Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Religion within the bounds of mere reason

Sorry, apparently when I say "tomorrow" I may well mean "sometime next week if you're lucky..."

Kant's starting point has a very serious effect on his approach to religion. Because he starts with the autonomous human being, and makes the autonomous human being the measure of many if not all things, he is inclined to emphasise the things that are (in principle at least) open to everyone, and to minimise anything particular. In religion, that means Kant is keen on things that can be worked out about God by reason, without revelation. He is not keen on anything that requires a particular story to be told, or things that rely on particular facts. He wants us to run after "a plain rational faith which can be convincingly communicated to everyone" rather than "a historical faith, merely based on facts". (This is also tied up with Kant's idea of duty in the field of ethics - possibly more of this later). So natural theology is in (except that Kant doesn't think you can do much of it - again, more possibly to follow on this) and revealed theology is out, or at least is strictly speaking superfluous.

And Kant's direction has a similar effect. He is interested in practical reason, with the emphasis on practical. Kant has no time for any doctrine which does not improve us (morally). Into this bracket fall such things as the idea of atonement, the historical incarnation and the like. If the incarnation is to be of use, it can only be as presenting a perfect example of humanity for us to follow, in which case it must not be strictly a historical incarnation, but a simple idea of reason. Everything is about what it means for me in practice. The further we get from this concern, the more we veer into speculation and useless debates. Religion, for Kant, is basically a department of ethics.

I think both these concerns still lurk in our church culture today. The latter is most obvious - how many times have I been in a Bible study discussing the most astonishing truths about Christ and been asked "yes, but what does it mean for me? What do I have to do?" And this is antiChristian through and through. The former concern shows itself more subtly, most obviously in the desire to make natural theology work, primarily as an apologetic (i.e. an answer to "what about those who haven't heard..?") I think this is also antiChristian.

At some point in the future, I'll suggest some steps to shake these things out of our minds...

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