The Faith of a Heretic.
by Walter Kaufmann.
Doubleday. 432 pp. $4.95.
Walter Kaufmann’s latest book, The Faith of a Heretic, rests upon two terms much too casually defined by him. Scrutinizing the dictionary definition of “heresy,” Professor Kaufmann peels off the various layers of meaning: the theological definition (“any opinion that is contrary to the fundamental doctrines or creed of any particular church”) he rejects as absurdly loose; the legal definition (“an offense against Christianity consisting in a denial of some of its essential doctrines, publicly avowed and obstinately maintained”) he shows to be the predicament of practically every Christian; finally, the general definition (encompassing any set of opinions “at variance with established or generally received principles”) suggests to him that heresy is therefore “the price of all originality and innovation.” As to “faith,” Professor Kaufmann shows his own to be that of the open believer. Unlike the “true believer,” the open believer is dissatisfied with a merely “intense, usually confident, belief that is not based on evidence sufficient to command assent from every reasonable person.” Rather he possesses “sufficient interest to concern himself with issues, facts, and arguments that have a vital bearing on what he believes.” It follows that there are two types of faith (although Professor Kaufmann adds to the number a modest “at least”): “the faith of the true believer and the faith of a heretic.”
Professor Kaufmann’s obviously loaded oppositions are unpersuasive—the terms are too crucial to be so arbitrarily dealt with. Clearly, after Eric Hoffer’s popular dissection of the true believer, who would want to be a “true believer”? And if one were a “true believer,” the likelihood that he would be reading The Faith of a Heretic is rather remote. But perhaps Professor Kaufmann believes that thinking people have to be seduced into trying out new ideas, exposing themselves to “novelty and innovation,” taking a chance on heresy. Thus he refers repeatedly to conformism of thought, fashionable opinion, fear of creativity, popular religion, Frommian panaceas, Eisenhower patriotism, and religiosity against which all must guard. But he is aware that if we who read his book are infected, it is not by such vulgar diseases. We have succumbed to others more dangerous—logical analysis and existentialism in philosophy; Bultmann, Niebuhr, Tillich (Barth and Brunner being of an earlier fashion are not discussed) in theology; Camus and Heidegger on death and the absurdities of life; and above all, Christianity, which is, to judge from Kaufmann’s pastiche of quotations, the real anti-humanist monstrosity of Western culture.
Professor Kaufmann’s faith is therefore to be built upon a series of “heresies,” but only heresies of denial, not of affirmation. Indeed, from the dictionary definition quoted by him, one might think that all heresies are heresies of denial. Let me point out that the heretics of history not only opposed established doctrine, but affirmed another doctrine. There have been (at least to this Jewish mind) convincing and congenial heretics, like Pelagius, and unconvincing and uncongenial ones, like Marcion, but common to all heretics of the West is that they have affirmed while denying. The faith of a heretic, if it is to be heresy, must combine significant affirmation with its denial.
Kaufmann does not wish to list articles of faith or construct a system. Premises and assumptions, quiddities and noumena have no place in his scheme of things. For him, the faith of a heretic is founded upon “the will to be honest.” It emerges, from his eccentric reading of the history of philosophy, that all the major innovators of Western thought were heretics. The pre-Socratics and Socrates, even Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas (for the reason that a number of his theses were condemned as Averroist), Descartes, not unsurprisingly Spinoza (who was “quite literally a heretic”), Kant, John Stuart Mill, Nietzsche, William James, and Bertrand Russell—all these carefully selected heretics shared in common the fact that they overturned the established, agitated the authorities, dissented from popular tradition. They are heretics because they offended against the opinions held by the mass of mankind. But is this not heresy by majority rule? Would it not therefore have been more fair—and even more fruitful—for Professor Kaufmann to have openly admitted that for him heresy is essentially a political, not a philosophic, term? His polemic would still be valuable if it succeeded in exposing—as it really does not—our society’s biggest and worst intellectual idols, at the same time that it popped away at the obvious demi-gods of the culture. For it seems to me grossly unfair to use Gilbert Ryle’s grandiose and admittedly popularized lectures, The Revolution in Philosophy, as a take-off against the pretentious, academic, and unrevolutionary condition of philosophizing in our time. There are many less notable, unfashionable thinkers who continue to raise the classic philosophic questions, with all the seriousness of the calling which Kaufmann alleges to be so wholly lacking. His exposure of existential commitment as a betrayal of responsibility, an abnegation of reason, a muddle-headed revolt against the uninvolved life is similarly cavalier and slam-bang.
When Kaufmann comes to theology, his manner of argument is most exasperating of all. He suggests that there are two types of theology, natural and dogmatic; according to him, every theology is denominational and therefore apologetic and defensive. His divisions and characterizations here seem to me not wholly accurate or equal to the sophistication of the best theologians. Far worse, however, is his treatment of the theologians themselves—brutal and not a little arrogant. Let us take his analysis of Rudolf Bultmann. In his Jesus Christ and Mythology Bultmann has affirmed: “For modern man the mythological conception of the world, the conceptions of eschatology, of redeemer and of redemption, are over and done with. Is it possible to expect that we shall make a sacrifice of understanding in order to accept what we cannot sincerely consider true—merely because such conceptions are suggested by the Bible?” This real dilemma is contrasted by Bultmann with what he believes to be the serious moral and ethical demands of Jesus. Bultmann then asks, “Shall we retain the ethical teaching of Jesus and abandon his eschatological preaching? Shall we reduce his preaching of the Kingdom of God to the so-called social gospel? Or is there a third possibility? We must ask whether the eschatological preaching and the mythological sayings as a whole contain a still deeper meaning which is concealed under the cover of mythology. If that is so, let us abandon the mythological conceptions precisely because we want to retain their deeper meaning.” This method of interpretation Bultmann calls the “de-mythologizing” of the New Testament.
I am not a New Testament scholar, and I agree with much of Professor Kaufmann’s sharp and penetrating criticism of Christian theology, but I cannot believe that it is either just or true to suggest that Bultmann’s method is an example of intellectual dishonesty. The quotation I have given from Bultmann does not appear in Professor Kaufmann’s book; it is in sharp contrast to the two examples—of far less weight, it seems to me—which Kaufmann selects to make his case against Bultmann’s “de-mythologizing.” It is one thing to say that Bultmann “let the cat out of the bag” when he admitted in his correspondence with Karl Jaspers that he did not believe that Jesus literally returned to life and ascended from the tomb. One should also make clear that Bultmann’s admission was marked by profound concern and personal anguish. Similarly, Bultmann, in Kaufmann’s second example, chose not to speak of hell and damnation in his Theology of the New Testament. Kaufmann considers such a silence to be evidence of dishonesty. But why should Bultmann address himself to problems and solutions he believes to be untrue? Is theology dishonest when it is not orthodox theology? Can a heretic not be a bona fide theologian? Theologians, after all, invented heresy. Kaufmann summarizes his two-page discussion of Bultmann’s diffidence by saying: “This refusal to let one’s No be a No is one of the central characteristics of theologians no less than of committed Communists.” This, it seems to me, is both unproved and ungracious.
His own “heretic’s faith” is called by Kaufmann “the quest for honesty.” What is that honesty—virtue among virtues—which he holds to be the presupposition of all authentic human discourse? It is the virtue which completes his tetrad of virtues (the others are courage, love, and “humbition”), the cause in which the dirty and unpopular business of heretic demolition must be carried on. Honesty, says Kaufmann, is an intellectual virtue, but not exclusively a virtue of the intellect. It is not a habit—because it cannot be acquired by mere training nor sustained by routine practice; nor is it a permanent dimension of character, because men may be honest about some things, self-deluding about others, and thoroughly dishonest about still others. Honesty is rather a perfection which all men enjoy imperfectly, but to which some men dedicate themselves—in much the same way that religious men may pursue the imitation of God—never imagining that they ever fully succeed in achieving it, but considering the enterprise consuming, worthwhile, and meaningful. Honesty is thus a virtue which requires the courage to persevere. Kaufmann quotes from Wittgenstein: the quality of honesty is most evident in the effort “to think, or try to think, really honestly, about your life and other people’s lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty, then it’s most important.”
It seems to me, nevertheless, that the “honesty” of which Walter Kaufmann speaks and the “dishonesty” of the philosophers and theologians whom he exposes differ in degree. The honesty of Walter Kaufmann consists in pursuing the “dishonesty” of others—in demonstrating that Bultmann’s “demythologizing,” Tillich’s “ultimate concern,” Niebuhr’s radicalism, are really failures to own up to the fact that they have surrendered their faith and no longer believe. On the other hand, Kaufmann is surely not asking that they return to the orthodox beliefs of Christendom—the arduous and demanding faith of Paul, Aquinas, or Martin Luther—or that they save their theology, as does Albert Schweitzer, by choosing to ignore what history discloses to have been the “historical Jesus.” Kaufmann is so successful “a destroying angel” that he leaves to theology—and even to philosophy—the alternative of being impaled either by dishonest orthodoxy or by dishonest pretension to novelty and revolution. Theologians and philosophers are dishonest, in his view, either because they ignore contemporary history in some atavistic return to ancient ways, or try to rescue ancient ways by seeking to establish their contemporaneity. The only attitude which he countenances is that of the “honest” and unfulfilled quest: to maintain openness without commitment and seriousness without engagement. But this, it seems to me, is to sustain the process of life without any delineation of the end toward which the process moves, to maintain the problem without conviction regarding the nature and content of the problem.
Undoubtedly Kaufmann is right in saying that our society cannot speak of peace when “there is no peace.” On the other hand, it is not enough to announce what has been announced often before. The deceptions and dishonesties are old, though they may take new and contemporary forms. It is no longer enough to be warned. What is needed are thinkers who turn from uprooting the weeds, to the planting. They will undoubtedly grow new weeds, surely take the fatal risk of “dishonesty.” I should say that not the quest for honesty must employ us, but an older quest, the quest for truth. Honesty, it seems to me, is not enough of a substance for even a heretic’s faith.