Love and apocalypse. About “Jesus ridiculed” by Leszek Kołakowski

Michael Jędrzejek · 28 October 2014
Why was Kołakowski’s essay not published when the author was still alive? Perhaps he did not fancy the prophetic disguise assumed there. After all, the philosopher was the embodiment of many paradoxes: a sceptic defending religion, but not sharing the religious hopes, a liberal protecting the freedom of spiritual quest, and a humanist standing up for the texts of our culture – including the New Testament.

Professor Leszek Kołakowski is waiting in purgatory for salvation – that was one of the conclusions of the debate published a year ago in Kultura Liberalna. Salvation meant reading his works by the young generation, reintroducing him to contemporary debates, putting him on ideological banners or dethroning him.

After his death in 2009, a similar salvatory intent – although definitely lacking an iconoclastic tone – is exhibited by the Znak house. Besides republishing the already classic works of Kołakowski in the elegant White Series, the Kraków publisher also issues his works previously unknown to the Polish reader: popular lectures prepared for Radio Free Europe (“Heresy”, 2010), texts on the Catholic Church and Pope John Paul II (“The Church in the land of freedom”, 2011) and a collection of various speeches on the current philosophical, social and political problems (“Uncertainty in the era of democracy”, 2014). These books bring texts which had not been published or translated into Polish before, as well as, like the collection about the Church, recalling and popularising already known works by Kołakowski. But none of the books has become a big intellectual event. For experts they complement Kołakowski’s oeuvre with small bricks and for the general public they are an invitation to discover his other writings.



The conservative turn and the “Kołakowski pact”

It is no different with the latest book published by Znak. “Jesus ridiculed: an apologetic and sceptical essay” (“Jésus ridicule. Un essai apologétique et sceptique”) is a short and unfinished piece written by Kołakowski in the mid-1980s, found in the author’s archives. Translated and supplemented with an accessible afterword by prof. Jan Andrzej Kłoczowski, a Dominican, expert and commentator on Kołakowski’s works about religion, it is an intriguing reflection on the presence of Jesus and Christianity in contemporary culture. But this voice of Kołakowski is definitely not surprising or unknown to us. A similar way of speaking about the fate of Christianity appears repeatedly in his works from the 1970s. What is more, fragments of “Jesus ridiculed” (almost a quarter of the text!) after minor corrections were included in articles published later: “Our eternal matters with Jesus” [1], and above all “Illusion of demythologization” [2]. This information – after all, very important for assessing the significance of the discovered manuscript – is unfortunately missing in the book.
This does not mean that “Jesus ridiculed “ is not worth reaching for or that it is not an interesting work. I think that for experienced readers of Kołakowski it is another clear example of his conservative turn in thinking about religion, distinguished by a somewhat surprisingly prophetic and catastrophic tone. Part of the reading public might be encouraged to explore the book by the words of no other than the iconoclastic politician Janusz Palikot. In an article published a few months ago in Gazeta Wyborcza Palikot exposes Kołakowski’s philosophy of religion from the 1980s as a kind of bargaining position (“Kołakowski’s pact”) addressed to the Catholic church: in exchange for the participation of the Church in the anti-Communist alliance, secular intellectuals supposedly granted it a monopoly in the area of “ethical education of the Poles”. Palikot’s claim, although simplistic and reductionist, encourages us to look at Kołakowski as a spiritual patron of the Third Polish Republic and to assess his works in the context of the Polish-Polish arguments about the place of the Catholic Church in our reality. Perhaps discovering in his texts from log ago the genealogy of today’s intellectual attitudes – this is also a theme undertaken by Dariusz Gawin, in his excellent book “The great turn” (see a review of this book by Peter Kulas in Kultura Liberalna) – will be the most effective means of saving Kołakowski. But this time let us leave this interpretation aside.


Jesus in the times of Wyszyński and Gomułka

“Jesus ridiculed” is particularly useful for illustrating the conservative or liberal-conservative Kehre in Kołakowski’s thought, for it can be seen as a reiteration in a new context of an essay written 20 years earlier. In 1965, at an open meeting of the International Press and Book Club, Kołakowski gave a lecture called “Jesus Christ – a prophet and a reformer” [3]. He considers there the importance of the figure of Christ (such as was shaped by the centuries-long reception through the New Testament, theological speculation and popular custom) for contemporary culture from a perspective of layman, not belonging to any ecclesiastic community or religious faith.

It should be noted that this lecture (subsequently published in Argumenty, the journal of the Polish Association of Atheists and Freethinkers) created quite a stir. Kołakowski had already established himself as a moral authority for a large section of young intellectuals [4]. The voice of the philosopher, very critical of religion in the writings from the 1950s, and then associated with revisionist Marxism, sounded very assertively here: “the person and teachings of Jesus Christ cannot be removed from our culture or invalidated, if this culture is to persist and continue to create itself.” This statement was recorded by various ideological circles. Cardinal Wyszyński approvingly quoted the words of Kołakowski in one of his sermons, and for Adam Michnik they meant both a wasted opportunity for the secular left to enter into a dialogue with the Church, and the beginning of his personal fascination with the message of the Gospel [5]. Both of them apparently ignored Kołakowski’s bitter criticism of the local forms of Christianity, that is ”the dark spectre of clerical, fanatical, dumb Catholicism, which has overwhelmed and emasculated our national culture for four centuries”. Although the essay contains many similar remarks, it was widely regarded as a new tone both in Kołakowski’s philosophical writings, and more widely among the representatives of the Polish left [6].
Prophet, reformer, dissident
How was the “person and teachings of Jesus Christ” described by Kołakowski then? It seems that it is a Christ with a triple face: a prophet, a reformer and – we will venture here a term which is, of course, absent in the text – a dissident. Jesus as a prophet brings the news about the imminent end of the world, about the apocalypse. Kołakowski refers here to historical research and theological reflection which developed, especially in the German-speaking world, since late 19th century and which literally interpreted the words of Christ about the approaching Day of Judgement, against which all concerns about the temporal world as an intrinsic value do not make sense any more, and now the only goal is saving your soul.

Describing the relevance of the spiritual legacy of the New Testament, Kołakowski seems to focus on the figure of Christ the reformer rather than Christ the prophet. For this legacy is lasting only in so far as it is removed from the original context of the apocalyptic state of emergency. Jesus the reformer develops and changes the Jewish tradition, teaching that love ultimately transcends every legal rule, embracing and dissolving the law in the spontaneous bond between people. Kołakowski recognises the sustained influence of the New Testament in the efforts to eliminate violence in human relations, in the constant reminding about needs irreducible to physical demands or in the universalism transcending the Old Testament idea of the chosen people. So Kołakowski partly shares the hopes from the 1960s, when – invoking the example of Gandhi – he emphatically defends the idea of life without violence, which is “neither utopian nor stupid”.
At the same time already in this essay – which definitely sets it apart from texts written by Marxist theorists such as Ernst Bloch, inspired by Judeo-Christianity – there is a clear conviction that, contrary to Marxism, the experience of the incurable weakness of man remains the core of Christianity. Although Kołakowski is aware that it may serve as a justification for passivity and resignation, he regards this lesson of Christianity as extremely important: “For you can try hard and you can endlessly struggle to change everything that can be changed in the conditions of human existence, but with full awareness that the absolute is unattainable, that the certain organic defect of human existence cannot be repaired, that there is in us an infirmity fundamentally connected with human finitude itself.” Jesus the reformer must make a concession to the irremovable nature of the original sin and the presence of the devil, who – as Kołakowski writes in other essays from this period [7] – remains a constant companion of human endeavours.

The lecture about Jesus ends with a formula supporting political interpretations of Kołakowski’s texts on religion which were widespread in the era of Gomulka. Christ the dissident is a model for an individual defending his or her autonomy and values: “For in His own personality He embodied the ability to speak your truth in a full voice, the ability to defend it to the end and without evasion, the ability to mount an ultimate resistance against the pressure of the stable reality which does not accept Him.” Jesus is not only a prophet of the apocalypse and a preacher of love, but also a brave dissenter in the Jewish religious community, a paragon of “radical authenticity”: of being faithful to yourself and of opposition to your reluctant environment.


Jesus in the postmodern era

In “Jesus ridiculed “ Kołakowski tackles the subject from years before, putting it in an entirely new context – he wants to reassess the meaning of Jesus for European culture from the perspective of a person who avoids declarations about his own religious belief or unbelief .

Both texts are separated by a period of dynamic evolution of Kołakowski’s outlook. Kołakowski settles his final accounts with Marxism and writes his two major works on religion: “The presence of myth” and “If God does not exist …”. A clear landmark on this road is the double shock of the 1968 experience – connected not only with the Polish March and the necessity to emigrate, but also, perhaps above all, with encountering the youth revolt and the French and American New Left [8]. Since then, besides acceptance of political liberalism in a broad sense of the term [9], what appears in his work are more evident conservative ideas. This is how Kołakowski enters the area of posthistoire, were the task of philosophy is primarily dispelling illusions and dreams: about political salvation (in “The main currents of Marxism”) and about great philosophical projects (in the book “Husserl and the search for certainty”) – while the attraction of religion is that it allows us to accept the (earthly) life as a failure, as un-fulfilment of your own expectations.

In “Jesus ridiculed” there is a surprising tone of pessimist cultural criticism, almost assuming the guise of prophetic warnings. The title itself is telling. According to Kołakowski the name of Jesus is either exploited for particular political purposes or ridiculed; also ridiculed are priests warning against consumerism, and being a Christian – “for the educated or semi-educated classes of our societies“ – is embarrassing (p. 24). Greed and the growing spiral of needs – Kołakowski warns – can lead us to a terrifying, yet unknown disaster; self-destruction of humanity.
Apocalypse, holiness and guilt
Which part of the Christian legacy seems particularly important for Kołakowski in the 1980s? Kołakowski against starts with recalling the apocalyptic message of Jesus, which this time becomes quintessential. He writes sternly: acquiring an apocalyptic way of looking at the world is probably a necessary condition for the human race to survive and avoid the apocalypse of self-destruction, the great end which humanity is preparing for itself ” (p. 20). So Kołakowski is not advocating passive waiting for the Judgement Day of ecological or military catastrophe, but preserving the memory about the finitude of the world and of our own finitude (about the private apocalypse, that is death). Kołakowski recalls the simple message of Jesus – all goods and earthly things are relative and of secondary importance. It is not about mortification and asceticism (because Christ feasted, distributed bread, fish and wine, blessed the wedding guests at Cana), but about wise self-restraint, about distancing yourself from the universal race to prosperity. He maintains that the only hope we can have for the world is “the hope for its survival” (p. 26). The apocalyptic awareness is to protect us from the coming of apocalypse organised by humanity itself.

The revolt of love and abolishing the law, which played a significant role in the lecture about the “prophet and reformer“, for example in the hope for life without violence, returns in “Jesus ridiculed” mostly in the reflections on saints. Although Kołakowski writes that a new universe emerged from the hands of Jesus and that the root of this transformation was love (p. 106), he also points out that it is enough to look around to see that the message of Jesus remains forgotten (p. 12). A hope for metanoia today is not associated with organising relations between people through any institutionally “enforced love”, but it is the domain of a few individuals, scattered religious virtuosos who can be called saints. “They are probably rare, but it is to them that we owe the best part of the spiritual legacy of our life and our culture” (p. 111). The radical message of Jesus the reformer presents a role model for a few rather than a hope for a historical work transforming our world. And in “Jesus ridiculed” there is also little talk about the provocative side and the individual distinctiveness of Jesus the dissident. It is remarkable that Kołakowski, when analysing the crisis of Christianity, focuses on the disappearance of objective categories of good and evil as well as of guilt connected with individual responsibility for committed sins. Recognising your own guilt, which is the foundation of the New Testament’s transformation of life, according to Kołakowski is replaced by visiting a psychoanalyst or transferring the responsibility for perpetrated evil on social structures.

Christianity as katechon
Kołakowski again uses a severe tone: if we lose faith in the non-arbitrary distinction between good and evil, independent from human beings, “it will be a sufficient reason to predict the collapse of the European civilisation ” (p. 52). Such a belief is supported by the concept of universal and inalienable human rights, but, according to Kołakowski, it is based on the belief in the existence of natural law independent of human decrees. And arguments allowing us to deny the existence of the law imposed by God are also sufficient to discard natural law supposedly dictated by nature or reason. This creates a risk of the absence of external supports for the law of the land, which could then be unjust or criminal. The shadow of totalitarianism (“a secular caricature of myths“) is a constant companion of Kołakowski’s reflections.

But Kołakowski claims that the way we absorb moral judgements is a more important problem then their philosophical validation. According to Kołakowski the fundamental issue is to spread moral values in such a way that we perceive good and evil in ourselves, that we experience the weight of our individual responsibility for the evil we commit. The most efficient instrument of that is mythical or religious awareness, which conceives evil not as breaking a conventional agreement, but as an act of almost cosmic importance, violating the order of the world, breaking a taboo. European culture persists, says Kołakowski, because the awareness of such an objective character of the moral world (for example, in the form of believing in human rights) is still indirectly supported by religious faith, which, although it exists in the West in a “weakened, semi-conscious, residual form”, is good for secular life (p. 51).
“Jesus enlightened” is therefore an act of philosophical faith. Kołakowski believes in the civilizing role of Christianity – so we are dealing with something more than just appreciation of the moral teachings of Christ, and adopting Him as a model of individual courage. Kołakowski’s faith means believing that Christianity – kenotic and existing as a minority, retaining the awareness of finitude, continuously producing saints and reminding us about our individual sinfulness – fulfils the role of the kind of katechon, the power that protects the world from falling and prevents the advent of the apocalypse.
Kołakowski – a conservative, a liberal, a sceptic, a humanist
Let us return to Janusz Palikot one more time. We should agree with him that reflections on the role of mythical and thus also religious awareness in teaching moral values constituted the least convincing claim of late Kołakowski. Is it not equally possible to develop ethical imagination and the sense of individual responsibility in nonreligious ways, through inspiring sympathy for the suffering of others? Counter-arguments to Kołakowski’s claim are obvious: the success of all kinds of secular charitable enterprises and the example of wonderful atheistic “saints”, to give just two examples. Moreover, insisting on the importance of taboo hinders criticism of repressive customs and obliterates the suffering generated by the Christian culture of sin and guilt, which dominated in Europe for many centuries. Kołakowski knows and accepts all these arguments, but he still insists that society is a non-transparent network of relations where a complete decline of Christianity could bring disastrous and not completely predictable consequences, and that a social custom which is grounded in religion has its inalienable civilising role. A demythologising criticism of religion which would preserve its moral core seems impossible to Kołakowski . This is the strongest point of his conservative belief. Today Kołakowski would probably flinch at discussions about the incest taboo and would not be very enthusiastic about the proposed liberal changes in the Catholic Church.
At the same time, however – and here Palikot is wrong – Kołakowski would remain a strong defender of the separation of the Church and state, an apologist not so much of Church institutions, but of existential seriousness in addressing the religious heritage. The voice of “Jesus ridiculed ” is a voice defending Christian tradition, but also harshly criticising all kinds of religious triumphalism and theocratic efforts at monopolising social life.

It is interesting why “Jesus ridiculed” was never finished and published. Perhaps Kołakowski decided that he did not like the tone of a moralising prophet. For late Kołakowski is not just a conservative and an apologist of Christianity defending it from its critics. He also remains a sceptic, a liberal and a sensitive humanist. A sceptic not sharing secular and religious hopes; a liberal protecting the freedom of spiritual quest; and a humanist standing up for the texts of our culture, including the New Testament, and for the access to the person of Jesus behind it – “a human God – always a person” (p. 32). A Jesus who is our spiritual source, both for the dissident, and for the sceptical, democratic socialist from the 1960s, as well as for the cultural conservative from the 1980s, alarmed by the escape from the sense of personal responsibility. Perhaps the belief in the cultural role of Christianity is a platitude. But, as Kołakowski notes, “we constantly and unblushingly repeat platitudes which are at least equally hackneyed, but much less important” (p. 24).

[1] L. Kołakowski, „Nasza sprawa wieczna z Jezusem”. Originally in: Kultura 1995, no. 1-2, p. 109-112. In: L. Kołakowski, Czy Pan Bóg jest szczęśliwy?, selection and arrangement Zbigniew Mentzel, Kraków 2009. See L. Kołakowski, „Jezus ośmieszony”, pp. 7-8.

[2] L. Kołakowski, „Iluzje demitologizacji” (a lecture delivered in Groningen in 1985). In: L. Kołakowski, Moje słuszne poglądy na wszystko, Kraków 1999, pp. 72-83. See L. Kołakowski, „Jezus ośmieszony”, pp. 73-101.

[3] L. Kołakowski, „Jezus Chrystus – prorok i reformator”, a public lecture delivered in Warsaw on October 22, 1965, within the cycle of “philosophical meetings” organised by the International Press and Book Club and the Argumenty Journal. Originally in: Argumenty 1965, no. 51-52. Quoted in: L. Kołakowski, Pochwała niekonsekwencji. Pisma rozproszone z lat 1955-1968, foreword, selection and editing by Zbigniew Mentzel, Warszawa 1989.

[4] The crowds coming for Kołakowski’s lectures in the 1960s led a reporter of Świat to conclude that “in Warsaw besides the demand for televisions, refrigerators, furniture and beef there is also a great demand for philosophy”. In: Z. Mentzel, foreword to L. Kołakowski, Pochwała niekonsekwencji, op. cit., p. IX.

[5] A. Michnik, Kościół, lewica, dialog, Warsaw 1998, p. 15, 116.

[6] It is also worth recalling than the 1960s, and especially the period after the Second Vatican Council, culminating in the events of 1968, was a period of an extensive dialogue between Marxism and Christianity in the West of Europe. Kołakowski’s voice contributed to these debates. Very symbolic was, for example, the intellectual friendship between the Marxist Ernst Bloch, perceiving the Judeo-Christian tradition as a still living source of hope and utopian spirit, finding its continuation in Marxism, and the Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann, who in his “Theology of hope” (1967) called on Christians to become co-workers of the kingdom of God on this word through protest and resistance against injustice (the later Latin American Liberation Theology grew from similar motivations).

[7] L. Kołakowski, Rozmowy z diabłem, Warsaw 1965.

[8] In an interview with Zbigniew Mentzel, Kołakowski recalled that he had observed with “amusement and horror” the “leftist barbarities” of students maintaining that there wasn’t a slightest difference between the conditions of life on a Californian campus and in a Nazi concentration camp. See Czas ciekawy, czas niespokojny: Z Leszkiem Kołakowskim rozmawia Zbigniew Mentzel, part II, Kraków 2008, pp. 25-26, 30.

[9] “On the political plane overcoming Marxism meant [for Kołakowski] a complete acceptance of liberalism. This term should be understood in a broad sense, more in the tradition of the 19th century, as a defence of fundamental individual freedoms: the freedom of speech, assembly, pursuit of truth. (…) But liberalism does not mean an ideological option here – accepting that there is no alternative to the market and capitalism has nothing in common with the radicalism of the neoliberals. (…) In fact, in Kołakowski’ perspective being a liberal means preaching the primacy of common sense, restraint and prudence over every form of ideological zeal”. D. Gawin, Wielki zwrot. Ewolucja lewicy i odrodzenie idei społeczeństwa obywatelskiego 1956-1976, Kraków 2013, p. 309.


The book:

Leszek Kołakowski, “Jezus ośmieszony. Esej polityczny i sceptyczny”, translated by D. Zańko, Społeczny Instytut Wydawniczy ZNAK, Kraków 2014.