As soon as reason turned against the supernaturally revealed knowledge of God by modern rationalists, Kant announced that rational knowledge of God was blocked. Kant "saved" religion from the jaws of a non-Christian idea of theory only to surrender it to an equally non-Christian idea of practice. He was already prepared for this move by having been reared in evangelical pietism, with its emphasis on the inner life and practical morality over doctrine. God cannot be the object of our theorizing but only the presupposition of our practice. This is not a universal truth of reason but a dogma derived from the story that the West has told itself since the Enlightenment (Horton, pp. 99-100)
So in listening to Kant, Horton hears a heretic? If that's the case, he certainly is not alone; others have faulted Kant's philosophy of religion as leading to a dead-end for modern systematics. I, on the other hand, to the extent I understand Kant's general position and his placement in the history of Western thought, consider him a useful, self-critical hedge against the more radical versions of epistemological and moral relativism, utilitarianism and pragmatism. And I've said as much here and here (if perhaps a bit awkwardly).
A contributor to a Facebook group I follow recently posed the question (I'm paraphrasing): "I'm getting into Karl Barth's stuff: Should I read Kant as well? And where should I start?" This elicited myriad responses: Some were quite helpful, a few led to non sequiturs and a couple, frankly, made me groan just a little. Be that as it may, I think the questioner raised a key question for theologians of evangelical, Reformed or dialectical inclination to ponder: Just what, as theologians and as readers of Barth in particular, are we to make of Kant? Should we be afraid of him? Should he make us mad? Should we give him a miss? As you might already expect, my answers would be: "Nein! Nein! Und Nein!" For my part, I prefer to think of Kant, as Barth himself did, with respect -- as a thinker who hones in upon central problems incisively and as a most worthy opponent and teacher (Protestant Theology, chapter 7). In other words, if we were to read Kant well, it should help keep us honest -- which is more than I can say, sadly, about some works of theology.
To be sure, we must always strive to be both charitable and critical readers, no matter the stature of the writer in question. No contemporary readers will find aspects of Kant questionable, perhaps even downright troubling. For example, I recently read a piece in which Teri R. Merrick exposes the racist presuppositions woven through the writings of Kant and Hegel -- a sobering critique of the Enlightenment project that must be taken seriously. (This piece is published in the Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations volume which the kind publicist at IVP Academic sent me for review and which, no doubt to her relief, you will be reading more about on this blog soon).
I don't feel myself qualified to write a post in the genre "So, You Want to Read Kant" at the level of the DET posts on Barth, Calvin and Bonhoeffer. But maybe I have at least a few general things to say on the topic.
The significance of Kant for the history of modern theology is inestimable, and he should not be lightly dismissed.
I believe it was Hans Frei who wrote (though I can't remember where) that if he were stuck on a desert island, he'd want to have with him the philospher's late work, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone -- presumably, one hopes, alongside the essential classic, How to Survive on a Desert Island with Very Few Books: A Guide for Theologians.
But once we've graduated to Barth's mature dogmatics -- that sketchy second edition of Romans is another matter! -- maybe we can put away the childish ways of modern philosophy? Not so fast, meine Freunde. I recall how one of my seminary professors, back in the day, complained about students of Barth who neglect to read Kant with some care. On a side note, that teacher, though quite astute, seemed not to never have heard of Cornelius van Til, the Dutch Calvinist and rather hapless interlocutor who accused the Swiss theologian of selling out to Kantian subjectivism. (If that "debate" interests you, check out the very fine volume, Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism.)
I have some of my own hunches as to why reading some Kant might profit us:
- To gain a broader understanding of 19th century Protestant theology, the milieu within which Barth's major teachers were formed.
- To flesh out Barth's own narrative account of his intellectual development. Barth claims the first book that galvanized him during his student days was The Critique of Practical Reason. In fact, he worked through the second critique thoroughly at least twice before tackling the much longer and more famous Critique of Pure Reason (See Green, p. 67) So for the young Barth, the interest in ethics preceded the concern with epistemology and metaphysics. I have a hunch this fact may prove to be somewhat significant.
- To help us understand some of the moves in Barth's early theology. In the preface to his Romans commentary, Barth claims that Kant -- through the influence of Karl's brother Heinrich, a philosopher -- significantly impacted the rewrite the commentary (p. 4). "But I'm a late-Barthian. I don't do early Barth," a couple of you curmudgeons might be sniffing. Tush! We'll have none of that kind of talk anywhere near this website.
- To help elucidate the character of Barth's break with the Ritschlian school of liberal Protestant theologians, who were so inflected by a Kantian ethical construction of religion and theology, as well as the Kant-influenced historicism of Troeltsch and others in the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule (History of Religions School).
- To help us the reader situate Barth vis-a-vis his erstwhile friends in the early dialectical theology movement of the 1920s -- especially in terms of the torturous and strained relationship with Rudolf Bultmann. My hunch, then is that reading some Kant on our own will help us profit more from the excellent revisionist work in dialectical theology that has emerged in English scholarship of the past two decades -- executed, for example, by such thinkers as Bruce McCormack, Christophe Chalamet and, most recently, David Congdon.
So then, if a little Kant is what the Doktor orders to take (if even in moderate doses) along with one's reading of Barth, where does one begin?
Barth, Karl, The Epistle to the Romans, trans. Edwyn C. Hoskins (New York: Oxford, 1933).
----- Protestant Theology in the Nineteenth Century: Its Background and History, trans. Brian Cozins and John Bowden (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002).
Green, Clifford, ed., Karl Barth: Theologian of Freedom (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 1991).
Horton, Michael, The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011).
McCormack, Bruce L., and Anderson, Clifford B., Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011).
Merrick, Teri R., "Tracing the Metanarrative of Colonialism and Its Legacy," in Evangelical Postcolonial Conversations: Global Awakenings in Theology and Praxis, ed. Kay Higuera Smith, Jayachitra Lalitha and Daniel Hawk (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), pp. 107-120.