Religious Epistemology and the Kantian Revolution
This paper will survey the beliefs of several theologians from within the Christian tradition, with a view towards their outlook on religious epistemology. The paper will take special note on how the Kantian revolution, sparked by the views of David Hume, caused a definitive switch in theological understanding between the pre and post-Kantian thinkers.
The question of theological epistemology seems to me to be the central issue of doing a theological system. All other questions seem derivative from the different bases which theologians’ uses to ground their theological systems. Epistemology in general is the framework from which we discuss how one knows what one claims to know. Historically, things like experience, rationality, memory, perception and other “tools” have been used as a foundation or basis for knowledge. In recent times however, the question of knowledge and foundations have fallen out of favor among postmodern thinkers. The question of religious epistemology in particular seems to even more troubling. Do we know what we know because of religious authorities, scriptural texts, direct experiences, perception and the rest, or do we have special categories like “faith” which is not-grounded by any normal epistemic means? Is theology merely constructed as a human enterprise or should our theologies be driven by human knowledge gains in the sciences and humanities? Does the question of particularly Christian religious epistemology make this even more difficult to solve? Can just any theology be tagged “Christian” regardless of its assumptions and conclusions?
This paper will survey these types of questions as they have been answered by numerous theologians from the past and present. The grand divide of the theological traditions seem to be driven by the philosophical tsunami caused by two giants in philosophy, David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Their contributions to the epistemological debate at large set in motion drastic and seemingly lasting changes in theological development. The paper will show how this happened and give a brief response to the Kantian epistemological move as it has presented itself in theological arenas.
The first theologian to be surveyed is Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (352-430 A.D.) Augustine’s conversion story is perhaps one of the more famous stories of the ancient world and he wrote volumes on theology and doctrine. In his famous debate with the British monk Pelagius, Augustine sets out in “On Nature and Grace” his views on the subject of Christian perfection, focusing on the questions of free will, grace and the role of works in salvation. There are several interesting things to note about the debate between the two. Both of them considered themselves to be well within the Catholic tradition. Neither had any interest in being seen as schismatic. Both men, even though deeply opposed to each other in the issues that the paper focused on, both saw their teachings on the subject from within the Scriptural and traditional understanding by earlier church fathers on the subject. It is noted in the introduction that Pelagius even quotes an earlier work by Augustine that seemed to be in Pelagius’ favor! This is all characteristic of their approaches to religious epistemology. For Augustine the word of God was central to the question of how one does theology. The word of God was accompanied by what is usually called the Apostolic tradition. This was seen as the teachings of the Apostles as handed down from one generation of disciples to another. The question of whether the Apostolic tradition was on an equal par with the Scripture is a fun one for another paper on another day. But both Pelagius and Augustine quote numerous church fathers to support their positions in the discussion. For example, Augustine notes that Pelagius quotes the Bishop of Rome Xystus as saying “God has allowed men the freedom of their will, so that by living in purity and without sin they may become like unto God.” (Halton 1992, 82) Augustine later argues that this quote “were really the words of Sextus the philosopher, not of Xystus the Christian” (Halton 1992,82) The truth of that claim has been debated back and forth and while it is interesting to note its place in the debate, more germane to this paper is the fact that Augustine was attacking Pelagius on the basis that non-Christian philosophers were not part of the discussion. They had no authority to speak on the issue.
Augustine quotes the scriptures numerous times in the discussion. One can count over a hundred references to the scriptures in “On Nature and Grace”. In his conclusion of this discussion Augustine gives some references to his attitude towards the scripture. In 69.83 he says “Thus it is said, ‘and his commandments are not heavy’, so that whoever should consider that the inspired (emphasis added) statement that they ‘are not heavy’ could only mean that there is a disposition of heart…” It is clear that Augustine’s argument depends on his understanding that the scriptures are inspired, as taught by the Apostle Paul and referenced in other places in Augustine’s writings. Right after that quote he states “Concerning what is said to Israel in Deuteronomy, if we interpret it with piety, with veneration, and in a spiritual sense, this text has the same meaning.” One can argue over his allegorical reading of Deuteronomy, but it is clear that it has authority for him.
Augustine also faults Pelagius for his misinterpretations of the scripture. He comments in 19.21 that “how Pelagius tries to present human nature as if it were entirely without fault and how, against the clearest of evidence of God’s scriptures, he prefers that ‘wisdom of speech’…”. It is obvious that Augustine holds that scripture is an arbiter of the discussion. Augustine’s attitude toward the miraculous also comes up in this debate, although it is not the central focus of the discussion. In 26.29 he says “But God himself, when, through the ‘one mediator of God and men, the man Christ Jesus,’ he spiritually heals a sick person or raises a dead one, that is, justifies the ungodly.” While it is clear that it is not the focus of what he is saying, it is also clear that he uses one and arguably two examples of supernatural events, a resurrection and (more problematically) a healing to buttress his argument from analogy. He refers to the physical existence of Adam and Eve in 37.44, and their children in 38.45. He refers to God creating man in 43.50. And of course in his numerous other works he cites many miracles from the scriptures.
One can also point the limited role of reason for Augustine. His famous credo “I believe that I might understand” is illustrated in the volume under discussion. For example, in 58.68 he says “Consequently, if we think rightly, we ought to be grateful…” He earlier refers repeatedly to the necessity of being led by the Spirit. Are these contradictory notions for Augustine? It seems that his understanding of the two was that the Spirit, speaking through the scriptures, adjusted, corrected and admonished the reason of a person, requiring the person to adjust her thinking to be in line with what God had revealed in the scriptures, and what had been “faithfully” repeated by the Fathers in good standing. He reprimands Pelagius for “thinking outside the scriptural box” as it were.
In summary on Augustine, for him scriptural authority in connection with the faithful statements (deemed faithful for their adherence to scriptures – but again that is a discussion for another day!) of the earlier disciples, set the limits of his understanding of Christian religious epistemology. He does not refer to mystical experiences, non-Christian philosophers or to the impossibility of miracles and or supernatural events as part of his argumentation.
The next thinker we turn to is Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274 A.D.) One of the more prolific writers and thinkers in history, Aquinas “the dumb ox” is still studied seriously in secular and Christian contexts all over the world. In Book One of his Summa Contra Gentiles, he notes that the goal of philosophy (indistinguishable in many ways from theology in his day) should be:
“So it is that, according to His own statement, divine Wisdom testifies that He has assumed flesh and come into the world in order to make the truth known:
‘For this was I born, and for this I came into the world, that I should give testimony to the truth.’ (John 18:37). The Philosopher himself establishes that first philosophy is the science of truth, not of any truth, but of that truth which is the origin of all truth, namely, which belongs to the first principle whereby all things are”. (Aquinas 1975, 60)
For Aquinas then even his philosophical statement about truth contains his view of the supernatural or miraculous – “divine Wisdom assumed flesh”. He also states that:
“There is a two fold mode of truth in what we profess about God. Some truths about God exceed all the ability of the human reason. Such is the truth that God is triune. But there are some truths which the natural reason also is able to reach. Such are that God exists, that He is one, and the like. In fact, such truths about God have been proved demonstratively by the philosophers, guided by the light of the natural reason.” (Aquinas 1975, 61)
Much more so than Augustine, Aquinas elevates the role of reason as a potential source of basic knowledge, often called general revelation. In assimilating Aristotle, Aquinas added a whole new potential area for mining “truth”. For him, the truths that could be ascertained by reason provided, much like for Clement and Origin in an earlier age, a way for Gentiles to be “prepared” for the Gospel. Earlier Catholic theologians had postulated that Greek philosophy had served the same role for Gentiles that the Old Testament had for Jews. Aristotle had provided the basis for what Aquinas would call the “five ways”, or proofs for the existence of God. Aquinas sees this as an example of what the Apostle Paul was referring to in Romans 1:20 where he says “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes. His eternal power and divine nature have been clear seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.”
This expansion of the role of reason for Aquinas was never however to be seen in competition with the place of scripture and church tradition. It is an additional light and can give knowledge of some things, but never replaces scripture. Scripture for Aquinas serves a role “beyond” reason. Reason accordingly can only take a person to a certain point, but beyond this point scripture must take over. He states that:
“For these ‘secrets of divine Wisdom’ (Job 11:6) the divine Wisdom itself, which knows all things to the full, has deigned to reveal to men. It reveals its own presence, as well as the truth of its teaching and inspiration, by fitting arguments; and in order to confirm those truths that exceed natural knowledge”. (Aquinas 1975, 66)
Truths from scripture are then of a higher order than truths known through reason. Like Augustine, Aquinas uses argumentation from the scriptures to make his points. The role of reason is used by Aquinas both in ordinary argumentation and in preparation for reception of the Gospel.
Aquinas’ attitude towards the miraculous is also clear. On page 72 of the Summa, he affirms the raising of the dead, miraculous healings, supernatural gifts of knowledge, and acknowledges that the books of the ancient prophets and newer prophets are held in “veneration”. As with Augustine, Aquinas saw no contradiction at all between the supernatural and the power of human reason. He did elevate reason above the role given to it by Augustine, but in both cases faith in what the scriptures revealed was given the ultimate role. Neither man argued from mystical experiences nor did they appeal to mere sensory data. But both believed the scriptural accounts as given and that these accounts were neither fairy tales nor parables in general, but rather actual accounts of what occurred in the real world of space and time.
The next thinker we will look at is Martin Luther (1483-1546). Considered by most as the initiator of the reformation, Luther changed the western world by his opposition of papal authority and teachings. In his Bondage of the Will, he debates the Catholic humanist scholar Erasmus over the issue of free will and predestination. Much like Augustine and Pelagius, Luther and Erasmus’s discussion over free will in set in terms of what the scriptures, the church Fathers, and human reason as guided by the scriptures, actually teaches. Where Luther and Erasmus part company, is the use of reason as guided by human thinking alone. By this I mean in contrast with the attitude of Aquinas, who as we saw before thought that reason could bring pagans along the right path, but not the whole way. Erasmus was very much in line with Aquinas on this point. He had studied the classics and thought that there was much to offer there. By extreme contrast, Luther saw unaided reason as a “whore”. In the same vein as Tertullian, (What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?) Luther lashed out at Erasmus and argued that only the scriptures can teach the church properly. He states:
“My doctrines are fortified with mighty Scripture proofs; now, if there is anyone who has not drunk so deep of them and is not so firmly attached to them as to be impervious to the trivial, nonsensical arguments which Erasmus puts up, …no reply from me can put him right…To those who have drunk in the Spirits’ teaching in my books, we have given enough…But it is not surprising if those who read without the Spirit are tossed hither and thither, as a reed is tossed by every wind that blows.” (Luther 1957, 63)
Luther is driven by the authority of the Sacred Scriptures. Contrary to both of our earlier thinkers, Luther does not uphold church tradition in the same authoritative manner. He does however quote many of the fathers, especially Augustine, to prove his arguments. But his constant theme is “What do the scriptures say?”
Luther faults Erasmus several times for his willingness to go to sceptics for “evidence”. For example he says “There you said that you would take up the Sceptics’ position if the inviolable authority of Holy Scripture and the Church’s decisions permitted you to do so, so little do you like assertions”. (Luther 1957, 66) Luther responds to this kind of argument and to the argument given by Augustine and Aquinas when he says:
“Is it not enough to have submitted your judgment to Scripture? Do you submit to the Church as well? – why, what can the Church settle that Scripture did not settle first?…What is this new-fangled religion of yours, this novel sort of humility, that by your own example, you would take from us power to judge men’s decisions and make us defer uncritically to human authority? Where does God’s written Word tell us to do that?” (Luther 1957, 69)
In this statement you see the heart of the Protestant Reformation’s idea of Sola Scriptura – only the scriptures are authoritative, standing over both human reason and church authority. This statement also shows his attitude towards Catholic mysticism, even though he was quite taken with some of it, in particular Eckhart. But whatever mysticism claimed to show, it was not to be seen in any way as authoritative as the Holy Scriptures revealed by God. In Bondage of the Will, Luther cites literally hundreds of scriptures to back up his view on the predestination/free will argument. Over and over again he challenges Erasmus to submit his view to the Scriptures and therefore change his position. Luther believes the Scriptures are truer then anything we might think or believe. He states “The Holy Spirit is no Sceptic, and the things He has written in our hearts are not doubts or opinions but assertions – surer and more certain than sense and life”. (Luther 1957, 70)
Another central point for Luther is this discussion is the centrality of the role of Jesus Christ. Luther repeatedly notes how Erasmus’ discussions of God’s love and mercy have no mention of the role of Christ. Even a Jew or a Gentile could write that says Luther. This is critical because like Aquinas here, whatever it is that man could know, they could not know of Jesus through reason, but only through the revealed word of God concerning him.
Luther’s attitude towards the Scriptural accounts is marked throughout this work and his many others. While he “reasons” and “adduces” his way through the Scriptures, he clearly believes that the accounts recorded in the Scriptures are true accounts, reported by eye witnesses and faithfully written down under inspiration by the Holy Spirit. His invite to Erasmus is to put aside human unaided reason and do the same.
What is important in the work of Augustine, Aquinas and Luther is to see their commonality and their differences. The distinctions between their positions are all “in-house debates” as it were, discussions between the proper role of faith and reason, the limits of reason, the proper role of church authority and so on. The issue that does not come up is doubting the Scriptures themselves. For all three Scripture is given the highest role in all their theologies, and none questioned the authority nor the veracity of the records. We could multiply numerous other Christian theologians of the first 1700 years of the church and find the same attitude. In many cases even the heretics tried to argue from the scriptural accounts, showing even more that the miraculous worldview of the Bible was not seen as contradictory to reason or to experience. They did not argue for the resurrection, rather they argued from the resurrection. That one could call oneself a Christian and deny the miracles recorded in the Bible was simply unthinkable. Those who did were deemed non Christians. The foils of Augustine and Luther, Pelagius and Erasmus, were not attacked because of their denial of scriptural authority, rather it was their poor understanding of what the scriptures said that caused the discussions in view here. Christian theology, properly understood, was theology based on the Scriptural accounts, which were in line with reason and experience. These historical events dictated their theology. These events were recorded by eyewitnesses and protected by the Holy Spirit. But all Gehenna breaks out in the Enlightenment and Christian theology is about to undergo wrenching changes.
While there is much to say about what happens in the Enlightenment, sufficient for this paper is a brief introduction and then focusing on Hume and Kant. Early in the enlightenment period thinkers like Descartes are moving away from Papal authority, and Scriptural authority as well. For them human reason is a sufficient and trustworthy guide to knowledge. Descartes’ view on epistemology was that empirical facts of any kind are not trustworthy. Our senses are too easily fooled. A stick “appears” to bend under water or when shaken. Therefore we are to trust reason. In what many philosophers note as the “Cartesian circle” Descartes promotes reason as the only sure way to know anything, and then later sneaks God in to protect and insure that our reason will not be hindered by demons and the like. In reaction to Descartes and Aquinas as well, the Scotsman David Hume responds. Hume (1711 – 1776) in his An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding sets out the empiricist response. Hume states that “the most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation” (Hume 1988, 20). He argues that ideas only, and he means only, arise from previously experienced sensations of one sort or another. In direct contradiction to Descartes he states that:
“But though our thought seems to possess this unbounded liberty, we shall find, upon a nearer examination, that it is really confined within very narrow limits, and that all this creative power of the minds amounts to no more than the faculty of compounding, transposing, augmenting, or diminishing the materials afforded us by the sense and experience”. (Hume 1988, 21)
In this argument Hume believed that he had completely undermined not only rationalism per se, but also the grand arguments for God which had preoccupied the scholastic thinkers such as Aquinas, Anselm and others. One could not go beyond sense perception and call it knowledge. If all knowledge is based solely on sense experience and not on rational paradigms, then all talk of God is also problematic. He states “The idea of God, as meaning an infinitely intelligent, wise, and good Being, arises from reflecting on the operations of our own mind, and augmenting, without limit, those qualities of goodness and wisdom”. (Hume 1988, 22) He challenges those who dispute with him to provide evidence for God which is not based on human sources, by this meaning the airy castles built in the scholastic times. Not only had he nailed theology and rationalism, but as a side effect he undermines science as well. Without a proper understanding of causality which counts as knowledge, science is left in the same lurch as theology, building sand castles based on mere augmentation and inference and having no substance. For him speaking of cause and effect goes beyond the evidence we have at hand.
Waking from his “dogmatic slumber” by the challenge laid out by Hume, Immanuel Kant takes on the challenge to save knowledge and science from the skepticism so powerfully demonstrated by Hume. Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason agrees with Hume on the need for empirical demonstration in order for knowledge to be certain. He establishes two “arenas” as it were. The first is that of time and space (the real world) which consists of phenomenon, none of which can be known in themselves, but still can be measured. This arena is where knowledge is possible. The second arena is that of belief/faith. We can believe all sorts of things, as long as they are non-contradictory, but we cannot claim these things as knowledge. Kant argued that the human mind sees causal connections in the world because the mind has built in categories, which by nature divide and connect all perceived data. In this way Kant has “limited reason to make room for faith”. Hume’s critique on religion therefore does not obtain, because religion is not a matter of evidence or rational thinking, but rather it is a matter of faith, safe and secure from such trifling issues as reasons, evidence and so on. Kant had also rescued science by the use of the categories, which explain the connections that are so crucial to science. Another byproduct of Kant’s thought was his distinction between the phenomenon, which can be measured and “known”, and the noumena or thing-in-itself. Kant was sure that our minds controlled our perceptions via the categories, and so all our perceptual data was really distinguished by our minds. We can’t really know the thing as it really is. We can only know what our perceptions, shaped by the categories, tell us. In this way Kant established a precedent that one could separate what one thinks about God, from the reality of who or what God really is. This becomes a crucial point for thinkers like John Hick and Gordon Kaufman and others much later on. As we will see later on, I think that the Kantian “revolution” is very problematic in some key ways.
What is the net result of all this philosophical movement? I would argue that not only was the philosophical world dramatically changed but the theological world in many ways was devastated. For the Christian theologian, the world had been wiped clean and one had to find an entirely new way of doing ones craft. Shortly after Kant, two prominent thinkers showed what directions the effects were going to go. Friedrich Schliermacher reduced the faith to “a feeling of dependence”. Soren Kierkegaard talked about faith as the antithesis to reason or knowledge. Truth was subjective and faith had no connection to history. Already the schism was obvious. Whereas for people like Augustine, Aquinas and Luther, the question on faith and reason was which one was primary and which was secondary. After Hume/Kant, faith and reason are divorced and it is an ugly one at that. This has a dramatic effect on the other thinkers that we will look at. Without fail each one has to reconstitute Christianity in an entirely new way from its historical antecedents. Let us look at how each does that.
Rudolph Bultmann (1894-1976) takes the Kantian perspective that knowledge about the world is dependent upon what can be observed, that is through the scientific method. Much of his writing is at the same time as the Vienna Circle, the heart of Logical Positivism. He says this quite forcefully:
“We cannot use electric lights and radios and, in the event of illness, avail ourselves of modern medical and clinical means and at the same time believe in the spirit and wonder world of the New Testament. And if we suppose that we can do that ourselves, we must be clear that we can represent this as the attitude of Christian faith only by making the Christian proclamation unintelligible and impossible for our contemporaries”. (Bultmann 1984, 4)
Bultmann calls his project “demythologizing”, by which he meant that one needs to separate the “real” message of Christianity from the mythological world. He notes that “That is ‘mythological’ which cannot have happened, because it: (cannot be established in accordance with the general rules of science (Miracles are impossible)…” (Bultmann 1984, 125) His epistemology is based on his commitment to naturalism and existentialism. Science presents the world as it can be measured, and as it can be used. Here he is clearly dependent on Kant’s dual world scenario. The ancient mythological world is a pre-scientific world that no modern person could accept. The new hermeneutical approach releases the relevant and timeless message.
For Bultmann, like Kierkegaard and Barth, the events or facts of history are not part of the significance of the life of faith. History is then relative. This frees the message from the accidents of history and liberates the faith to its rightful place – that of being about the central problem of man’s existence. The issue is not about what happened in a mystical past, but rather how the event of existential faith shatters the brokenness of a person’s heart. The person is freed from their fallenness (in the Heideggerian sense) and from their self-suffiency which leads to pride. This for Bultmann is the existential encounter between God and a person. It is completely separated from the world of science. For him science has destroyed the mythological world. Grace from God comes and rescues the person from the world which he cannot control. This encounter brings about a radically new self understanding. The change is internal and world shattering. The Christian faith has no connection to the supernatural or mythological world. He notes that “Certainly, faith in its relation to its object is not provable. But as Herrmann already taught us, the fact that faith cannot be proved is precisely its strength.” (Bultmann 1984, 114) Here Kierkegaard’s influence is so clear. He had argued shortly after Kant, that faith could not be based on any historical event and Bultmann echoes that. So faith is free from the fetters of historical events or proof of any kind. This encounter is completely private between God and the person.
The next thinker we will look at is H. Richard Niebuhr (1894-1962). Niebuhr was also a neo-Kantian and this shows up prominently in his work. He pointed to two types of history, internal and external. God is separate from history and can only be known through revelation. But this revelation comes in history to a community. This is germane only to that community and is not necessarily applicable to other communities. But the fact that it is in history does not mean it is supernatural. Internal history related to Jesus is a decision to make him the Christ and Lord. Like Bultmann, this is entirely unrelated to actual events in history. He notes that:
“There is no continuous movement from an objective inquiry into the life of Jesus to a knowledge of him as the Christ who is our Lord. Only a decision of the self, a leap of faith, a metanoia or revolution of the mind can lead from observation to participation and from observed to lived history”. (Niebuhr 1941, 83)
In this passage Niebuhr makes the same leap from the non-miraculous actual state of the world into the world of faith, where the history is our history, shared by members of our community. Like Kierkegaard, Niebuhr values the personal aspect of internal history, because it gives value to lives. It makes subjects and selves out of objects and bodies. It is lived history instead of observed history. External history is cold, lifeless, and mechanical. It does not change the person. It does not provide stories that give value and memories that can shape a community. This emphasis on community distinguishes him from Bultmann’s stress on the individual. He argued that this internal historical leap must have an outward action that accompanies. In this he matches the existential leap with a commitment to his own version of the social gospel.
In both Bultmann and Niebuhr, one sees that their epistemological position is radically different from our earlier thinkers. Both are moved by their understanding of modern science to abandon any sense that the Scriptures contain actual accounts of miracles. In their case, this leads them to an subjectivist position where history and verifiable facts are in irrelevant to the “real” issue of Christianity; faith in the encounter between God and man. This enables them to “rescue” the Christian faith from its embarrassing past, and respond to the “cultural despisers” of their day; much like Schliermacher and Kierkegaard did in theirs. This also enables them to keep science and faith in conversation, with science ruling in its Kantian shaped sphere and faith ruling in its.
In some ways our next thinkers take the subjective leap for religious knowledge and understanding to a whole new level. Paul Tillich (1886-1965) based his theology on his own somewhat unique reading of Kant and in addition a heavy dose of Heidegger. Like Bultmann and Niebuhr, Tillich starts with the presupposition that the modern scientific world has reduced the supernatural world view to ashes and therefore Christianity has to be understood in an entirely new way. But science alone does not offer the right answers. Science/humanism, supernaturalism and all dualistic schemas all do not offer the right answers for him. For Tillich the question of what God is a preeminent one. This must be understood as “moving” between two opposite poles, that of eternal truth and our own temporal situation. He believed that the literal fundamentalist reading of scripture lead nowhere. He goes so far as to say that fundamentalism can be construed as “demonic”. He says:
“Fundamentalism fails to make contact with the present situation, not because it speaks from beyond every situation, but because it speaks from a situation of the past. It elevates something finite and transitory to infinite and eternal validity. In this respect fundamentalism has demonic traits. It destroys the humble honesty of the search for truth, it splits the conscience of its thoughtful adherents, and it makes them fanatical because they are forced to suppress elements of truth of which they are dimly aware”. (Tillich 1951, 3)
Tillich establishes what he calls the “method of correlation”. The correlation is between God and humans, in that God speak to the human situation according to whatever the questions are that have arisen from that situation. Revelation is not about the particular symbol but rather how God gives eternal answers which are beyond all symbolism. God then is the “ground of all being” in general and the “ground of my being” in particular. From Heidegger, Tillich gained the idea of God as Being, which is about all that is. The individual being or self is separate from the world and therefore is left to figure out its way in the world. Reason ultimately is inadequate to discover truths of the eternal because it is finite. When one is conflicted in that reason cannot adequately grasp the eternal, one must go beyond it Revelation. Reason does play a role within revelation and allows one to systematically explain; in as far as it can be explained. This leads one to a mystical experience with the infinite, which is unbounded, and ineffable to a certain degree. The mystical moment brings a sense of unity with God. Thus Jesus becomes a picture of this unity as a symbol because Jesus was united and chose to resist the temptation to seek out his own interests.
Jesus for Tillich is the ultimate symbol of the absolute Being or God, which is related in different Kantian categories such as causality, time and space. Potentiality and essences is Being-Itself. This ultimate expression of Kant’s episteme is found in the mysterium. This “mystical a-priori” is overlaid with the symbolic Christian message. God cannot be known and must only be experienced in mystical experience. Like Bultmann, Tillich sees the existential state of humans as the key issue. Taking the concept of “fallenness” or thrownness from Heidegger, Tillich postulates the idea of “tension” between fallen being/self and ultimate Being/God.
The next thinker is Ian Barbour. A contemporary theologian, Barbour tries to stake out the different positions that describe the relation between science and religion. He describes himself as a process thinker who accepts the theology of Nature position. By this he means that he takes seriously religious tradition, which includes religious experience and revelation as seen in history. But several traditional doctrines must be changed to be in accordance with the modern view of science, in particular quantum theory. An example of his methodology can be seen when he says
“Our understanding of the general characteristics of nature will affect our models of God’s relation to nature. Nature is today understood to be a dynamic evolutionary process with a long history of emergent novelty, characterized throughout by chance and law. The natural order is ecological, interdependent, and multileveled…” (Barbour, 1997, 100)
He describes his attitude towards science (the natural world) as that of a “critical realist”. This distinguishes him from the classic realist and the instrumentalist positions. Here he aligns himself with Nils Bohr and stresses with Heisenberg the relationship between the observed and observer. This makes the world uncertain and indeterminate.
Barbour rejects the classical Christian view, which he calls the “monarchial” model. He argues that several problems, such as human freedom, theodicy, patriarchy, religious intolerance, evolution and law and chance in nature, are the reasons for his rejection. In his book Religion and Science he makes these assertions with very little argument nor does he offer potential answers to the complaints from within the classical view. He offers instead the process view and gives a few arguments for it. What is revealed in his argument is that His epistemology assumes that modern science, as exemplified in evolutionary thought and quantum thought, has presented the theologian with a dilemma. Much like the rest of our post-Kantian theologians he rejects supernaturalism as seen as the pre-modern, pre-scientific view, and now must recast Christianity in a new way. His version of process thought sees God as omnipresent and omniscient but these terms are defined differently than in the classical view. God is present and affected in history. This static view of God then is not at war with science because God is present in the creativity shown by human beings. God is the very supplier of originality. The epistemology that he depends upon is that of scientific naturalism. His theology is constructed in such a way as to keep science and religion in constant harmony.
In a similar way, but with a few changes, comes our last theologian Gordon Kaufman. Agreeing with the rest of the post-Kantians that the supernatural world view is kaput, Kaufman argues that we must construct a theology and that its primary utility is that of pragmatics – how should we then live as opposed to what do we know. Unlike Barbour though, Kaufman has no use for experiences as knowledge, nor does he like Tillich’s correlation method. After disparaging Christianity as the mother of all the ills and evil of the planet, Kaufman curiously leaps to the conclusion that the Christian symbolism is still the best possible model. But this must be interpreted in a “radically inclusive” way, because of the pluralism of the modern situation. This model reflects his pragmatism and his neo-Kantian presuppositions. He argues that
“The history of modern theology has been the story of repeated defeats in this unceasing struggle with secular orientations and knowledges. As this embarrassing history has unfolded, it has become increasingly clear that theological assertions and claims can no longer be given the privileged position they once had. They must be – and in fact are – reviewed and reformulated constantly like all other claims to knowledge; and the criteria for this critical and constructive theological work – as with all other human cognitive activity – are rooted in nothing other that our human powers to reflect, to reason and to judge.” (Kaufman 1993, 22)
Having said this he argues that to state that ones constructed system can be idolatrous in that we assert them to be true. Theology can be justified as a central project in that our constantly evolving constructions give better and better utilities about life – we must be inclusive, pluralistic, kind to the 3rd world, the environment, and women and so on. In this sense Kaufman is the logical extension of where so many theologians have been heading since Kant. If religion is “safe” within the confines of the realm of which we can believe but have no knowledge about, then he is consistent in arguing that all religions are purely human reflection. God is the ultimate mystery. All claims to knowledge are idolatrous and we need to constantly reconstruct our theologies to better fit the modern condition. To talk of experience, or biblical supernaturalism or correlations is to argue for some kind of privilege accessible only to the believer, and Kaufman is trying to avoid this.
Let me draw some conclusions from this survey. One can clearly see the impact that the Hume/Kant revolution had on religious epistemology. For the great majority of church history, as reflected in Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther, the supernatural worldview was quite acceptable and very much in accord with reason. They viewed the Scriptures as authoritative, and wrestled with side issues of whether patristic or papal decrees were on the same level with the scriptures. They wrestled with the proper placing of faith and reason, but never saw them as enemies. They all believed that the scriptures were eyewitness accounts of real events, not mystical deliriums. In other words there was no separation of the spheres of knowledge and belief. Religious belief was not some privileged category, where anything, no matter how non-sensical or contradictory, could believed in “faith”. It was based on the same type of foundations that other knowledge claims were based on. Jesus healing the paralytic was believed on the same basis that Caesar crossed the Rubicon. The scriptures were very clear to distinguish eyewitness events and testimony from myths and fairy tales. The events usually happened in front of believers and non-believers alike. The “science” of the day was sometimes challenged (e.g. Paul in Athens on the descent of the human race!). The veracity of their truth claims was further buttressed by the eyewitness’s willingness to die for what they said they saw. Many people die for causes of all shapes and sizes – but who has or would ever die for a known lie? Who would die for something they “made up around the campfire one night”? Not very likely.
The revolution inspired by Hume and Kant has radically altered this picture for so many. Notice that whatever way around the problem they found, all the post-Kantian thinkers we looked at started with the same basic epistemological presuppositions;
Modern science has disproved the Biblical worldview (three tiered, full of fairies and demons, anti-scientific, etc) This critique is simple a “given” (Bultmann 1984, 10-12)
All claims to knowledge in the Christian religion must be in accordance with the modern understanding of science – whatever that may be.
Religious epistemology can be founded on foundations that have nothing to do with ordinary knowledge claims. In this sense they are separated (in the Kantian sense) and have a unique starting point which depends on the theological constructor.
The Christian symbolism is still useful when reinterpreted to fit modern sensibilities.
Many of our writers used pejorative terms such as “fundamentalist”, “idolatrous” or
even “demonic” to describe those who held onto the classical Christian view. The common stereotype is that of H.L Mencken’s reporting of the Scopes Trial William – Jennings Bryant as the well meaning but clueless, anti-intellectual buffoon (always good to have our stereotypes done for us by such “nice” people like Nazi – sympathizer Mencken). Why science couldn’t even happen without the modern naturalistic worldview! A biology professor at University of Colorado at Boulder made the statement that no biologist could possibly believe in God since Darwin. I asked him what he thought of Pasteur as a biologist and he chose not to reply.
This would all be acceptable in some sense if in fact Hume and Kant had really won the day, but is that really the case? Let us briefly revisit Hume. Hume’s’ epistemology is allegedly based on experience. Some sensual experience is necessary for any rational construction even to begin. Fine, lets start there. Did Hume have a sensual experience of the knowledge claim that he made? None is reported. Much like his descendents the Logical Positivists could not uphold the Verificational Principle, which was not valid by its own precepts (the principle that all knowledge be verified by the senses could not itself be verified by the senses!) But lets ignore the self-referential incoherence for the sake of the discussion for just a moment here. Suppose we grant his claim – that all knowledge is based on experience. Now we revisit his famous argument on miracles. First he claims that no human had claimed to have seen someone raised from the dead. Isn’t this exactly the claim that Christianity had made and that Hume is arguing against? But let us put this aside as well. He argues for him to believe that someone had witnessed a miracle, they would have to be the type of witnesses who were beyond reproach, good repute, not given to sensationalism and so on. After giving an impressive list of necessary credentials, Hume then gives an account of some people who fit his criteria to the nth degree. Does he follow his own criterion? No he denies the claim and it is worth noting how he does that. He says:
“Where shall we find such a number of circumstances, agreeing to the corroboration of one fact? And what have we to oppose to such a cloud of witnesses, but the absolute impossibility or miraculous nature of the evens, which they relate? And this surely, in the eyes of all reasonable people, will alone be regarded as a sufficient refutation”. (Hume 1988, 113-114)
Well, who wants to be unreasonable? While there is so much more to Hume’s argument than we can go into here, at the end he appeals to the very “miraculous” nature of the claim and then appeals to “reasonable” people. This reveals his own claims to be nothing but prejudice based on an a-priori commitment to naturalism, something not allowed nor accounted for by his own epistemological approach. Where does any of that come from? Is it based on observations or sensual experiences? Again, not are reported, nor can one find such a-priori commitments from observing nature and the world today. In nature and history there are many singularities (events which cannot be repeated – the splitting of a particular atom, the Miracle Mets, etc) and since this is the case than regularity of the “laws” (an inappropriate word for Hume to use – given his predisposition against the transcendent lawgiver) is nothing but particular regularity, at a given time observed by a given individual. At best he should have modified his claim to say that, as far as he and all his acquaintances had ever observed, no one has risen from the dead, but he had no epistemic grounds to make the far reaching claim that he did make.
Given this, it is problematic in my view that Kant so distinctly separated the realm of what can be known from the realm of what can be believed. It was not necessary and it had the distinct effect of giving religions a privileged status – for better and worse. For better – reason had not been limited to make room for faith. But as our current religious scene shows this perhaps has not been for the better (As Chesterton quipped, once man abandons God – they will believe in anything), and the spiritual marketplace is bizarre beyond comprehension. Rocket ships behind comets, space channellers and on and on. Kant’s perceived limitation did not stop Hume’s ideological descendents from taking Hume to his logical extension and the Positivists ruled the roost for about twenty years in the philosophical community. Strangely, very few philosophers claim to be positivists today, but I think many scientists do or at least act like they do. For worse – faith and reason are now separate and antagonistic.
This has affected all of our thinkers that we looked at. All their theologies start with the abandonment of the historic Christian faith, and then find their own way out of the perceived problem. This is why I went into some detail as to the conclusions of each of the theologians. They had to be “creative” considering their starting epistemic positions. But does that mean that whatever is created is Christian? Suppose we claimed to be “Wellingtonites”. We believe that the Duke of Wellington defeated Napoleon in the famous battle at Waterloo. But with the passage of time we decide that the battle never happened and it really didn’t matter whether or not Wellington or Napoleon even lived. In what sense could we be called “Wellingtonites” and have it mean anything? If one denies what Jesus did and what the Apostles and other contemporaries claim that he did, why hang on to the name Christian? In Kaufman this is most obvious. Nietzsche and Feuerbach are refreshingly consistent compared with Kaufman. As seen by many in and out of class, once removed from any actual historicity, Christianity is purely symbolic. And as symbolism changes over time, it cannot be shocking when many who start with the same epistemology, start to change the metaphors (Ruether, Re-imaging conference, etc). While I do think that there is an important existential element within Christianity, Bultmann, Niebuhr and Tillich cannot reduce Christianity to the existential encounter. If one can have no knowledge of the content of an event, how can one have an encounter that is somehow based on a non-event? While I agree with all of them that science is important, I do not think historic Christianity is at odds with real science. Since I do not agree with Kant’s strictures, I don’t privilege Christianity’s truth claims from any other truth claims. Either they have epistemic grounding or they don’t. If they don’t – then throw them out. If they do – then everything changes.
Another issue is that if one must change one’s theology to be in line with science, then what “science” must we be in accord with? All of our writers believed in the Darwinian framework, but this has become increasingly problematic. Classic Darwinian gradualists like Dawkins exchange verbal rocks with the neo-Darwinian punctuated equilibriums like Eldridge and both sides claim the other side has no evidence to prove their claim. There are numerous claims as to what quantum theory is, and no consensus among the theoreticians. In both of these examples, cited by many of our theologians, it is very problematic that one should constrain ones theology to a position that may well be overthrown within our lifetimes.
In conclusion I would argue that epistemic standards should be applied equally to all knowledge claims – religious or otherwise. This consistency rules out the need to apply Kantian limitations, and leaves knowledge claims for religion in the same place as all the rest. Even scientific claims have had to struggle to be accepted, and religious claims should not be privileged in any way, and if they are based on facts, demonstrable in the same way as any other claims, then they too can struggle for general acceptance. I would argue that this is the case with the Christian knowledge claim and its acceptance by hundreds of millions just might indicate that the claims of the post-Kantian thinkers might not have the force that many think it does.
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