May 5th is Ascension Day in the Christian calendar. Andrew Brown proposes a radical linterpretation of the story, first suggested by the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch.
1. The Ascension of Jesus
So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’
- Acts 1:6-11
2. Tribunus plebis
Tribunus plebis, rendered in English as tribune of the plebs, tribune of the people, or plebeian tribune, was the first office of the Roman state that was open to the plebeians, and throughout the history of the Republic, the most important check on the power of the Roman senate and magistrates. These tribunes had the power to convene and preside over the Concilium Plebis, or people’s assembly; to summon the senate; to propose legislation; and to intervene on behalf of plebeians in legal matters; but the most significant power of these tribunes was the power to veto the actions of the consuls and other magistrates, thus protecting the interests of the plebeians as a class. The tribunes of the plebs were sacrosanct, meaning that any assault on their person was prohibited by law. In imperial times, the powers of the tribunate were granted to the emperor as a matter of course, and the office itself lost its independence and most of its functions.
In one way or another all of us on the progressive left are looking for a way to help our contemporary culture and society change itself in ways consonant with our present secular understanding and knowledge. We certainly all feel the need to overcome the stranglehold neoliberal ideas have over our culture and also to ensure that fundamentalist religious and political ideas of any stripe don’t once again come to dominate our common life. But there is overcoming and overcoming.
One way of overcoming that has often be desired (and in some cases actually attempted) by us on the left is to effect change by the wholesale defeat of the current status quo and by replacing it with some new leftwing -ism or ideology. This strong way of overcoming we can be call “überwindung”. But this method seems to me and many other thinkers highly problematic, not least of all because it simply replaces one totalising ideology with another and this process leaves in place different versions of the same problematic and abusive power structures we all hated and wanted to see disappear in the first place.
In consequence I agree with Heidegger in thinking that “Overcoming is worthy only when we think about incorporation” (M. Heidegger: “Overcoming Metaphysics” in the End of Philosophy, trans J. Stambaugh, New York, Harpur and Row, 1973, p. 91). This means that I agree with Gianni Vattimo that properly to overcome neoliberalism and religio-political fundamentalism we need to engage, not in a process of überwindung but by a process of “verwindung” — that is to say a process that takes the old things and incorporates them into our new life by twisting, weakening and reinterpreting them such that they are given new and creative meanings that cut against coercive power and help propel us towards genuine freedom and democracy.
Which brings me to the Christian celebration of the Ascension which, this year is celebrated on May 5th. I bring it to your attention because the great Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) saw a way by which it could be twisted, weakened and reinterpreted so as to help propel us towards genuine freedom and democracy.
If you know the story you might be wondering how on earth we could usefully incorporate the otherwise frankly very odd and off-putting story of the Ascension into our own leftist and progressive narrative by giving it an interpretation that helps us achieve the aforementioned aims.
For those who don’t know the story it can be found by clicking this link to the relevant place in the Book of Acts:
When understood and depicted in an excessively literal way the Ascension Day account can appear comic in an almost Monty Pythonesque way — think of the cartoons by Terry Gilliam. Indeed, I remember well the first time I visited the Anglo-Catholic shrine at Little Walsingham. Unexpectedly I came across a little side-chapel dedicated to the Ascension where, above my head I saw two near life-size feet disappearing into a cloudy sky on the chapel ceiling — it is as Gilliamesque a sight as you can imagine!
But when understood in a strongly metaphysical way the Ascension ceases to be comic and become deeply disturbing because it speaks of a kind of divine ennoblement from on high which simply removes Jesus from our world. As Bloch suggests this is to see Jesus as a “Kyrios/Son of God, a super-Hercules in a super-firmament.” Bloch points out that this picture is “of the dynastic solar variety, with the chariot of the sun-god and the general style assumed by ascending heroes when they quit the earth” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164).
Another common way of thinking metaphysically about the Ascension is to understand it as an example of the profoundly problematic doctrine that became known as Docetism. This name is derived from the Greek words “dokein” (to seem) and “dókēsis” (an apparition or phantom) and refers to the idea that Jesus only seemed to be a human being and that, in consequence, his physicality — his humanity — was merely an appearance.
In both these cases the problem is that the whole story of Jesus' actual radical work of teaching and healing the poor and sick and excluded in society, as well as his subsequent execution for challenging the coercive and exclusive power-structures of his own day, becomes something which occurred at no cost to God. In this interpretation God came all-powerfully from on high and, after only appearing to become human, he merely returns, unharmed, to on high. Net gain and change to God? Zero, zilch, nada. And, for us? Well, in these interpretations we are reduced to mere spectators of, and pawns in, a drama, one through-scripted by a distant, infinitely perfect, disengaged divine author.
In consequence, the Ascension story looks to many leftists and progressive thinkers like a dangerous piece of ancient mythology that really can’t be salvaged by a process of verwindung and incorporation, in short one that must be wholly overcome (überwinden). At first sight it is admittedly very hard to see how one might incorporate it meaningfully into our own, contemporary mythology — i.e. the story through which we might ourselves can come to live more freely democratically and, therefore, more fully. But Bloch has a reading of the the myth that doesn’t proceed by overcoming (überwinden) but, by incorporating, twisting and weakening aspects of it (verwindung). In so doing he opens up for us a way of using the story that is for us creative and helpful.
To get to this interpretation we need to be aware of two things that are important to Bloch when he reads the Christian story. Firstly, he points out again and again that Jesus’ own preferred title was “ben Adam” — Son of Man — and that Jesus, himself, never once used the title the Son of God.
Secondly, Bloch draws our attention to Jesus’ claim that “the Father and I are one” (John 10:30; cf. John 17). This claim might make it look like Jesus is really saying he’s the Son of God but everything here hinges on the overall direction in which Bloch thinks this story is heading. Culturally we are used to seeing the direction of travel as being “downwards” from a God “outside” the world travelling towards the human. Bloch, however, turns this upside down and he makes humanity, in the person of the representative Son of Man, head firmly and courageously in the other direction into realms once reserved for God alone. The Ascension story is for Bloch one place where we see this happen. He says:
“The Son of Man not only broke through the myth of the Son of God, but also through that of the throne “at the right hand of the Father”: now a Tribune of the people sits upon that throne, and so revokes it. For all his celestial dignity after the Ascension, Christ is still, even for Paul, the man Adam — indeed Paul is explicit: ‘The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven’ (1 Corinthians 15:47). And his human character stays with him there: that of a Tribunus plebis from first to last” (Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164).
“The model of ascension here, even if it is still the ascension of Christ that is in question, is no longer the departure of a mighty lord for high places, but is, instead, one of the most striking images of hope — that archetypal anchor pulling us home”
- Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. 164-165.
The image of an anchor drawing us home Bloch borrows from the author of Hebrews who says “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters the inner shrine behind the curtain, where Jesus, a forerunner on our behalf, has entered” (Hebrews 6:19-20a).
Bloch offers us here an interpretation of the Ascension that transforms the story into one where we bear witness to an extraordinary moment of a revolutionary hope and freedom. The celestial palace, the seat of disinterested unchanging power, has finally been incorporated by us by being taken over for the use of the peoples of the earth with Jesus leading the way as our Tribune. A Tribune, you will recall, was an officer who had been elected by the plebeians of Rome to protect their rights from the arbitrary acts of the patrician magistrates.
Now some of you may now be saying well, OK, but really what’s the point of this reinterpretation? Who really cares? And since, in offering this to us in the way he does he’s more or less admitted that he doesn’t believe the Ascension story in any literal way, so why can’t he, and we, simply move on and ditch the story entirely?
It’s a tough question that requires a clear answer. We begin to get that when we acknowledge that only someone with their head plunged deep into the sand can fail to see, in the words of Peter Thompson:
“. . . that religion as both debate and way of life has not crumbled in the face of an apparently inexorable rationalist, scientific, modernising Enlightenment and globalisation of the market economy, but retains a potency and strength which remains far in excess of its ability to explain”
- Peter Thompson’s introduction to Ernst Bloch: Atheism in Christianity, Verso Press 2009 p. ix.
It would be surely be politically naive, foolish and dangerous not to take this fact into account. So the question is not whether or not we are to deal with our religious inheritance, but how are we going to deal with it?
The new atheists and hardcore secular humanists want to tackle religion by a fairly straightforward process of overcoming (überwinden). Of course, many newly active religious believers of all stripes also want to tackle atheism and humanism in the same way. It is this “all or nothing” approach that has given rise to the unfortunate culture wars we are beginning to see all around us in the unedifying spectacle of the often angry bitter and recriminatory debates between atheists and theists in all human spheres of endeavour, science, politics, literature, education etc., etc..
This desire for overcoming (überwinden) also lies behind the growing number of violent religio-political conflicts of our own age all of which are being encouraged by leaders of both small terror groups and nations who are increasingly committed in strong metaphysical ways. Everything in this sphere is about defeating the perceived “enemy” with a more powerful metaphysics or more powerful tactics of violence. But it is clear that this kind of power play cuts clearly against our own desire for the existence of a plurality of voices within our society and, in consequence, I do not believe we should be supporting, in any shape of form, such tactics.
In my mind this requires us to commit to an ongoing attempt to effect change by finding ways to incorporate, twist or weaken aspects of our inherited religious culture (verwindung). (This is the “weak thought” of Gianni Vattimo — il pensiero debole). It seems to me that only by doing this that will we genuinely achieve the kind of liberal society we desire. Verwindung, verwindung, verwindung should be our public proclamation at every step along the way.
We need to be smart about this because religion is not going away, so let’s take the Ascension story, the story of Pentecost and all the other religious stories we inherit and show how we may reinterpret them in ways that pull us towards local autonomy, free discussion, the rejection of coercion and of the ideal of uniformity, the protection of minorities, and the separation of church and state. Such a movement is still the closest thing to truth I know.
Andrew Brown is a religious naturalist, Unitarian minister in Cambridge, hermeneutic communist, jazz bass player, photographer, cyclist and Thoreauvian walker.