In an Eastern European mountain hideaway eight years ago Stephen Olford and I talked frankly and informally with a number of Marxist leaders. Better that Marxists and Christians talk together than that they hate and kill each other

Dale Vree, the author of On Synthesizing Marxism and Christianity (John Wiley & Sons, 1976, 206 pp., $14.95), insists rightly that “no great harm is done to Christianity if Christians collaborate with Marxists in the building of a better society—so long as the Christians are under no illusions that they are engaged in salvific or redemptive activity, so long as they respect the liberty of other Christians to come to different political conclusions, so long as they do not turn Marxist claims into articles of the Christian faith, and so long as they can be reasonably sure that a government led by Marxists will not persecute Christians or eradicate Christian values” (pp. 178 f.). Christians and Marxists can in fact cooperate at certain points in combatting specific social evils without endorsing each other’s theology or ideology.

Although Vree accepts the legitimacy of Christian-Marxist dialogue, the significance of his book lies rather in its complaint that most such discussants really engage in something quite different—in brief, in obscuring basic differences and in revising their heritage—and that the Communists at least are aware of this and therefore have ejected some Marxist-Christian dialoguers out of the Party.

Vree, a former evangelical Protestant who later became a Marxist atheist, doesn’t here argue for either the Christian view or the Communist view. Disappointed in earlier years by evangelical parochialism, he was confirmed in the Episcopal Church by the late Bishop James Pike. Soon he identified himself with the “broad church” element, parts of which approached Marxism via Christianity. An avid reader of Bultmann and Tillich, he rejected the “God out there,” worked eagerly for neo-Stalinist causes and set out for East Berlin as an atheist, convinced that Protestant modernism was already functionally atheistic. While in East Berlin, then somewhat of a neo-Stalinist mecca, Vree in 1966 happened upon issues of CHRISTIANITY TODAY that helped to make orthodox Christianity credible and to turn him from Marxist-Leninist commitments toward a firm personal faith in salvation by the crucified and risen Jesus. Returning to the United States for graduate studies, Vree and his wife identified with Anglo-Catholics who accord to sacramentalism and tradition a role that evangelical orthodoxy discourages.

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Much of the socialist dialogue promoted by the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, as Vree sees it, is an effort to turn Marxists into Christians by first turning Christians into Marxists. At Eastern European conferences, papers presented by American participants—professing evangelicals among them—frequently take the line that Luther frustrated the ideal social consequences of the Protestant Reformation, that the radical revolutionary Thomas Munzer was the real hero of the Reformation, and that socialism is its rightful historical fruitage. If Christians are surprised that Marxists under these circumstances are eager for dialogue, they must be incredibly naïve. As Vree asks: why should Marxists take umbrage if Christians want to attribute the socialist society that Marx advocates to the inspiration of an immanental God?

The increasingly active dialogue going on internationally for more than fifteen years between ecumenical Christians and Marxist scholars has presumed to identify a common ground between the two outlooks. By careful analysis of the Christian and the Communist belief-systems based on their own historic principles, Vree shows that those who seek to synthesize Christianity and Marxism inevitably champion heretical versions of both. Participants in the dialogue, Vree says, achieve a synthesis only by expounding and then reconciling heretical versions of both Christianity and Communism that the orthodox adherents of both views reject.

Vree singles out Harvey Cox and Jürgen Moltman as influential representatives of the ecumenical Christian dialogue with Marxists, and Roger Garaudy as an influential Marxist engaged in synthetic dialogue with Christians. Garaudy, who began his career as a loyal Stalinist, was alienated from and finally expelled by the French Communist party after his heavy involvement in Marxist-Christian discussions in which he accommodatingly diluted Marxist positions (e.g., declaring economic determinism to be merely suppositional) and criticized the Party bureaucracy as fallible.

The Marxist excommunication of Garaudy contrasts, Vree notes, with the neo-Protestant tolerance of any and every form of deviation from historic Christian commitments in the pursuit of synthetic agreement. Vree does not question the good will of dialogic Christians and of dialogic Marxists who strive together for an earthly New Jerusalem. But he thinks that participating Christians readily forget that the universe is flawed by original sin, that they lack confidence in divine providence, and that they “want to leap out of their creaturely condition before the appointed time” (ibid., p. 180).

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“I have had to conclude,” says Vree, looking at Marxist-Christian dialogue from both sides of the fence, “that Marxism and Christianity are disjunctive belief systems that cannot be fused without doing violence to the integrity of both” (ibid., p. 178). This verdict, reached by dispassionate analysis, will shock only those who have forgotten how large a role is played by semantic subtleties and doctrinal concessiveness in the modern pursuit of a common cause. Vree’s analysis of the shifting positions of Christian and Marxist participants in the synthesizing process is worthy of wide reading.

Given the concessive spirit of much neo-Protestant theology, nobody should be much surprised that a professor of atheism in a Russian university recently visited the United States to gather information for a doctoral dissertation he is completing in the Soviet Union on contemporary Western theological perspectives.

Christian activists governed by the assumptions of liberation theology so tendentiously interpret the Gospels that they inevitably invite a counter-reaction that may fully veil the Son of Man rather than truly mirror his claim upon man in society. Where does liberation theology frankly tell us that Jesus did not belong to a poor family, that forced redistribution of wealth was not a part of his ethic, that until his public ministry he worked contentedly in the carpenter shop, a family business? The next generation of “Marxist Christians” may conceivably declare the Nazarene on this account a partisan of business rather than of labor, perhaps even a champion of child labor, or one who was insensitive to labor and a champion of the wealthy. They will, of course, be no less wrong and no less confused than those who now search the Gospels for the shadow of Karl Marx.

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