What follows is very brief summary of an essay I wrote some years ago at Yale for a seminar rethinking Kant's posture with respect to the Christian doctrine of atonement. John E. Hare had just been appointed to the Noah Porter chair in philosophical theology to replace my other teacher there, Nicholas Wolterstorff (who retired). Hare is both an internationally recognized Kant as well as Kierkegaard scholar. I quickly wrote to ask if we could do a one-on-one tutorial comparing the two masters of philosophy. he agreed and two other doctoral students joined us for a semester (12 weeks) of intense close reading. Both Hare and I studied under the same professor at Princeton, the just retired Diogenes Allen (for whom I served as his last teaching fellow), famed for his absolute intolerance for any lack of precision and rigor in philosophical argumentation.
Both Hare and I were taught (many moons apart) by Allen and his generation of Oxford trained scholars, that Kant moved away from orthodox Christiantiy. However, starting some 15 years ago, a fresh generation of thinkers began to change their impression of Kant's famous First Critique. Among them was a young John Hare, son of Oxford's legendary philosophy don R. M. Hare (an atheist). John's view piqued my interest and I decided to read for myself and hear John out in a serious engagement where the stakes really count - in a seminar where as a student, I have everything to lose. I was duly impressed by Hare's principal argument and explored Kierkegaard myself to make a comparison.
Here, I argue that Kant has been misunderstood for several generations and a new generation of Kant scholars, including evangelicals, have begun to question the popular view that Kant was anti-Christian.
Due to the length of the essay (almost 60 pages), I am posting a summary and a part of the conclusion. Please ignore the numebrs (footnote numbers)
THE DOCTRINE OF ATONEMENT IN KANT AND KIERKEGAARD
“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe... the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me. I see them before me and connect them immediately with the consciousness of my existence” Immanuel Kant - Critique of Practical Reason, 1788
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) deny that we can acquire a theoretical knowledge of God. For Kant, we know of God by intuition and for Kierkegaard, by experience. By objective and subjective ways of knowing God, both try to show that God cannot be known with objective certainty, i.e., by verification, but can be known through religious belief.
This paper will examine Kierkegaard’s criticism of Kant’s notion of atonement as insufficient and ask if Kierkegaard had correctly interpreted him. For Kant, religious belief is found in pure practical, as opposed to pure theoretical reason. Belief in God is generated by human reflection of the moral gap between what we are and what we ought to be. He has often been thought of as negating the true meaning of Christian theological doctrine of atonement by his rejection of divine grace in favor of auto-salvation.
We begin with a brief survey of Kant’s notion of religion and atonement found in his second critique and his major work on religion. Then we shall summarize Kierkegaard’s three stages of life in his pseudonymous Either/Or. Next, we will discuss Kierkegaard’s critique of Kant’s theory of atonement. We conclude with an appraisal of Kierkegaard’s critique with a commentary on the advantage of literary pseudonymity and the limitation of writing within the limits of reason alone.
The key to understanding Kant is to note his thought experiments in his preface to the second edition of Religion, in which he explains the title of the book. Consider a sphere of pure religion of reason within a larger sphere of historical revelation. All confessional statements describing historical events fall within the part of the larger sphere outside of the smaller sphere, while matters of reason fall within the smaller sphere. He explains that “The philosopher, as a teacher of pure reason, must confine himself within the narrower circle ... and waive consideration of all experiences”41 . While the inner circle rules out parts of the historical revelation as it is interpreted, it does not rule out religion.
This distinction between religion per se and historical events of religious significance is important because it hints at Kant’s determination to control the selection of what is properly within the confines of knowledge by reason alone. He also considers a second thought experiment in which he privileges some alleged divine revelation and leave out the pure religion of reason to examine the revelation as an historical system in the light of moral concepts and see where it leads. If the experiments are successful, he wishes to show that “reason can be found to be ... compatible with Scripture [and] also at one with it, so that he who follows one will not fail to be conformed to the other”. Otherwise, we will have two religions, one of human reason and one of divine revelation42 .
When we read Kant’s notion of atonement in Religion, we must bear in mind the purpose for which he wrote it. Kant’s project of translating religiously significant historical events known to us by divine revelation to the religion of pure reason is not an act of reducing religion to morality. It is an interdisciplinary attempt to speak confessional language in philosophical terms of reference.
Even when he speaks of “Man himself must make or have made himself ... in a moral sense ... whether himself good or evil... an effect of his free choice”, Kant qualifies this statement by limiting it to the moral sense. Likewise he writes that we must understand the phrase Man is created good as Man is created for good, i.e., the original disposition of man is good43, even if his propensity is for evil.
Kant adopts the Lutheran form of the doctrine of total depravity and the human propensity to evil which corrupts us all in the whole along with the original predisposition to good, which helps us survive the Fall.
What of grace then? Is there space for grace in Kant’s view of religion? For Kant, the pure religion of reason can admit the concept of divine grace as something incomprehensible but cannot adopt44, in the doctrine of atonement because grace is beyond the possible scope of sense experience. This does not deny grace if understood from an exposition of religion not limited to the limits of reason alone.
Another feature of Kant’s doctrine of atonement is that it does not permit the transfer of liability because this cannot make sense to pure reason45. But does the transfer occur in Kant’s historical realm? We have to speculate that Kant would say, sure, strictly from the point of view of the historical realm.
Hare argues that Christ takes over our failures when he takes us as members of his own body. The Christ-human relation is qualitatively different from the inter-human relation46 . Will this overcome the Kantian objection against the transmission of liability? From the general perspective of theology, this makes sense, but within the limits of reason alone, I fear not. For reason alone cannot be made to comprehend divine-human relationality short of a confessional conviction that Jesus is God. The framework Kant set up limits his ability to make such a claim, even if he himself believes it, like a faithful Lutheran.
Kant’s view of atonement is inadequate for Christian orthodoxy if understood to be an historical explanation but within the limits of reason alone, it is an adequate and not unfaithful presentation. The question of whether it will be useful as an apologetic is a different matter.
Was Kierkegaard’s demonstration of Kant’s theory successful in showing the inadequacy of Kantian ethics? Again, as a historical account, Kierkegaard was correct, but within Kant’s own stated terms, he was probably misunderstood by Kierkegaard.
If Kant is read as limiting reason to make room for faith in the sense of partitioning knowledge, he would have done Christianity a disservice. However, if we take him on his word that he sought to see what can be universally understood by all humanity regarding God with the use of pure reason alone, he in fact advanced our understanding of God. Hare argues that Kant wished to translate rather than reduce religion to morality. He attempts to recover a Kantian reading that is more in line with orthodox Christian teachings, especially with regard to the doctrine of atonement. How persuasive is this argument?
The title of Kant’s book, Religion Within The Limits of Reason Alone does not refer to a reduction of religion to morality, but rather to a limitation of pure theoretical reasoning as opposed to pure practical reasoning regarding the nature of religion. Short of practical reasoning, one cannot understand historical events such as the virgin conception and incarnation of Christ. This explanation seems to be in line with Hare’s claim that Kant has been unfairly treated and badly misunderstood. I shall argue that Kierkegaard himself failed to carefully interpret Kant. But why did this happen? Why does it continue to happen? I think it is because of Kant’s ambitious project coupled with an inadequate use of literary style for which Kierkegaard was a master.
We are quite aware of the intended effect of Kierkegaard’s pseudonymous writing style, of which Either/Or is one. It permits Kierkegaard to make statements he would be reticent to make if he wrote it under his own name. While it limits what the book can say, what it permits it to say, it can be said very well. In the same manner, Kant’s writings on religion and atonement in the Critique of Pure Reason and in Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone reflects a self-imposed writing paradigm which limits what Kant can say, but permits us to understand from the point of view of someone not confessionally committed to the Christian faith, the limits to which reason alone can comprehend the nature of religion and specifically, of the Christian religion. Kierkegaard adopted a pseudonymous writing style to lead the reader into an apologetic for the Christian faith. But he seriously misunderstood Kant’s style of writing, one strictly from the point of view of a pure atheological philosopher. Kant was perhaps also as a nuanced apologist for the Christian faith, to show that the belief in immortality, God and divine grace is not a violation of pure reason in its complete, theoretical and practical senses. The advantage Kierkegaard has over Kant is that the former wrote under several pseudonyms, so that as Victor Eremita in Either/Or, Kierkegaard is free to express rather extravagant statements about life and faith which he himself does not share, while as Anti-Climacus (the only pseudonym who knows Christianity from the inside47 ), in Sickness Unto Death, he was able to present the view that sin is innate to the human condition and yet can be eliminated by the atoning effect of Jesus Christ, who bears infinite responsibility48 .
Kant does not share the privilege of this literary tool and he paid the price of flying too near the sun without protection. His project to demonstrate the philosophical cogency of the Christian belief in God did not manage to persuade a Christian writer of Kierkegaard’s genius.