Mike Shockey


Few are the figures in history who can match the philosophical impact of Immanuel Kant—for good or ill—in regards to epistemology. His system of thought, even though more than two centuries old, still presses its advantage and leaves its mark on much of current culture in the epistemological arena. As with other philosophers, much is made of his resulting metaphysical and ethical conclusions, yet he bears an equal, if not greater impact on religion, as well; in particular, Christianity. This is significant, in that, if studied a bit more closely, what may appear to be a purely intellectual endeavor on Kant’s part actually has all the marks of a central issue with which (this essay asserts) he was wrestling: How does one become right with God? Thus, one could go so far as to say that Kant’s religious convictions are a constant vehicle for nearly all of his philosophical conclusions.

While much attention is given to Kant’s reigning philosophical achievement, Critique of Pure Reason, in which he revolutionizes Western thought; much of philosophical academia has tended to neglect, by comparison, his later, equally significant work, Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone. W. Andrew Hoffecker alludes to the fact that Religion certainly demands the attention given to his earlier, more popular work; and seems to suggest that Critique might not have had its tremendous impact without the convictions behind Religion:

“Although many scholars neglect [Religion], its title, content, method, and conclusion form a capstone to Kant’s entire enterprise; summarize Enlightenment revolutions in worldview; and bring Kant’s Copernican revolution to its conclusion by recasting Christianity as moralistic deism.”

Thus, our work here will be to show that Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone (and thus, Kant’s theology) is not only significant in the philosopher’s repertoire, but that in it, he reveals the otherwise hidden umbrella under which his entire body of work—including and especially, Critique of Pure Reason—took form and sought its refuge. While the confines of this essay will limit how much of his work can be brought into focus under the microscope of his religious convictions, we should be able to show a credible link between these convictions and his essential philosophical tenor; that which was termed Kant’s Copernican Revolution. That is, ultimate human autonomy as the center and filter for all knowledge and existence as we can know it. Indeed, we hope to validate Hoffecker’s conclusion. That is, did Kant’s theology “…bring [his] Copernican revolution to its conclusion by recasting Christianity as moralistic deism?”  

Finally, an obvious objection may arise to our proposal. We suggest, with Hoffecker, that Kant’s Critque of 1781 is greatly influenced by his Religion of 1793. But how can that be, when they are twelve years apart and in obvious reverse order of chronological influence? First, our proposal stems from the concepts found in each work, rather than from a linear timeline. In other words, we’ll be investigating the links between Kant’s philosophy and theology, respectively; the latter of which, as we will see from Kant’s childhood, would have likely always had the most significant impact on every other aspect of his life. That said, this essay will go on to explain in more detail that Kant was undoubtedly, by his own admission, quite religious and considered himself a Christian, as he was raised in a Christian environment and certainly retained many of his early convictions.  This should be obvious by the thesis of Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone: “How does one become right with God?” Understanding this, anyone who has been severely affected in their later life by their upbringing—particularly in the sphere of religion—knows that it is very likely that Kant, through his philosophical deliberations and conclusions, was perhaps working to resolve unsettled issues in his own heart, regarding what it meant for him to be right with God. That the influencing work is published later than the conclusory work is, therefore, insignificant in our view.


His Religious Convictions: Kant and the Pietists

By the seventeenth century, Martin Luther’s proclamation of a robust Christian life founded upon the doctrine of justification by faith, had all but waned. His followers had become entranced with the Enlightenment concept of the superiority of the intellect; and while they held to their Christianity, it had largely become a theoretical, mental rigor. Bruce Shelley notes, “No longer an act of surrender to the mercy of God revealed in Christ, faith was now a formal assent to doctrinal truths set forth by scholars.” Enter: Pietism.

As with any corrective movement, Pietism begins with the grandest of notions, only to see those notions go awry when the pendulum swings too far in its own direction. Challenging the nominal, stale faith of intellectual German Lutheranism, the Pietists stressed an individualistic faith characterized by what was being termed a “conversion experience” for the seeking soul. The real meaning of faith for the Pietist was a personal experience with Jesus in the heart. Thus, in regards to pulling the pendulum back in a theocentric direction, Pietism contributes an enormous blessing on the whole of Christianity with the heart behind its tenets. There was, however, a problem with all of this; one that would spill over into Kant’s life, having a lifelong negative effect.

In support of the essential emphases of Pietism was the dominant theme of Regeneration, and, as a natural outworking of it, an emotive love for Christ. For its adherents, rebirth by the Spirit of God meant that a dramatic story was being played out in the human heart. For it had now, upon conversion, become a battlefield where the powers of good and evil struggled for control of the soul. In Kant’s sphere, he was thus trained and encouraged, with all the other children of his day, to outwardly express honest, deep religious feelings consistent with such a conversion. One can only imagine the great stress such a demand would have placed upon those children who did not always feel outwardly expressive in an honest way about their relationship with Jesus. Yet, as children—especially in the era in which Kant was raised—they would undoubtedly submit to their parents’ encouragements out of what can essentially be said to be fear, to whatever degree. “Kant is reported to have said fear and trembling overtook him whenever he recalled those days of youthful slavery and that he could never engage in prayer or hymn singing for the remainder of his life.”

What should be an expected outcome of such an upbringing, in terms of how that soul honestly deals with its relationship to God, given the narrow, wrongly-emphasized information with which that soul has been furnished? For Kant, he simply wanted to have an authentic experience with God, instead of a manufactured one—done only to appease his elders and contemporaries. Therefore, because he lacked the experience without which there would be no emotion, Kant began to despise the concepts of religion under which he had been raised. To him, the only emotions that seemed to derive from his experience were those of fear, hypocrisy and falseness; emotions neither Kant nor anyone could ever abide in firm conscience.

Yet his upbringing was not lost on him entirely. Kant did greatly admire the moral seriousness of the Pietists. This admiration would certainly play a key role in his later development of his concept of ethics. Nevertheless, in regards to desiring an honest faith, where his integrity would never be compromised, Kant “came to think [that many of the Pietists’] beliefs [were] superstitious and thought their emphasis on conversions led to hypocrisy, for people pretended to have experiences they did not really have.”

Thus, for Kant, the stage upon which he will act out his future ambitions (not the least of which is what he believes to be a comprehensive answer for true religion) is set. Our assertion is that, it is from this point of view that Kant engages his concepts of epistemology and all that flows from it. And so, onward with our particular focus on how his religious convictions ultimately informed his Copernican Revolution.


Kant’s Copernican Revolution

When humans dare to traverse the threshold of tradition and norms, in nearly every case it is a response precipitated by some significant event or assertion; such that the responder has been, in a manner of speaking, knocked off their feet, in terms of traditional belief and practice. Here is precisely where we find Immanuel Kant, now many years past his youth, teaching at the University of Konigsberg, in the same east Prussian port city in which he was born, raised, taught, and would eventually die. Kant is regarded as relatively untraveled, which implies at least a likelihood of a life generally beset by the traditions and norms of his local culture and the historical period in which he lived. In the words of an anonymous author, “Life was simple and good…I thought I had everything figured out…and then something happened that changed it all.” Such was the case for Kant.

In terms of what led him to his Copernican Revolution, Kant was essentially a rationalist, from the school of the likes of Wolff, Leibniz, and Kuntzen (Kant’s primary influence). As such, these philosophers were well trained in the deductive process of coming to actual knowledge, where specific axioms were selected, by which to lead them to “truth” in their quests. By the time Kant arrives on the scene, rationalism is a rather well-oiled machine, as it were.

Then came the blow to Kant’s rational thinking that knocked him off his feet, philosophically speaking. He read Skeptic Scottish philosopher, David Hume, which, he said roused him from his dogmatic slumbers. Becoming acquainted with Hume’s Skepticism, he recognized it as a threat to his common, or “Continental” rationalism, as it was known. Hume had destroyed the concept of deducing knowledge from particular axioms, therefore, Kant was forced to come up with “..a more careful and detailed analysis of the rational process itself, to a critique of reason. Kant set out to discover what we can learn from reason and what we cannot, and of course how we can gain the knowledge that we need to have.”

The result of such careful and detailed analysis was the Copernican Revolution itself. When we unpack the revolution we see that, the first thing Kant does is to undo, by way of a reconciliation of sorts, Hume’s proposition that “all a priori statements are analytic, and all synthetic statements are a posteriori.” Obviously, Hume gives something of Hobson’s Choice, when he sets his “take it or leave it” philosophy before us. Therefore, significant in Kant’s revolution is that it starts with the breaking down of the “either or” epistemological barriers Hume had constructed, by insisting that if any knowledge is possible, then it must be possible from synthetic a priori truths; otherwise, Hume’s earlier implication is that we have no knowledge by which to form the experiences we have. Those experiences are thus relegated to a “collection of random data;” a proposition which Kant could not abide. Important to note here, is that, as with all the truly great philosophers of history, Kant’s effort to synthesize two opposing points of view brought him into the fore, whereas he had been in relative obscurity, in terms of having any great impact on philosophy.

Therefore, the crux of his revolutionary thought was this: It’s not the world that informs the mind, it’s the mind that informs the world. Just as jelly has no shape until it enters the jar, and thus retains the shape of the jar itself, so experience then comes into the mind and mind gives it its shape—its significance. Furthermore, in the same way Copernicus insisted that the earth revolves around the sun (and not the other way around), Kant insisted that man is the source of synthetic a priori truth, rather than nature, or even God (by implication). Another way to express this would be that, man himself is the very center of the universe. A traditional threshold traversed, indeed! To Kant then, the true acquisition of knowledge comes in only one way, ultimately: Through autonomous human reasoning. Diogenes Allen and Eric O. Springsted give a remarkable summary of where Kant’s revolution began, how it thrived (and it still thrives today), and what final conclusions it brought him to, in regards to his real desire, which was to answer how faith works in a rational/empirical world:

“Immanuel Kant…because he was thoroughly schooled in the German rationalism of Christian Wolff, believed that knowledge was and had to be necessary and universal. He was convinced that Euclidean geometry and Newtonian mechanics were true and that nature’s laws are fixed. When he read a summary of Hume’s analysis of causality, he was forced to agree that there were no observable necessary connections between our sense impressions. This challenge led him to abandon his inherited rationalism and to reconceive completely his understanding of how knowledge was possible in mathematics, physics, and metaphysics. He found that he could retain his convictions about the necessity and universality of mathematics and physics only at the cost of turning all knowledge into a construct of human sensibility and reason. Our knowledge is genuine but is a knowledge of appearances, not of reality as it is in itself. Theology was denied the status of knowledge. Within Kant’s system this was an advantage, since it meant that theology was not dealing with the constructs of the human faculty of knowing, that is, with appearances, as were mathematics and physics. Kant claimed that by limiting knowledge to appearances, he was making room for faith.”

Ronald Nash responds to Kant’s “limiting knowledge to appearances” in order to “make room for faith”:

“Hume had his Gap; Kant had his Wall. Kant’s system had the effect of erecting a wall between the world as it appears to us and the world as it really is. Human knowledge is restricted to the phenomenal world, the world of appearance, the world shaped by the structure of the knowing mind. Knowledge of any reality beyond the Wall, which includes the world of things in themselves, is forever unattainable. Human reason cannot penetrate the secrets of ultimate reality. Answers to the most basic questions of theology and metaphysics lie beyond the boundaries of human knowledge. Since God is not a subject of experience and since the human categories cannot be extended to transcendent reality, Kant’s God is both unknown and unknowable. Whenever human reason attempts to penetrate beyond Kant’s Wall, either in a search for knowledge about God or in a quest for answers to ultimate questions, it becomes involved in antinomies or contradictions…Ironically, Kant thought his agnosticism with respect to God was an aid to Christian faith. Kant actually thought he was serving the interests of the Christian religion [by ‘making room for faith’ in his epistemology].” (emphasis mine)

Kant’s Copernican Revolution should, therefore, (certainly from a biblical worldview), be seen as rather foolish in its circularity, with assertions such as, “Theology [is] denied the status of knowledge…since…theology [does not deal] with the constructs of the human faculty of knowing…” As well, Nash seems to affirm our assertion of “foolish circularity,” in regards to Kant’s “revolutionary” thinking: First, whether one has a biblical worldview can certainly be an important factor in this argument, but could also be equally irrelevant—according to mere human nature, to which we could just as easily appeal—in the sense that, what Kant (and every other human being in human history) really seeks, ultimately, is knowledge of self (to Nash, “ultimate questions”). Philosophical quests would never begin, let alone advance, if not for a central concern about the self (hence, Kant’s great concern, How does one become right with God?). If this is true, then one must admit to a great deal of uncertainty in regards to the self, otherwise, no quest is necessary. This honest assessment of uncertainty within the self surely must lead to the conclusion that, “self” cannot be trusted to be an objective source in the discovery of its own origins and purpose. In other words, the quest in-and-of itself, proves that man cannot possibly be the central source of knowledge. For he knows that knowledge must be sought elsewhere, and, by necessity, from a truly objective source, if it is to be trustworthy. According to Nash, if the quest is approached otherwise, the seeker finds himself “involved in antinomies (paradox) and contradictions.” We seem to find Kant in this very position in his quest.

A stark contrast arises in the thinking of John Calvin, for example, in terms of “knowledge.” While Calvin did not regard himself a philosopher, he certainly exercised his theological prowess in the service of philosophy. Frame says,

“Calvin’s triperspectival epistemology follows from his theistic metaphysics. Because God determines the norms for knowledge, human knowers must presuppose them. Because God foreordains all the facts, all the facts presuppose God’s interpretations of them. And because God has made human beings in His image, we must understand ourselves (and our knowing) in relation to God.”

Therefore, what we see here, is that,

“Calvin’s absolute-personality theism presented [(by the time of Kant)] a new opportunity to philosophers: the opportunity to find a sure road to truth through divine revelation.” (emphasis mine)

Calvin’s epistemology provides Kant with the same essential answer to the two concerns which drive his quest. Kant explicitly wants to know how to become right with God, and Calvin answers, “Know God.” Kant implicitly—through his epistemological conclusions—wants to know the self, and Calvin answers, “Know God.” Calvin’s theistic epistemology represents a barometer by which to gauge the distance of Kant’s own unfortunate epistemological wanderings, especially as they are found in his Copernican Revolution.


Kant’s Recasting of Christianity As Moralistic Deism Helps the Truth of Our Case

Now let’s take a moment and process the crux of what’s been said thus far, so as to keep from drowning in philosophical rhetoric. Kant would insist that what led him to his Copernican Revolution was reading Hume’s philosophies. While there is certainly truth to that, this paper asserts that Hume was more an impetus than an origin, in terms of Kant’s epistemological discoveries. Instead, we propose that a far more likely origin (perhaps chief among many) of Kant’s philosophical conclusions (his Copernican Revolution) is his need to know how one becomes right with God, in a way that distances itself from his Pietist upbringing and creates a way for him to apprehend God, faith in God, and thus salvation, in a manner in which man himself (Kant, especially) can claim complete control of the entire relational equation. Finally, putting all of this together, this essay agrees with Hoffecker’s observation that Kant’s religious convictions form a “capstone,” under which all of his philosophical work is informed and brought to fruition. We are thus left with a question: Is this observation true about Kant?

One thing we cannot do, and that is to try and prove, beyond all doubt, that what we and Hoffecker put forward is the only truth of Kant’s epistemological origins. Again, we are working to show the substantial influence Kant’s religious sensibilities had on his entire body of work, in a way that they may be at least strongly suggested as a likely origin.

Earlier we asked, rhetorically, What should be an expected outcome of such an upbringing [under Pietism], in terms of how that soul honestly deals with its relationship to God, given the narrow, wrongly-emphasized information with which that soul has been furnished? A very likely outcome of such rigor is what we’ve already suggested: The formulation of a religion that can be more easily approached and managed by man, instead of one where God and His “super-saints,” full of emotion and expression, are in control. And this is precisely what Kant did, in response to the lifelong fears and apprehensions of God, which were instilled in him as a child.

Here is where Hoffecker makes the connection between Kant’s religious longings and his philosophical conclusions, when he says that Kant “…recasts Christianity as moralistic deism.” Though Kant would have worded his explanation of his religious views somewhat differently, for the sake of simplicity, we can apply a modern definition of moralistic deism that fits the essence of Kant’s thought. As well, in the last decade or so, a more elaborate term has replaced the old; namely, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, as coined by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Al Mohler further simplifies the concepy of moralistic deism (under the auspices of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism) with five basic ideas that define it:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth (Deism).
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions (Moralistic).
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself (Therapeutic).
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem (Deism).
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die (Moralistic/Therapeutic).

Grenz and Olson affirm this “essence of Kant’s [religious] thought”:

“Foundational to religion [for Kant] is a particular dimension of human existence, the experience of moral conditionedness, he argued, which was connected to the practical aspect of reason…Kant, therefore, could claim no knowledge of the divine nature beyond the moral dimension. He did not ground morality in theology, as in classic Christian thinking, but theology in morality.”

As well, they sum up rather nicely the themes of Kant’s response to what seemed a cruel religion, autonomous human reason, and the vehicle by which one becomes convinced he is right with God:

“Ultimately, the “divine voice” universally heard by autonomous human reason—whether pure (the Enlightenment) or practical (Kant)—is a voice from within the self. It does not comprise a word from the transcendent “beyond.” In the case of Kant’s proposal, the transcendent God is easily lost in the voice of the categorical imperative found in the depths of human “practical reason.” (emphasis mine)

If we now consider basic human dynamic; that is, the sort of dynamic that transcends culture, age, and history, we may be able to postulate—with all that we’ve heard—a reasonable summary of what truth there is in our theme. Was Kant’s theology a capstone under which his entire body of work advanced? Was his philosophy and all that followed from it closely derived from his theological concerns—especially his concerns for himself? We say the answer to these questions is absolutely, “yes.”

Here we must know that, everything in Kant’s epistemology—his metaphysics, ethics, and theology—is centered in the autonomy of the human will. Richard Kroner seems to take the proverbial “bull by the horns,” in answering the questions we have been asking throughout this paper:

“This feeling of human independence is most clearly revealed in the idea of autonomy, in the idea that not God but we ourselves, in so far as we embody pure practical reason, are the legislators of the moral law. We submit to the law not on God’s behalf but for our own sake. It is our true will that must be done.” (emphasis mine)


When writing an essay about a philosopher, of course we want to have a focus on his main thought, his “big idea.” We have attempted to articulate the essence of Kant’s “big idea,” as his Copernican Revolution; the crux of which is that, neither a god nor nature is at the center of knowledge and existence, but rather man is. His concept here is so huge that, in terms of importance, it eclipses most of philosophical history preceding it. In terms of influence, our culture today still bears a deep brand from Kant’s iron. In terms of concept itself, his Copernican Revolution is, at once, precept and conclusion. There can be no doubt—again, for good or ill—of Kant’s colossal contribution to philosophy and culture. And those are the things that perhaps one should write more about when addressing a paper such as this.

Yet, as much as I am a student, I am also a pastor. I listen all day to people and their concepts of life. I hear constantly, their triumphs and their tragedies. And no matter how great a person’s influence in their community or culture; no matter the degree to which that person has been formed by fear or love—Scripture prompts us to consider how it is that the God of the universe is manifest in all that we hear, see, and deduce, particularly in the lives of those bearing His image. With Kant, I have done no differently than I would have if he were sitting in front of me with a coffee in his hand, expressing his thoughts to a friend. I want to know, and then make the necessary links between his worldview and his relationship with God.

Immanuel Kant undoubtedly felt suppressed and cornered by what he perceived to be God. He felt that way from his childhood, because he had been instilled with an overemphasized impression of how emotion functions in the life of the true believer. When he couldn’t produce the expected emotions that should have (in his learning) derived from such a cataclysmic experience as conversion, he was left with the fear that perhaps he wasn’t converted. And we should make no mistake: he indeed feared that potentiality. That Kant still leaves any room for faith, God, Christianity—is a testament to the fact that he certainly desired “being right with God.” When he could not attain to that assurance through the learned, traditional Pietist method, he more or less formulated his own. And of course, with that formulation, all of his epistemological conclusions must follow suit. As well, his theology and philosophy set him at the center, instead of God; and not, we believe, because he did not understand God’s central importance to existence, but because, in this method, Kant could “legislate the moral law,” and have the assurance he so desperately sought. He wanted freedom from the God of the Pietists, and thus freedom to be in right relationship with a God of his own devising. While we contend that none of this is an excuse for Kant’s ultimate false sense of true faith, we do contend that it is, nevertheless, freedom he desired. Autonomous human reasoning provides that freedom, in the mind of Immanuel Kant.

Finally, Kant misses the real point of How one becomes right with God, when he thinks of true faith and true religion as a duty. In the development of his ethics, he makes clear that “The moral will, unlike the faculty of understanding, aims at duty, not truth…” and that we only “…know the practical self through the exercise of freedom.”

The term “freedom” always indicates freedom from something. In the case of Kant, we say it was essentially freedom from God’s oppressive demands, as he deduced them to be from his upbringing. What he needed, however, in order to hit the mark of How one becomes right with God, was freedom, not from God, but from the very place where he sought his refuge: self.

What Kant missed as a result of so much focus on moralistic duty (in order to earn God’s acceptance), was God’s love, as it is manifest in Jesus Christ’s life and death for our sake. It is quite sad, but so very true to Kant’s story, when we consider Keller’s encouragement, albeit far too late for Kant to implement: “To experience the joy and freedom of love, you must give up your personal autonomy.” Oh, to imagine the difference in Kant’s philosophy (not to mention his likely eternal state), if only he had not merely “made room for faith,” but instead, made room for God’s love.   




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