A Summary by Michael Edwards
Working Copy: First published London, September 1935, Student Christian Movement Press, 196 pp.
I. Christians and Communists
II. Belief in God
III. The Nature of Religion
V. The Religion of Jesus
VI. The Eternal and the Temporal
VII. The Dialectic of Christianity
VIII. Christianity and Communism
IX. The Contemporary Field of Action
Is there any value in studying this book today? What did Macmurray mean by Creative Society? For Macmurray a creative society was one in which men were liberated from guilt, shame and fear by love and forgiveness, and were thus freed to work spontaneously and creatively towards a community which would embrace the whole of mankind. Fear is an inhibiting emotion, and when under its sway men are inclined ‘to hold on to nurse for fear of finding something worse’. This is not the frame of mind in which spontaneously and creatively to come up with solutions to the oppressive evils, both natural and man-made, which currently beset mankind in its life upon its planet. A creative society would be one in which individual men and women in their personal relationships would not encounter obstacles brought about by rigid social class or caste systems, vast differences in personal wealth, or suffocating sexual roles.
To many liberal-minded intellectuals of the 1930s Marxism seemed to have something relevant to say about these issues. And, I might say in passing, that to some not unintelligent people it still does, in spite of the collapse of the Soviet Empire which was allegedly run on Marxist Communist principles. One prominent right-wing philosopher of my acquaintance once remarked that it was worth paying attention to what Marx had to say about alienation, for example. In Macmurray’s case, he had been impressed by certain features of the religion, teaching and life of Jesus of Nazareth. These were such things as the maintenance of the integrity of thought and action, opposition to a society in which human relationships were based on caste and wealth, the rejection of the stultifying consolations of illusory religion. He then noticed these features in Marxism and this aroused his interest. Note that it happened this way round. He was not first a Marxist who then tried to bend Jesus to fit his Marxian purposes. In fact, he thought that Marxism was an incomplete doctrine. For example, it was strong on man’s hunger-impulses but weak on his love-impulses. In its then current form it was doomed to ultimate failure. The only sort of communism which would work would be a Christian communism. Marxism, at the outset, rejected religion as a false consolation which belonged to the childhood of the race. This was because Marx thought that all religion was (in the philosophical sense) Idealist. He did not entertain the possibility that there could be a Realist Religion. He thus robbed himself of the services of the only form of human reflection which could adequately deal with the phenomena of the Personal. And he needed such a form of reflection if he was to come up with an adequate plan of action for the creation of a universal, mature human community.
Given the ubiquity of Marxism in the intellectual milieu of his day, and the historico-political fact of the relatively recent Russian Revolution, Macmurray attempted to write a book comparing Communism and Christianity. He felt that early attempts to do so, by himself and others, had been bedevilled by the lack of a clear definition of Christianity – one as clear as the Communist’s definition of Communism. This accounts for the form of his book. He early on gets to grips with what it means to believe in God e.g. it is not primarily a matter of the intellect alone. It is the recognition that the control and the determination of all that happens in the world lies in the hands of a power that is irresistible yet friendly; together with the habit of living in the light of this faith. He then deals with the Nature of Religion e.g. It is concerned with Community. It is concerned with the conquest of that fear which has arisen because of man’s self-conscious knowledge. It conquers this fear, not by repressing it, but through an appropriate knowledge. “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” He then deals with Pseudo-Religion which, in the main for him, is where the correct ideas of real religion are diverted away from the life of men in this world to an imagined, supernatural world elsewhere.
He then turns specifically to the religion of Jesus and to the true relationship between the eternal and the temporal. Jesus he sees as set squarely in the Hebrew prophetic tradition. The ancient Hebrews are seen by Macmurray as the one fully religious people known about in our culture. They did not separate thought from action (as has been the habit of dualistic Europeans and others). They did not ignore the daily realities of their present situation when drawing their religious conclusions. Religiously, therefore, they were able to mature and develop. From having a tribal religion based on territory and biological kinship they were able to progress to a full monotheism with universal implications of benefit to the whole of mankind. They could conceive of a community based on social righteousness. Macmurray saw this process, developing through the prophets, as coming to full self-consciousness in the person of Jesus, who looked for the establishment on earth of the Kingdom of Heaven which would be nothing less than the community of the whole of mankind, based not on blood and soil but common humanity. Jesus offered himself to his people as Messiah on those terms; not as a warlord who would militarily defeat the Roman Empire and establish a Jewish one in its place.
Macmurray goes on to explicate the dialectic of Christianity and to compare Christianity and Communism. He concludes that the positive aspects of Communism derive from Christianity. Christianity is the more complete doctrine. Only a Christian communism could succeed. Because it is only in the Christian action plan that the hunger-impulses are correctly subjugated to the love-impulses. “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness then all these things shall be added unto you.” Such success as Communism has (when not based on good old-fashioned coercive fear) is due to its reliance on love-impulses which it does not adequately acknowledge. However, the successful Christianity would have to be one that had previously extirpated pseudo-Christianity.
In his final chapter Macmurray tries to position himself, other real Christians, Britain, even the British Empire, in relation to Soviet Russia. There is a certain poignancy in reading this in 2006. Macmurray was willing to grant the possibility that (in 1935) the Russians were engaged in an experiment in genuine socialism. We now know that by then Russia had, for the past 11 years at least, been under the control of yet another cruel, psychopathological czar. British lefties who were hopefully interested in the new Russian state were criticized or mocked as gullible by the likes of George Orwell and Malcolm Muggeridge. I think, as I’ve written elsewhere, that Macmurray’s perceptions and suspicions vis a vis the Russian state remained quite sharp and canny. I suspect they were more realistic than those of Bernard Shaw, for example. Macmurray, in his consideration of the Russian state, ran the sort of risk often demanded of a Christian, but not a naively irresponsible risk.
Be all that as it may, there may be readers, like myself, who will come to value Macmurray’s chapters of religious interpretation, especially his interpretation of the religion of Jesus. Such readers, like me, might consider that these chapters still have a contemporary freshness and relevance, no matter what empires have risen and fallen since he wrote them.
Note: Macmurray and Pacifism
I append the following note for those with a biographical interest in Macmurray. Like many of his fellow soldiers, Macmurray emerged from the First World War saying, “Never again!”; and he saw much of his life as devoted to fulfilling that slogan. Nonetheless, in some places in his writings he seems critical of an absolute pacifism that is arrived at solely by thinking rather than by reflection while trying to act in the world. ‘Ethical pacifism’ I believe he called it. After retirement from public life he was received into membership of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). When I met him in 1969 I asked whether this meant he was now a pacifist (knowing, as I did, of the Quakers’ Peace Testimony, but also knowing that it was possible, although unusual, to be a non-pacifist Quaker). He replied, “Yes,” but then added wryly something like, “But there’s not much reality to it. Nobody’s likely to call me up for military service at my age [then 78].” I found it interesting that this book provided clear evidence that there was a period after the First World War and in his maturity (aged 44) when he considered both that Jesus didn’t have any objection to force in itself (p. 102) and that the use of force in society was not necessarily incompatible with Christian motives (p. 147). However, he did not think that the Kingdom of Heaven could be established by force. And he took this to be Jesus’s view.
Related Macmurrian Reading
(see corresponding mini-summaries)
The Philosophy of Communism 1933
The Clue to History 1938
Constructive Democracy 1943
Ye Are My Friends (pamphlet) 1943} [bound together
To Save From Fear (pamphlet) 1964} 1979]
Idealism Against Religion (Essex Hall Lecture 1944)
Search for Reality in Religion 1965
The Philosophy of Jesus 1973