I often lament the modern day protestant lack of love of, concern for, interest in, rootedness in, understanding of church history. I am not alone. There are many good books that argue why we ought to love history, why we don’t and what is lost in the process. Recently I was struck with a vivid example of the benefits of reading history.
I am leading a men’s group on the study of Calvin’s Institutes (by far one of the best books ever written…seriously). I am also reading a lot of Liberation theology which happens to be a pet hobby of mine, but I’ll save why for another time. Karl Marx is beloved by many a Liberation theologian. Indeed, I must admit that I like some of his work as well. If you don’t then you simply have not read it. One of Marx’s most famous lines (though often missing the point) can be found in this paragraph:
Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions. – Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843 (emphasis added)
To begin with, it must be said that Marx is not hating on religion here (as is often supposed). Rather, he sees it as a drug that keeps people satiated in the midst of their misery. Marx did think religion was oppressive and that one day inevitably it would be done away with when his program was embraced, but that was not his point here. Read fuller quotes. That tip is free.
It is true that many followers of Marx hated religion with a passion. Incredibly terrible things were done on a broad scale to erase it from memory. Leaders were often convinced that it was just fiction and unhelpful to motivate people to work for the communist ideal.
Then comes Calvin. Yet that makes it sound like Calvin writes in response to the Marxist take on religion. Better – Before Marx there was Calvin.
It is most absurd, therefore, to maintain, as some do, that religion was devised by the cunning and craft of a few individuals, as a means of keeping the body of the people in due subjection, while there was nothing which those very individuals, while teaching others to worship God, less believed than the existence of a God. I readily acknowledge, that designing men have introduced a vast number of fictions into religion, with the view of inspiring the populace with reverence or striking them with terror, and thereby rendering them more obsequious; but they never could have succeeded in this, had the minds of men not been previously imbued with that uniform belief in God, from which, as from its seed, the religious propensity springs. – Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1536
Bingo. You can’t use something to oppress people that people aren’t already drawn to somehow. 300 years before Marx and even longer before the bringers of doom Marx’s ideas would give birth to Calvin steps up and knocks down the argument that has arisen time and again in history.
Why read old books by long dead people? Because often arguments are made, defended, shot down, etc. long before they rear their heads in the latest magazines, on the most recent shows, and in the newest movies.