Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy: Chapter 1

Well, it’s been a while.  I saw some of you at the Life Ignition conference and we had some good discussions.  We played a lot and learned a lot.  Thanks.  I had a post ready to go, but WordPress decided to eat it rather than post it.  Needless to say I will be more careful in the future.  Eventually I will rewrite that post on the meaning of “chosen.”  For now, a review of sorts.

I imagine some of you are aware of former SDA pastor Ryan Bell’s Year Without God experiment, blog and soon-to-be documentary film.  I met him last year at the Spectrum conference in Tennessee and we hung out a little, so his journey feels a bit closer to home.  He has recently decided to start a book club to read through Walter Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy.  I’ve decided to travel along and offer my own response to the text as we work through it.  If you’re interested, it’s available on Amazon.  The book has 11 Chapters, so the plan is one chapter a week through the end of May.  Seems simple enough.


I was eager to get into Kaufmann.  Although I’m only familiar with him through his translations of many of Freidrich Nietzsche’s major texts, I expected his familiarity with Nietzsche would impact significantly and positively on his ideas and style.  I was not disappointed.

The preface echoes Miguel Cervantes’ famous addresses to each of various types of readers.  Two thoughts stood out to me.

To begin with, he outlines three lessons for philosophers that we might learn from Socrates:
“First, that playfulness is quite compatible with seriousness.”
“Second, the philosopher’s seriousness need not consist in the unhumorous insistence that he must be right.”
“Third, a critique need not be less serious than a positive construction.  There is something playful about systems.” (xv)
This emphasis on philosophy as play is part of what I most appreciated about Nietzsche.  It is no excuse for lax analysis, but rather an approach to reflection that takes pleasure in the process and recognizes the limitations of our knowledge.  (Thus Kaufmann, like Nietzsche, writes in aphorisms–loosely connected, playful reflections on various relevant ideas.)  While we may be continually learning, we will never know everything.  That calls for a certain humility about the philosophic project and about life itself.  We are never fully grown, only a little older than the day before (and hopefully a little wiser).

For me, this is also applicable to theology.  Sometimes we make theology too much of a serious thing, insist too much on our rightness, and forget the value of challenging questions.  Perhaps we would do better to follow the words of Christ and become like little children–recognizing our limitations and laughing through our mistakes.  As Rich Mullins put it, “We are not as strong as we think we are.”  Too often, we fixate on our childish systems and forget how to play well with others.  We forget how often God asks hard questions rather than giving easy answers.  Perhaps we would do well to simply enjoy the life God has placed before us and play a little more in our lives and in our theology.  While theology absolutely matters, being right is not the foundation of our salvation–being children of God is.  And what good is eternal life without play?

Later, he justifies the wide-ranging interdisciplinary reach of his book-project: “instead of developing an idea very fully and surrounding it with a vast apparatus, one can show its relation to other ideas.  Instead of burying it, one can try to bring it to life” (xvii).
I agree that there is value in such a “big picture” approach.  To often, in my own studies, I have been frustrated by the way in which various philosophical or theological arguments are advanced as if in isolation from all others.  Sometimes latent similarities are simply overlooked, limiting the value and depth of analysis, but equally often this focus on individual “trees” creates dissonance, most often resulting in a disconnect between our most deeply held beliefs and the ways we actually live.
One classic example of this is the parent who strikes a child in order to teach the lesson “do not hit your siblings.”  Their understanding of discipline and education is obviously quite disconnected from the values they wish to instill.  There are many others.  As an Adventist, I have a particular concern for the ways in which our “28 fundamentals” are too often presented as 28 disparate ideas rather than an rich, holistic way of life.  There are profound connections between how we view God, stewardship, Sabbath, the Old Testament sanctuary and our understanding of the Second Coming, just to list a few.  Someday I hope to explore that in depth, but that’s a story for another time.

These two thoughts are critical for me, and I expect they lay a foundation for the rest of this book.

Chapter 1 begins with the assertion that “modern philosophy, unlike medieval philosophy, begins with man” (1).  The questions “what is man?” and “what is truth?” undergird the Enlightenment shift.    (This has been blamed on Luther and the Protestant Reformation for its rejection of church authority and developed through philosophers Kant and Descartes as well as through theologians Arminius and Wesley, among many others).  In contemporary society, psychology has sought to answer that question, but psychological answers have philosophical implications and vice versa.  Each has implications for the other; for Kaufmann, these entangled lines of inquiry are central.  Specifically, he argues that we cannot pursue “truth” without understanding its psychological implications and effects–it is not merely a philosophical abstract, but a psychological reality.  In short, truth cannot be separated from its effect on our lives and mindset.  Conversely, any philosophical inquiry is inextricable from an inquiry into the psychology of the philosopher–the conditions and experiences of their existence.
Thus, from this point, Kaufmann considers style as reflective of psychology.  He eventually turns to poetry as especially expressive of this complexity, describing it as a type of passionate flight which calls others to follow (reminiscent of his description of philosophy as play).  He writes, “The intensity of philosophy and poetry is abnormal and subversive: it is the enemy of habit, custom, and all stereotypes” (9).  The strength of each thus lies in passion and wonder–as a challenge to our existence rather than a summation of it.  Thus the value of laughter and play–as the expression of passion and wonder.

To me, this argument poses a challenge to many theological readings.  What if Christ’s “life more abundant” was understood in the nature of play, full of passion and wonder?  What if God’s aim, through Scripture, is not to provide summation or closure to our existence, but challenge?  What if Christ’s call and commission is understood as a call to flight?  What of “if I be lifted up, I will draw all men unto me”?  Where is that power in contemporary Christianity?  Understand, I do not mean a mindless pursuit of “Spirit,” but a calculated play, a learning, growing, challenging, unsettling, passionate, wonderful, serious play–recognizing the great risks of such flight, but not shrinking from them for fear of falling.  (Did the disciples disappointment and the Great Disappointment teach us nothing?)

One last quote that I appreciated is this: “The fact that different painters would paint the same scene differently does not establish the impossibility of an accurate map” (17). Kaufmann illustrates with reference to the differences between a highway map vs a map of rivers and valleys.
In a similar fashion, the Bible is not “a” map, but a collection of scenes or maps, each emphasizing distinct aspects.  Sometimes these emphases may even appear contradictory, but that calls us to a more careful consideration of “what features a map portrays and what it leaves out” (18).  Again, the focus is on (playful) discovery rather than the defense of systems.  This resonates not only in separate disciplines, but between disciplines as paintings of the same reality–covering more-or-less the same ground, though emphasizing radically different features.

Of course, Kaufmann has much more to say.  I suggest you read for yourself, but these are some of the ideas I appreciated in his opening chapter.  I look forward to seeing the ways in which he develops them throughout the rest of the book.

Ryan’s Blog (Book Club)

Book Club Chapter 1

Critique of Religion and Philosophy (Canada)

Critique of Religion and Philosophy (US)


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