Immanuel Kant

Around: ‘And I am dumb to tell a weather’s wind/How time has ticked a heaven round the stars’

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.

The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted,
knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation
in realizing that. This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well. It may be incomplete,
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.



Getting Kant out of my system

Having spent most of today reading that great father of modern thought – Kant – I confess that what I once discerned as a growing admiration for this Enlightenment thinker with ‘a good dose of Lutheran and Pauline scepticism’ is slowly being ebbed away. In fact, the more I read, it seems, the quicker the ebb ebbs. For example, consider this sample:

Because men are exceedingly frail in all acts of morality, and not only what they practise as a good action is very defective and flawed, but they also consciously and wilfully violate the divine law, they are quite unable to confront a holy and just judge, who cannot forgive evil-doing simpliciter. The question is, can we, by our vehement begging and beseeching, hope for and obtain through God’s goodness the forgiveness of all our sins? No, we cannot without contradiction conceive of a kindly judge; as ruler he may well be kindly, but a judge must be just. For if God could forgive all evil-doing, He could also make it permissible and if He can grant impunity, it rests also on His will to make it permitted; in that case, however, the moral laws would be an arbitrary matter, though in fact they are not arbitrary, but just as necessary and eternal as God. God’s justice is the precise allocation of punishments and rewards in accordance with men’s good or bad behaviour. The divine will is immutable. Hence we cannot hope that because of our begging and beseeching God will forgive us everything, for in that case it would be a matter, not of well-doing, but of begging and beseeching. We cannot therefore conceive of a kindly judge without wishing that on this occasion He might close His eyes and allow Himself to be moved by supplications and flatteries; but this might then befall only a few, and would have to be kept quiet; for if it were generally known, then everyone would want it so, and that would make a mockery of the law … [Man] cannot, indeed, hope for any remission of punishment for his crimes from a benevolent ruler, since in that case the divine will would not be holy; but man is holy insofar as he is adequate to the moral law; he can, therefore, hope for kindness from the benevolent ruler, not only in regard to the physical, where the very actions themselves already produce good consequences, but also in regard to the moral; but he cannot hope to be dispensed from morality, and from the consequences of violating it. The goodness of God consists, rather, in the aids whereby He can make up for the deficiencies of our natural frailty and thereby display His benevolence. – Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics (ed. P. Heath and J. B. Schneewind; trans. P. Heath. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 114–5.

Ouch! It makes one wonder if Kant had ever read Galatians, or Romans! For what is absent in Kant here is not only any notion that the law of God is the law of God’s own being and so cannot be abstracted from God, but also any notion that in a world like ours holiness literally takes the form of grace.

This relates to something else that I’ve been thinking of today, namely Forsyth (as I do), whose deep indebtment to Kant is not without its criticisms. One of Forsyth’s greatest critiques of Kant is reserved for his discussion on prayer. He grants that Kant certainly represents ‘intellectual power and a certain stiff moral insight’, but he lacks ‘spiritual atmosphere, delicacy, or flexibility, which is rather the Catholic tradition’. It is in Kant’s treatment of prayer, Forsyth contends, that he most betrays an intellectualism that ‘tends to more force than finish, and always starves or perverts ethic’. This is because he treats prayer with ‘the equipment of his age’ rather than with the ‘practical experience’ that he would have gleaned if he had immersed himself in ‘the great saints or captains of the race’ like Paul, Thomas à Kempis, or even Cromwell and Gustavus Adolphus. If only Kant had gone to them, Forsyth conjectures, he would have ‘realized the difference between shame and shyness, between confusion at an unworthy thing and confusion at a thing too fine and sacred for exposure’.

Holiness According to Otto – 4

Whilst Rudolph Otto’s designation of ‘the holy’ as mysterium tremendum is not without its usefulness (as helpful descriptors of Isaiah 6 and Luke 2:9, and as a reminder that religion is more than disguised morality, for example), it is perhaps less helpful, as was foreseen by Barth and Brunner, than it has been considered in decades past. Otto has overstated his case. His understanding of holiness betrays an over-dependence, of which he is aware, on the residual rationalism of Kant and Fries. Also, although holiness certainly carries connotations of the mystery of divine power, it is far from the raw power that Otto describes. Not only does the biblical material point to a more christo-centric definition of holiness, but Otto’s notion of holiness is far too entrapped in a subjectivist framework to truly shed light on the broader spectrum of biblical teaching on holiness. Yet with all his Kantianism, Otto remains suspicious of Forsyth’s project of employing holiness as a moral category which serves to qualify the nature and goal of God’s love, accusing this route of narrowing and trivializing ‘the Holy’. Still, Otto has done us not a small service in bringing holiness onto the agenda of theological discourse.

That said, long before Otto, Forsyth was speaking of the ‘idea of the holy’ and challenging his romantic-love-besotted generation with the truth that ‘the holiness of God is the real foundation of religion’ and that the prime petition of the Lord’s Prayer is ‘Hallowed be thy name’. Indeed, the entire prayer is there to serve the holiness of God. Forsyth insists that concepts like love, grace, faith, and sin mean nothing apart from God’s holiness – as they arise from it, return to it, satisfy it, show it forth, set it up, and secure it ubiquitously forever. It is not enough that evil should be restrained. ‘Holiness had to be set up and secured in history.’