Kaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosphy: Chapter 3

I continue to enjoy reading Kaufmann’s critique.  He is skilled at conveying complex ideas in clear and creative ways.  I highly recommend chapter 3 as a great introduction to reading and grappling with big ideas.  Many of the would-be thinkers I encounter in various forums would do well to better understand the limitations of language and the ways in which “truth” exceeds neat and tidy propositions.  A basic failure to understand these things undergirds a great many weak and narrow arguments.  All this matters because it underlies how we speak of any pursuit of truth, be it scientific, philosophical, religious, etc.

This chapter brought to mind a statement from Derrida’s final interview.  He explains that, for him,

“Each book is a pedagogy aimed at forming its reader.  The mass productions that today inundate the press and publishing houses do not form their readers; they presuppose in a phantasmatic and rudimentary fashion a reader who has already been programmed.  They thus end up preformatting this very mediocre addressee whom they had postulated in advance.” (Learning to Life Finally 31)

Derrida is commonly accused of being unnecessarily difficult and complex in his writing.  Rather than making his case with simple propositions, he performs a complex, poetic dance that can be difficult to follow.  However, for him, the very complexity of his writing, the very dance of it, is an invitation to change, to think differently–to be a better reader.  In short, his writing style is a careful and logical revolt against a reductive mode of thinking/reading/living which suggests that all that is of value–all “truth”–can be reduced to pithy formulas and propositions (which only need to be accepted).  Instead, Derrida invites his reader to participate in the dance of language, meaning and life.  (This is reminiscent of the way Christ taught with stories and difficult sayings, inviting his listeners to grapple with his words rather than passively receive them).  Furthermore, that very invitation changes the nature of truth from something to be received from above into something to be pursued and lived.  This mode of apprehending truth is central to Chapter 3.

Kaufmann writes, “To teach a truth without giving others some experience of the quest, the passion, and the heartbreak is a crime; for it makes men prey to that callow contempt for correctness which is the bait of error” (69).  In short, truth must be taught through a journey, rather than merely imparted–or it risks losing its value.  This implies, as Kaufmann says elsewhere, that truth is not merely a collection of beliefs to be passed from teacher to pupil.  It is something that must be sought after–and the search is necessary to the apprehension of truth.  Unfortunately, in so many cases, it is more important to be able to correctly name or list tools rather than to be skilled in their use.  This certainly happens in theology, but as Kaufmann points out, science is not exempt.  As he explains later, “Soon science, like art and religion, and magic, too, establishes traditions of its own; and what began as a revolt against convention terminates as another convention” (93).  As truth is reduced to a collection of statements to maintained, it loses all value.  Thus we arrive at Pilate’s question for Christ: “What is truth?”–and, by extension, “what value could it possibly have?”

Kaufmann answers this question well.  He writes, “True is what does not deceive, what is not false, what keeps its promise” (74).  Importantly, this understanding of “true” is not something that can be apprehended in a moment, but something which unfolds over time, through practice and experience.  It cannot be separated from that.  Furthermore,

“The truth of God is inseparable from the works of God. Truth is correspondence of promise and performance, a consistency that is not established once and for all but continuing and open toward the future. True is what proves itself continually.” (75)

While Kaufmann links this discussion to “God,” I have no doubt his scope is far larger.  Truth can be relied upon and trusted throughout life–but, to continue the metaphor of tools, the value of truth is not in possessing it, but in knowing how to properly utilize it.  The finest tools cannot produce anything of value without proper use–gained through a lifetime of continued refinement.

The tools Kaufmann is particularly concerned with in this chapter, and, I believe, this book, are words, names, categories, in a word–language.  He explains, “The question is how we use language–to vivisect experience, killing it for the sake of generalized knowledge, or to capture experience alive” (88).  Does language equip us to live well, or is it a weapon against life itself?  Most importantly, Kaufmann notes, “Language is a social phenomenon, and its primary function is to communicate what is of social importance: language is practical” (89).  In part, what a particular linguistic tool conveys is not pure truth, but a particularly cultural perspective on truth.  The meaning of words inheres in particular social contexts.  Various languages emphasize various aspects–forming complementary maps of the same space rather than conflicting “truths.”  They cannot be properly understood apart from that social or cultural context. Thus, as Kaufmann has said in previous chapters, it behooves us to consider the limitations and proper usage of a given map.  Misused, any map–any words, any truth–may lead us fatally astray.  As Laurence Gonzales argues in Deep Survival, we are mapping creatures, and without a functional map of our specific environment, we cannot survive.  That functionality is based in reading our environment, correlating it to our mental map, and discerning the proper course of action when the two conflict.

I appreciated Kaufmann’s insight that “The reader for whom one writes goes beyond the proposition to see what is meant” (72).  By “what is meant,” he means the vision the writer attempted to capture with his words, the lived experience the words aim to express (73).  Proper understanding and use of a given map depends upon understanding the environment to which the map refers, not merely the map itself.  This requires care and attentiveness to the (language) map, the environment, and the ways both have changed and are changing.  Otherwise, even the most revolutionary map “becomes the fountainhead of a conservative tradition” (94) in the attempt to preserve a “pristine” version of map and environment against any change.  The map becomes the point rather than our use of it, our living by it.

Kaufmann says far more of value in this chapter than this short review can express.  I will close with two final ideas especially relevant to Christianity and Adventism.  First,

“The truth of God is inseparable from the works of God. Truth is correspondence of promise and performance, a consistency that is not established once and for all but continuing and open toward the future. True is what proves itself continually” (75).

This statement points first to the temporality of God and his interactions with us–he is not a God outside of time, as Luther contended, but a God in time, a God with us.  His truth is in his keeping of his promises, in his continued engagement with us.  This has the effect of re-establishing the connection between our theological maps and our Christian lives–truth is the correspondence between them, not merely an immaterial ideology which must be blindly adhered to.  By extension, the truth of Christ and Christianity is not a series of propositions, but a correspondence between idea, or promise, and action.  Unfortunately, that correspondence is often lacking.

Second, Kaufmann writes, “The truth of many propositions represents a closed case for us, but it can always be reopened in the light of new evidence or under the shadow of a reasonable doubt” (76).  All this to say theology (or any conception of truth) must be as open to change as science claims to be–not in terms of our source material, but in terms of our understanding of it.  Our maps must be continually open to change.  Adventists have traditionally referred to this as “present truth”–suggesting that truth is inextricably linked with a particular time and must also be continually advancing.  We must refine our maps as the environment changes.  Unfortunately, this has been all too readily forgotten as “Present Truth” has been deployed to name a particular set of theological propositions.  That should not be.  Maps are not once for all time–be they theological, philosophical, scientific or otherwise.  Negotiating that change is perhaps the hardest part of pursuing truth, yet also the most necessary.

How we read matters.  What we do with truth matters.  And truth is not readily captured in what we read.  It requires pursuit, struggle–a way of living.  What do you do with your maps, your truth?  What kind of reader are you?

Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview
Learning to Live Finally: The Last Interview (US)

A wonderful, personal reflection on Derrida’s life and work.  Short and accessible in a way his writing often is not.  Includes a brief discussion of “survival” as an excess of life, rather than mere continuance.

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why
Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why (US)
One of my favourite books about the connection between our stories, our truth, our maps and our lives.  Begins with an examination of why some people survive insane events and ends with a consideration of what it means to live well.


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