Faith and Truth
To the Editor:
Arthur A. Cohen takes a strange position indeed in his review of Walter Kaufmann’s The Faith of a Heretic [January], when he takes the author to task for his treatment of theologians. Mr. Kaufmann accuses Rudolf Bultmann, as a representative modern theologian, of refusing to “let one’s No be a No” when faced with the myths of Christianity (Jesus’ literal return to life, hell, and damnation), and considers Bultmann’s silence on these subjects in his writings as evidence of dishonesty. Mr. Cohen finds this “ungracious,” and asks why Bultmann should “address himself to problems and solutions he believes to be untrue,” particularly when Bultmann’s doubts are “marked by profound concern and personal anguish.”
Bultmann’s “demythologizing” of the New Testament removes from critical consideration the basic premises of Christianity, premises which Bultmann cannot accept. Nor, despite Mr. Cohen’s leniency, can he escape them. Mr. Cohen inquires, “Is theology dishonest when it is not orthodox theology?” But a Christianity without (in Bultmann’s words) redeemer or redemption, a Christianity without the End of Days and the salvation and damnation of souls, cannot be considered mere “unorthodox theology.” It is not Christianity at all. . . .”
What would Mr. Cohen’s estimate be of a physiologist who declined to consider the circulation of the blood as a biological premise even though this denial caused him “profound concern and personal anguish”? These analogies are not intended shallowly to equate theology with the physical sciences, but merely to point up the fact that intellectual method and rigor should be expected no less in theology than in other disciplines.
Mr. Cohen concludes that we must be concerned with the quest, not for honesty, but for truth. How many injustices, crimes, and horrors have been committed in the name of proclaimed truth, “truth” which the exercise of a modicum of honesty would have revealed as the nonsense it was?
New York City
Mr. Cohen writes:
Mr. Hallote has undoubtedly mastered Walter Kaufmann’s argument, but does not seem to have attempted Bultmann’s. Assuming for a moment the somewhat vague analogy of theology to physiology which Mr. Hallote develops, it is possible to construe his conclusion rather more favorably than he has done. A physiologist who ignored Harvey’s views on the circulation of the blood in favor of Aristotle’s views in the Historia Animalium would unquestionably be incompetent; even if received opinion should for some reason continue to favor Aristotle. Similarly for Bultmann to “demythologize” aspects of Christian doctrine does not suggest less respect as Mr. Hallote’s analogy implies but more, for the findings of comparative literature, linguistics, mythology, and religion. It is Bultmann’s desire to demythologize Christianity in order to preserve it. Undoubtedly Bultmann does abandon the idea of a literal hell, a determinable parousia, or the spectacle of Son and Father seated beside each other dispensing the judgment of eternity; but Bultmann does not abandon the reality of “redeemer or redemption” or affirm a “Christianity without the End of Days.” If, according to Mr. Hallote, all exegesis and interpretation is equivalent to the abandonment of orthodoxy, then either he lives in a literalist world in which neither Bultmann nor I can share or else he lives in a world so annoyed by Christian claim that he chafes at the possibility that Christianity may escape its justly deserved disappearance by starting to rethink its premises. As to Mr. Hallote’s parting ripostes about the injustice done in the name of truth, I quite agree; but I was concerned with injustice done in the name of honesty.