- Religion: If There is No God … On God, the Devil, Sin and other Worries of the So-Called Philosophy of Religion by Leszek Kolakowski (review)
- The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review
- The Catholic University of America Press
- Volume 48, Number 4, October 1984
- pp. 672-679
- View Citation
- Additional Information
67~ BOOK REVIEWS Religion: If There is No God ... On God, the Devil, Sin and other Worries of the So-Called Philosophy of Religion. By LESZEK KOLAKOWSKI . New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. pp. 235. $19.95. Leszek Kolakowski is probably best known for his work on Marxism, especially 1'oward a Marxist Humanism and (to borrow Sidney Hook's appropriate adjective) the magisterial three-volume Main Currents of Marxism. He has, however, written on a wide range of more strictly philosophical and religious issues, from positivism and phenomenology to mysticism, and the present work makes generous use of earlier discussions to explore some of the quandaries that beset the attempt to understand the fate of religion in the modern age. Perhaps the best entree to this engaging book is through its curiously elaborate subtitle. Beginning at the end, we note that the venerable philosophy of religion is only "so-called," a qualification. evidently designed to express the author's good-humored admission of uncertainty in the face of an impossible topic. "I am never sure what religion, let alone philosophy, is." he writes, " but whatever religion is, it includes the history of gods, men and the universe" (p. 9). It is not surprising that, in some 230 pages of very readably printed text, we get a considerably abridged version of that chronicle. The gentle poke at philosophy of religion may also be meant to call attention to Kolakowski's distance from the cumbrous academic posture that commonly deadens serious discussion of such topics. This shows itself even in the book's format; instead of footnotes and attendant ap~ paratus oriticus, numerous quotations from a variety of sources are interspersed in bold type throughout the text to illustrate the matter at hand. In fact, Religion is atypical in several respects. Its tenor is rigorously critical-it is philosophical in the best sense of the word-yet it remains sensitive to the claims of specifically religious discourse, refusing throughout the temptation to "explain" religious concepts by extra-religious categories. " The questions I am going to examine," Kolakpwski writes, "will be discussed on the shallow assumption that what people mean in religious discourse is what they ostensibly mean" (p. 16). He is refreshingly free of that hermeneuticaI hubris that gilds so much scholarly work today, the attitude that the thing to be interpreted is really a disguised or alienated or repressed or incomplete or effaced version of something else. Such interpretative tactics have the virtues of being often compelling and of enhancing the im:(lortance of the inter- BOOK REVIEWS 673 preter. But, besides saying more about the interpretative theory than the thing interpreted, they tend to be ideological in the sense that they insulate the discussion from any reality not already accommodated by the theory. As Kolakowski notes, On the assumption that people can be, or that more often than not they are actually bound to be, unaware of their own motivations or of the genuine meaning of their acts, there are no imaginary, let alone effectively known, facts which might prevent a stubborn monist from being always right, no matter how the fundamental principle of understanding is defined. Monistic reductions in general anthropology or 'historiosophy' are always successful and convincing; a Hegelian, a Freudian, a Marxist, an .Adlerian are, each of them, safe from refutation as long as he is consistently immured in his dogma and does not try to soften it or to make concessions to common sense; his explanatory device will work forever. (p. 208) Further, the book is learned, drawing with easy co=and on pertinent sources and arguments, but not pedantic; even when examining the rarest theological nicety, Kolakowski's nose for balderdash and sense for what is really at stake in a controversy give it a straightforward, eminently sensible air. And finally, what is most unusual, Religion is gracefully written in precise, accessible language (Kolakowski's polite disclaimer about his English in the acknowledgement is superfluous : would that more native speakers wrote as well). Though it is not entirely clear what audience Kolakowski had in mind here (many arguments proceed at a rather sophisticated level), Religion would seem to be intended partly as a somewhat...