Leszek Kolakowski, socialist and Christian. Kolakowski was a polish intellectual who died in 2009. He is most well-known for his critical analysis of Marxism, but he was hardly a Western liberal. His political position, and only his political position, could be compared to that of Bernie Sanders. In other words, he was a democratic socialist. When Poland was a satellite of the Soviet Union, Kolakowski was effectively exiled, spending the next forty years at prestigious universities in the West. Even, or especially in exile, he was a leading thinker of the Solidarity movement.
In the later decades of his life, Kolakowski became less interested in politics, and more in religion. It is his religious views that I focus on. If he had a thesis, it would be that without absolute values to guide us, we shall remain lost. Nihilism, politics, “spirituality,” and trivial pursuits will prevail. Absolute values are found only in God.
The five basic values of Christianity
The core truths of Christianity are that God exists and we are wretched. By wretched Kolakowski doesn’t mean miserable all the time, or without happiness. He means that we must die, we know we must die, and while we live we are perpetually vulnerable to events beyond our control.
Christ, he says,
does not want to break the continuity of the Jewish creed; he wants to renew it and “internalize” it. In other words, the contractual relation between man and God is not altered by a change in the content of the contract, but ceases to exist entirely, and is supplanted by a relation of love. (Happy, p 150)
The soul and the will to good stand on one side of a divide, the rest of the world and the totality of things on the other. Only the soul matters.
In a number of my posts I have emphasized the teachings of Christ, but Kolakowski seems correct that Christianity was not founded on Christ’s teachings, but on belief in Christ’s resurrection and divinity. I estimate this remains the view of most Christians today. Certainly, it is easier to believe than it is to follow Christ’s teachings. But I should restate this more precisely. It’s easier to believe in a superficial way than to follow Christ’s teachings. For true belief is never easy, and for many impossible.
The five basic Christian values
- Abolishing law in favor of love.
- The hope of eliminating violence from human relations.
- Man shall not live by bread alone.
- The abolition of the idea of a chosen people.
- The essential wretchedness of the temporal world. No matter how fortunate, we are all fragile and we all die.
These are the values that, with the exception of wretchedness, have found their way into the “spiritual substance of Europe and the world” independent of Christian dogma. But the abstraction of these values from Christianity, says Kolakowski, results in cultural impoverishment (Happy, pp 151-158).
I’m not so sure. Kolakowski, among so many other believers, seems to hold that it is a straight line from loss of belief in God to Nietzsche and nihilism. I don’t think it’s so simple. A culture of human rights, such as that found in parts of the West since World War Two, and even the natural law, reflect these values without thinking too much about their origin. Consider the preamble of the Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights . . . .
To be sure, the only way to “prove” these values is through faith in God, but rights do not so much need to be proven as practiced.
Where Kolakowski seems right is that the person of Jesus was a model of radical authenticity, expressing his own truth fully, resisting unto death the established reality which rejected him. Every human can aspire to this model (Happy, pp 159-160). And perhaps there must be something like this in every great moral teacher and leader. Only in their personification do these values become truly inspirational.
For Kolakowski, things are never simple. Faith is key, but doubt remains essential. For without doubt, we are at the mercy of our “Promethian self-confidence,” our desire to be like a god. Even, or especially, in the case of religion, people tend to cling to their beliefs as if there were no tomorrow. In a sense they are right (our tomorrows are numbered), but only doubt can mediate between the incompatible demands life places on us: the need for faith beyond reason, and the need to remain rational (Trial, p. 84).
A fable about doubt
Kolakowski tells an intriguing story about doubt. According to ancient Persian mythology, the God of Evil and the God of Goodness were twins. Twins, because a doubt had slipped into the mind of the primordial God, dividing his legacy. Consequently, doubt is the original source of evil, and not its result. This should not surprise us, for to the divine mind doubt is destruction. Doubt bears witness to our imperfection rather than producing it, but at the same time it prevents the evil in us from realizing its full potential. That which makes us painfully imperfect helps us to be less imperfect than we might have been (Trial, p 84).
There is no worldly cause, no social or intellectual end, which Christianity is better prepared to defend than is a decent secular movement or government. “Christianity can engage in politics and social conflicts, but if it is to escape self-destruction, it must perceive all temporal goods as relative.” (Happy, p 189. See too Trial, p 93) The Gospels condemn those who enjoy lives of privilege if they ignore the suffering and hunger of the masses. However, Kolakowski continues, we have no Gospel that preaches social equality. Christ came to save our souls, not to reform the world, a world he believed that was on the brink of apocalypse.
What people seek in religion is God, not the justification of a political ideology or a ‘scientific’ explanation of the world (Happy, p 191).
I’m just not sure how to take this. The battle for integration in the United States was centered in the black church, which read the African-American story as in terms of the story of the Jews escaping Egypt. A combination of political struggle and Biblical inspiration marked the civil rights struggle from the beginning. I don’t think it’s possible or desirable, at least in times of social extremity, to separate religion from politics.
It may be that the time of this collaboration has passed, but that is not all to the good. Of course, the union of politics and religion poses a terrible danger, but people want more from the church than God, at least many do. They want the hope of justice—in this world as well as the next. To be sure, Christ taught the salvation of souls, but it was no accident that his addressees were the outcasts of society.
Conclusion: Is Christianity an existentialism?
Nevertheless, Kolakowski seems right that there is no Christian political program, and the position must always be that evil is in us, not in social relations. In this sense at least, Christianity is an existentialism.* We make Christianity real not by serving the poor (no matter how important that is) but by taking responsibility for our own evil and hatred.
* Kolakowski disagrees. See Modernity on Endless Trial, p 10.
Leszek Kolakowski, Modernity on Endless Trial. University of Chicago Press, 1990. [Trial]
Leszek Kolakowski, Is God Happy: Selected Essays. Basic Books, 2006. [Happy]