Understanding God

It would be helpful if atheists, deists, and theists could agree on just what it is that they are respectively denying or affirming.

As a Catholic Humanist, I am aligned with Kant’s theological doctrine for the most part. I use the commentaries of the authors cited at the end of the post.

 “Deism rose as a philosophical form of theism that used reason as its source of knowledge of God. Without revelation to give detail to natural theology, knowledge of God was minimal. Lord Herbert of Cherbury (1583-1648) claimed simply that there is one supreme God, who should be worshiped; virtuous living constitutes worship. The emerging Newtonian universe was one of mechanical precision and predictability, with no room for outside causes. Accordingly, there seemed to be little or no room for divine intervention. Deism, then, held that God caused the universe but did not intervene thereafter. Prayer and miracles were deemed unnecessary because of God’s superior engineering.

The emphasis on God as a perfect designer entailed that waste and suffering were only apparently pointless. The plan and wisdom of God were seen in the grand scheme of the universe, hence God is known best in generality and abstraction.” 1

“In a work published the year he died, Kant analyzes the core of his theological doctrine into three articles of faith: (1) he believes in one God, who is the causal source of all good in the world; (2) he believes in the possibility of harmonizing God’s purposes with our greatest good; and (3) he believes in human immortality as the necessary condition of our continued approach to the highest good possible (Metaphysics, p. 131).  

Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone of 1793, Kant considers our innate natural predisposition to good (in being animals, humans, and persons) and our equally innate propensity to evil (in our frailty, impurity, and wickedness).  Whether we end up being praiseworthy(in “heaven” or blameworthy (in “hell”) depends, not on our sensuous nature or our theoretical reason, but on the use we make of our free will, which is naturally oriented towards both good and evil. 

There are two dimensions of what we call “will,” both of which are important in grasping Kant’s view here.  On the one hand, there is our capacity for free choice (his word is “Willkür”); on the other hand, there is practical reason as rationally legislating moral choice and action (“Wille”).  Thus a “good will” chooses in accordance with the rational demands of the moral law.  At any rate, we are born with a propensity to evil; but whether we become evil depends on our own free acts of will.  Thus Kant demythologizes the Christian doctrine of original sin.  He then distinguishes between the phony religion of mere worship designed to win favor for ourselves and the authentic moral religion of virtuous behavior.  Although it is legitimate to hope for God’s grace as helping us to lead morally good lives, it is mere fanaticism to imagine that we can become good by soliciting grace rather than freely choosing virtuous conduct (Religion, pp. 21-26, 30, 32, 35, and 47-49).

In the second book, Jesus of Nazareth is presented as an archetype symbolizing our ability to resist our propensity to evil and to approach the virtuous ideal of moral perfection.  What Kant does not say is whether or not, in addition to being a moral model whose example we should try to follow, Jesus is also of divine origin in some unique manner attested to by miracles.  Just as he neither denies nor affirms the divinity of Christ, so Kant avoids committing himself regarding belief in miracles, which can lead us into superstition (Religion, pp. 51, 54, 57, 74, 77, and 79-82; for more on the mystery of the Incarnation, see Theology, pp. 264-265).”

“In the third book, Kant expresses his rational hope for the ultimate supremacy of good over evil and the establishment of an ethical commonwealth of persons under a personal God, who is the divine law-giver and moral ruler—the ideal of the invisible church, as opposed to actual realities of visible churches.  Whereas statutory religion focuses on obedient external behavior, true religion concerns internal commitment (or good will).  Mere worship is a worthless substitute for good choices and virtuous conduct.  Here Kant makes a particularly provocative claim, that, ultimately, there is only “one (true) religion,” the religion of morality, while there can be various historical “faiths” promoting it.  From this perspective, Judaism, Islam, and the various denominations of Christianity are all legitimate faiths, to be located in Kant’s metaphorical outer circle, including the true religion of morality, his metaphorical inner circle.  However, some faiths can be relatively more adequate expressions of the religion of moral reason than others (Religion, pp. 86, 89-92, 95, and 97-98; see also Theology, pp. 262-265).”

In his particularly inflammatory fourth book, Kant probes the distinction between legitimate religious service and the pseudo-service of religious clericalism.  From our human perspective, religion—both revealed and natural—should be regarded as “the recognition of all duties as divine commands.”  Kant embraces the position of “pure rationalist,” rather than naturalism (which denies divine revelation) or pure supernaturalism (which considers it necessary), in that he accepts the possibility of revelation but does not dogmatically regard it as necessary.  He acknowledges scripture scholars’ valuable role in helping to disseminate religious truth so long as they respect “universal human reason as the supremely commanding principle.”  Christianity is both a natural and a revealed religion, and Kant shows how the gospel of Matthew expresses Kantian ethics, with Jesus as its wise moral teacher.  Following his moral teachings is the means to true religious service, whereas substituting an attachment to external worship allegedly required instead of moral behavior is mere “pseudo-service.

Superstition and fanaticism are typical aspects of such illusions and substituting superstitious rituals for morally virtuous conduct  is mere “fetishism.”  Kant denounces clericalism as promoting such misguided pseudo-service.  The ideal of genuine godliness comprises a combination of fear of God and love of God, which should converge to help render us persons of morally good will.  So what about such religious practices as prayer, church attendance, and participation in sacraments?  They can be either good expressions of devotion, if they bind us together in moral community (occupying Kant’s inner circle) or bad expressions of mere pseudo-service, if designed to ingratiate us with God (an accretion to the outer circle not rooted in the inner circle of genuine moral commitment).  Mere external shows of piety must never be substituted for authentic inner virtue (Religion, pp. 142-143, 147-153, 156-158, 162, 165, 167-168, 170, and 181-189; cf. Ethics, pp. 78-116). 

 Kant’s Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone provides a capstone for the revolutionary treatment of religion associated with his critical philosophy.” 2 

“So far as morality is based upon the conception of man as a free agent who, just because he is free, binds himself through his reason to unconditioned laws, it stands in need neither of the idea of another Being over him, for him to apprehend his duty, nor of an incentive other than the law itself, for him to do his duty. “

“at least it is man’s own fault if he is subject to such a need; and if he is, this need can be relieved through nothing outside himself: for whatever does not originate in himself and his own freedom in no way compensates for the deficiency of his morality. Hence for its own sake morality does not need religion at all (whether objectively, as regards willing, or subjectively, as regards ability [to act]); by virtue of pure practical reason it is self-sufficient. “ 2

1Brian Morley, Sources of Western Concepts of God, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, https://iep.utm.edu/

2   Wayne P. Pomerleau , Immanuel Kant: Philosophy of Religion, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, https://iep.utm.edu/

The Alpha and the Omega “In my beginning is my end”

About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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