Kant’s Legacy in Nineteenth-Century German Theology

Excerpt from The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism, by Paul Cliteur (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Chapter 4: Moral and Political Secularism

Kant’s Legacy in Nineteenth-Century German Theology

We may call the tradition initiated by Kant “the modernist tradition” in religious thought. The term “modernism” covers a variety of movements and tendencies, but I will use it here to designate the attempt to take moral autonomy in religious thought as a starting point while at the same time trying to avoid an open conflict with divine command ethics. Modernism in this sense is an attempt to reconcile modern science and philosophy with religious traditions.[262] When applied to the theory of interpretation, modernism means that the holy text and the holy tradition are interpreted against the background of autonomous morality. Modernism has two important features. First, the modernists want to be “modern.” That means they, by and large, subscribe to the ideas of moral education as expounded by Kohlberg, reject the religious sternness of the Abrahamic strain in theistic religion, and follow Mill and others in the proclamation of the great importance of free speech. Second, modernism defines itself by attempting to narrow the chasm between ancient religion and modern life. As we will see in the pages that follow, modernists made use of a special technique to bridge that gap: that technique is called “interpretation.” Applied to the theory of interpretation, modernism means that the holy text and the holy tradition are interpreted against the background of autonomous morality. Sometimes commentators who stand in the modernist tradition belittle the significance of autonomous reasoning, rationalism, and Enlightenment values. They want us to believe that the “true core” of the theistic religions has always been respect for moral autonomy and modern values. And because this is their basic conviction, it colors all their interpretations.

In some cases these interpretations are rather weird. An unprejudiced reading of the stories of Abraham, Jephtha, and Job cannot ignore that there is a strong element of heteronomy and divine command ethics in the holy book and the holy tradition. But, according to the more cautious or conciliatory voices among the modernists, the autonomy of ethics is not an idea that germinated in a non-religious context and has gradually gained ground in the religious traditions, but rather an inherent element of the religious traditions themselves. We find this tendency in Immanuel Kant, but, for instance, also – and more surprisingly – in the great French conservative writer, politician, and historian Chateaubriand.

Chateaubriand presented an eloquent apology for Christianity in his book Génie du Christianisme [Genius of Christianity] (1802), published nine years after Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone.[263] Contrary to Kant, Chateaubriand presented a scathing critique of the Enlightenment authors. What the French philosophes accomplished, Chateaubriand ranted, was nothing. They only brought revolution and havoc upon the country.[264] Their sole aim was destruction.[265] And what did they put in place of what they destroyed? Nothing.

When we realize that Kant wrote a superb vindication of the principles of the Enlightenment in his famous essay What is Enlightenment?,[266] the difference between him and Chateaubriand could not be greater, it would seem. But that is only superficial,[267] as we will notice as soon as we delve into the matter a little further.

One of the most important elements in Enlightenment thinking was the doctrine of moral autonomy. This is correctly described by the great historian of philosophy, F.C. Copleston (1907–1994), as the main contribution of the Enlightenment to the cultural heritage of mankind. What the Enlightenment authors accomplished, so wrote Copleston, is that they separated ethics from metaphysics and theology.[268] There was certainly a difference in tone between the moral idealism of Diderot (1713–1784) and the utilitarian approach of La Mettrie (1709–1751), so Copleston told us, but what all Enlightenment philosophers had in common is that they wanted “to set morality on its own feet.”[269]

If this judgment is right – as I think it is – every criticism of the Enlightenment should address this particular issue: can morality be made to stand on its own feet?

What we see, however, in the tradition of what we may call “moderate theism” or modernism is that it tries to belittle the significance of the Enlightenment, insinuating that moral autonomy is an inherent element of the theistic or religious tradition. This is also what we find in Chateaubriand. What he tried to do in Génie du Christianisme is, he told us, “not to prove that Christianity is excellent because it comes from God, but that it comes from God because it is excellent.”[270] That means that Chateaubriand’s point of departure was, just like Kant, moral autonomy, and not divine command ethics. But what he did not realize (at least he did not address it) is that unknowingly he subscribed to the central tenets of the position he professed to criticize: that of the Enlightenment. Chateaubriand is an adherent of the Enlightenment philosophy malgré lui.

It is a paradoxical fact that many apologies of Christianity in the long run work to undermine it. The British idealist philosopher William Ritchie Sorley (1855–1935) makes a comparison between the religious ideas of John Locke (1632–1704) and John Toland (1670–1722). On Locke’s Reasonableness of Christianity (1695) Sorley gives the following comment: “Locke went to the Scriptures: miracles and prophecy convinced his reason of their authority; the same reason was used for understanding the doctrines they revealed.”[271]

Toland’s Christianity not Mysterious (1696) was influenced by Locke’s book but much more radical. The difference was this (still according to Sorley): “Locke’s aim was to show that Christianity was reasonable; Toland’s, to demonstrate that nothing contrary to reason, and nothing above reason, can be part of Christian doctrine.”[272] We may call this the tragedy of all rationalist apologies of religion: they acknowledge the authority of reason. And once that is acknowledged there can be no half-measures in accepting its results. Sometimes, even for the rationalist this comes as a surprise. When Christianity not Mysterious was published Toland reckoned himself a member of the Church of England. When his book was burned at the door of the Irish house of parliament, “he may have felt his churchmanship insecure,” as Sorley writes.[273]

Excerpted from The Secular Outlook by Paul Cliteur. Copyright © Paul Cliteur, 2010. All rights reserved.


[262] See: Livingstone, Elizabeth A., ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1977, p. 341: “Modernism: a movement within the RC Church which aimed at bringing the tradition of Catholic belief into closer relation with the modern outlook in philosophy, the historical and other sciences, and social ideas.” See also: The Penguin Dictionary of Religions, ed. John R. Hinnells, Penguin Books, London 1995 (1984), p. 319: “Religions are essentially conservative movements, usually organized to preserve traditions and the status quo. Historically, therefore, religions have always had to come to terms with changes in society and culture, and this has never been more true than in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, periods normally referred to as ‘modern’.”

[263] Chateaubriand, Génie du Christianisme ou Beautés de la Religion Chrétienne [Genius of Christianity or Beauties of the Christian Religion], ed. Maurice Regard, Gallimard, Paris 1978 (1802).

[264] Chateaubriand, Essai historique, politique et moral sur les révolutions anciennes et modernes, considérées dans leur rapports avec la Révolution française [Historical, Political and Moral Essay on Ancient and Modern Revolutions Considered in Relation to the French Revolution], ed. Maurice Regard, Gallimard, Paris 1978 (1797), p. 358.

[265] Ibid., p. 259.

[266] Kant, Immanuel, Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? [An Answer to the Question: What Is Englightenment?] (1784), in: Schriften zur Anthropologie, Geschichtsphilosophie, Politik und Pädagogik [Writings on Anthropology, the Philosophy of History, Politics and Pedagogics], 1, ed. Wilhelm Weischedel, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1981, pp. 53–61.

[267] As Joseph de Maistre was well aware. See what he writes on Chateaubriand in: Maistre, Joseph de, Oeuvres, suivis d’un Dictionnaire de Joseph de Maistre [Works, Followed by a Dictionary of Joseph de Maistre], ed. Pierre Glaudes, Robert Laffont, Paris 2007, p. 1147.

[268] Copleston, Frederick, S.J., A History of Philosophy, Vol. VI, Part I, The French Enlightenment to Kant, Image Books, New York 1960, p. 18.

[269] Ibid.

[270] Chateaubriand, Génie du Christianisme, p. 469.

[271] Sorley, W.R., A History of British Philosophy to 1900, Cambridge University Press, London 1965 (1920), p. 145.

[272] Ibid., p. 146.

[273] Ibid., p. 147.

Paul Cliteur is professor of Jurisprudence at Leiden University, the Netherlands. He was also professor of Philosophy at the Delft University, the Netherlands (1995-2002), and visiting professor of Philosophical Anthropology, Ghent University, Belgium (2014). Prof. Cliteur’s research is in the field of ethics, the philosophical foundations of the law, more in particular moral dilemmas around multicultural society, fundamental rights and the relationship between law and worldviews. He is the author of The Secular Outlook (Wiley-Blackwell, Chichester, 2010).

The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism
By Paul Cliteur
Wiley-Blackwell; 1 edition (13 August 2010)
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217
£20.69

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