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