Wednesday, May 06, 2009


I've been doing a lot of reading in Kant over the last few weeks, partly refreshing my undergrad knowledge and partly expanding my Kantian repertoire. The more I read, the more I become convinced that Kant is Public Enemy Number One as far as Christian theology is concerned. I plan to write a few posts over the next couple of weeks to explain why. Here is post number one.

Kant represents the high point of the intellectual and cultural movement which we refer to as the Enlightenment. He was a self-conscious advocate of this very self-concious movement, and provided the clearest definition of the heart of Enlightenment thought in an essay titled "What is Enlightenment?" The motto of Enlightenment, says Kant, is "Sapere Aude!" - dare to understand! The movement is all about being bold enough to use and rely on your own understanding without external guidance.

We could talk about this in terms of starting point and direction. For Kant, the starting point is simple: oneself. Adopting this starting point is inevitable for Kant - as far as he is concerned, there is simply no other to choose - but it is also essential to his entire project. If we begin anywhere other than with ourselves, we are already denying ourselves enlightenment. Only if I am the starting point can I be truly free; only in a world in which my own reason is an appropriate beginning to thought about life, the universe and everything can I trust my reason to guide me.

As far as direction goes, Kant favours practical reason. In the snappily-titled essay "What does it mean to orient oneself in thinking?", Kant outlines the necessity of restraining speculation and training our reason to be guided by practical usage. Nevertheless, he is clear that reason is king - "only do not dispute that prerogative of reason which makes it the highest good on earth". Reason, oriented towards practical living rather than metaphysical speculation, is the direction of Kant's thought. The further reason departs from experience, the more likely it is to end in dead-end speculations about things that cannot be known. Reason that restrains itself will be able to venture forth from the starting point of autonomy in the direction of good living.

Now try to forget Kant for a moment. What passage of Scripture might pop into your mind if we mentioned the word "enlightenment"? 2 Corinthians 4:1-6 occurs to me. Have a read of it. There is a radical difference of vision here, relative to Kant. For the Apostle, enlightenment comes from above, and he is essentially a passive recipient. God shines in a person's heart - that is the source of enlightenment. The starting point is God, and the direction is toward Jesus and his glory. (Read the end of 2 Corinthians 3 for a description of this journey!)

The point is this: if the most important thing a human being could possibly know - namely, how to relate to God - cannot be found within the framework that starts from the autonomous human being and proceeds in the direction of practical reason, what use is that framework?

To be worked out in more practice tomorrow...


  1. not sure thats entirely fair - insofar as he starts with himself, it's not himself as an absolute but as a creature with "the moral law within & the starry hosts above...", etc. So in his Critique of Practical Reason he finds himself grounding his "self" in God & immortality. Quite a few see Van Til's transcendental arguments as rejigs of Kant's, after all.

    And to be sympathetic, it was a turbulent time, the dawn of the 'age of reason', as ancient assumptions about how the world 'must be' were being overturned to discover the way the world actually was. Kant's critical philosophy is trying to make sense of that, so I'd say his direction was first & foremost away from aristotle, not christianity. Insofar as christian theology sees itself as aristotelian essentialism or kantian enlightenment, we're gonna run into problems from our talking God but echoed in kant & aristotle, wouldn't you say?

    Look forward to seeing where you end up with this. Chris

  2. I don't think Kant does actually ground his "self", to be honest. His "self" winds up being noumenal, which is a bit of a problem!

    But more seriously, I think Kant arrives at the moral law and the starry hosts, and he postulates God/immortality as a result, but Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason makes it clear that these things feature only as postulates, just as noumenal as the elusive "self".

    BTW, I'm not suggesting Kant meant to move away from Christianity, although he certainly meant to move away from orthodoxy. I toyed with giving this series the overarching title "How Kant (accidentally) killed God"...

  3. Hi,
    I would like to hear more about what you mean by "starting with God" when thinking about the nature of things etc. I don't think I understand that phrase very well - can we do anything else other than start with our reason, e.g.?
    When I start thinking and asking questions, it seems natural to start with me, my experiences (of God, as he has revealed himself especially) and rational thinking. But how can I start with God? When considering metaphysical questions, it is still a matter of considering things in the world around me, my nature and so on, but I view the questions from a different point of view from before I was converted - but that isn't starting with God, or is it?
    May I just don't understand that phrase as you are using it and need to wait for the next installment...

  4. Ok. Seems we've read Kant slightly differently then. I didn't think God & immortality were postulates from starry hosts & moral law, but presuppositions for moral law (ie for rational duty always to overcome hypothetical imperatives in a rational will). So I think he's saying God & personal immortality are simply bound up in what moral means.

    Granted he ends up invoking God not as his self-revealing creator judge, but a transcendent something to legitimise his rational moral system. Then again, he still hits an iceburg for his supposedly rational will in the problem of radical evil, which I came across in 'Religion within the limits of Reason alone'. I blogged his intriguing footnote on Genesis hereIf you're interested, I tried to sketch out my response here.

  5. Anonymous7:43 pm

    Hi Daniel,

    Have you read T. F. Torrance's Ground and Grammar of Theology: Consonance Between Theology and Science? It is very good, and pertinent to dealing with the Kantian dualistic metaphysic.

    Anyway, nice blog.

  6. Thanks for comments, all. Hope you're still reading, as I'd appreciate critical engagement with future Kant-related posts!

    Chris, it would be interesting at some point to chat through your view of Kant, because it does seem like we're reading him very differently!

    John, keep reading, hopefully some of this will become clear. (It might not, because I might be barking up the wrong tree completely).

    And I've not read any Torrance yet, but he's on the list...