Book review: “The Faith of a Heretic” by Walter Kaufmann

I first stumbled upon Faith of a Heretic in the works cited of To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Though from the same faith tradition, Kaufmann and Sacks arrive at very different conclusions about the role of faith and religion. While Rabbi Sacks sees a very important role for organized religion, Kaufmann is largely critical of it. One thing that come to agreement on is respect for the Hebrew prophets and their calls to repentance. Sacks quotes the following quote on war from Kaufmann:

It is hard to do justice to the originality of men who, in the eighth century BCE, untutored by the horrors of two world wars with poison and gas and atom bombs, and without the frightening prospect of still more fearful weapons of destruction, insisted that war is evil and must be abolished, and that all peoples must learn to dwell together in peace.

While Kaufmann’s critique of religion is absolutely scathing, he holds up the Hebrew prophets such as Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah as moral exemplars. The distinction can be summed up in one passage:

The point is not just that religion tends to become repulsive when it prospers, or that religion is at its best in times of persecution… What makes the decisive difference is not whether religion is persecuted or not, but whether religion is a pious name for conformity or a fighting name for non-conformity.

Kaufmann finds nobility in the role of a heretic that can’t be found in the conformity inherent in organized religion.


I think my favorite parts of Kaufmann’s Faith of a Heretic is his sharp critique of theologians. In one passage, he compares them to lawyers:

[Theologians] are really closer to lawyers than they are to either philosophers or scientists… In the first place, they accept books and traditions as data that is not up to them to criticize. They can only hope to make the best of these books and traditions by selecting the most propitious passages and precedents; and where the law seems to them harsh, inhuman, or dated, all they can do is have recourse to exegesis.

Secondly, many theologians accept the morality that in many countries governs the conduct of the counsel for the defense. Ingenuity and skillful appeals to emotion are considered perfectly legitimate; so are attempts to ignore all inconvenient evidence, as long as one can get away with it, and the refusal to engage in inquiries that are likely to discredit the predetermined conclusion: that the client is innocent. If all else fails, one tries to saddle one’s opponent with the burden of disproof; and as a last resort one is content with a reasonable doubt that after all the doctrines that one has defended might be true.

Big oof. It hurts because there is just so much truth to it. I read a few passages of Kaufmann to my mom, and she said, “Why are you reading this? He sounds like someone who is miserable and only wants to hurt people.” Perhaps to some it appears masochistic to read such hard critiques of your own faith. We can only become better when we see our faults– and we tend to be blind to our own faults. I would like to say I follow Kaufmann’s own method:

And if there are experiences I have not had, books I have not read that have helped to form you, tell me about them so I can read them and think about them. What more could I say?

I would like to comment on Kaufmann’s self-assigned role as a heretic. Namely, what would a heretic be without an institution? Without something to conform to, there would be no non-conformists. I admit, that Kaufmann admits this. He distinguishes between two types of heretics:

There are heretics from resentments and iconoclasts who attack from outside what they never loved. There are also heretics from love who feel grateful to many with whom in the end they cannot agree.

There are heretics like this in my own faith, one of my favorite models being Sterling McMurrin (who also, incidentally, labelled himself a heretic). I even admire such heretics and believe they may our institutions better. Although I have a different model for my reconciliation of my faith with my own morals best exemplified by Lowell Bennion himself. Lowell Bennion lifted where he stood. He had many personal disagreements on doctrine that he acknowledged publicly. But the way he most distinguished himself was in his embodiment of the message of the Hebrew prophets: he was out serving the widows and the fatherless. Kaufmann draws attention to a similar character from Christian history, St. Francis of Assisi:

The Rule of Saint Francis represents a notable exception. Without taking issue with the doctrines and dogmas of the Catholic church, and while fully subordinating his judgment to the church’s, he tried to create an island of love in an unloving world.

I view a faith tradition not only by those who are “inside” but also those who are “outside,” and I claim them as part of our spiritual heritage. Not only necessarily as a “bad example” but as an example of striving for truth and love and justice. I don’t believe you can so easily separate the wheat from the tares by looking at who is inside an institution and who is outside.

I am currently reading a history of the Catholic church from an adherent of the faith. In one passage, he also acknowledged one positive aspect of heretics:

The development of doctrine is a progressive widening and deepening of the meaning of the original truth, and heresy can be either false innovation or a rigid adherence to older teachings. Dogma is seldom officially defined unless it has first been questioned, and heresy perhaps serves the divine purpose of forcing the Church to reflect more deeply on her beliefs, to understand them in ever more comprehensive and precise ways.

I find myself drawn to the role of a heretic in my own faith tradition, at least on the personal level. Perhaps I shouldn’t say heretic, and instead use Lowell Bennion’s terms prophetic religion versus priestly religion. Yet I see the vital role that institutions play. There are two vital roles the institutional church plays. The first comes from Clayton Christensen’s statement of beliefs:

Because of the way the church is organized, it puts opportunities to help others in my path every day. It facilitates my efforts– and in some instances almost compels me– to practice Christianity daily, not just believe in it.

Without a community in which to practice our faith, our faith becomes dead. This is especially true in our atomized and individualistic society. In my church community, I rub shoulders with people very different from me. Learning to love those whom you don’t choose to associate is a very important role of the institutional church.

The second role is related but different: as individuals, we are flawed. We easily become blinded by what G. K. Chesterton referred to as the spirit of the age. As an individual, I can help contribute to the search for truth, but I acknowledge my own reasoning by itself is limited no matter how skilled or knowledgeable I am. I am a collection of biases. I like Jonathan Haidt’s concept of institutionalized disconfirmation for the role of institutions, in this case universities:

Each professor is– like all human beings– a flawed thinker with a strong preference for believing that his or her own ideas are right. Each scholar suffers from the confirmation bias–the tendency to search vigorously for evidence that confirms what one already believes. One of the most brilliant features of universities is that, when they are working properly, they are communities of scholars who cancel out one another’s confirmation biases. Even if professors often cannot see the flaws in their own arguments, other professors and students do them the favor of finding such flaws. The community of scholars then judges which ideas survive the debate. We call this process institutionalized disconfirmation.

Finally, I would like to more fully describe Lowell Bennion’s juxtaposition of the priestly and prophetic roles in religion. Bennion takes this ideas from Max Weber:

Weber described prophets as men who spoke “as one having authority” out of their own calling. They broke with the existing order; they were critics of the immoralities and religious formalities of their people, such as I’ve illustrated with Isaiah and Micah. Like Jesus, they were revolutionary in their day: “It is written . . . but I say unto you.” Jesus didn’t reject the old, but he gave a new thrust and a different emphasis to that which had gone before: “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23.)

Prophets try to get people to put religion in perspective, to see it in terms of great fundamentals and in terms of ethics as well as theology. Prophets have never been bound by the past. They speak for God afresh in the interest of man, in the light of the great ideals of religion, and in the light of God’s purpose and character. The other type of religious leader, Weber calls a priest. By this he means a man in any faith whose primary concern is to conserve the religion of the founder—of a Moses or Christ, for example. The priest canonizes scripture, refines doctrine, establishes tradition, records history, performs sacred rites and sacraments. In this way he builds and maintains the church, welding the believers into a meaningful fellowship.

Religion wouldn’t survive if we just had the prophetic word. It would die with the prophet. Religion needs an order of religious leaders who are concerned with conservation and preservation. And I have the greatest respect for men who have done and who do this for us. If we didn’t come together and partake of the sacrament as a body of believers; if we didn’t sing Mormon hymns together and pray together; if we didn’t have traditions to inspire us, we wouldn’t exist as a religious movement, and maybe our individual religious life would fade out.

Lowell Bennion acknowledged the vital roles of both the priestly and the prophetic. Kaufmann acknowledges the priestly role, but dismisses it with the following:

The theologians pay a price for perpetuating a mass movement; they are not content, as the prophets were, with a small remnant. If each spoke out boldly and unequivocally, no mass movement would be left.

Religion would be much the weaker force without the priestly.

Prophetic versus Christian

As mentioned earlier, Kaufmann’s role model that he sets forth is the Hebrew prophets. In his critique of religion, he praises the Hebrew scriptures while completely demolishing the New Testament. Yet he doesn’t acknowledge any bias:

My account of the New Testament is less positive than my analysis of the Old Testament… It is odd in a book that attacks the double standard and pleads for honesty… Still, I shall not plead guilty to a charge of gerrymandering the Bible. It is essential to recognize the discontinuity between the prophets and Jesus.

I found three primary critiques of Christianity in Kaufmann’s chapter on Christianity:

First, is his accusation of otherworldliness. Christianity does not adequately engage with the things of this world. Jesus’s statement to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s is taken as a sign of indifference on political and moral issues. This charge isn’t new either. Roman pagans made the same accusations in the early rise of the Catholic Church:

Even though Christians obeyed the law, their otherworldliness was thought to hasten the decline. They formed their own society within the Empire, obedient to the state in a passive way (they prayed even for evil emperors) but detached from it. Jesus authorized the payment of taxes, and Christians pointed out that not only were criminals virtually unknown to them, but they also cared for their own poor rather than letting them become public charges.

From the same history, the author points to one advantage of otherworldliness, where others saw a lack of commitment to the things of this world:

The Sermon on the Mount was the heart of Jesus’s social teaching, but He laid down no plan for a just social order and thereby deprived all social orders of divine authority, something that, paradoxically, made social change possible.

The second major criticism is Jesus’s lack of novelty. He didn’t introduce anything the Hebrew prophets hadn’t already taught. The only exception was his divinity as the Son of God:

Moral questions could be argued; one was used to different opinions… It was Jesus’ conception of his own person that caused astonishment… the scribes condemned Jesus not for being too liberal but for blasphemy– for what he said about himself.

This one doesn’t really hit too hard as a Latter-Day Saint; we claim that the same gospel was preached throughout all history (a claim perhaps even harder to defend, but I digress).

Finally, Kaufmann leverages the accusation of unbridled individualism. Throughout the New Testament, every commandment is connected to a personal blessing:

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.”… The Jesus of the Gospels appeals to each man’s self-interest.

Sure, the blessings are pushed off to the next life, but good works are done for one’s own salvation and not purely for the good of others. It is a fair accusation, and one I have always been uncomfortable with myself. I first become conscious of this on a Latter-Day Saint mission. During every lesson, missionaries are taught to end with promising blessings. Under the section “How Do I Help People Make and Keep Commitments”, Preach My Gospel teaches:

People need a reason to change their thoughts and actions. Promised blessings provide a powerful motivation to obey God. When the Lord gives a commandment, He often promises blessings for keeping the commandment.

They don’t even hold off the blessings until the next life; Sunday School can quickly become prosperity gospel pep talks. I find that while Christianity is prone to this, it isn’t inevitable. Nikolai Berdyaev, himself a bit of a heretic, taught:

A false interpretation of “good works” leads to a complete perversion of Christianity. “Good works” are regarded not as an expression of love for God and man, not as a manifestation of the gracious force which gives life to others, but as a means of salvation and justification for oneself, as a way of realizing the abstract idea of the good and receiving a reward in the future life. This is a betrayal of the Gospel revelation of love. “Good works” done not for the love of others but for the salvation of one’s soul are not good at all. Where there is no love there is no goodness. Love does not require or expect any reward, it is a reward in itself, it is a ray of paradise illumining and transfiguring reality. “Good works” as works of the law have nothing to do with the Gospel and the Christian revelation; they belong to the pre-Christian world. One must help others and do good works not for saving one’s soul but for love, for the union of men, for bringing their souls together in the Kingdom of God. Love for man is a value in itself, the quality of goodness is immanent in it.

Latter-Day Saints– We Made It!

Perhaps even closer to home, Kaufmann even brings up the Mormons. Unfortunately, it isn’t done in an entirely serious capacity and we end up more the butt of a joke:

Mormons believe that couples joined in holy matrimony in a Mormon temple will enjoy each other’s company in all eternity, while those married elsewhere are married for this life only. What strikes them as enviable would be more likely, in most cases, to be hell itself.

The most substantial critique deals with proxy work for the dead:

But what is most relevant here is the great labor of love in which hundreds of Mormons in Salt Lake City are engaged: they spend a great deal of their free time searching through old files to find records of couples who were not married in Mormon temples, although they had lived clean lives and would have been permitted to be married in a temple if they had applied. Such couples are then married in a temple retroactively, posthmously, and henceforth may enjoy each other’s company in all eternity. Here is a wonderful example of religious charity coupled with thoughtlessness about the character of God. What would God have to be like if he let eternal bliss depend on the efficiency of human office workers? Protestants will readily grant that Catholic beliefs about purgatory raise exactly the same problem. But this is not a peculiarity of Mormon-ism or Catholicism: all Christian beliefs about the afterlife and missions raise this question.

Kaufmann accuses Mormons of impugning a cruelty to God through our doctrine of ordinance work for the dead, in addition to a chuckle at the bureaucratization of salvation. This isn’t limited to Mormons, as his last statement makes clear; he believes any doctrine of an afterlife implies God is cruel. I found his explanation of Mormon doctrine overly simplistic; I find the idea that God gives mortals the chance to take part in the work of salvation to be very beautiful. Not to mention how we derive the doctrine from a passage in the Old Testament (And he shall turn the hearts of fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to the fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse).

Rejection of Tragedy

Near the end of the book, Kaufmann waxes fatalistic, even going so far as to call hope a negative attribute that makes us all cowards:

If fear is the mother of cowardice, hope is the father. Men accept indignities without end, and a life not worth living, in the hope that their miseries will end and that eventually life may be worth living again. They renounce love, courage, and honesty, pride and humanity, hoping. Hope is as great an enemy of courage as is fear.

Kaufmann finds nobility in accepting the inevitability of failure, not trying to run or hide from it, and yet still doing good. He extols the tragic virtues and praises the Greek tragic heroes such as Antigone and Oedipus. While I was reading this, I had this nagging feeling that this was oddly familiar. It turns out that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks had addressed tragedy in To Heal a Fractured World, almost as if he were giving a rebuttal to Kaufmann:

A tragic universe is a place where bad things happen for no particular reason; where there is no ultimate justice and no expectation of it; where we learn to accept, with Stoic courage, the random cruelties of circumstance… There is no tragedy in this sense in Judaism. That is not because there are no disasters, crises, or catastrophes. Manifestly there are. Jewish history has too often been written in tears. Nor is it because in a Jewish story there is always a happy ending… Judaism is the principled rejection of tragedy in the name of hope– precisely because there is no inexorable fate. Nor does hope stand alone. It belongs to a world in which not only God but human beings, his image, are free, masters of their fate, responsible for their destiny…

Two ideas rescue the biblical idea of justice from tragedy. The first is repentance. Whatever wrong we have done, we can redeem, either by restitution or remorse, preferably both. The second is forgiveness. God does not condemn us for the evil we do if we openly and candidly admit the evil we have done… Repentance expresses the freedom of the sinner, forgiveness the freedom of the sinned-against. Between them they constitute the biblical refutation of tragedy. No evil decree cannot be rescinded. There is no inexorable fate. That is the difference between a Greek oracle and a biblical prophet. An oracle predicts; a prophet warns. If a prediction comes to pass, it has succeeded. If a prophecy comes to pass, it has failed. That is why the prophets were agents of hope. The future they foresaw was neither inescapable nor final. For every sin there was atonement, for every exile a return.

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