Andrew Brown

Andrew Brown

Andrew Brown is a religious naturalist, Unitarian minister in Cambridge, hermeneutic communist, jazz bass player, photographer, cyclist and Thoreauvian walker.

Wednesday, 04 May 2016 20:00

Jesus, tribune of the people, ascends to heaven

Published in Religion

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.

Introductory texts:

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 “dók─ôsis” (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).

Bloch continues:

“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.
Wednesday, 27 January 2016 09:06

Ghostly Communism - Provocative Documents for Thought

Published in Culture Hub

Several pieces on both the arts and culture hubs express, creatively and critically, what communism might mean. It's touched on in the poetry of Salena Godden, David Betteridge and others; the articles by Roland Boer on religion and by Andy Croft on poetry; and in the art of Ai Wei-Wei and others in the visual arts section. In this outstanding article, Andrew Brown picks up on the theme, and contributes a stimulating discussion of the notion of 'ghostly communism', and also some photographic images which illuminate the text in true Blakean fashion.

So long as humans live under conditions of the capitalist economy they remain fundamentally mute because their fate does not speak to them. If a human is not addressed by his or her fate, then he or she is incapable of answering it. Economic processes are anonymous, and not expressed in words. For this reason one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one’s side. All that can be done is to adapt one’s own behaviour to what is occurring. Economic failure brooks no argument, just as economic success requires no additional discursive justification. In capitalism, the ultimate confirmation or refutation of human action is not linguistic but economic: it is expressed not with words but with numbers. The force of language as such is thereby annulled

(Boris Groys, The Communist Postscript, Verso Books).

Today, when words have lost their material base—in other words, their reality—and seem suspended in mid-air, a photographer’s eye can capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is. He can submit those images as a document to be considered alongside language and ideology. This is why, brash as it may seem, Provoke has the subtitle, ‘provocative documents for thought’

(Manifesto of the “Provoke Group” (1968) signed by Kohi Taki, Takuma Nakahira, Takahiko Okada, Yutaka Takanashi, and Daido Moriyama)


As someone involved in left politics in one way or another since my mid-teens in the late 1970s, one of the most disturbing realisations of recent times is, as Boris Groys observes, to see how the force of language has been annulled. Once upon a time I was able to converse and argue with all kinds of people in the public space about ideas concerning human life and our fate; today, wandering through the cultural and social wreckage of neoliberalism’s stealth revolution, I find I am “fundamentally mute” because the economization and financialization of everything has occurred. I, and my friends, comrades and even old adversaries, have found to our cost that “one cannot enter into discussion with economic processes; one cannot change their mind, convince them, persuade them, use words to win them over to one’s side. All that can be done is to adapt one’s own behaviour to what is occurring.”

Like everyone else I have been forced to adapt my behaviour—though, as you’ll see, not in the way neoliberalism would like. This is because I am all too aware of how the language of politics, the language of the demos (as in democracy), now no longer has the power effectively to encourage people in any significant numbers critically to examine what is happening in our lives and how our fate is so tightly held in the hands of those who are driving along the neoliberal agenda. Try as I like, whether in my role as a political activist or as a minister in a radical, free-religious, democratic tradition, I find it impossible to persuade people, as a whole, to rise up against their chains as a neoliberal homo oeconomicus and become, once again, homo politicus. I may point to the cry in the Communist Manifesto that the “proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.” but the genius of the neoliberal stealth revolution has been to make its chains appear flower-decked. I may be able to point out, along with Marx, that neoliberalism’s flowers are “imaginary” but, what I cannot do at the moment, being fundamentally mute, is to persuade my fellow humans the value of “throw[ing] off the chain[s] and pluck[ing] the living flower” that is a genuine democracy.

This is a tragedy because, as Wendy Brown observes in a recent interview:

Democracy requires that citizens be modestly oriented toward self-rule, not simply value enhancement, and that we understand our freedom as resting in such self-rule, not simply in market conduct. When this dimension of being human is extinguished, it takes with it the necessary energies, practices, and culture of democracy, as well as its very intelligibility.

It is here that, for me, photography enters into the picture. Recognising that my words have lost “their material base—in other words, their reality—and seem suspended in mid-air” the Japanese Provoke movement’s 1968 manifesto came to me as an epiphany and began to inspire my own work, some of which you can see in this piece. Their insight suddenly offered me a way to continue the struggle for socialism and against barbarism in a very different way. They helped me see that, yes, it might be possible as a photographer to “capture fragments of reality that cannot be expressed in language as it is” and that the images I captured by my lens could be submitted as documents “to be considered alongside language and ideology”—photographs could be “provocative documents for thought” in a way that, at this moment in our culture’s life, our old political (and religious) words cannot.

I’ll return to the photographs found in this essay in a few paragraphs but, firstly, it is important to address the commonly expressed feeling that my words above may seem to express a typical leftist, defeatist attitude. However, two things can be cited to show this is not, I think, the case. The first is a parable told by Lenin and the second is the conception of a “weak” or “hermeneutic” communism as envisaged by Gianni Vattimo.

Man lying in sun 800x800

In 1924 Pravda (No. 87, April 16, 1924) published a short piece Lenin had written two years earlier at the end of the hugely destructive Russian Civil War called Notes of a Publicist that bears as one of its subtitles: “On ascending a high mountain.” In it Lenin imagines a man “ascending a very high, steep and hitherto unexplored mountain” who has “overcome unprecedented difficulties and dangers and has succeeded in reaching a much higher point than any of his predecessors, but still has not reached the summit.” The problem is that the mountaineer has got himself into a place where he can go no further and, if he is to succeed, he must turn back and seek another route. But, as is so often the case, descents prove to be more dangerous and difficult than any ascent. As Lenin notes,

. . . it is easier to slip; it is not so easy to choose a foothold; there is not that exhilaration that one feels in going upwards, straight to the goal, etc. . . . one has to move at a snail’s pace, and move downwards, descend, away from the goal; and one does not know where this extremely dangerous and painful descent will end, or whether there is a fairly safe detour by which one can ascend more boldly, more quickly and more directly to the summit.

To the people looking up at the climb from below, this descent causes them to shout all kinds of abuse “with malicious joy” about to the foolishness of the whole attempt to reach the summit. In Lenin’s parable he notes that,

Happily, in the circumstances we have described, our imaginary traveller cannot hear the voices of these people who are “true friends” of the idea of ascent; if he did, they would probably nauseate him. And nausea, it is said, does not help one to keep a clear head and a firm step, particularly at high altitudes.

Alas, as we descend from our first attempt to scale the mountain and, thereby, achieve socialism, the malicious joy of voices around us are today only too audible. Nauseating though this may be the important point to hold on to with a clear head is that even the great hero of the Russian Revolution saw there are moments in any struggle where you have no choice but radically to retrace the route you initially chose. In truth, this is always highly likely to occur because the mountain has not yet been conquered; you have absolutely no way of knowing beforehand what is going to be the successful route to the peak.

Reflection 530x800

It is clear that, due to external contingent circumstances, and too often our own foolishness, folly and occasionally brutality, we find ourselves in a place on the mountain that require us to retrace so many of our steps by undertaking a dangerous and very risky descent.

One person who has, to my mind, bravely and successfully done this to reach a place where we may have genuine hopes of mounting a more successful, gentle and humane attempt on the summit (though it is a very different kind of “summit” than the one imagined by Lenin and the kind of communist thinking he inherited) is the Italian leftist thinker and philosopher, Gianni Vattimo.

What appeals to me about Vattimo’s thinking is his feeling that, were communism to have any chance today of contributing to the improvement of world in healing, healthy and creative ways, then it needed to be in the full-time business of weakening all dogmas and ideologies—including, of course, its own. This idea of weakening all dogmas and ideologies may seem strange to many traditional leftists, but think about it. History has surely taught us that all strong totalising ideologies (whether religious, political, economic or financial) are deeply problematic and ultimately destructive as well as being profoundly anti-revolutionary. All such ideologies—including those once held by communists—fail properly to see that the world is always-already way more anomalous, complex, rich and revolutionary than can be dealt with by any single, totalising world-view. As Vattimo says in his highly influential 1983 essay “Weak Thought”, today it is possible to see clearly that:

. . . the world plays itself out in horizons constructed by a series of echoes, linguistic resonances, and messages coming from the past and from others (others alongside us as well as other cultures).

In other words, there is never going to be an end (a peak or summit) to the ongoing complex, multi-layered conversation between people and ideas and, therefore, there is also no such thing as ideological purity and certainty. Our world is, through and through, ceaselessly dialectical and this always means that new and revolutionary interpretations and insights are constantly being showing-up—there are theses and antitheses, yes, but there is no final, stable synthesis towards which we are ineluctably moving. The single, simple “summit” of the mountain Lenin and the early communists thought we were climbing disappears in Vattimo’s thought (and “weak” communism) to be replaced by a much more complex, shifting and interesting landscape that requires us always to flexible in our thinking and action. Perhaps this is also what John Storey is hinting at in his article 'What Do We Mean By Culture and Why Does It Matter?' elsewhere on the site: that to hold with absolute certainty any predetermined single ideology or doctrine, to be ideologically pure, is nothing less than to close oneself up to life itself.

With this thought of a life of ever-unfolding conversation we come to the nub of the matter, namely, what is now the best strategy available to us to change ourselves and the world for the better? How might we be truly true to the original revolutionary communist ideal with all its transformative energy and vision?

Well, we can start with Marx’s famous words “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways, the point is to change it.” As we know most of these grand attempts to change the world were rooted in strong ideologies and doctrines and, without exception, they unfolded in some very, very bad ways. As Vattimo says in his 2010 essay “Weak Communism” this means that:

Thinking about a weak communism means rejecting not only Marx’s message, but also Lenin’s definition of communism as ‘soviet power plus electrification’ (assuming it was ever like this).

In consequence, in their recent book, “Hermenutic Communism”, Vattimo and his colleague Santiago Zabala feel, and I agree with them, that, today, Marx’s eleventh thesis should be rewritten thus:

The philosophers have only described the world in various ways; the moment now has arrived to interpret it.

Related to this thought, in a 2002 interview Vattimo notes that:

In a strong theory of weakness, the philosopher’s role would not derive from the world ‘as it is,’ but from the world viewed as the product of a history of interpretation throughout the history of human cultures. This philosophical effort would focus on interpretation as a process of weakening, a process in which the weight of objective structures is reduced.

The claim being made here is that the best way to affect change the world is firstly (and primarily) to change our interpretations of the world. In “Weak Communism” Vattimo states that to do this

We need an undisciplined social practice which shares with anarchism the refusal to formulate a system, a constitution, a positive ‘realistic’ model according to traditional political methods: for example, winning elections (who believes in them any longer?). Communism must have the courage to be a ‘ghost’ — if it wishes to recuperate an authentic reality.

A strikingly similar idea was expressed in the British context by Eric Hobsbawm who, in an interview towards the end of his life, suggested that the communism of the 21st century must become first and foremost

. . . a critique of capitalism, a critique of an unjust society that is developing its own contradictions; the ideal of a society with more equality, freedom, and fraternity; the passion of political action, the recognition of the necessity for common actions; the defence of the causes of the poorest and oppressed. This does not mean anymore a social order as the Soviet one, an economic order of total organisation and collectivity: I believe this experiment failed. Communism as a motivation is still valid, but not as programme.

Supermarket 27 March 2015 800x800


All of which allows me, finally, to turn to the photographs in this piece. They are “weak” images in the sense that they do not express any substantive political content but, for me, they do function as strong “provocative documents for thought.” Looking at them I am provoked to ask many questions, such as whether these laughing children are leading better and more fulfilled lives than their forebears or not?; whether the man sunbathing is engaging in a moment of resistance (bunking-off from exhausting and underpaid work for a while) or is he simply enjoying a well-earned and happy retirement?; whether the man reflected in the shop window surrounded by dozens of other reflections celebrating the omnipresent consumer culture through which he walks is elated and improved by this, or is he merely being crushed and erased by it?; whether the man in the supermarket is delighted by this huge range of commodities on the shelves before him or merely weighed-down by pointless choice?

As I say, these are just a few of the questions one might ask about these images and they all serve to keep me fully engaged in a political dialectic that will not be silenced by the neoliberal status quo.



For me taking these photos is part of my continuing activism as a “ghostly communist”, as someone still able to be engaged in resistance even though it is a kind of “spectral resistance” (a la Giorgio Agamben). Taking them helps me find a way of haunting every nook and cranny of the neoliberal culture in which I find myself mostly made mute. But, for all that I still have faith and hope that, along with my many ghostly comrades, we can ensure that the spectre of communism will continue to haunt not only Europe, but the whole world, our common home and treasury.