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Can Theology Go Through Kant?



After being reintroduced to Immanuel Kant’s thought after our last session on MacCulloch’s book, his philosophy intrigues me and I see the inherent and serious challenges Kant poses in reference to theistic epistemology.


A good introduction to Kant’s philosophy of religion can be read here on the Stanford Encycopedia of Philosophy website. (A supplemental entry on Kant’s influence on religion can be found here.)


After writing my last church history essay on Kant, that prompted me to delve deeper into Kant’s philosophy and his thoughts about God, religious epistemology and morality.  One book I got in specific reference to Kant’s subsequent impact on theology is Kant and Theology at the Boundaries of Reason by Chris L. Firestone.


Here are some excerpts of his first chapter, “Can Theology Go Through Kant?”, that I thought were interesting and got me thinking about how believers think about and approach God.


According to the traditional interpretation and reception of Immanuel Kant’s work, the impact of his philosophy on the discipline of theology has been primarily negative.  The “Critique of Pure Reason” cuts off all access to knowledge of God, and, in so doing, demolishes not only the foundations for dogmatic metaphysics, but also the foundations for any kind of positive theology whatsoever.


[For Kant,] God is nothing more than an idea, a moral postulate. 


In some cases, Kant’s philosophy has been used to support a kind of anti-theology… If one understands Kant’s phenomenal-noumenal distinction to have strict epistemic and ontological implications, then human beings are decisively and ultimately cut off from both the knowledge of God and any possible experience of God.  Henry Allison calls this rending of Kant’s philosophy the ‘two world’ interpretation.  There exists an impassable boundary between the experience of human beings and the ‘reality’ of noumenal beings, a boundary so deep and wide that not even the highest possible being – God – could traverse it.  If God did traverse it and in some way attempt to become manifest to us, we could never know or even reasonable believe that it was God.  When evidence for evil and imperfection in the world are then introduced and no counterbalance in the form of arguments for God’s existence and interaction with the world is allowed, we are left with atheism as the only rational faith for the transcendental thinker.  In the absence of good epistemic or ontological reasons for believing God exists and cares about the world, the only rational option regarding religious faith is disbelief in the existence of God.


For [some thinkers], theology under the aegis of Kant amounts to nothing more than human speculation about what we take to be traces of the divine in human life.  Culture and history reveal faith longings for the religious ultimate, and the world’s imperfections militate against these longings.  There are no more substantial reasons on which to gauge our beliefs and nothing beyond these considerations on which to ground the enterprise of theology.  Rational religious faith is thus properly termed theological agnosticism.


Taken at face value, Kant’s doctrine of divine unknowability appears to favor theological agnosticism over atheism.


We don’t know if God exists beyond the boundaries of human reason that define human experience.  Therefore, rather than being theologically negative, we should remain philosophically neutral on the matter of belief in God…


How can we take Kant seriously regarding the radical unknowability of all things noumenal and still hold out hope for some kind of room for faith in God?  If God exists, then God must, in some sense, be knowable.  The idea of God as a noumenal being who, in principle, both can and cannot be known appears unintelligible.  In this way, Kantian agnosticism shades off into atheism.


– pp. 1 – 3


Is God nothing more than an idea within our minds that we produced with our own active and powerful ability for cognitive imagination?


There’s an unmistakable ontological gap between God (an infinite being) and human beings, so how can we possibly know Him?


Is it even rationally possible to talk about God when, according to Kant, we can never fully and empirically establish his existence in the first place?


Is theological agnosticism the only real rational alternative?


Some questions to think about.








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