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Between Athens and Jerusalem: Kant for Adventists

I had to deny knowledge to make room for faith (1).

Many take Kant’s ideas to be a turning point in modern philosophy, marking the beginnings of “post-modernism”; his writings have been influential in other disciplines as well. In theological circles, Kant is known to be the pre-cursor of Protestant liberalism. His thought is important, therefore, for understanding both the history of philosophy, as well as a major strain of Christian theology, along with the various reactions to it. In what follows, I want to explain what Kant might have meant by the phrase above by exploring some of the major contours of his thought. Kantian philosophy, I suggest, perhaps a bit too simplistically, can be summarized by the following three claims: Knowledge is possible. Faith is not knowledge. Faith is reasonable.

Knowledge is possible. Last month, we examined Hume’s skeptical views about empirical “facts”. What we take to be facts, according to Hume, are based on an assumption. We assume that all effects must have causes, but this itself is an inference; we repeatedly observe events happening in temporal proximity to each other and assume some kind of causal relation. Hume argues that what we call empirical knowledge is probable at best, and based on custom, but not certain.

Kant found this to be a disturbing idea, undermining the possibility of “science” as he knew it. For example, if Hume was right, Newton’s laws of nature are not really law. Kant claims that reading Hume, “interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave a complete different direction to my inquires. . . (2).” Attempting to address Hume’s skepticism led him to address Hume’s assumptions about human reasoning, which results in Kant’s novel conception of human perception and cognition.

Hume, like Locke, was an empiricist, assuming a tabula rasa view of the mind. On this view, the mind is understood to be a passive recipient of sensory data that is imprinted on it. Kant agrees that all cognition starts with experience. However, he claims, “even though all our cognition starts with experience, that does not mean that all of it arises from experience” (3). Kant hypothesizes that the objects of our cognition may be “composites”, “consisting of what we receive through impressions and what our own cognitive power supplies from itself” (4).

In other words, human perception requires both the “basic materials” which experience provide, but and the active processing and altering of it by the human mind. This is the point that Kant will try to prove through the complicated argumentation of his Critique of Pure Reason. He claims, “Thoughts without content are empty; intuitions without concepts, blind” (5).

Kant goes on to give an account of what the structures of human cognition must be. These structures, called concepts and categories, exist in all humans. Since all experience is filtered through these concepts and categories, we can speak of the way the world must be experienced by humans. Since the world must be experienced in a certain way, these experiences will appear to us to be governed by law-like regularity (including the law of cause and effect). Ascertaining these regularities leads to certain knowledge.

This certainty, however, is achieved at a high price. The knowledge we have is of a human knowledge. It is the way the world must look to us, but not the way the world actually is. In Kantian language, humans have certain knowledge of the phenomenal world, but not the noumenal one.

Faith is not knowledge. So one way Kant “denies knowledge” is by limiting it to knowledge of the phenomenal world. But another influential aspect of Kant’s denial is his criticism of the traditional proofs for God’s existence. I won’t attempt to rehearse them here, but in sum, he argues that they fail to prove that God exists. Furthermore, since on his model cognition requires empirical intuitions and concepts, and God is not an empirical being, one cannot perceive God, either. This, first and foremost, is an epistemological claim about the limits of human reasoning. One cannot “know” that God exists, theoretically, through proof or experience.

Although theoretical knowledge is limited, practical knowledge is not. Kant claims that all rational beings must think about morality in a certain way. We have an awareness of what our “duty” is through the “categorical imperative”: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law” (6). In short, we have knowledge of morality apart from religion that is grounded in the structure of our own reasoning. This knowledge of morality’s demands allows us to make judgments about moral demands made by religion that seem immoral (7).

Faith is reasonable. Admittedly, all this makes Kant’s views seem pretty hostile toward religion. So how does any of this “make room for faith”? The leads us to an aspect of Kant’s thought that is underappreciated. Kant also offers a “moral argument” for the reasonability of belief in God. Although, we have knowledge of morality’s demands, the motivation to consistently do what we know is right requires that we think that “the highest good” is possible to attain. What is the highest good? It is a state where the level of happiness for individuals “stands in exact proportion” with their personal morality. In other words, consistent moral motivation and action requires the assumption that justice will prevail. However, we do not observe this to be the case in the present world and life. “Thus God and a future life,” argues Kant, “are two presuppositions that are not to be separated from the obligations that pure reason imposes on us in accordance with the principles of that very same reason” (8). Although we cannot theoretically “know” that God exists, morality, or practical reasoning, demands that we assume it.

One can see from this brief overview of Kantian thought the roots of modern Protestant liberalism. Schleiermacher, in response to Kant, will attempt to ground belief in God in “a feeling of dependence,” instead of through reason. The moral knowledge Kant claims all humans have will become “the kernel” that liberal theologians attempt to distill from the teachings of Scripture.

We can discuss and debate the contested legacy of Kant’s philosophy further below. But in closing, I want to reflect, once again, on one aspect of his thought that is relevant for contemporary debates about the relationship between science and faith. This is his distinction between the phenomenal and noumenal world. While Kant affirms the possibility of human obtaining knowledge, he acknowledges the limitations of this knowledge. We can know how the world appears to us as humans, but not the way it actually is. Regardless of what we think about the rest of his claims, this claim seems, to me, to be one that is faithful an important theme in Scripture. Kant reminds us that none of us are God and cannot understand reality from an eternal and objective perspective. In this way, denying knowledge truly does make room for faith.


Zane Yi is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University. He teaches philosophy courses at Kennesaw State University

  1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ed.
  2. Immanuel Kant, Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics
  3. Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ed., Introduction.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Immanuel Kant, Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, 2nd section
  7. Kant uses the example of Abraham being commanded to kill Isaac. Kierkegaard will later respond to this in Fear and Trembling.
  8. Critique of Pure Reason, 2nd ed., Introduction.
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