Saturday, March 31, 2012

Walter Kaufmann's Critique of Religion and Philosophy

Who discovered WalterKaufmann’s Critique of Religion and Philosophy (London: Faber and Faber, 1959), I no longer remember. Probably, it was Richard Bibby, a medical student and avid reader of philosophy. Later, he went on to become a heart surgeon. Whoever it was the book created a sensation among the people I knew in MIFCU.

Walter Kaufmann (1921-1980)

 Kaufmann sets the tone of his book in the "Preface" which, although slightly dated in terms of the examples he uses, ought to be read by all students who aspire to become scholars. He begins with the comment “Philosophers examine their life, ideas and assumptions not only occasionally but full time.”

Then Kaufmann launches into a sustained attack on what he sees as the idolatry of modern scholarship. He begins with the comment that “The critic who attacks idolatry does the most serious thing of which a man is capable.” (Kaufmann, 1958:xiii).

What is particularly exciting about Kaufmann’s work is his outrage at “the temper of the time” that “brooks cavalier dismissals of such men as Plato, Hegel, and Nietzsche, while one treats the living reverentially.” After providing examples of what he sees as the failure of academics to criticize the work of contemporary scholars, who are elevated to celebrity status, Kaufmann notes: “Ancient Judaism and medieval Catholicism may be submitted to sweeping strictures …” But, of living academic idols “none speaks … nothing but well.” 

Now I am not so sure he is right about Nietzsche, but his other comments are spot on. I'll say more about Nietzsche in a later Blog.

In what reads like a prophetic insight he observes “In a syncretistic age, one must fight the comfortable blurring of all contours and the growing inability to say No. One must insist on important differences … It goes without saying that one does not disagree on everything. And any statement, however silly, can be backed up with a quotation form some great man, not to speak of men thought to be great. Such citations have little value.” Clearly he was no forerunner of postmodernism.

In his view the “Discussion of views one rejects is important” to avoid dogmatism. Therefore, argument and polemics are important because they capture “the excitement of the search for truth” (Kaufmann, 1958: xvi-xvii).

What follows in the subsequent chapters is a sustained argument and incisive critique of academic fashions and well established ideas laced with cutting insights. Most of what he argues remains equally valid almost fifty years after the book was first published.

For example his distinction between “great philosophers,” who question the temper of the times, and “followers,” is telling and seems to reflect the career path of many PhD students:

The adherent of a philosopher is often a man who at first did not understand him at all and then staked several years on a tireless attempt to prove to himself that he did not lack the ability to gain an understanding. By the end of that time he sees clearly that his master’s critics simply fail to understand him  (Kaufmann, 1958:44).

All the people I knew well in MIFCU devoured Kaufmann enjoying his wit and keen observations. He also introduced us to the criticism of Biblical criticism, a subject about which I plan to say more in a subsequent Blog. Kaufmann saw Biblical criticism as deficient in philosophical rigor and paradoxically lacking in criticism. He also stressed the importance of carefully studying all of the world’s religions. Most important of all he offers a strong defense and appeal for the use of reason. He observes “if we are made to choose between reason and religion, the choice is between criticism and idolatry. Whatever in religion cannot stand up to criticism is not worth having …” (Kaufmann, 1958:308).

Looking back what is remarkable about Kaufmann’s book is that it appealed to members of MIFCU who were self-confessed evangelical Christians. Unlike so many Christian students today they did not run away from intellectual engagement. Nor did they take refuge from the secular university in “Christian colleges,” or by only reading writers like C.S. Lewis. Rather they read Kaufmann alongside Lewis and discussed them both.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


A year after my evangelical conversion all my new friends in the Cheadle Parish Church youth group went “up to university” as they say in England. This meant that they left Cheadle for various other places. Realizing that I had no Christian support at work, where the ethos was decidedly non-Christian, Peter Heyman arranged for one of his friends from the local Grammar, or in American terms elite High School, to take me to the Manchester Inter-Faculty Christian Union (MIFCU) which met in nearby Didsbury at Ivy Cottage Church.

Ivy Cottage Church, Didsbury, Manchester, England
MIFCU was entirely student run and attracted around 300 to 350 people every Saturday evening. The meetings began at 7 and ended at 9. Essentially they consisted of listening to a lecture by an invited speaker that lasted around an hour. Before the lecture there was a short service and after it coffee was provided while everyone socialized.

The speakers were a remarkable collection of people who visited MIFCU once a year on an annual basis. They included professors like the New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce, the archaeologist Donald Wiseman, his brother who was professor of medicine at Manchester University, the physicist Donald McKay, and well known British evangelical Christian leaders like John Stott, Martin Lloyd-Jonesm, and the lawyer Val Grieve. Together, in a well-planned program, that was like a university course, they provided students with a solid intellectual basis for their faith. Once again I have experienced nothing similar in North America.

F. F. Bruce (1910-1990)
 At that time I was the only non-student in attendance, but nobody cared. On my first or second visit I was looking at MIFCU’s excellent book table when a total stranger came up and asked me if I had read J.I. Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God which he thoroughly recommended. As luck would have it I had tried to read the book and found it both difficult and uninteresting. After I ventured my opinion we got in to a long argument and became firm friends.
 This was my introduction to Trevor Watts who became a close friend. At the time he was studying dentistry. But, because he could not afford to do so as a normal student he had joined the British Army as a commissioned officer on a special program. The Army paid his fees and provided him with an excellent salary. In return he had to serve in the Army for five years after graduation. One consequent of his commission was that he could afford to build up an excellent library both of dental and other books. In fact, his theology and philosophy collections were outstanding.

Trevor lived in a decent apartment to which he invited a fairly large group of people after MIFCU meetings to discuss the speakers and their talks. There he provided a variety of drinks and snacks and played excellent classical records while we had intense discussions about the world, the universe, and everything.

Through Trevor I soon acquired a fairly large group of friends most of whom, like him, went on to academic careers in a wide variety of disciplines. Most importantly I eventually got to know a group of North American graduate students most of whom were working on their PhDs with F. F. Bruce. Of these the Canadians Clark and Dorothy Pinnock and the Americans Ward and Laurel Gasque played an important role in my subsequent academic development.

Next time: Walter Kaufmann's Critique of Religion and Philosophy

Clark Pinnock (1937-2010)

Ward Gasque

Saturday, March 3, 2012

In praise of the Open House

One of the features of evangelical Christianity in Manchester during the early 1960’s was what was called “the Open House.” These were run by Anglican curates, or committed members of the laity, who opened their homes to young people after the Sunday evening service.

Open houses usually began with general socializing and the eating of snacks. But then, after about half an hour, a free for all discussion developed. Although they were moderated the topics and arguments were left entirely to those present. Thus the range of these discussions was remarkably wide.

Looking back I realize that open house were the religious equivalent of events organized by the Workers Education Association (WEA) on which they were probably modelled. The WEA was a remarkable organization set up by Oxbridge students, graduates, and professors in 1905 to improve the lot of workers by providing education in the broadest sense of the word. For North Americans I should explain that "Oxbridge" refers to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.

Workers Education Association
Therefore, the WEA included courses on things like art and music appreciation alongside ones more directly related to work issues. In this respect it was very unlike the modern university which is rushing headlong down the path of education for employment rather than Newman’s ideal of education for life. This is why George Orwell and a host of other prominent people worked for it at one time or another including the Buddhist scholar Edward Conze who taught workers courses on Buddhism.

What open houses did was allow young adults to explore a wide range of topics within an open Christian framework. This allowed people studying difficult topics at grammar schools, where the level of education was equivalent to a first year university course in Canada of the USA, or university to voice doubts about Christianity and think through critical issues.

When I first began to attend one run by Peter Downing, of Cheadle Parish Church, the topic of discussion, which went on for several weeks, was Boris Pasternak’s novel Doctor Zhivago Pasternak (1957). This was because it was the set text for that year’s British “A Level,” the exam that admitted people to university. I had never heard about the book before and found it fascinating

  What was impressive about these discussions was the flexibility of the people involved and their willingness to consider anything. For example, in discussing Pasternak’s work no one raised the type of question about sexual morality which are typical of North American Christian debates about this kind of novel. Instead, they concentrated on the literary value of the text, political issues and the meaning of life.

Perhaps the high level of discussion is not surprising since most of the people running them were Oxbridge graduates who were transporting the seminar from the ivy tower to the local parish. It has always seemed to me that the involvement of well-educated clergy and laity from the equivalent of Oxbridge is almost entirely missing in North American Christianity. Perhaps it helps explain the anti-intellectualism that pervades so many churches and Christian groups.