NOTES on Konstantin Kolenda (1923-1991): Reality and God


Christians and Jews believe in a personal God; however, some religions and some people do not believe in a personal God. (A personal God is a God we can communicate with — a God who is aware of what we do and is concerned about what we do.) Buddhism and Confucianism are two religions that do not believe in a personal God.

In addition, Konstantin Kolenda is a philosopher who argues against belief in a personal God. He does believe in a humanistic religion; however, he redefines words such as “God” and “religiousness.”

(This brings up an objection we can make against Kolenda: Words such as “God” and “religiousness” already have a widely accepted meaning, so why should we redefine them and give them an entirely different meaning? Of course, Kolenda would argue in return that he is giving these words their true meaning.)

Kolenda believes that the religious impulse arises out of an awareness of death. Death is not optional, and human beings know this. Therefore, they develop a sense of religion. In addition, they try to achieve compensation for their approaching death. (The word “compensation” means to strive to accomplish significant in this life, to try to achieve a kind of perfection.)

In Kolenda’s words: “… I may compensate in thought, in imagination, for what I find myself to be. I may complete the actual with the ideal. I can try to fill out my destiny by eliminating from it — in thought and desire — all imperfections, whether they are imperfections in knowledge or in moral status or in aesthetic vision.”

We are definitely mortal, but that may not be a bad thing. Because we know that we have been given approximately three score and ten years (70 years) on average in which to live, we can decide to use that time wisely — to live life to its fullest, to accomplish something significant, perhaps to help other people. Being aware of the shortness of life may make us aware of how valuable life is, and so we may decide to use it wisely.

In a metaphor, Kolenda refers to the compensation a blind person can receive: better sense of hearing, better sense of touch, better sense of smell, better sense of taste. The loss of the sense of sight leads to the better use of the other senses. In the same way, being aware of our mortality can make us resolve to make better use of the years of life we do have.

(This doesn’t always work: In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer thought he was going to die and made good use of 24 hours. After discovering that he would live, he resolved to live life to its fullest, but then he went back to munching on pork rinds and watching Bowling for Dollarson TV.)

Previously, I mentioned that Kolenda redefines words such as God. The traditional definition is that God is an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent Being. As defined by Kolenda, however, “The idea of God is man’s recognition of his own longing to take his higher ideals seriously.”

In addition, Kolenda redefines religiousness. According to Kolenda,

A religious feeling may occur in a moment of participation, when we are struck or astonished by the beauty of nature or by the spectacular achievements of other persons. It also may well up from the inner resources in our own attentive and creative moments. In either case, we find ourselves in a heightened state of awareness and appreciation, and we declare the world — and our destiny in it — good.

Because Kolenda is a Humanist, he believes that Humankind is important. He also believes that Humankind can be creative and show great intelligence. In fact, part of the purpose of education is to help us understand and appreciate the great achievements of Humankind. This is what religiousness should be all about.

However, according to Kolenda, the natural religiousness of man is open to these two dangers:

1) Inflating the “object of religious attitude” into a “mysterious, supernatural, otherworldly, transcendent realm.” Of course, this is what much organized religion does. Kolenda warns against priests, religious orders, and church power.

2) Reducing the “object of religious attitude” to “a modest effort of a lonely individual to embellish his life by pursuing moral or aesthetic ideals, by lending his energies to the task of improving mankind, or by discerning in nature some beauty and design.” In my opinion, Kolenda’s brand of religion may be open to this objection. However, according to Kolenda, religiousness is much more than this.

Kolenda also makes a distinction between two different kinds of questions about religion. Secondary questions about religion include these questions:

  • “Is the believer right?”
  • “Does [the believer] have evidence for what he [or she] claims?”

Of course, these are philosophical questions. On the other hand, primary questions about religion include these questions:

  • “Can we understand the believer?”
  • “Can we see that the way of life [the believer] embraces as a result of his [or her]response to the religious message makes his life richer, more integral, more rewarding in terms of his [or her] ability to reach higher levels of sympathy, participation, and creative effort?”

These are moral questions. Indeed, Kolenda describes the test of the religious impulse as being moral: Does religion make the life of the believer better?

In appreciating the things around us, radiance — a concept from Saint Thomas Aquinas — is important. According to Kolenda, “Radiance is the capacity of something — object, event, act, or process — to attract attention to itself. Radiance accompanies participation.”

Examples of radiance include being moved by these things:

  • music.
  • a spoken word.
  • a display of intellectual power.
  • an admirable deed.
  • a skillful performance.
  • an ingenious invention.
  • a winning smile.
  • a generous impulse.

These are things that any well-rounded person ought to be able to appreciate. They are also the things that education is intended to help us appreciate.

Finally, here are two quotations from Kolenda that illustrate the importance he places on living a good life:

1) “A rich, well-rounded life is still our ideal, and a life wasted on trivialities fills us with regret.”

In other words, is it really necessary to watch that much television?

2) “I rob myself when I fail to respond to the beauty around me, whether it is in nature or in the man-made world. I rob others when I fail to use talents that could provide satisfying experiences for them. In either way, my destiny is impoverished — and so is the universe. A religious attitude will not be indifferent to this loss.”

In other words, you should appreciate the beauty of the world — and you should contribute to it.

Note: The quotations by Konstantin Kolenda that appear in this essay are from his Religion Without God (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books, 1976).


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


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