The University of Newcastle, Australia

Left of his field

Religion, radicalism and revolutionaries all fall under the critical gaze of theologian and writer Professor Roland Boer.

Roland Boer

Roland Boer is not your average scholar, nor is he a typical theologian. The academic who enjoys stirring up debate with articles under such arresting titles as Lenin the Nudist, believes a measure of provocation is a good thing if it stimulates thought and discussion about religion.

The director of the Faculty of Education and Arts' Religion, Marxism and Secularism project describes himself, on his curiously titled but well-patronised blog Stalin's Moustache, as someone who likes "speaking my mind" and basks in one reviewer's assessment of his sentiments as "the oddest I have ever read in a scholarly work."

But for all this spirited subversion, Boer is a widely read and internationally recognised academic theologian whose prolific writing has broadened dialogue not only in his specialty research field, Marxist interaction with religion, but across the spectrum of religious and political debate.

The son of a Presbyterian minister, Boer's theological path took an unorthodox turn during a course in political and liberation theology while studying for a Bachelor of Divinity degree at the University of Sydney in the 1980s. Rather than read theologians writing on Marxism, Boer decided to go back to the source and read Marx, which proved a revelatory experience.

"There is a tradition within Marxism of engagement with religion that is usually characterised as atheistic and disinterested, but I argue there is a continuous stream of major Marxist figures who have written on questions of religion and engaged specifically with the Bible or with theological debate,'' Boer said.

"Some people contend that Marxism borrowed its main ideas from Christianity and Judaism and reconstructed them as secular ideology, but I think that is extremely simplistic – the relationship is much more complex."

Boer maintains that Marx's famous quote about religion being the "opium of the people" has been largely misinterpreted, given that, when Marx used the phrase, opium was as valued for its medicinal qualities as it was denounced for its addictive potential.

"That ambivalence over religion is really what is embodied in Marx's metaphor, rather than the notion that it is just a drug that dulls the senses and makes you forget your suffering," he said.

Boer was recently awarded the prestigious Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Prize for In the Vale of Tears (Brill and Haymarket, 2014). It is the final book in a seminal five-volume series, The Criticism of Heaven and Earth, that offers critical commentary on the tradition of interactions between Marxism and theology. The prize also recognises the significant contribution of the series as a whole, which has found a wide audience among theologians, Marxist analysts, historians, sociologists, philosophers and others, and which were or are being translated into several languages. He has found ready engagement especially in China, where much of his work has been translated or has appeared first in Chinese. A frequent visitor and teacher in China, with close collaborative links, he is deeply interested in the way Marxism is still very much the dominant political ideology, but with a distinct and unique development in terms of "Chinese characteristics."

The Criticism of Heaven and Earth series is part of a wider program of Boer's academic work. In 2012, he was awarded a prestigious Discovery Projects grant from the Australian Research Council (ARC), his fifth grant from the national body, to pursue a novel line of research on Lenin's interactions with religion. In 2013, he was awarded his sixth ARC Discovery Project grant for The Sacred Economy, which undertakes a wholesale reconstruction of the Bible's ancient economic context. The project is framed theoretically by the Marxian Régulation School of economic theory, Soviet-era studies, and works of ancient-world economists. The Sacred Economy will be published in the authoritative Library of Ancient Israel series with Westminster John Knox Press in early 2015.

Boer still has a toehold in mainstream religion but prefers to "go incognito" on his visits to church these days.

"The Christian communist tradition is what really interests me and keeps me involved with religion," he said, "I am fascinated by the radical, revolutionary dimension of Christianity."