could form the basis for some serious dialog:
“…Divinity (is) lost and scattered in the matter which it animates…but each man considered individually…can contain only a very small particle…these divine particles, human souls…are irresistibly drawn toward their whole; they seek each other, they seek their whole.”
This is remarkably close to the Hasidic doctrine of Shekinah, God existing in all things as a divine ‘spark’, each spark seeking reunion with its whole. But, ultimately, of course, Bakunin’s theology is defective from a Judeo-Christian perspective. The problem, though, is not so much doctrinal as it is methodological.
The 19th century was the stage set for the Industrial Revolution. As such, its world view is incurably linear and mechanical. The world is imagined through the lens of grade school arithmetic. A product of his times, Bakunin has an overly simplified, overly Euclidean, notion of wholes and parts.
“If God entire could find lodgment in each man, then each man would be God…”
But God ‘lodging’ in each and every human being does not transform those humans into gods. The unique perspective of Christianity is that the ‘whole’, God, can be present in some or all of its parts – e.g., as Incarnation, as Spirit, as Eucharist, as Church, as Shekinah. Yet, God is never divided; God is always whole and entire. Unity and simplicity are God’s nature. (Aquinas)
This model of embedded being is alien to the world of industry with its division of labor and its assembly lines. The 19th century is hopelessly linear; the Judeo-Christian world view is fundamentally non-linear:
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts;
The whole is reflected in each of its parts;
Each part is reflected in the whole.
Conceptually, and understandably, this was a bridge Bakunin could not cross.
Bakunin carries his arithmetic model of reality even further: “…The infinitely small is equal to zero. God is everything; therefore man and all the real world with him, the universe, are nothing.”
This, of course, Judeo-Christian doctrine categorically denies. Metaphysics is not a ‘zero-sum’ game. The whole does not eclipse its parts; it is reflected in those parts. Parts are not irrelevant to the whole; each part enriches the whole. Now, in the 21st century, organism is replacing mechanism as the prevailing model of reality and Judeo-Christianity is inherently organic.
Finally, Bakunin’s attitude toward religion itself is ambivalent. In one place, he calls religion “collective insanity”; but elsewhere he lauds Jesus as “the preacher of the poor, the friend and consoler of the wretched, of the ignorant, of the slaves, and of the women…” and he refers to the early Church as “the first awakening, the first intellectual revolt of the proletariat.”
Today, we live in a world that is superficially divided between economic liberalism (capitalism) and political democracy (universal suffrage) on the one hand and various forms of political and economic totalitarianism on the other. Neither path leads to the emancipation of the world.
What is needed is a new initiative, heavily informed by the Anarchism of Bakunin and others and by Judeo-Christian tradition. Combining these influences, we can look forward to a world that respects the absolute freedom of the individual, that welcomes the organic emergence of social structures, and that honors in word and in deed the fundamental, divine values of Beauty, Truth, and Justice. Is that too much to ask?
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.