Talking About God: Exploring The Meaning Of Religious Life With Kierkegaard, Buber, Tillich, and Heschel, by Daniel F. Polish
This book suffers greatly from the problem of ulterior motives and also serves to the reader as a reminder that when people write books they do so for reasons. Not all of those reasons include presenting the thoughts of others honestly, but often include the desire to support some aspect of the author’s worldview that the reader may not be on board with. Such is the case here, where in addition to seeking to convey the fruitful interaction between four thinkers, two of whom were European Protestants and two of whom came from a European Jewish background, but the author also has the motive of promoting eastern spirituality and leftist activist politics, neither of which are agendas I am interesting in supporting. While the author has clearly read well in terms of the four thinkers who he uses here, the fact that his agendas are so antithetical to my own and even to an honest portrayal of what the thinkers themselves actually thought that it seriously detracts from the worth of this book and in the value of the author’s thinking about these four 20th century theologians. What could have been deeply interesting is instead deeply flawed.
This book is a bit more than 100 pages long and is focused on four chapters about four 20th century European thinkers, two of whom were Jewish and two of whom were Protestant. The author begins with a preface about contemporary concerns in religious dialogue as well as acknowledgements and an introduction about thinking religiously. Through these writings the author reveals his own beliefs in his importance as a guide in such matters, which is troublesome. After that the author discusses Kierkegaard as the knight of faith and discusses the limits of understanding, an insight he does not appear to apply to his own reasoning processes (1). This leads to a discussion of Martin Buber and the I-thou relationship between God and man as involving a conversation (2). After that the author discusses Paul Tillich’s vain quest for a God above God and his own various foolish adoption of various political and social causes (3). Finally, the author discusses Abraham Joshua Heschel as providing a call for action from speculations about God’s need for man (4). I would agree that God longs for a relationship with mankind, but not as a need. The author concludes his book with a summary of four paths of religious understanding, provides suggestions for further reading, and then gives various credits.
When reading a book like this it is worthwhile to examine the assumptions of the author. For one, the author appears to view the interfaith interactions of Buber and Tillich, for example, as a model for how Western thinking should engage and involve itself in ideas of Taoist and Buddhist philosophy, not recognizing the boundaries between cultures which have a common biblical authority and those which do not. Likewise, the author’s belief that living out one’s faith requires a leftist political bent shows a lack of understanding of the proper place and limits of the state and the serious distinction between doing good works and supporting the coercive power of government to achieve one’s goals and enforce one’s worldview. The author, like many people, does not properly understand the problem of coercion that makes leftist thinking so problematic and so dangerous in our world of fallen beings of incomplete understanding. These agendas make this book far less worthwhile than it would have been had it been written by a less biased and more enlightened philosopher, rather than one who thought of himself wrongly as an authority in talking about God.