Immanuel Kant on the Christian Life

[1] I was once teaching Immanuel Kant’s Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason[1] to a group of undergraduates. We were discussing Kant’s claim that Christ acts as a “prototype” for human morality. That is, Christ provides us with the most perfect example of how to be good, one that is worthy of our emulation. But as soon as Kant suggests this role for Christ, he turns around and says the following:

[E]ven if there never had been one human being capable of unconditional obedience to the law, the objective necessity that there be such a human being would yet be undiminished and self-evident. There is no need, therefore, of any example from experience to make the idea of a human being morally pleasing to God a model to us; the idea is present as model already in our reason. (6:62/81)

[2] A student raised his hand at this point: “Professor Grenberg, does this mean that Kant thinks Christ is redundant?” It was a good question! The problem is this: At the heart of Kant’s moral theory is a claim of human autonomy. To say that humans are “autonomous” is to say that we are beings capable of legislating to ourselves, and of being motivated to action by, a genuine law of morality. As Kant says above, the idea of morality is “present as model already in our reason.” If that is really true, then it seems that divine assistance in knowing, becoming or being moral—whether that be in the form of Christ or any other form of grace—really is, well, unnecessary, a “redundancy.”

[3] This conflict between autonomy and grace is, in fact, an important challenge that Kant presents to Christians. He does not want us to become complacent in our faith, trusting that, since God does everything, I need do nothing. He expresses the worry most emphatically in some early lecture notes compiled as the Lectures on Ethics[2]:

[I]f the law is presented in its full purity, nobody will be such a fool as to think he can fulfill it quite purely by his own efforts. On this side, therefore, there is not so much danger to be feared, as when a man never ventures anything, from faith. The latter is the rule of the lazy, who wish to do nothing at all themselves, but leave everything to God. (27:351/130)

[4] Being truly moral is hard. No one who is honest with herself would suggest that she is a perfect, unerring and unselfish person. We are faced, therefore, not just, as Kant suggests, with a temptation toward laziness (“This is too hard for me! I’ll just let God do it for me.”) but, really, with a temptation toward laziness grounded in fear. The fear is not that I’m too lazy to be moral, but that, given the immensity of the task before me, that it is simply more than I can accomplish on my own. The apparently lazy appeal to God to do all can thus also be a cowardly appeal.

[5] Kant’s claim of human autonomy stands in the face of this fear, challenging the fearful would-be moral agent to recognize her own capacities and to take responsibility for her own moral actions, character and life. According to Kant, “the [human] will is not merely subject to the [moral] law but subject to it in such a way that it must be viewed as also giving the law to itself and just because of this as first subject to the law (of which it can regard itself as the author).”[3] That is to say: Being moral isn’t something imposed upon us from the outside, as it were, as if we were being taken over by a foreign government called “morality.” Rather, we are inherently moral beings; in fact, morality would not enter the world if not for rational beings like us introducing it. The moral law to which we are subject is also one that we have “authored” ourselves. Surely, then, we are capable of being moral through our own efforts!

[6] And Kant cannot imagine morality working for us humans in any other way:

If we look back upon all previous efforts that have ever been made to discover the principle of morality, we need not wonder how why all of them had to fail. It was seen that the human being is bound to laws by his duty, but it never occurred to them that he is subject only to laws given by himself but still universal and that he is bound only to act in conformity with his own will, which, however, in accordance with nature’s end is a will giving universal law. (4:432/40)

[7] Essentially, Kant believes it would be beneath our dignity as rational agents to submit to a law coming from outside of us. We don’t need someone else’s law! We are capable of legislating ourselves and, indeed, of legislating ourselves well. The latter is confirmed by Kant’s conviction that the law we legislate to ourselves holds “universally.” When I determine, according to this self-legislated law, what I should do, I’m not just determining what works for me; I am, rather, determining what is required of any rational being like me. The former would be a law of egoism, or of what Kant sometimes calls “heteronomy.” But the latter is the true, universal law of morality.

[8] All of this is well and good, but where does it leave us in relation to Christ? It is too easy to take Kant’s assertion of autonomy as a rejection of Christianity. This is, however, a mistake that is often made by those seeking to make sense of Kantian morality. It is assumed that because we are autonomous, we are perfect, limitless, hermetically sealed, with no need of assistance from outside ourselves, whether that be from Christ or from another human being. Such assumptions are, however, false. Along with asserting our autonomy, Kant also asserts that we are finite, limited and evil, sometimes even wholly uninterested in the realization of that law which we have legislated to ourselves. In other words: to say that we know what it is to be moral, even that we have determined for ourselves what it is to be genuinely moral, is not to say that we are excellent moral beings. We have far too many ways in which we find ourselves falling short of these autonomously imposed demands. To say that we remain “autonomous” in situations like this when we fall short of moral demands is, therefore, simply to say that, well, we are responsible for our own failures; they are imputable to us.

[9] Kant thinks in fact, perhaps ironically, that all of us are inevitably subject to these self-incurred failures of morality, and this makes his claim of autonomy more consistent with a familiar Christian claim: there is, he says, a “radical innate evil in human nature (not any the less brought upon us by ourselves)” (6:32/56) than our autonomy was; and this radical evil is also self-evident and pervasive:

We can spare ourselves the formal proof that there must be such a corrupt propensity rooted in the human being, in view of the multitude of woeful examples that the experience of human deeds parades before us. If we wish to draw our examples from that state in which many a philosopher especially hoped to meet the natural goodliness of human nature, namely from the so-called state of nature,…we find vices of savagery more than sufficient to distance us from any such opinion. If we are however disposed to the opinion that we can have a better cognition of human nature known in its civilized state…, we must then hear out a long melancholy litany of charges against humankind – of secret falsity even in the most intimate friendship, so that a restraint on trust in the mutual confidence of even the best friends is reckoned a universal maxim of prudence in social dealings; of a propensity to hate him to whom we are indebted, to which a benefactor must always heed; of a hearty goodwill that nonetheless admits the remark that “in the misfortunes of our best friends there is something that does not altogether displease us”; and of many other vices yet hidden under the appearance of virtue, let alone those of which no secret is made…[W]e shall have enough of the vices of culture and civilization…to make us rather turn our eyes away from the doings of human beings, lest we be dragged ourselves into another vice, namely that of misanthropy.” (6:33-34/56-57)

[10] To say we are autonomous is thus not to assert that we are the sort of beings with no need of assistance external to us in our efforts to enact that law we have legislated to ourselves! We can, of our own choice—that is, autonomously—be led to the most horrible of choices, and that even in the face of our clear, autonomously realized understanding of what morality is. It seems we need God’s help.

[11] It is, however, hard to figure out exactly how a truly autonomous being takes on such divine assistance. If seeking a law external to ourselves was beneath our dignity, wouldn’t seeking assistance in its realization also be similarly undignified? That was certainly Kant’s worry when he told us that “doing nothing, from faith” was to be avoided. Autonomous beings like us should not take assistance, even divine assistance, lightly. Sitting back and letting anyone—including God!—do all the work really is beneath us. Kant thus first of all insists that we must make ourselves “antecedently worthy” (6:44/65) of any grace we would receive: we need, that is, to act in ways that show we are taking up and exercising our rational, autonomous selves. The reception of grace by autonomous beings cannot, therefore, be a mere giving up of ourselves. St. Augustine—and many Lutherans—might disagree with this. If one believes that humans are totally depraved, then giving oneself up to God might be just exactly what is called for. In his Confessions[4], Augustine therefore suggests that dying to himself was what he needed to accept grace. But Kant tells us, instead of letting go of ourselves, to get a hold of ourselves: start acting in ways worthy of your rational nature. Without doing things that move us toward morality, Kant thinks we are unworthy of divine assistance. And, apparently, he thinks God agrees with that.

[12] But what form would that divine assistance take, then, if we are already proving ourselves capable of acting morally through our own efforts? Isn’t my student right when he suggests that, on this picture, Christ seems redundant, that is, offering to us what we are already capable of ourselves? The mistake here is to think that doing one thing well is to live a moral life from a fully moral disposition. We can do individual things well, or partially well; and doing them well makes us worthy of God turning an eye toward us, so to speak. But really to have a perfect moral disposition is another thing. Here is the way Kant puts it. Our own ability to act well

only leads to a progression from bad to better extending to infinity[.] [I]t [therefore] follows that the transformation of the disposition of an evil human being into the disposition of a good human being is to be posited in the change of the supreme inner ground of the adoption of all the human being’s maxims in accordance with the ethical law, so far as this new ground (the new heart) is itself now unchangeable. Assurance of this cannot of course be attained by the human being naturally, neither via immediate consciousness nor via the evidence of the life he has hitherto led, for the depths of his own heart (the subjective first ground of his maxims) are to him inscrutable. (6:51/71, emphasis added)

[13] To become really good would mean to become fully good, down to one’s very roots or, as Kant puts it here, down to one’s “heart.” The problem is, though, that we cannot know this heart fully, or with certainty, and so we cannot know if we are fully, purely good. The grounds of our actions—our motives, the reasons we do what we do—are, in the end, inscrutable to us. We need, therefore, to look to Christ, and the example he gives, for a constant reminder of that perfect goal toward which we aim. He does get it. That is, he knows his heart, and knows it to be pure. We, however, need that inspiration and reminder that the goal we have set is really achievable. And we need that hope that, despite the impossibility of ever really knowing it, that perhaps we can move toward that perfect moral disposition.

[14] What, then, does Christ do for us in the end? Well, some Christians might be disappointed by Kant’s answer:

According to moral religion…(and, of all the public religions so far known, the Christian alone is of this type), it is a fundamental principle that, to become a better human being, everyone must do as much as it is in his power to do; and only then, if a human being has not buried his innate talent (Luke 19:12-16), if he has made use of the original predisposition to the good in order to become a better human being, can he hope that what does not lie in his power will be made good by cooperation from above. Nor is it absolutely necessary that the human being know in what this cooperation consists; indeed, it is perhaps unavoidable that, were the way it occurs revealed at a given time, different people would, at some other time, form different conceptions of it, and that in all sincerity. For here too the principle holds, “It is not essential, and hence not necessary, that every human being know what God does, or has done, for his salvation”; but it is essential to know what a human being has to do himself in order to become worthy of this assistance. (6:52/71-72)

[15] In the end, Kant’s advice is not to worry about what exactly Christ is or is not doing for us. Different persons may require different modes of assistance; and figuring out what comes from us and what comes from God is perhaps, in the end, also inscrutable to us. Kant’s conviction is, however, that each of us is capable of doing something, and that figuring out what that good thing of which we are capable is is our real moral task. Focusing too much on the unanswerable question of what God’s activity is will only distract and confuse us. Turn to Christ, or to Scripture, for inspiration and for courage; but keep your nose to the grindstone! Focus, that is, on what you know is good and on what good you are capable of bringing about in the world. Leave the rest, whatever it is, to God. That, I would suggest, is the challenge Kant presents to Christians.

[1] Immanuel Kant. Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, tr. by Allen Wood and George diGiavanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998). I will hereafter refer to this text by its Akademie volume and pagination, followed by the pagination of this Cambridge translation.

[2] Immanuel Kant. Lectures on Ethics, tr. by Peter Heath (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997). I will hereafter refer to this text by its Akademie volume and pagination, followed by the pagination of this Cambridge translation.

[3] Immanuel Kant. Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, tr by Mary Gregor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.431/39. I will hereafter refer to this text by its Akademie volume and pagination, followed by the pagination of this Cambridge translation.

[4] St. Augustine, Confessions, tr by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).