Marx, Prayer, and Humanity

Reading Time: 4 mins

In the place of God, Marx sets the material, autonomous, self-creating man.

Last year I moved to New York City, and as a result, I’ve been meeting a lot of new people. New neighbors, new congregation members, new baristas, new UPS guy. And the first conversation, regardless of who I meet, is always the same. The first question that people ask is some form of “Who are you?”, but what they really mean is, “What’s your name?” This one’s easy because I’ve had my name for 27 years so I know it well. “Philip.” The second question you could probably guess is always, “What do you do?” This one I’ve had less practice at so the answer varies. Sometimes I say “Pastor,” sometimes I say “I work at the church across the street,” or if I’m feeling particularly smart I say, “I read, I think, and sometimes I speak” which is both a reference to the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), and an accurate description of what I actually do as a pastor from day to day. But regardless of the answers you or I would give, I think it’s telling that when people are trying to figure out who you are, your name and what you do is what they ask about. Your name is obvious because you have to be able to refer to someone as something, but “What do you do?” as an extension of the question “Who are you?” is a theologically significant assertion.

This same theological claim has been asserted most famously by an unlikely theologian, Karl Marx (1818-1883). In his economic and philosophic manuscripts of 1844, Marx very clearly lays out what has come to be known as the homo faber or “man the maker.” Marx claims that man is essentially material, being both materially composed and materially oriented. In other words, that man’s whole being is oriented toward the “exchange and production” of material goods. Man is what he creates and creates who he is. In his treatise on private property and consumption he writes, “…man produces man,” “Activity and consumption…are social: social activity and social consumption; the human essence of nature first exists only for social man,” and “my own existence is social activity, and therefore that which I make of myself…” Marx’ concept of creation further emphasizes this point, claiming that beyond what man makes of himself as one who creates and exchanges material goods, man even owes his physical existence to himself because humans beget more humans through re-production. This form of atheism for Marx is not simply “a negation of God” but a negation that also “postulates the existence of man through this negation.” In the place of God, Marx sets the material, autonomous, self-creating man. Homo faber.

The atheism and materialism of Marx may well be an extreme example of modern anthropology, but I think it serves as a useful foil for Christians to think about who we are and what it means to be human. Are we what we do or is there more than that? To put it in terms of familiar categories, “How does a Christian answer the question of anthropology?” Most think of anthropology simply as a social science, but the question of anthropology is put to us by the Scriptures themselves and, interestingly enough, in the form of a prayer, “What is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him?” (Ps. 8:4). Not only does the question come to us in the form of a prayer, but I’d argue the answer can also be given through a study of prayer.

To start, if we can rather simply define prayer as an address to God in thoughts and words then the first thing we discover about man is that he is a creature of address (homo rationalis). God is a God who speaks and we are fundamentally the subjects of his address. God originally gave life to all things out of nothing with a word and with a word he spoke man into existence (Gen. 2:7). Furthermore, God continues to address his creation through the word as it is both written and proclaimed and it is on the basis of God’s address that we can then address God in prayer.


One of the first forms of address that we find in Psalms, which has often been called the “prayer book of the church” is “confession” (See the penitential psalms: 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, and 143). God has searched the sons of Adam and found them all extremely wicked, shockingly evil, and vile. He has declared man a sinner and by this word brings recognition of sin and therefore makes man a sinner (Rom. 5:20). And so the next thing we can say of man is that he is a sinner (homo peccans). Thus, the sinful man addresses God in view of the law and confesses, “I acknowledge my transgressions, and my sin is always before me… Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:3, 5).


But this is not the only thing that man is given to confess. It is not the final address. God has not only spoken a word of law which exposes man as a sinner, but he also speaks a word of promise: that Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, by his wounds we are healed, and everyone who believes and is baptized into Christ will be saved. By this address then God makes saints out of sinners, righteousness out of rebellion, and peace out of strife. Therefore, man is also one who is justified by grace through faith (homo iustificatus). “I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Ps. 32:5). Out of the abundant joy these glad tidings give, this confession of God’s mercy is more properly called “praise.”

Petition and Thanksgiving

Aside from confession and praise, the most common form of prayer is “petition,” and this too reveals a fundamental truth about us. Through petitions or requests we discover that we are not, in fact, independent and self-determining, but wholly dependent on God. God is the creator and man the creature; God is the giver and man the receiver (homo accipiens). God is the one who supplies us with home, spouse, family, clothing, shoes, our reason and senses, and all our earthly goods. Therefore we pray at the table, “The eyes of all look to you, O LORD, and you give them their food at the proper time. You open your hand and satisfy the desires of every living thing” (Ps. 145:15-16). And all this God provides, “without any merit or worthiness on our part” and “only out of fatherly, divine goodness and mercy” as Luther says in the Small Catechism, which gives rise to the flip side of requests: “thanksgiving.”

To return to Marx then, with the Bible we can say that man is not simply a material being but a being of address. Man is not chiefly defined by what he does, but by what God has said about us and done for us. We are not active beings, creating ourselves, but passive, receiving our lives and every good from God our Father. In the place of “man the maker,” God creates for himself “man the pray-er.”