Protestant Theology in the 19th Century demonstrates Barth’s deep familiarity with the philosophical climate of the 19th century. The philosopher whose shadow loomed largest over 19th century protestant theology was doubtless that of Immanuel Kant. Kant was also, by no coincidence, the most formative intellectual influence on the young Barth.
As a student in Berne, Barth reminisces, “I was earnestly told, and I learnt, all that can be said against ‘the old orthodoxy’ . . . and that all God’s ways begin with Kant and, if possible, must also end there.” (Eberhard Busch, “Karl Barth: His Life from Letters and Autobiographical Texts”, 34). Barth began reading Kant through the Critique of Practical Reason, which made a strong influence upon him.
To someone familiar only with Barth’s later work and not the details of his violent conversion from protestant liberalism this would seem most surprising. For in his first Critique, Kant repudiates all “dogmatic” claims about God, the soul and immortality as involving an illegitimate transgression of boundaries. Neither the theist nor the atheist has any genuine knowledge of the things they debate just because they have no empirical experience of God, the soul, etc. Without experience all one has is an empty concept to which no reality need correspond.
In the Critique of Practical Reason, which was apparently the text that resonated so strongly with the young Barth, Kant notes that the existence of God, the soul, and personal immorality are practical necessities to guarantee that the virtuous are rewarded for their virtue and the vicious punished. Kant is not contradicting the perspective of the first Critique, however. The God invoked here is not the old mythological God of positive theology; rather this God is a postulation of reason. Kant does not believe that it is possible to “prove” the existence of God the way one might prove the existence of Bigfoot. Rather, what is necessary is the individual’s personal certainty that God exists in order to provide a stimulus for moral behavior. Kant’s overall position on God then is a sort of skeptical agnosticism. One cannot have definitely knowledge of any affirmative proposition about God, but one can and indeed ought to have a “rational faith” in the postulated moral God as the completion of the moral system of Kantian ethics. From such religious view, one can chart a short course towards the decay of protestant theology into social ethics.
Having worked through the first two Critiques, Barth found himself drawn by the theology of Schleiermacher through Kant (Busch 45). Upon transferring to Marburg, Barth was exposed to the school of Marburg neo-Kantianism through Paul Natorp and Hermann Cohen, and continued his theological studies with Wilhelm Hermann. According to Natorp, this ‘neo-Kantianism’ does not signify a return to any particular Kantian dogma, but rather an attempt to return to a kind of realism against Hegel and the German idealists. (Bruce McCormack labels the epistemological position Barth derived from the Neo-Kantian reaction to Hegel “critically-realistic” and “dialectical” - cf. McCormack’s Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology)
Barth’s own statements in Protestant Theology in the 19th Century indicate his own preference for Kant over against the later German philosophical tradition because Kant was the first to recognize the limits of the enlightenment and rationalism, against Voltaire and Leibniz, limits which Schleiermacher and Hegel did not respect (267).
For Barth, Kant’s criticism of the limits of human knowledge provides a definitive turn away from the old protestant orthodoxy as well as the naïve version of enlightenment.
“With Kant and from Kant onwards the human use of reason has left the broad way and finds itself with the ‘strait gate’. This was also, and particularly, true of theology. From now on theology would no longer be able to formulate its tenets, no matter on what foundation it might base them, without having acquired a clear conception of the method of reason, which it also uses in the construction of its tenets. Any theology which had not at least faced this question and presented its credentials was backward, from now on, superseded in its relation to the age, no matter how valuable or worthless it might otherwise be” (Protestant Theology, 273).Barth takes the Kantian critique to be a decisive refutation. However, he rejects the idea that the Kantian critical project could somehow impugn the truth of the Christian faith. Rather, Barth understands the critical project to draw the boundaries of mere reason which theology can happily step over. Whether Kant would agree with this theological high-step, of course, is a different question.
Barth traces three possible responses to the critical project, which outlines successive changes in his own approach throughout his career:
- Accommodation Interpretation. On the accommodation interpretation, the premises of Kant’s thought (in the neo-Kantian realist interpretation, presumably) are substantially correct and the job of theology is to accommodate itself to the new philosophical regime. Barth names Ritschl and Hermann, the primary teachers of his student days as a liberal at Marburg as proponents of this approach.
- Romantic Interpretation. On this interpretation, Kant might have provided an accurate philosophical system, but he has missed something essential: the religious feeling. Schleiermacher, of course, is the figure Barth names here and the figure which most inspired Barth’s own study after his encounter with the Critique of Practical Reason.
- Insufficiency Interpretation. On this interpretation, there is something insufficient, at least for the theologian, about Kant’s configuration of the relationship between theology and philosophy. For Kant, in the final analysis, religion is just the coping-stone to hold together the edifice of moral philosophy.
“If the reality of religion is confined to that which is subjected to the self-critique of reason, then religion is that which is fitting to the ideally practical nature of pure reason, and that only” (305).This is a conclusion which the theologian cannot abide. At this point the theologian has nothing to do but to renounce Kant as a guide for her own thinking. This third possible reaction to Kant marks the mature Barth’s own response and,
“in a word, [it] consist in theology resigning itself to stand on its own feet in relation to philosophy in theology recognizing the point of departure for its method in revelation just as decidedly as philosophy sees its point of departure in reason” (307)Barth accepts that this pushes his back up against the wall of fideism. Barth cites with approval a statement of Kant’s: “The biblical theologian proves that God exists by means of the fact that he has spoken in the Bible” (312). Kant means to ridicule the biblical theologian by the vicious circularity involved in the statement, but Barth accepts it as a programmatic statement of his own position.
How then shall we evaluate Barth’s position in relation to Kant’s? It seems that he faces an unattractive dilemma. Either he must reject Kant on philosophical grounds, which is a modified version of position 1 or 2 above or he must accept this fideistic circularity. Barth rejects the first task for, “it is not for the theologian to conduct himself as if he were in a position to propound a philosophy . . . and to pull a philosopher’s work to pieces,” especially if that philosopher is Kant (308). Therefore, theology must embrace this circularity.
For my part, I think Barth still cedes too much ground to Kant. If he is willing to say that Kant must be wrong about religion because Kant’s philosophy of religion is insufficient, why does he not also challenge Kant’s critique of knowledge on the same grounds? It may be, of course, that Barth simply sees no reason why he needs to reject the Kantian theoretical philosophy on theological grounds because he interprets Kant as being neutral between faith and disbelief.
On the contrary, it seems to me that there are good reasons to want to reject Kant’s theoretical philosophy because I understand Kant’s theoretical philosophy to install a sort of permanent metaphysical skepticism which viciously undercuts any attempt to insist that the fundamental doctrines of Christianity are actually true in the sense of representing a real state of affairs. If you take this more negative assessment of Kant--and I think you should--then I think it becomes necessary to reject the entire framework of the debate. At this point one is left with two options: rejecting philosophy as such through a fideism much more severe than Barth’s or “beginning again at the beginning” in the realm of philosophy as well as in theology.
- Shane Wilkins