Daniel Plant, King's College
In Defense of Kant's Religionby Chris L. Firestone
Chris L. Firestone and Nathan Jacobs integrate and interpret the work of leading Kant scholars to come to a new and deeper understanding of Kant's difficult book, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason. In this text, Kant's vocabulary and language are especially tortured and convoluted. Readers have often lost sight of the thinker's deep ties to Christianity and questioned the viability of the work as serious philosophy of religion. Firestone and Jacobs provide strong and cogent grounds for taking Kant's religion seriously and defend him against the charges of incoherence. In this reading, Christian essentials are incorporated into the confines of reason, and they argue that Kant establishes a rational religious faith in accord with religious conviction as it is elaborated in his mature philosophy. For readers at all levels, this book articulates a way to ground religion and theology in a fully fledged defense of Religion which is linked to the larger corpus of Kant's philosophical enterprise.
"Invaluable in courses on Kant's philosophy of religion. There is a sizeable literature on the topic, but none that gives such a comprehensive overview of the scholarship in the course of developing its own interpretation." —Merold Westphal, Fordham University
"This book convincingly reinterprets Kant, and offers many genuinely fresh and thought provoking possibilities to explore." —Daniel Plant, King's College, Modern Theology, 26.2 April, 2010
"[This] is one of the best, if not the best, book that has yet been written in English on Kant's philosophy of religion. It is learned, clearly written, and immensely creative.... I recommend it unreservedly to anyone interested in Kant's philosophy of religion." —INTNL JRNL PHILOSOPHY RELIGION, 2009, Volume 66
"This book convincingly reinterprets Kant, and offers many genuinely fresh and thought provoking possibilities to explore." Daniel Plant, King's College, Modern Theology, 26.2 April, 2010
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In Defense of Kant's Religion
By Chris L. Firestone, Nathan Jacobs
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2008 Chris L. Firestone and Nathan Jacobs
All rights reserved.
The Metaphysical Motives behind Religion
Our purpose in part 1 is to examine recent scholarship on Immanuel Kant with a view to understanding the basic issues at stake when interpreting Religion and to present the major components of the case against its coherence. In pursuit of these objectives, we will cross-examine a number of the main Kant experts of the last forty years, asking of their work some basic questions concerning the content and context of Kant's philosophy of religion: What, if any, metaphysical motives lay behind the exposition of Kant's philosophy? Does Religion emerge out of a philosophical program that is fundamentally for or against the rational incorporation of religious faith? What characteristics of Kant's critical philosophy support the specific arguments of Religion, and which ones militate against them? And how does Kant's critical philosophy both enhance and limit the way Religion can be interpreted? The answers to these questions are leading indicators for determining how Religion should be interpreted, and thus for discerning the consistency or inconsistency of its arguments. They constitute what we call the metaphysical motives behind and philosophical character of the text. They also provide the conceptual backdrop for the indictment of Religion on the charges of patent and pervasive incoherence. These three aspects of the case (the metaphysical motives, the philosophical character, and the indictment) make up the three major divisions of part 1.
By covering this preliminary ground in some detail, we provide a backdrop, not only for the case against Religion, but also for its defense, which we take up in earnest in part 2. If the testimony of part 1 indicates that the metaphysical motivations behind Religion are incompatible with or contradictory to the critical philosophy, such evidence will support the charge that the text is fundamentally flawed. If, on the other hand, the testimony regarding the philosophical character of Kant's work provides resources for an interpretation of Religion that shows it to advance positively on the critical philosophy, we will have good reason to think the arguments of Religion are coherent. The indictment against Religion thus rests on showing that when its metaphysical motives and philosophical character are properly understood, the text becomes unstable and falls under the weight of internal and irreconcilable conundrums, while an adequate defense of Religion depends on showing that Kant's metaphysical motivations and the philosophical character of Religion support an interpretation of the text that overcomes the so-called conundrums.
We begin in this chapter by cross-examining two opposing positions on the historical situation and psychological state of Kant and the impact these considerations have on his philosophy of religion. Vincent McCarthy is decidedly pessimistic in his evaluation of the metaphysical motives behind Religion. He understands Religion to be a text in tension, conceptually trapped between Lutheran Pietism and Enlightenment rationalism. In trying to graft what is essential to the former onto the latter, Kant inevitably creates irresolvable difficulties for his philosophy as a whole and his philosophy of religion in particular. Stephen Palmquist's position on Religion directly opposes McCarthy's testimony. Palmquist understands the text to be consistent with Kant's intention of developing a critically viable form of religion in the midst of a revolutionary new way of understanding philosophy. Palmquist traces this "critical religion" from Kant's pre-critical essay "Dreams of a Spirit-Seer Elucidated by Dreams of Metaphysics" to the Opus Postumum, describing this development in Kant's thinking as "Critical Mysticism." For Palmquist, Religion is best thought of as a transcendental analysis of hope that is consonant with the Copernican nature of Kant's critical philosophy and caps off Kant's critical study on the possibility of religious experience.
With these two interpretations providing a backdrop for understanding the metaphysical motives behind Religion, Keith Ward and Allen Wood are called to the stand to provide mediating positions. Ward finds something true in both sides of this debate. With Palmquist, Ward argues that Kant wants to arrive at some critically viable form of rational religious faith. However, with McCarthy, Ward thinks that Kant's theoretical strictures put Kant into a conceptual straitjacket without a critically satisfying means of escape. Despite Kant's desire to make room for faith and the existence of certain existential tendencies in Kant's thinking on religion and theology, Ward does not see how Kant can get beyond moral formalism and theological non-realism when viewing religion from the point of view of the theoretical and practical philosophy. Kant's denial of theoretical knowledge of God and later practical postulation of God set up, for Ward, a Copernican version of "Hume's fork." One can either rely on empirical judgments for the establishment of rational foundations for theology or look to the postulation of God for purely moral purposes. In the end, however, neither choice is satisfying as a rational foundation for religion and theology.
Allen Wood's testimony is very different from Ward's. Wood avers that sufficient critical warrant exists in the Critique of Pure Reason for thinking that Kant intends to develop rational religious faith in a way that moves beyond theological non-realism. God, for Kant, cannot be known like objects of experience. Nevertheless, Wood shows that Kant's conception of God in the first Critique contains the notion of the "ens realissimum" and argues that this basic conception of God "comes about in the course of our attempt to conceive the conditions for the 'thorough determination' of things." Wood argues additionally that certain things, such as "knowledge, volition, and moral goodness," can be predicated of God. This conception of God in the first Critique serves as the cornerstone for the development of rational religious faith as a morally grounded and existentially significant religious epistemology. Unlike Palmquist, however, Wood thinks that Kant's rationalistic faith in God cannot amount to mysticism. Instead, Wood's early work presents Kant as a theist, forwarding a substantial argument that traces Kant's reasoning from the first antinomy of the Critique of Practical Reason on through to Religion. It supports the view that Kant's philosophy grounds not an abstract and sterile theism but a moral faith in a benevolent, gracious, and "living God." Wood argues, in short, that Kant's understanding of moral faith develops according to a clear logic into rational religious faith.
Witness for the Prosecution: Vincent McCarthy
Vincent McCarthy's Quest for a Philosophical Jesus provides a good example of the traditional approach to interpreting Kant's Religion. The way McCarthy approaches Religion is less expository and more analysis of Kant's upbringing, his intellectual influences, the evolution of Religion as a text, and the relationship between Religion and the critical philosophy proper. The picture McCarthy paints presents Religion as an attempt to create a synthesis between Kant's early Lutheran Pietism and Enlightenment rationalism. This synthesis is not understood by McCarthy as an affirmative theological maneuver or a Christian apologetic, however. McCarthy understands Kant to have "the far more ambitious goal of scrutinizing all religion from the standpoint of moral reason and penetrating to its central and deepest truths." Even so, McCarthy believes that, despite expressing an intent to evaluate critically all forms of religion, Kant was unable to break free of his Christian heritage and, with it, the European bias against other religions. What Kant therefore provides in the end is a rationalist version of a theology of symbol that unabashedly and uncritically promotes Christian concepts and imagery, despite its underlying intention to place all religion under the authority of reason.
At bottom, McCarthy finds an irresolvable conflict in Kant's desired synthesis between rationalism and the anthropology of Pietism. The Enlightenment represented an almost naïve optimism regarding humanity's ability to attain moral ideals, while Pietism retained a sober (and almost somber) understanding of human depravity and the limits of human ability to affect moral renewal. As is well known, Kant sides conceptually with the latter in Book One of Religion, forwarding his now famous (or perhaps infamous) doctrine of "radical evil." Yet, McCarthy understands Kant, in embracing human depravity, to be inadvertently bringing tension into his relationship with both rationalism and Pietism: the theological doctrine of depravity was shunned by the rationalists, who recognized radical evil as a crippling blow to humanity's hope of moral progress, while at the same time, Kant's highly rational approach to themes such as radical evil roused suspicion in religious Pietists, who harbored mistrust in the "enlightened" faith of reason. McCarthy's interpretation of Religion thus views the text as a bold attempt to bring diametrically opposed starting points together, the result of which is both a rationalistic antinomy regarding human moral progress and a radical reconstruction of the Christian religion along Copernican lines.
Undergirding McCarthy's interpretation is a supposition regarding Kant's "properly" critical writings: only those works bearing the word "Critique" constitute properly critical philosophy, according to McCarthy. McCarthy's position is that, in Religion, Kant moves beyond what is allowed under first and second Critique strictures, violating Kant's own limitations on God-talk without a sufficient critical rationale. For this reason, McCarthy is convinced that Religion occupies a position outside the confines of the critical philosophy. Since, for him, Kant's discussion of God, grace, revelation, and redemption is a plainly uncritical endeavor, driven by non-philosophical motivations, McCarthy finds no convincing grounds for theology in Kant's thinking. Instead, McCarthy views Kant's religious talk as just that — religious talk, which is empty speculation according to Kant's philosophical framework. This ungrounded discourse is precisely what McCarthy thinks is so problematic about Religion.
Since the critical philosophy unravels all God-talk, Religion cannot be an application of the critical philosophy to religion. Kant's religious talk, argues McCarthy, is neither historical theology nor transcendental philosophy; it is, instead, the byproduct of a deeply religious man's desire to reunite the discipline of philosophy with the essential elements of a beleaguered Christianity. Kant's chosen means for achieving this reunification is the moral philosophy. McCarthy sees a gradual development in Kant's thinking on religion and theology, beginning with the postulation of God in the second Critique. God the postulate emerges because "reason cannot conceive the attainment of the highest good ... unless there is a highest intelligence." This postulate has nothing to do with religion or theology, however. McCarthy's position is that, for Kant, "a God-idea gives us only knowledge of our own mind ... and no knowledge whatsoever of the reality of God." The God concept as a formal moral postulate never escapes pure subjectivity. The actual existence of God is not necessary for Kant; all that matters is "what God is for us as moral beings."
Despite the theological non-realism his reading entails, McCarthy recognizes that Kant's understanding of God develops beyond a mere postulate in the Critique of the Power of Judgment, becoming a transcendental necessity for moral purposiveness. McCarthy points to Kant's May 4, 1793, letter to Staudlin, in which Kant indicates that Religion addresses the question, What may I hope? This question is the third of the four questions that Kant's philosophical program intended to answer. According to McCarthy, hope enters Kant's philosophical purview in force, not in the third Critique, where nature and freedom are considered simultaneously, but in Religion, where radical evil makes its appearance. In showing us incapable of fulfilling our moral duty, Religion finds the highest expression of hope in the possibility that God would choose to overcome evil: "One must hope and indeed one can hope, and such hope is practical. For it honeys the rim of the cup of duty and cuts short the danger of despairing of ever being well-pleasing to God, precisely the despair that could result from the consciousness of radical evil."
Despite Kant's apparent logic in moving from radical evil to the question of hope, the doctrine of radical evil seems, to McCarthy, unabashedly and unjustifiably borrowed from historical Christianity. McCarthy writes, "[Tjhere is an unexpressed unity [in Religion] constituted by the one subject matter that is constantly referred to but never systematically addressed: the Christian religion. Christianity stands in the background of the entire work, frequently enters the discussion indirectly and occasionally more directly. But in neither fashion is its entry adequately accounted for." Even though radical evil may serve as the catalyst for Kant's introduction of religion into the realm of hope, McCarthy points out that this way of addressing the third question — What may I hope? — radically revamps Kant's earlier answer to the second question, What ought I to do? If humans are incapable of doing what they ought to do, Kant's ought-implies-can principle no longer stands. Insofar as Religion, in this way, cripples Kant's moral philosophy and does so via a starting point that cannot be critically deduced, McCarthy sees Religion as decidedly uncritical and far removed from the fourth Critique many expected. Kant's Religion seeks to carve out room for religion in general and Christianity in specific, but this project is hardly an account of religion within the boundaries of mere reason. If Kant ever gave such an account, McCarthy thinks it the second Critique.
From the foregoing we can identify the four main claims that frame McCarthy's interpretation: (1) the critical philosophy does not allow room for the kind of God-talk or theology we see in Religion; (2) given the decidedly uncritical nature of the text, Religion is not a fourth Critique; (3) the starting point of Religion (viz., radical evil) is in no way deducible from the critical philosophy, and must therefore be a theological import from Kant's early Pietism; and (4) the importation of the Christian doctrine of original sin undoes the ought-implies-can principle and requires a shift in focus from the individual autonomy of the critical philosophy to a new foundation for moral hope.
With these guiding principles in hand, the specifics of McCarthy's interpretation of Religion unfold. Book One begins with radical evil, which McCarthy views as a philosophical restatement of the Christian doctrine of original sin. McCarthy understands Kant as making a straightforward attempt to parallel the story of Adam in Genesis with a rational account of human depravity. Human beings begin in a natural state of goodness (or pre-disposition) and this natural state is the one to which human beings are destined to return. Evil, however, has entered all of humanity. McCarthy sees this entrance as different from the Christian notion of inherited sin and equally distinct from the "social fall" of Rousseau. Kant instead holds that every individual is responsible for his or her own moral fall. Radical evil is universal only because every individual tends to fall freely into evil: "Kant's notion of radical evil is everyman's original sin, the product of his own misused freedom that has placed self-love above the moral law." Thus, McCarthy's Kant accepts the "truths" of original sin (humanity begins good, falls into evil, and this fall is universal), but rejects the doctrine's historical content and hereditary character — while humanity universally falls into evil, this is not due to the transgression of a single ancestor but due to each individual's free willing of evil.
Excerpted from In Defense of Kant's Religion by Chris L. Firestone, Nathan Jacobs. Copyright © 2008 Chris L. Firestone and Nathan Jacobs. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Chris L. Firestone is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Trinity College in Deerfield, Ill. He is editor (with Stephen R. Palmquist) of Kant and the New Philosophy of Religion (IUP, 2006).
Nathan Jacobs is Assistant Professor of Theology in the School of Biblical and Religious Studies at Trinity College in Deerfield, Ill. He has authored many articles on Kant and other topics, and is a contributor to Kant and the New Philosophy of Religion.
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