Humanities Future: Learning from South Africa’s New Humanism Project

Humanities Future: Learning from South Africa’s New Humanism Project
Stephen W. Martin

The King’s University College

First published December 10, 2013


On 27 April 2012, the new South Africa turned eighteen. The rebirth of this former pariah nation, notorious for its history of dehumanization, was heralded as a beacon of hope for the world. In a year that saw continued ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and the Rwandan genocide, South Africa’s transition from white rule to inclusive democracy imagined an alternative future for societies racked by racial and ethnic conflict. While the settlement was symbolized by familiar democratic instruments of voting booth and constitution, the struggle to end apartheid had been a deeply moral struggle, involving people of all races, Christians and Muslims, Jews and secularists. It also had been a global struggle with international and ecumenical participation, mobilizing churches, governments, and businesses in a concentrated effort to rid the world of a distinctively modernist form of racism. Hence the climax of that struggle, with its snaking long lines at voting stations, could be seen as a triumph for all humanity. The icons of that victory, people such as Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, were not only South Africans: they were, and continue to be, hailed as global citizens.
But all is not well.  While South Africa boasts one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, and every five years since 1994 there has been a “free and fair” election, poverty remains endemic, unemployment continues to soar at nearly half the potential workforce, and the poorest still live in substandard housing. The country has been rocked by “service delivery protests” by people driven to activism by failed expectations. The blight of AIDS has torn through the population, stealing its future, while corruption in politics has brought disrepute into a party boasting two Nobel Peace Prize laureates. In recent memory are the xenophobic attacks of 2008 and 2009, where the homes and businesses of foreign African workers were destroyed. It’s true that a growing black middle class is beginning to taste the fruits of the new government’s economic policies. But within that new class is growing a culture of entitlement and greed. Many whites who remain beneficiaries of ongoing economic inequality have either fled the country, taking their skills with them, or remain behind secure walls of protection. But the biggest sign of distress is the cheapness of life, the everyday assaults on human dignity, and the desperation that drives people to sacrifice their own humanity for the gains of petty crime.
In 2010, as South Africa prepared to open its doors for the FIFA World Cup, a group of academics, activists, and artists representing business and law, the arts and the media, the church and the university gathered at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies. Inspired by the great post-war gathering of humanists in Geneva in 1948, and meeting under the rubric of The Project for a New Humanism in South Africa (NHP), theirs was a pilgrimage into South Africa’s journey to humanization. Most of the participants and observers were South African, but there were also people from overseas who reflected the continued sense that South Africa represents something important for humankind. All shared a common concern for the emerging shape of that nation born again in 1994.
I was privileged to be present during this conversation and some of the follow-up meetings that produced a collection of writings entitled The Humanist Imperative in South Africa. In this article I will talk about the Project as a jumping-off point for reflection on theology, humanism, and the humanities. I will sketch the contours of a South African humanist vision discernible in the conversation. Taking note of the fact that it was a theologian who acted as impetus and facilitator of the conversation, I will suggest that South Africa gives us a particular window into what theology engaging the debate about humanization looks like.

The New Humanism Project

The NHP developed out of the work of John de Gruchy, a theologian widely known for his scholarship on the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Many of de Gruchy’s writings compared the situation in Nazi Germany to that of South Africa (de Gruchy 1984). Both Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa were situations of profound dehumanization in which the churches found themselves pulled between loyalty to the state and faithfulness to the Kingdom of God. In a tantalizing series of letters from prison, Bonhoeffer also had begun to think about the meaning of Jesus Christ in a world “come of age” ((Bonhoeffer 2009, 426–28). Bonhoeffer’s was a world where God was no longer considered a necessary postulate, a world become aware both of its potential for building just communities and its potential for destructive violence. Like many Christians in South Africa, Bonhoeffer had been led into alliances with secular people committed to social transformation. Already the author of a work on Christian humanism (de Gruchy 2006), de Gruchy more recently had been challenged by the question of whether the tradition of Christian humanism could address these concerns in a South Africa “come of age.” The NHP was his attempt to pose that question more widely (de Gruchy 2011b, 11–12).
De Gruchy identifies Geneva 1948 as precursor to the New Humanist Project, a conference at which the great theologian (and Bonhoeffer mentor) Karl Barth spoke. Nevertheless it may seem odd that a theologian would facilitate a project with the name “humanism” in it, and even stranger when that theologian has the audacity to play conductor in an interdisciplinary symphony—especially when these other disciplines reside in universities that (at least in Canada) have left theology behind. We are accustomed to identifying humanism as “post-theistic,” and, as George Marsden would put it, “most academics today take it for granted that to invoke a normative theological concern would be to contaminate one’s scholarship” (Marsden 1998, 30). But theology taking its place in facilitating a dialogue about humanism in South Africa is not so strange if we bear three things in mind. The first has to do with theology’s historical relation to the other disciplines, the second with theology’s specific relation to the South African past, and the third with theology’s relation to the needs of the South African present.
Theology was present at the founding of the university, and reigned for centuries as “queen” among the sciences. The story of how the disciplines have grown into autonomy with respect to theology (and eventually hegemony over theology) is well known (e.g., D’Costa 2005, ch. 1). While it long since has been dethroned, theology has developed a dialogical character: historically with the arts and other humanities, and more recently with the natural and social sciences. De Gruchy’s own work has expressed this trend, captured in the title of his Festschrift, Theology in Dialogue: The Impact of the Arts, Humanities, and Science on Contemporary Religious Thought. So understood, theology’s agenda is not so much “to harness the other disciplines in its service” as “to interact with them for the well-being of all life on earth” (Holness and Wüstenberg 2002, xvi). This dialogical character also reflects theology’s confessional scope, its claim that the world’s structure and character, its origins and destiny, bear the fingerprints of its Creator. Theology investigates both the transcendent source of all things and the ways in which all things participate in, or refer back to, that source. Christian theology is also cosmic in its apprehension of life in its various forms and complex dimensions, in the way creation as a diverse unity of particulars images the Trinity (Gunton 1998). But its chief focus is on the role of one creature created in the divine image (Gn 1:26–28), a creature innately curious about the world and its place in it. And so theology, as “helper” (Gn 2:18), constantly challenges the disciplines which study this multi-dimensionality to provide guidance into the one overarching human task to steward creation, to investigate its properties, and to unfold its possibilities in a way that imitates the activity of God.
Theology had a very particular (and notorious) role to play in the old South Africa. As the dehumanization that was apartheid had a professed biblical basis, it also carried a biblical and theological justification (Kinghorn 1990; Loubser 1987). This was a theology deeply wedded to romanticist notions of volk, but also shaped by natural and social scientific theories of race prevalent in the early twentieth century (Moodie 1975; Dubow 1995). As apartheid theology claimed human diversity trumped human solidarity so counter-theologies arose declaring this justification to be heresy (de Gruchy and Villa-Vicencio 1983). Theology was thus itself a site of struggle and an important shaper of resistance, a turning of the ideological weapons of the oppressor against himself. More than merely strategic, however, theology played an important, constructive role in bringing apartheid to an end. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission—that exemplary project of recovering the humanity of both victim and perpetrator—was theorized, debated, and populated by theologians and church leaders (Cochrane, de Gruchy, and Martin 1999). In many ways the involvement of theology in South Africa’s recent past is exceptional in the modern world, and so no talk of transformation is possible without enlisting theology to interpret South Africa’s past and present.
Theology’s role may seem well and fine for opposing a theocratic regime. But isn’t post-1994 South Africa supposed to be a secular state? Yes, it is. Indeed it was theologians like de Gruchy (de Gruchy 1995) who strongly advocated such a designation. Learning the lessons of the collapse of eschatology into politics, South Africa teaches a profound lesson about what happens when any regime identifies itself with the Kingdom of God. Recent theology supplements this insight by retrieving the Augustinian idea that “the secular”—the period in between the ascension of Jesus Christ and his second coming—designates not a space free from religion, but a time of waiting for the fullness of the Kingdom of God to come (Markus 1988; Mathewes 2007). The secular is a reminder that any form of the state is open to theological criticism precisely because it is not the Kingdom, because the time for the fullness of the Kingdom is “not yet.” This is analogous to the role theology plays in reminding each academic discipline that its knowledge of the part is not knowledge of the whole.
Theology (and a theological humanism) has a special task in present-day South Africa, a task de Gruchy identifies as “recovering ‘soul.’” What does this mean? Is it the role of theology in contemporary South Africa to make people more “religious”? It would appear not—not least because despite relatively high religious identifications (Hendriks and Erasmus 2005) South Africa’s many problems remain. Soul is not “religion”; neither is it an immaterial and non-empirical substance religious people possess. Rather, soul is a way of talking about “being in relation” (de Gruchy 2011a, 61). Soul names both that which makes us distinctively human and that life-long project of becoming human with others: in fragility, yes, but also open to mutual transformation. It connects with the biblical category of being made “in the image of God.” But soul finds its greatest challenge in the idolatry of consumer capitalism which reduces all human relations to relations of exchange quantifiable by economists and manipulable by corporations. Regardless of discipline or religiosity, soul speaks of the dangers of negotiating human existence “in an age which would turn us all into machines” (de Gruchy 2010, 378).
The idea of soul was a key link to the interdisciplinary discussions of the Project about what it means to be human.  The natural scientists in the consultation rightly spoke of the ways humans are linked through evolutionary processes to the web of all life (something which anthropocentric humanisms have not always appreciated), that humanism has to deal with bodies and brains, drives and instincts (Solms 2011). But as humans we are also more than the sum of our biological parts. There were three key terms used by the discussants to articulate that “more than”: imagination, relationality, and morality. Each of these benefitted from the interdisciplinary conversation, even as the distinctive ways humans live imaginatively, relationally, and morally were spelled out. As will become evident, each links the humanities especially with nurturing a humanist vision.
It is the special task of the humanities to nurture soul, and this task is most evident in the way the humanities study the imagination. While present to an extent in all mammals (Solms 2011, 51), imagination is the motor of human freedom, the freedom to think, to exist, and to act otherwise. It is, as education activist Neville Alexander noted, the capacity to refuse to be restricted by the “given” (Alexander 2011). Imagination “reconfigures the world” in freedom.  But freedom is not autonomy, if by that we mean independence from bodies, relations, and systems. Imagination is always in tension with the given: biologically with the capacities of the mammalian brain, and sociologically with the structures that make human life in community both possible and necessary, including the state, the economy, and the law. The possibility of imagining a different future cannot be thought apart from the debate about how to meet basic needs of food, shelter, and education (Martin 2010, 9). The imagination is always conditioned by local realities, as the natural and social sciences tell us. At the same time, the systems delineated by natural and social scientists are also the stuff of imagination (Martin 2010, 35). They are not inevitable—and the air of necessity they often carry can turn oppressive. They are partially constituted by and negotiated within the subjectivities of people—whether scientist or citizen. Structures call and humans respond. But every call to reproduce the given creates dissonance or slippage. In the words of religionist Bernhard Lategan, while we are shaped by systems, we are not determined by them; rather, we “dance” with their requirements (Lategan 2011, 26), inverting and subverting them in the name of a new imaginary.
If any people know what this means, it is South Africans. When one travels through South Africa one becomes aware of how much waste is created by that system called “consumer capitalism.” Existing on the fringes of cities are people who take that waste (empty Coke cans, discarded sheets of colourful advertising, bits of wire and corrugated tin) and use it to create works of art which entrepreneurs then peddle at traffic lights and on sidewalks outside shopping malls. Dumpsters are transformed into schoolhouses. The new Constitutional Court is built on the site of the famous “Number Four” block, created with bricks taken from the prison that once housed Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. Such artistry creates images of hope out of the machinery of despair. The human imagination can be coerced and constrained by state, economy, and law, but it can never be exhausted by them (see Martin 2009).
Alongside imagination, there was a second key in the conversations to understanding what it means to be human: relationality. As theologian Denise Ackermann put it, to be human is to be in relation: to God, to other humans, and to the natural world (Ackermann 2011). Like imagination, relationality also carries resonances with other disciplines. The natural sciences speak of the anticipations of community and solidarity in the affinities non-human creatures display. The social sciences study the specifically human ways of forming relations—relations that receive imaginative impetus through language. And if the humanities form around anything, it’s the multiple forms of communication, the languages, that both shape and express who we are.
A particularly South African articulation of relationality is found in the concept of ubuntu, “a person is a person only in relation to other persons.” In the conversation, Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane observed that for Africans all of reality (including non-human reality) is relation (Martin 2010, 9). Popularized by Desmond Tutu, ubuntu has become ubiquitous, almost a cliché in South Africa. Insurance companies, software programs, and self-help courses now all use the term.  During the conversation, people complained that ubuntu has become a free-floating signifier, cut loose from its roots in traditional structures and practices (Martin 2010, 12–13). And yet the term captures something very important, something almost essential to the construction of an African (and Christian) humanism. Legal scholar Drucilla Cornell’s contribution fastened on the concept of ubuntu as “a universal, activist ethic,” which identifies being human as “relational all the way down.” This relationality is not simply a matter of person-to-person encounters, but reminds us that persons are born into relation (Martin 2010, 12).  While it wasn’t mentioned during the meetings, theologians have gone so far as to say that ubuntu relationality serves as analogy to the persons-in-relation of the Trinity (Battle 1997, 98).
This raised a third theme in the conversation, one concerning the necessity of a moral imperative, a guiding vision for life in human society. As many contemporary philosophers and theologians have observed, morality requires narrative, a shared goal or goals that binds people together. This narrative is a collective, imaginative construct which answers basic questions about normativity. Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor has suggested an alternate term: “social imaginary”—something which provides the horizon for meaningful action (Taylor 2004, 23f.). Humans are imaginative creatures living a life of relationship, but the coherence of that life is found in a shared narrative about the past and present which is oriented toward the future. Answering the question “What are humans for?” this narrative gives purpose and direction to human endeavours.
While “morality” is often understood as the province of religion, even secularists within the conversation used the term—and with urgency. Humanism not only should describe, it should prescribe what human flourishing looks like under particular conditions. After all, it was a moral imperative, said Alexander, that stood behind resistance to apartheid (Martin 2010, 16). This moral imperative largely was lost in the years following the 1994 elections, South Africa’s “Prague Spring” in the words of business leader Bobby Godsell (Martin 2010, 28). The country has participated, he continued, in the corruption of “wealth,” which once meant weal (“well-being”), with accumulation. South Africa’s crisis at its coming of age is a deeply moral crisis, its failure a moral failure. All the participants agreed that the recovery of such a moral imperative was crucial for a human and humane future. All agreed that a moral imperative should enflesh human dignity and the affirmation of difference (Martin 2010, 13–14). While such a vision is creative and communal, it also calls for structures and systems that sustain its possibility (Martin 2010, 23). In other words, morality never happens in a vacuum, nor is it created ex nihilo. The term most often used for this within South African discourse is “nation-building”—the creation of an imagined community walking together into a future that captures a shared sense of justice, of obligation to the other.
So: imagination, relationality, morality—pointing to what it means to be human and shaping a distinctive way of being human in South Africa. At the risk of being overly schematic, we might summarize the conversation of the Project as “the arts of the possible in dialogue with the sciences of the actual.” But none of this is innocent. Imaginations can be good or bad, life-affirming or life-destroying. Apartheid was if nothing else a racialized imaginary, supported by scientific accounts of race. Relationships can be characterized by freedom and mutuality, or bondage and autonomy. Again, apartheid was known euphemistically among ideologues as “good neighbourliness.”  Visions can be open to otherness and willing to grow from the encounter, or closed and hardened, even blind. As for morality, there’s no question that the old South Africa saw itself as taking the moral high ground against immoral liberalism and communism. In short, nothing is innocent or unambiguous—not even the concept of humanism.
Humanism was not one thing in the conversation. It was acknowledged as multiple, ambiguous, and contested (Martin 2010, 14, 32).  Some of the natural scientists were concerned that the term itself undermined a basic continuity between humans and other creatures (Martin 2010, 7, 9). Other participants recalled how the term has often disguised under the genus “humanity” a particular construction of what it means to be human, and that that construction has in turn taken a colonialist and hegemonic shape in South Africa. The normative, rights-bearing human is white and male, self-governed and self-possessed, and seeking to manage and control (largely) that which is non-white, female, dependent, and bodily. Even the idea of human rights begs the question of exactly who is a rights-bearing human. This was argued by political philosopher Andre du Toit with reference to one of South Africa’s most famous liberal figures, Jan Smuts. Smuts, whose government was defeated by the National Party in 1948, ushering in five decades of apartheid, was a humanist. His credentials included a classical Oxford education and his work up to and including his involvement in the drafting of the United Nations Charter. And yet du Toit showed Smuts as “a white supremacist” who rejected out-of-hand the overtures of black moderates in his own country (Martin 2010, 13–14).
This tribalisation of humanism within modernity has led to a counter-assertion: anti-humanism. Associated with nineteenth-century figures like Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud, and more recently Martin Heidegger and Michel Foucault, anti-humanism proclaims the death of the subject. Our experience is an effect of unconscious economic (Marx) or psychological (Freud) forces, or the will-to-power disguised as virtue (Nietzsche) (Westphal 1999). But anti-humanism is also tied to modernity as its nihilistic underside. Anti-humanism places before us a world “in which centering words themselves have lost their referents, been emptied out, and in which educated persons have lost both the ability and the will to reach toward a common truth” (Jeffrey 1998, 66). The reduction of knowledge to power-struggle and the privileging of contestation over conversation belies the goal of ubuntu (not to say the Christian idea of communion). The ethical concern implicit even in post-modern anti-humanists, as Zimmerman and Klassen (2006) argue with reference to Emmanuel Levinas, begs the question of what standard should be applied to judge ideologies like apartheid in the past and the continued marginalization of the poor in the present.

Theology and Humanities Future

To speak of imagination, relationality, and morality, even inflected with the term “humanist,” is thus insufficient. As Karl Barth announced at the 1948 conference on a new post–world war humanism, the question of a human future revolves around nothing less than “God’s humanism” (Barth 2003, 2–12). God’s humanism, or what more recently has been called “incarnational humanism” (Zimmermann and Klassen 2006), is founded in the contention “that every man, and the universal truth concerning man, is to be understood from this particular man, Jesus Christ” (Barth 2003, 6). The Christian scandal of particularity concerns the true nature of human beings and the true character of God revealed in a poor Palestinian Jew whose life, death, and resurrection discloses the pattern of human life and the revelation of the divine image. Affirming the humanity of the poor and excluded, and challenging those who wield power conventionally understood, leads Christians to proclaim that the pattern for and model of authentic human life is found on the margins rather than in the centre of a modern society—including the centre called “university.”
Through this Christological claim (we might call it “the Christological imperative”) theology takes on a position of tension with reference to all humanisms. For while theology acknowledges the goodness of imagination and interpretation, it also claims that the human imagination (in the words of that great humanist John Calvin) is a veritable “factory of idols” (Calvin 1960, 108). The utopian societies of which we dream, including the utopia of “The Rainbow Nation,” come under the judgment of the Gospel to which theology bears witness. Nation-building itself can have an over-against, a rivalry with other nations.  During this time when everything is provisional, including nation-states, the over-against is the Kingdom of God itself revealed in Jesus Christ and embodied in the sanctorum communio, the communion of saints. The moralities we construct, whether as sociological experiments or as literary projects, are judged as both too narrow in their selectivity and too certain in their absoluteness. If a humanistic morality tries to move beyond the confines of the local, as it by definition should, it becomes abstract platitudes rather than a specific program of action.
Theology also challenges the humanities precisely in their humanizing task. As David Lyle Jeffrey puts it, “humane learning [cannot] survive without a grand narrative” (Jeffrey 1998). Theology is tasked with imaginatively narrating the human story as recapitulated in the story of Jesus Christ, and with articulating the normative shape of that community remade in his likeness. And so it would seem to have a secure place among the disciplines which celebrate the human imagination. At the same time, Jesus is neither simply a character from literature (like Don Quixote) nor a figure from history (like Julius Caesar). Even less is Jesus a paradigmatic “good man,” a particular instance of a universal truth. He discloses (apokalypsis) the shape of humanity’s future, and at the same reveals the depths of its crisis, its fall away from God’s original intent. Thus theology is that discipline which claims to know in Jesus Christ the beginning and the end, and conducts its dialogue by framing the production of human knowledge in terms of where we’ve come from and where we are going. Theology is that discipline that names the time as “the secular”: the time in-between. The secular is the time in which the decisive shape of common humanity is disclosed to the church in faith but hidden from the fullness of sight (2 Cor 5:7). Rowan Williams has written in this regard,

The Church proclaims that there is one human destiny and that is found in relation to one focal figure, Jesus; but also that what this human destiny means cannot be worked out without ‘communion’, a relation of costly and profound involvement with each other and receiving from each other. (Williams 2005, 27)

Hence the church lives to unsettle by its very nature, living in “creative dissatisfaction” as “a compelling symbol of a humanity able to live by sharing and by loving, reverent mutual attention” (Williams 2005, 29). This means that the church cannot be one interest group among the rival many; rather, it is the sacrament of common human destiny. As sacrament, it is always locally embodied. As catholic, “it strives to show and interpret and share the gifts of one person or group or nation, offering them to all; and to each, it offers the resources of all” (Williams 2005, 31). The church represents that future “given coherence by Jesus, in which each human partner in communion has a distinct and unrepeatable gift to share, and cannot therefore be ignored or discounted” (Williams 2005, 39).
The other side of the critical task of theology is to discern pro-visionally the future in what Barth called “secular parables” (Barth 1961, pt. 3). Barth’s opposition to “natural theology,” or a revelation within culture which exists alongside the revelation in Jesus Christ, is well-known. The revelation of God in Jesus Christ interrupts the idolatrous narrations of the world, exposing their incipient nihilism which seeks to understand the world in itself, rather than as the creation of the triune God. However, “even in its obvious and dreadful confusion, [the world] is also the ongoing history of the good creation of God which cannot be destroyed by any confusion of man” (Barth 1961, 698). The world remains the same one created, redeemed, and reconciled in Jesus Christ—even if it does not yet acknowledge this. If this is the case, then we should expect the light of the revelation in Jesus Christ to shine in “lesser lights” which deepen the church’s proclamation of the Gospel. These “secular parables . . . in material agreement with [scripture] illumine, accentuate or explain the biblical witness in a particular time and situation, thus confirming it in the deepest sense by helping to make it sure and concretely evident and certain” (Barth 1961, 115).
These parables of the Kingdom, of a new humanity reconciled in Jesus Christ, embody both judgement and grace. They signal in grace the real presence of the future. But they also judge every attempt to bring that future into being apart from God. In secular time the present is suspended between memory and hope. Nevertheless, memory and hope give orientation and guidance to human activity, including the disciplines. And so theology calls the visual and performing arts, the natural sciences, the study of behaviour, and the investigation into histories and cultures to facilitate that flourishing which judges exploitation and injustice as distortions, even refusals, of the pattern for humanity revealed in Jesus Christ, and anticipates the eschatological shape of human and creaturely existence. In this way, theology, which is most at home (though never fully) in the humanities is linked to the shared project of becoming human together.


I believe that South Africa’s New Humanism Project can be read as such a parable of the Kingdom. For it brought together a diverse group of people, each contributing disciplinary and perspectival gifts. It was a parable because it recognized the in-betweenness, the provisionality of the times, that 1994 had not inaugurated the Kingdom of God in South Africa. And yet the imperative to learn during the time in-between what it meant to be human was clearly audible. It celebrated the gifts of being human: imagination, relationality, and moral vision. While it grieved at the distortion of such things in the South Africa that was coming of age, that grief was not without hope. But hope requires a narrative larger than the story of “the rainbow people,” or even “a just society.” Hope needs an imagination that reaches beyond the exigencies of history, a vision that sees all history taken up into the life, death, and resurrection of the God-Man, Jesus of Nazareth. Ultimately, theology is required to articulate the character of that hope. For that reason it was at home in the conversation, but also not fully home. No theology can be fully home in a world where violence continues to be the determining force in life, where human beings created in God’s image are treated as producers and consumers in a global factory, where the struggle simply to eat takes precedence over all else. Theology says “no” to all these things, but also discerns and articulates God’s “yes” in acts that presage the future Christians call “the Kingdom of God.”
We could say the same thing for theology in the humanistic university here in Canada. After all, we know what it is to live in an age dominated by the quantifiable, where progress has (almost) turned humans into machines, an age where “soul” is in jeopardy. The humanities map this dehumanization, and provide something of a catalogue of resistance. They provide parables of judgment and grace, of our broken past and hopeful future. The role of theology is to articulate these as pointing to something only God can bring, but also something God has brought in his invasion of our world in Jesus Christ, if we have eyes to see.


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Writing the “Anti-History” of Communism

Mark Sandle
Professor of History
The Kings University College


A bit of personal reflection might shed light on the genesis of this paper. In 2006 while working in England I was approached to write a brief overview text outlining the history of communism. This started me thinking about how to do this. What story should one tell? Who are the central figures, the heroes and the villains? Then in 2009 I got a job in Edmonton at The Kings University College. One attraction of the post was the opportunity to write history from an explicitly Christian perspective. So I began reading up on what it meant to do Christian history. What does it mean to be a Christian historian? What difference might it make to the history I write? Most of the material I read came through the pages of Fides et Historia, but some also came through a number of different books and texts that I digested.  Notable contributors in this regard were George Marsden, Ron Wells, Mark Noll, William Katerberg, and Eugene McCarraher.
What I discovered was that there was a lot of writing, reflection, discussion, and debate about what Christian history was—its approaches, methodology, themes, values, perspectives, etc.—as well as many people saying what it wasn’t.  Much of it was very good, thought-provoking stuff. Quite a lot of Christian history (or history written by Christians) focused very much on religious history or the history of the church. There was a real paucity of material in other areas, however. Ronald Wells, writing in 2002, noted that

if Christian scholarship is to flourish in the discipline of history it must move beyond religious history to other historical subjects and fields. . . . My hope is that the success of religious history will cause a kind of intellectual draft effect; that is having established religion as a fully appropriate subject for historical enquiry, we can now also move forward to faith-based historical analysis of subjects other than religion itself.

Wells’ hope and my arrival at The Kings University College got me thinking, though. What would a Christian history of communism look like? How do you write from a Christian perspective about a system that was avowedly materialist, secular, and atheist in outlook? Would it be different at all? Would it be unrecognisable from my earlier versions?

Introduction: Where Does One Start?

One of the purposes of this paper is to explore the extent to which the field can be re-imagined. Is the most we can hope for to nudge the field in a particular direction or sharpen its focus? Or should we be looking to re-imagine the story completely, retell it in a way which conflicts with the existing narratives? How can the story be both recognisably and avowedly “Christian” and recognisably “historical” at the same time? To borrow an analogy from the gospels for a moment, should we pour new wine into old wineskins? Or do we need new wineskins?
The key consideration was which approach to employ in writing a Christian history of communism. Scholars have speculated about innumerable themes or approaches which can be used to write history from a Christian perspective. It would be foolish to try to utilise all, or even some of them. But I wanted to do more than just “add the church and stir,” and I also wanted to do more than just write something which was indistinct from all the other histories of communism out there. So I tried to select particular themes and ideas which were authentically Christian, but which also made sense for the subject matter at hand (communism, predominantly of the modern era). In the end I decided on the following ones, mainly because intuitively they seemed to fit best. My approach to writing a “new” history of communism is based loosely on the following three ideas.
The idea of anti-history is a writing of the past which is in some way a disruption to the commonplace/dominant narratives—a retelling of familiar stories, but subversively. There are precedents for this type of approach. Elements of this can be seen in the teaching methods of Christ as reported in the gospels. Jesus used the compelling phrase “You have heard it said . . . but I tell you . . .” This was I guess an early form of historical revisionism: recasting a familiar tale. Theologians and historians also have placed an emphasis upon the strangeness or otherness of the past. Stanley Hauerwas talks about making the familiar strange.  Simon Schama noted how all history was a negotiation between familiarity and strangeness.  Perhaps the fullest rendering of this approach comes from Johann Baptiste Metz.  This idea of anti-history should not be seen as a rejection of the history in the academy per se, or as something which is inherently oppositional to everything that has been written. Rather it seeks to disturb or disrupt, using the familiar in unfamiliar ways, so as to render the reader uncomfortable, surprised.
The second approach is to emphasise the importance of utopian-redemptive themes: hope, metanarratives, time, and violence. One of the key elements in the history of communism is precisely the fact that it was and is—as both idea and practice—infused with notions of hope about the possibility of a future better world, underpinned by a radically distinctive conception of time, while simultaneously reminding us of the terrible cost incurred by humans as they justify almost anything in the name of this greater goal.
The final theme is linked explicitly to the life and teaching of Christ, what one might call the Jesus factor: who is my neighbour?  When we write our history, we should do it with this question in mind. The question has to be answered in relation to both the dead and the living. The history of communism should be written to restore and dignify all of the actors—the heroes and villains, the sufferers and the exploiters, the timid and the brave, the bland and the colourful—who lived in the past. In our writing we can rediscover those who were lost, or bring back to life those who have been obliterated, or give a voice to those who were silenced. But the question “Who is my neighbour?” is not just a question with a past dimension; it also relates to our audience in the here and now. Writing about communism also can expose some of the hegemonic, destructive beliefs and practices of the present order and its prophets, and so potentially serve the cause of the downtrodden and the marginalised (our current neighbours), or point out those practices and beliefs which show us that another world is possible. The world does not have to be the way it is. Another world is possible.
The story of communism as it exists is an ever-changing one, and it exists in multiple forms. (As is the case with so much scholarly work today, though, very few people actually are examining the Big Story of communism. Scholarship is rather fragmented, detailed, and localised). This plurality of approaches and concerns, alongside the absence of “Big Picture” works, provides an interesting window for a Christian perspective to be written. Much of what I suggest below borrows from existing work. Other points are reworked.
So what might this history look like?

Beginnings: “But I Tell You . . .”

It is important to recognise the ancient origins of Soviet Marxist-Leninist communism, but at the same time to acknowledge the new strands that were brought to this ideology by the French Revolution, industrialisation, the 1848 revolutions, and the intellectual movements of German and French philosophy. In particular, it is important to recognise the continued existence of human communities which have sought an explicitly collectivist ethos: privileging the community over the individual, practicing radical egalitarianism, and seeking either to withdraw from the world or to display to the world a countercultural way of living. Historically, many of these communities—radical desert religious groups, monastics, radical groups in the English Civil War—were driven by religious motivations, seeking the spiritual benefits of lives of material simplicity and communal sharing.  Into the nineteenth century we see similar aspirations with the emergence of the so-called utopian socialists, labelled thus pejoratively by Marx and Engels. People such as Charles Fourier, Robert Owen, and Etienne Cabet, distressed by the problems of early industrial society, all sought the solution in the creation of ideal-type communities. It is in this sense that we can see the continuities between ancient, early modern, and modern forms of communism: a critique of the problems of contemporary society and a communal-shaped alternative to them. To start the history of modern communism with Babeuf, Marx, Russia, or Lenin seems to me to cut it off from a longer history and also places it as part of a deeper human yearning, present in many different societies, for living life together. So the first question, “When does the history of communism begin?” can be answered by looking deep into history.


The second theme I would emphasise is that of hope: the dream of a better world which animated the Russian revolutionaries. Here we come into contact with one of the core features of a Christian history of communism: the utopian-redemptive metanarrative. William Katerberg argues that utopian-redemptive metanarratives allow us to imagine a new way of being, to rethink in radical ways things like consumption, the family, community, power, the nation.  In particular, the utopian emphases—of a society of greater justice, harmony, peace, well-being, and co-operation—seem to chime with some Christian visions of a renewed earth. One of the central defining features of Soviet communism in its original incarnation was that it was a deeply utopian movement. Soviet communism’s adoption and adaptation of some of the “utopian” elements of Marx and Engel’s writings (although Marx would absolutely reject that label!) creates the opportunity for the historian to highlight the dreams of his future society, which would include some of the following features:

•    no money
•    material abundance
•    no nations
•    no political state and no classes
•    no exploitation
•    no war or conflict
•    harmony, equality, and co-operation
•    the division of labour is abolished, and where work is fulfilling, creative, and satisfying.

The best example of the Bolshevik interpretation of Marx’s ideals can be found in The ABC of Communism by Bukharin and Preobrazhensky.
The hope of a better future allows us to reflect upon alternatives to the existing ways of being, a critique of current practices and ideas which can perhaps open the way for measured reflection upon our own society, its practices, structures, and values. As Katerberg himself notes,

Redemptive-utopian narratives stand in contrast to and in opposition to the overweening pragmatic-conservative insistence that we deal with the real world “as it is.”

Just because things are as they are does not mean that is how they shall ever be. So, the presence of an alternative future serves to undermine any sense of the “permanence of the present.” This twofold idea—of a critique of the present and of an alternative future—contained within the dreaming and imaginings of the first Bolsheviks could be exemplified in many ways, for example by focusing upon a world without nation-states. The vision of a world without borders, flags, anthems, passports—and national and ethnic hatreds—is difficult to envisage given the centrality of the nation and the nation-state to contemporary politics and culture. But that is precisely what communism causes us to think about. Can we create different types of community not based around the idea of the nation? Can we create communities which do not divide us? I think in this respect the provocation to imagine a world without nations might lead us into interesting discussions about the nature of the church as a community which has overcome all distinctions and is creating a new type of humanity.
However, the foregrounding of utopian-redemptive themes in telling the story of Soviet communism also provides the opportunity to talk about outcomes. The efforts to force this type of society into being resulted, as we know, in regimes of violence and force. Deaths, and many of them, were justified by the imperative to create this society of freedom, justice, and harmony. When we begin to tell the story, we can see the chaos, destruction, and suffering caused. At the same time that we tell of the hope of the better future, we also have to tell the story of the victims, of the Canaanite victims of this secular promised land as envisaged by the Bolsheviks. So my telling of the story would start with two essential elements: a longer historical context and an intellectual context which highlights the centrality of the dream of a better future. But what about the telling of the story itself?

Humanising Communism: Victims and Villains, Death and Celebration

The normal arc of the Soviet communist story is to highlight the revolution, the civil war, NEP, Stalinism, and the Great Patriotic War as the key chronological moments of the period 1917–45, and this seems to me still to be a perfectly logical way of dividing up Soviet time. I think within this period a couple of components might be given particular prominence, and these ideas are united by a desire to humanise the study of Soviet communism. One aspect is focusing on the architects of communism. The historical writings on Lenin and Stalin tend toward the histrionic, and perhaps a more measured approach which seeks to humanise them, explain the complexity of their intentions, their situation, their values, and their actions is in order,  not in order to whitewash them, but to try to understand why they did what they did. This is a crucial part I think in redeeming them as individuals from the pervasive judgement of history: avoiding the lopsided or one-sided appraisals. We know the destructive impact of sin, how flawed we are. There is an irony here. As the leaders of regimes which generated an enormous number of victims, they are in some sense victims of history (and historians): condemned by many, hagiographed by others. The “real” historical personage, the individual created by God, perhaps has been lost. Maybe it should be our job to recover them, to resurrect them?
The second way is to focus, as Metz enjoins us, upon those who suffered and died in this period: victims of war, hunger, ideology, disease, cruelty, cold. To focus upon the suffering of those who died, were tortured, separated from families, abused, and exploited is distressing but imperative. To remember the victims, not just in terms of numbers which are horrific but deeply impersonal, but as people, with hopes and fears and dreams, is essential. If we focus solely upon the struggle of the regime, its massive political and economic exertions, we run the risk, as Metz outlines, of writing a history of what has prevailed through struggle, a kind of neo-Darwinism.  But in this regard it is crucial also to consider how we remember the victims; otherwise we run the risk of re-victimizing them. So if we tell the stories of suffering and death in order to highlight the evil essence of communism and its practitioners, are we using their deaths as part of our own political project in the present? We need to remember the dead, but remember them as they are (or were), to remember their suffering. Restoring the humanity of those who suffered and were lost, who struggled and survived, who coped resiliently with everything the 1930s and 1940s could throw at them, seems to me an essential and valuable task. Maybe as we write we can give them a voice, and allow them to speak to us, and we can bridge time and suffer with them.

Doubt and Faith

The postwar period of Soviet communism can be viewed in retrospect as the onset of the decline and fall of the whole experiment, although this is a disputed contention, some seeing the cause of the fall in Gorbachev’s flawed polices after 1985.  In any case a few themes seem to suggest themselves.
The first is the question of the decline in faith: at some indiscernible moment it is clear that people stopped believing in communism. Of course it had always been impossible to measure just how much people actually believed in the ostensible goals of the regime, whether they were true believers or did not believe at all. Exactly how much “real” faith people had that Khrushchev could deliver on his promise of building communism by 1980 remains difficult to say. It is clear, though, that the regime itself, especially after 1964 and the transition from Khrushchev to Brezhnev, began to be much more goal-focused and present-minded, and far less concerned with the future state of affairs. Satisfying the basic consumer demands of the people began to take precedence over the long-term aims of building communism. Communism began to slip past the horizon until it disappeared completely, finally abandoned by Gorbachev in 1991, just before the system collapsed.
It is significant I think that the loss of faith in the idea preceded the collapse of the system. The loss of momentum and dynamism within the system itself is only partly attributable to the economic slowdown the system experienced after 1973. One of the lessons the Soviet experience gives us is of the importance of belief in sustaining the system itself. It was in many ways an ideocratic regime, designed and existing to create a particular type of society according to this (loose and ever-changing) blueprint. Once the ideas themselves ceased to have any currency, then the basic rationale for the regime came into question. The story of the decline of the Soviet system, on this reading, needs to incorporate the question of the loss of faith. Restoring the spiritual and the idealistic to explanations about the failures and decline of communism runs counter to many existing theories which privilege material factors (such as the economy or international relations).
In tandem with this loss of faith in communism was also a loss of faith in atheism. Numerous reports—at national and local levels, in the press and in party documents—attest to two key developments in the 1960s and 1970s: the campaign of scientific atheism to eradicate religious practice and religious belief had failed. People seemed impervious to the message, indifferent to the messengers. The massive efforts—resources, time, people—invested into the campaign for scientific atheism had proved utterly powerless to dislodge the beliefs and practices of devout religious believers, or to turn agnostics into atheists. The 1970s even began to see a revival of religion—among Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and the like—something which was of enormous concern to the CPSU given the Iranian revolution in Iran in 1979. The fact that religion and spirituality continued to flourish and grow, in spite of (or because of?) the intense efforts to eliminate it, is another key part of the story of the failure of the secular utopia.  As Katerberg noted, religion has not vanished. The failure of secular utopias to address basic human needs (death, loneliness, identity) has opened the door for religion. The Soviet experience testifies fully to the inability of the secular utopia to bring about inner transformation (the battle for hearts and minds) and the persistence of religion and religious belief.


The final part of the story deals with the question of endings. The end of the USSR affords us a moment to reflect upon whether or not we should give up the dreams of radical alternatives that offer some sort of greater justice, peace, and well-being. Are the costs too high? Katerberg asks, “Are triumphalistic capitalism, technological globalisation and weary liberal democracy the most that people can hope for today?”  Perhaps the story of the demise of Soviet communism can cause us to pause and consider. Perhaps hopeful history might produce a hopeful future.


This paper has sought to outline one way in which a Christian reading and writing of the history of Soviet communism might be produced, a story which is both familiar and strange at the same time. Interestingly, many of the themes outlined above can be found in the work of existing historians; some are derived from my own musings over almost twenty years of work in this field. There are many different ways in which a Christian history might be written fruitfully and valuably, and perhaps the multiplicity of possible approaches is one of the problems. There are so many ways to do it, it is hard to know where to start. But start one must.