What If Kant Was Wrong, Does This Wipe Out the Need for Modern Theology?

Earlier on Facebook I posted this: If you start with the premise that Kant was wrong it pretty much wipes out the “need” for much of modern theology. That said: some of the fruit produced by some modern theologies is still materially present despite its cultural context supplied by Kant. At the prompting of a friend I will attempt to elaborate.

This is something I have known for a long while, intellectually; but am coming to terms with currently, existentially. Kant made a division of knowledges such that the so called noumenal (objective, even Divine reality) is not ultimately accessible by those entrapped by the phenomenal (subjective, human agency); thus a ‘great gulf’ is present between an extra world out there, and the inner world from which we think as human subjects. Further, as Paul Hinlicky helps me think this (and now I distill in my own tongue): Kant presupposed that God was essentially and purely an object out there who certain people attempted to use as an authority figure for imposing ad hoc rules (‘priestcraft’) upon an “un-reasoned” people. In other words, if anything, for Kant, God is simply a brute object. Without attempting to distill further this will have to suffice for now. At base if Kant was right, in an absolute sense, then we might simply despair and attempt to produce existential meaning for our lives, albeit lives purely in bondage to our own reason and the self-projections and constructs of reality that flow from there.

But what if the dualism (the noumenal/phenomenal gulf) of Kant was wrong? What if there is a unity of knowledge, albeit one supplied by God through revelation? We will proceed with the premise that Kant was wrong, which has become the conclusion of most forward thinkers today, particularly, at least in the philosophical realm, in and among thinkers under the sway of Post Modern (PoMo) pressures. So we can say that we live in a post-Kantian age; but how the ‘post’ has arrived might well have never been necessary to begin with. In an oversimplified description the way people have become PoMo is something like what happened when Spinoza took Descartes to his logical conclusion, and Nietzsche took Kant et al to theirs. But the problem with this sort of practice is that it still presupposes that Kant, and other Enlightenment thinkers, were more right about human agency and reason than they were wrong; in other words, it gives Kant credit where credit wasn’t do. When we attempt to deconstruct we often acknowledge that the construct we are deconstructing was worth deconstructing in the first place. In the end some recognize that the construct itself, left to itself, would have imploded under the weight of its own ‘cards’ given the foundation it was built. To be post-Kantian might mean either of these approaches: some have felt the need to swallow Kant and attempt to re-work his premises from other directions, even while at some level accepting the relative weight of his thought, while on the other hand, others have simply seen Kant’s folly and rather than seeking to overcome him they have reduced his logic to its conclusion; viz. they have simply asked how Kant could ever prove his disjunction between the phenomenal and noumenal based upon his own categories.

The above is my attempt to introduce and ground clear for what I really want to get to; that is, I want to opine further on how modern theology itself may have never taken the shape it did if Kant wasn’t taken as if he thought from sound premises. Since this is a blog post I can’t do a full survey, or offer developed arguments for what I am about to articulate; so there will be a large level of assertion in what follows. How am I supposed to concisely survey the large swathed development, and its antecedents, that modern theology represents (in this space frame)? In order to delimit, let me elevate a person of interest for me, and use his theological development as my case experiment for this bloggy exercise.

I had mentioned Paul Hinlicky above, I am currently reading his book Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology from Luther through Leibinz. It is my reading of his book that prompted by original post on Facebook earlier today (the one I share above). So I will limit my reflection to the way he has been framing things; of interest for me is that he places Karl Barth into discussion with Immanuel Kant. Indeed, Hinlicky offers a sub-section called Barth Overcomes Kant by Kant.  As I read this section it pushed me again into what I have known for many years: that is that Kant et al. has had an inordinate impact on the development of modern theology; to the point that someone like Barth felt compelled not to go around or simply reject Kant, but he felt compelled to take Kant seriously, and attempt to overcome Kant by using Kant’s categories to develop his own theological corpus. Hinlicky writes:

In light of the foregoing discussion, we may see how right McCormack is to stat about Barth: “All of his efforts in theology may be considered, from one point of view, as an attempt to overcome Kant by means of Kant; not retreating behind him or seeking to go around him, but going through him.” On the one hand, Kant’s stricture against the human possibility of a claim to possess revelation is taken up and affirmed: ‘inscrutability, hiddenness, is of the very essence of Him who is called God in the Bible.’ Therefore, on the other hand, revelation can come only from above, from the paradoxical or mysterious self-unveiling of the veiled. In revelation as this event, God speaks as subject of His own discourse and is heard only as such. God’s Word is God spoken: it cannot then be taken into possession as an object of human cognition apart from the God who speaks and the God who is heard. There is no Word without the Spirit, no Spirit without the Word, and neither of these without the font of the deity who issues them, the eternal Father. “In a bridging of the gulf (from God’s side) between the divine and human comprehensibility,” Barth writes in terms formally, if not materially, reminiscent of Kant, “it comes to pass that in the sphere and within the limits of human comprehensibility there is a true knowledge of God’s essence generally and hence also of the triunity.”[1]

If Kant needed to be ‘overcome’ Barth’s response, from a theological perspective, is absolutely genius! But what if Kant didn’t need to be overcome?! The reason Barth felt compelled to overcome Kant is because the intellectual cultural climate Barth was weaned in (by his teachers) was under the spell of Kant; the culture itself dictated that Kant, and the elevation of reason itself, is ultimately determinative for all intellectual tasks and conclusions. This presented a dilemma of immeasurable magnitude. We see someone like Friedrich Schleiermacher respond, at least on one of his fronts, by appealing to an aesthetic quality inherent to humanity; and others, maybe someone like Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard and later Jewish thinker Martin Buber develop an “I/Thou” relationship; thus framing reality in terms of personal and relational realities rather than brute objects like a perception of the classical God might have presented for someone like Kant (which pushed him to think the way he did in regard to God and the noumenal). We see these sorts of “work arounds,” but, again, what if they were not necessary; would this re-shape the terrain of modern theological development in rather radical ways?

So I’m personally left with a bit of dilemma, although I don’t feel it too heavily. If I reject the need to ‘overcome’ or work-around Kant, if I don’t feel compelled to ‘go through’ him then does this mean that modern theology was purely and absolutely an utter waste of time? Many Christians would say an “unqualified yes!” Many would consider me a “Barthian,” others wouldn’t; whether I am or not, Barth’s thought has been seriously influential for me over the last thirteen years, in particular. Does his relationship to Kant, and the way he made that relationship work mean that his theological conclusions are all in vain at a material level? Can formal missteps, in regard to theological methodology, still produce material conclusions that are fruitful and edifying for the church and individual members therein? Was modern theology in the main an utter waste of time; did their formal misstep, in regard to feeling like they needed to respond to Kant, in particular, and the Enlightenment in general, doom every material theological idea produced to the idiosyncratic dust bin of interesting theological artifacts, but nothing else?

I remain hopeful that in God’s providence He can speak through various dialects of theological lexicon, and that His voice has the ability to miraculously pierce through the darkness of the manifold human machinations of various periods of theological development. But what if Kant was wrong? Kant was wrong, but in the case of Barth, at least, much of what he produced, materially, can still be understood as relatively right; relative to the eschatos that is. I still have more thinking to do on this, but these are my inchoate thoughts. I’m sure there will be more to come. I doubt this will be a satisfactory development (my blog post) in regard to what my friend may have been looking for. But it’s all I have time and space for at the moment. Blessings.


[1] Paul R. Hinlicky, Paths Not Taken: Fates of Theology From Luther Through Leibniz (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 54-5.


8 thoughts on “What If Kant Was Wrong, Does This Wipe Out the Need for Modern Theology?

  1. I’m not really a Kant-fan — I think his treatment of free will and moral imperativism are pretty bogus, for example — but I’m not sure how we escape his noumenal/phenomenal categories. “God just overcomes it somehow,” is a solution thrown at a lot of things. I don’t mean to be facetious in saying that, but that’s where my gut’s at. To me, noumenal/phenomenal is just a fancy way of saying, “To perceive, we have to use perceptive faculties.” In spurning the whole quasi-Gnostic thing we then embrace our bodies and brains as good and vital, whatever their mysterious relationship to the soul and/or spirit. But in embracing them we’re admitting to dwell in the phenomenal side of the gulf because, even if there’s some revelatory conduit into the noumenal, we can’t cleanly parse it from phenomenal projections, making us uncertain as to what’s this and what’s that, and we’re back to reasoning. There’s this epistemic reduction that always leaves us with Kantian reason, where no matter what we experience and no matter what people tell us, we’re always the ultimate gatekeeper to the vault of “what we deem true.”

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  2. I don’t think so. I think the relationship of ontology to epistemology is much more complex than the way you characterize it. You’re presuming upon, for example, a set of conditions, anthropological conditions, among others, that are not as self-evident or “foundational” as you seem to think they are.


  3. Let me elaborate: there is such a thing as pre-reflective knowledge; it’s a thing just as sure as there is reality with or without your agency in the world. In other words there is mind-independent reality out there that is not contingent upon your perception or accessing of it. When I refer to pre-reflective knowledge I am noting that there are things that just are that we can intuit without making “us” the ultimate gatekeeper. Honestly as I think about what you’re saying all I can frankly arrive at is that this is so much rubbish. I mean I guess if you want to believe that the world is reducible to your perception of it; that the world is contingent upon your engagement with it then you can go down that path.

    But beyond this: I am a Christian theologian, not a Christian philosopher, as such I have this reality known as God who confronts me where I stand and leaves me silent. Christians operate with a category known as Revelation, which presupposes a Revealer. Revelation by definition is not reducible to your perception of it, and God’s Self-Revelation contradicts precisely what you maintain about humans being the ultimate gatekeepers to knowledge. Indeed, the reality of the cross identifies such thinking as arising from the lie that satan spoke to Even in the Garden; the cross of Christ puts this to death, and by the Spirit and our participation in and from Christ’s mediating life for us we have an ec-static existence–that necessarily gets us outside ourselves, and places us in absolute dependence on someone else to do and think for us. In this participation, in this ec-static mode of human being we have freedom to think after God from God in Christ. This contradicts Kant or Kantianesque notions of reason as an absolute realm of the knowing subject turned in upon themselves.

    Not to mention that you have no notion, in your comment, of a Christian Dogmatic ordering (taxis) of reality. For the Christian there is God (a pre-Dogmatic reality); then there is creation; then there is the possibility for knowledge of God In the Beginning by way of personal encounter. We know God as Father, at least Christians do, as such we know Him personally and filially, not as some sort of principle waiting to be discovered or perceived. God, for the Christian is not an object, he is not in some sort of noumenal space (which is a question begging notion since the noumenal as a theoretical place, based purely upon phenomenal reflection could never be arrived at if in fact we are slavishly located to the phenomenal–i.e. where would a notion like noumenal even come from in such a closed universe?). Even so, Barth, if we want to grant Kant, flips him on his head by using Revelation as his category to do that; inclusive of the Deus absconditus as the Deus revelatus. I can grant Kant, and as a Christian theologian simply refer to Barth. But ultimately I don’t think we must grant Kant; his position is petitio principii.

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  4. And this is where I am full on Barth and TF Torrance: there is a unity of knowledge mediated by the analogy of the incarnation in the unio or singular personalis or person of Jesus Christ. In other words there is a Godward to human and humanward to God movement of being to knowledge and knowledge to being (a exitus and reditus) that all takes place in the priestly humanity of Jesus Christ. In this way there is an antecedent reality and we are confronted with that as that reality humiliates himself to the point of man, becoming obedient to the point of death, and rising again that we too might rise with him by the Spirit and know God bonded in filial relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While our knowledge is a growing knowledge, it is one that is in-formed by our participation in this type of life. There is no abstract free-floating phenomenal knowledge available in this frame of thinking; if we were to use that lexicon for sake of discussion the phenomenal has a telos and is regulated and canonized by that telos as that is realized and actualized for us before God in Christ.

    You aren’t going to get much of a philosophical engagement out of me, or ever at this blog. I think philosophy has some horizontal value, but its real value, in the horizontal is to only demonstrate to people that their powers, left to themselves, can only keep them bumping up against themselves. Ironically, you seem to be saying that this is how knowledge works; i.e. philosophically. Again, I reject this precisely because of my commitment to what I take to be a properly ordered theological ontology which is inclusive of a theological epistemology which both are grounded in Christology which shapes soteriology and theological anthropology.


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  6. It’s definitely possible that the self-evidence of this schema is a result of my own lack of imagination, which is starving for a resolution. But all resolutions being proposed are simply alternative ways-out to the same old exit.

    There are indeed things that we can intuit without reflection. But often we find that these things are wrong. We’ve all had innumerable experiences wherein intuitions we take for granted — optical intuitions, moral intuitions, aural intuitions, cognitive intuitions, etc. — can trick us.

    So, do we accept our inborn intuitions? Or do we question them? How do we do that? Can we do that? And if we are literally unable to question intuition X because it is so ingrained, does that necessarily mean that X comports with truth?

    Thus we’re back to our career of ultimate gatekeeper. I would not say “Humans are the ultimate gatekeepers of knowledge” but more precisely “An individual is the ultimate gatekeeper over her beliefs and suspicions.” Closing that gate is how a person rejects God, for example.

    As a Christian, I can operate with all sorts of categories that rely upon hypothetical antecedents. Counterintuitively, this operation does not require those antecedents to be true.

    I’m a bit confused why you would call any of what I’ve said rubbish, but perhaps you are inferring the following from me: “Therefore, solipsism.” I am not saying that. Epistemology doesn’t have to operate in Booleans; we don’t have to collapse the world into that which we perceive (and needless to say, such a collapse is not compatible with the noumenal/phenomenal schema; this ain’t right: “Noumenal/phenomenal is true, therefore there is no noumenal and only phenomenal”).

    As an aside, even though I’m making a good faith attempt to discover our hang-up, it may be that we’re coming from such different places that we might as well be speaking in tongues to one another. For example, the “Not to mention,” paragraph; I would say there is God, then creation, but our encounter is a backflow action (since we are neither eternal nor ex nihilo); we know God as Father, personally, filially, as a person reaching out to be discovered, for he is not far from any of us, if we would perhaps seek and find him (Acts 17:27), as a valuable subject-object, as persons are. The noumenal is not an ontological place but a metaphysical “place” (nickname) to represent the epistemic inaccessibility entailed by the tautology, “cognizance requires cognizance.”


  7. No, I actually think you missed the gist in almost everything I said. You missed the point about revelation. And btw, we live in a post-Kantian age for a reason (and that’s among the philosophers). I’d suggest you give up on the philosophical pursuit of knowledge, and start thinking Christianly with the great Christian Dogmatic tradition. Start thinking from Christ and the Spirit, and quit thinking from an abstract pure nature that stands prior to God in Christ. You can’t close the loop, you give yourself and your place way too much credit; credit that the Gospel itself forecloses on even if you can’t see that.


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