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Terry Eagleton once remarked that Marx made “the characteristically bourgeois mistake of confusing morality with moralism” (After Theory, 143).  For many on the left, morals, being good, let alone following the Good, should have nothing to do with economics and politics. Such talk is illusory at best and ideological at worst.

Yet Marx himself was profoundly concerned about morals. Writing about the degradations of capitalism was not simply an intellectual exercise for Marx.

So why is such a confusion between morality and moralism a “bourgeois” mistake and not just a mistake in general? In Christianity and Marxism, Denys Turner offers an explanation:

It is an error of substance to call by the name ‘morality’ what has been done under that name by philosophers from Kant to Hare. For what we now call morality is in radical discontinuity with that classical conception – of which Marxism is the inheritor – which was of a scientific investigation of the social order that can generate norms of action. The discontinuity of the contemporary bourgeois with the classical conception is, therefore, important at the very least from the point of view of the studies of ideologies… It is… a conceptual response governed by the social pressure of a class society that we have to bifurcate the ‘moral’ from the ‘scientific’. It is very important, therefore, that Marxists recognize what has happened: that ‘morality’ in its bourgeois sense has abandoned the role which was once assigned to it on the classical conception and has been redefined so as to work against that role (85).

According to Turner, Marx failed to grasp the nuances or historical situatedness of moral philosophy, regarding all instances of morality as prototypically Kantian; that is, as abstract, universal, etc. Marx seems to have missed the fact that the separation of facts or scientific investigation on the one hand, and morals on the other, is itself a product of a class-based society. The “bourgeois” mistake, then, is to fail to see that the proper study of morality – the classical conception – has nothing to do with abstract rules and everything to do with the political order and concrete social relations.

Regardless of Marx’s mistake, both Eagleton and Turner point out that Marx was certainly right to disparage the Kantian morality of his time, which sadly infected so much of Christian moral philosophy, even up to present day.

Speaking to Christians in general, Turner writes that “in the bourgeois world moral views come exceedingly cheap.” He continues:

It is worrying for a Christian that all too often it is Christians themselves who are in practice the meanest buyers in the moral market. They, who talk so readily and unproblematically about (of all things) ‘love’, seem quite to have forgotten that Christianity, embodied in the life of its founder, came not so much with news about love, but rather about its price. And if Christians have forgotten what that price is, they may reasonably doubt whether they have been trading in the genuine article, rather than a counterfeit. Marxism may perhaps serve to remind them that the price of love is revolution and, ultimately, death (x).


From Terry Eagleton’s review of Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait by Denys Turner:

Aquinas believed in the soul, as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins do not; but one reason he did so was because he thought it yielded the richest possible understanding of the lump of matter known as the body. As Wittgenstein once remarked: if you want an image of the soul, look at the body. The soul for Thomas is not some ghostly extra, as it was for the Platonising Christians of his time; it is not to be seen as a spiritual kidney or spectral pancreas. The question ‘Whereabouts in the body is the soul?’ would to his mind involve a category mistake, as though one were to ask how close to the left armpit one’s envy was located. For Aquinas, the soul is everywhere in the body precisely because it is what he calls, after Aristotle, the ‘form’ of it, meaning the way in which it is uniquely organised to be expressive of meaning. The soul is not some sort of thing, but the distinctive way in which a particular piece of matter is alive. It is quite as visible as a club foot. To claim that a spider has a different sort of soul from a human being is in Thomas’s view simply to say that it has a different form of life. What distinguishes an animal body from a hat or a hosepipe is the fact that it is signifying, communicative, self-transformative stuff, in contrast to the meaninglessly dumb matter of so much contemporary materialism. It is, in Turner’s phrase, ‘matter articulate’.

Eagleton goes on to highlight that the mind’s natural object for Aquinas was not God, but material objects; especially the material object of Jesus.

Though he is often accused of bloodless scholastic rationalism, he is in some ways closer to the empiricists. The mind’s natural object, he insisted, is not God, the self or ideas but material things. Any knowledge we have of God has to start here, and in particular with that pathetic failure of a material object known as Jesus. (In a splendid flourish, Turner writes of Jesus as ‘extra-judicially executed on the majority recommendation of a corrupt committee of very religious people’.)


Denys Turner on St. Thomas, Eucharist and matter:

Herein is the reason why the Eucharist appeals so directly to Thomas. It connects with such immediacy and force to the driving energy of his theology, to what I have called his “materialism.” For Thomas, if you are looking for meaning you will find it in matter, and no more strikingly could this methodological principle be embodied than in the theology of the Eucharist. The Eucharist reveals something unexpected there in the meanings we achieve by eating and drinking together which, without the Eucharist, we could not know at all. And so what Thomas says about the relation of the Eucharist to food is this: you do not fully understand the human meaning of food until you understand its Eucharistic depth: lurking within the quotidian business of meals is a mysterious dimension, waiting to be disclosed. The Eucharist discloses it (237).

As Turner continues about the seemingly surprising claims of Thomas’s Eucharistic theology,

You wouldn’t have known that mere bread and wine could bear such weight of meaning, for basic human food is the last place you would guess to be the point of entry into the mystery of the world’s creation out of nothing and its trajectory through history to its final end in the eternal love that created it. For Thomas it is all there in the meaning of eating and drinking. And it should not surprise us that all the meaning of all the world is contained and hidden in that holy hiddenness. If it is a cause of surprise that theology should culminate there, in Christ’s followers eating and drinking together, then there is still something to learn from Thomas (267-268). 


Is it necessarily more “Christian” to begin with Jesus before speaking about God? Denys Turner asks that we think this through for a bit. In fact, he thinks that if one begins here – methodically speaking – all sorts of problems arise. As he argues in Thomas Aquinas,

Deus vere subiectum hiuius scientiae, “It is God who is the true subject of this discipline.” So says Thomas at the outset of the Summa. By contrast, talk about God is curiously unfashionable among Christian theologians today. They seem to prefer talk about Christ, as if you could theologize with Christological adequacy without standing on secure doctrinal ground concerning God. This seems perverse, being somewhat akin to an English person’s attempting to describe to an American the conduct of a cricket match while suppressing any indications that cricket is a sport. The American, after all, might reasonably conclude that the description referred to some tediously long-winded religious ritual that devotees of most English-speaking nations engage in for periods of five days whenever it is not raining during the months of summer. In the same way, Christian beliefs, Thomas says, might be about anything at all, might for all we know be make-believe fairy tales, allegories, or metaphors for goodness knows what, or, as many nineteenth-century critics of Christian beliefs maintained, have nothing to do with God and are just a roundabout and misleading alienating way of misdescribing human nature and the world. Thomas, therefore, insists. We know that they make sense as theological only insofar as they are revealed by the God they in turn reveal. And Thomas seems both to be right in thinking that you need to show this and to have judge well pedagogically in deciding to begin with the logic of talk about God (100-101). 

Herbert McCabe raises a similar point in God Matters:

Our use for the word ‘God’ does not begin with Christology. To put it at its simplistic, we cannot ask the question: ‘In what sense is Jesus to be called Son of God?” without some prior use for the word ‘God.” And, of course the New Testament did have such a prior use. The NT is unintelligible except as the flowering of the Hebrew tradition and the asking of the creation question that became central to the Jewish Bible” (42). 

Turner has in mind a very specific set of theologians here: on the Protestant side, Barth, and on the Catholic side, Rahner. Turner’s point is not to deny the fact that Jesus presents us with an image as to what God is like, but rather to show that we go astray when we think we can speak or think about Christ apart from God, or indeed from any set of background or metaphysical assumptions.

As Turner clarifies, failure to adequately think “God” leads to a faulty conception of grace. Turner points to the ubiquity of the “free will defense” among theologians and its mirror image, Calvinistic determination. We tend to fall into the trap of either/or thinking: “unfailingly efficacious grace and human freedom are mutually exclusive, either the one or the other” (156). But this only creates an idolatrous conception of God, of a God who exists on the same plane with creatures.

Unless the ground is in this way cleared conceptually everything will be amiss theologically. But when once the logical ground cleared and the space is opened up, the theology of grace is no longer entangled in the logician’s dilemma that would entail the affirmation of the infallible work of God’s grace only at the expense of the freedom of our human consent to it. More positively, the space is thereby cleared for an understanding of the relation between creature and Creator in terms of the mutuality of friendship that requires neither the erotic’s erasure of identity nor the oppositions that would set the work of justification and sanctification in competition with human choice and free consent. Grace is all: it is friendship, reciprocity, freedom, life shared, equality mutually sustained, Creator and creature “interinanimated” in love” (167-168). 


Taking a break from focusing on what’s wrong with the world to meditate on prayer. From Denys Turner’s Julian of Norwich, Theologian:

It is in prayer that eternity and time meet with the contingency of human desire. Prayer is a practice of interpreting human desire, a practice that draws us back through the tangled thickets of wants and needs as we experience them to our truest love and to where we are most truly ourselves. And as eternity is mediated by time in the contingency of desire, so desire is transformed by the eternity it mediates. What I most truly want is also that which is already given (168).