Some thoughts about Kant’s “What Is Enlightenment?”

Lately I’ve been re-reading and studying Immanuel Kant’s 1784 essay Was Ist Aufklarung? (What Is Enlightnment?)  It’s available all over the internet, just google it if you’re interested.

I grew up in a church and denomination where it was Verboten to think for yourself–unless you were the great spiritual man of God du jour.  Even then, of course, nobody thought he or she (as in Aimee Semple MacPherson) thought for themselves; they received it right from God.

I found Kant’s essay liberating when I first read it.  And, actually, before I first read it I had already found encouragement to think for myself, to ask and wrestle with important questions that some people considered “settled,” in the evangelical seminary I attended after college.  The great thing there was that we were encouraged to think for ourselves within a community and tradition that knew what it believed about the important matters of Christian faith.  But I never felt condemned or even criticized for asking any question even though I knew if I strayed too far from the center of that tradition-community I would no longer be able to remain there.

I’ll never forget an article I read in Eternity magazine (now defunct but very important in my spiritual and theological journey out of a narrow, sectarian religious context into the larger evangelical mainstream) called “Courage to Allow for Leaders.”  The author called on influential movers and shakers of evangelical denominations and organizations to nurture and encourage and mentor young men and women of faith who dared to think for themselves and even question time honored beliefs and customs.  As I was exiting my home denomination I showed that article to one of my mentors who angrily rejected it as nonsense.

I hope and pray that over the years I have modeled the kind of encouragement of young, free thinking Christians that I found in my seminary from my God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving non-fundamentalist (!) professors.  I heard a motto once about Christian higher education that our task is to help students question what they believe while continuing to believe what they are questioning.  Of course, that’s a very fine line to walk.  Most don’t do it very successfully, I’m afraid.

Back to Kant’s essay.  Even as an evangelical Christian I think it is right to think for yourself.  Horrors!  I can just hear the outrage from fundamentalists.  But listen.  I have come to think that Kant was not only right to encourage mature people to think for themselves; perhaps without knowing it he was simply describing what everyone really does whether they know it or not.

Let me illustrate.  Some years ago one of my favorite students came to me to tell me was joining the Catholic church.  (Until then he had been a member of a rather liberal Protestant denomination.)  I asked him why.  He said (I’m paraphrasing) that he was tired of trying to figure out what to believe and needed an authority to tell him. He also said he had come to believe it was wrong to decide what to believe for yourself; people ought to bow to a magisterium. Well, first, I volunteered to be that authority, that magisterium, for him, but for some reason he didn’t accept my invitation.  Second, I told him that by deciding to join the Catholic church he was figuring out what to believe for himself; nobody was making him join it.  It’s a paradox, isn’t it?  People who claim they are simply accepting authority in deciding what to believe are actually deciding what authority to accept!

My point is that I don’t see how anyone can avoid thinking for themselves (except perhaps children or the mentally impaired).  All mature people, capable of thought and responsible for their actions, DO think for themselves.  Suppose I decide to reject Kant’s dictum.  What am I doing but thinking for myself?  Oh, sure, people can PRETEND to not think for themselves and often have to avoid persecution, for example.

Now, not for a moment do I think we are tabula rasa–a blank slate that we then fill in by ourselves.  Of course not.  We all grow up with beliefs given to us by our elders.  But, ultimately, we decide whether to continue embracing those beliefs or change to something else.  When someone says “I don’t think for myself [often expressed as ‘I don’t interpret, I just believe’]” I don’t believe them–even when they mean they believe the Bible and do not think for themselves.  In fact, they are deciding to believe the Bible!  What else?  Who else is thinking for them in deciding to believe the Bible.

Sure, someone might say God causes us to believe certain things.  But even then, it is we who are doing the believing.  And people talk about being “brainwashed” under “mind control.”  I accept that can happen.  But even then it was the person who decided to undergo that and continue in it.  I’m not arguing that people possess some transcendental Self that floats freely above the fray of influences; I’m simply arguing that within one’s own context of influences, one ultimately decides what to think and believe.  To the extent they don’t and are actually programmed to believe something by someone or some thing outside themselves, they are not really thinking at all.  They are functioning as a machine.

Socrates said “The unexamined life is not worth living.”  I have taught for almost 30 years “The unexamined faith is not worth believing.”  Mature people, including mature Christians, need to realize they are choosing to believe and question whether their choices are responsible ones justified by valid sources as norms such as Scripture, tradition, reason and experience.

At some point in my past, when I was about 20, I realized I no longer believed a crucial doctrine of my denomination.  I looked deeply into why I no longer believed it and realized it was not justified by Scripture, the larger Christian tradition, reason or experience.  Somehow I had chosen to stop believing it and then discovered why as I reflected on my subconscious decision.  Ultimately I had to leave my denomination because of that.  I knew others who came to believe as I did–to not believe that doctrine, but they pretended to themselves and others that they did somehow still believe it because they didn’t want to leave the denomination.  But, ultimately, THEY decided what to believe and what to do with that.  Nobody thinks for you or decides for you what to believe.   And even if you try to let them, it is you who are letting them which is thinking for yourself.

My next post will be on the meaning of all this.

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  • Tim Reisdorf

    “The unexamined faith is not worth believing.”

    While that may generally be true, it need not be a spring-board for a Master’s Degree. A simple faith may not be adequate for one who would teach Theology or Biblical Studies, but be perfectly acceptable to God. Of course people have different tolerances for the depth of understandings that they should have about their faith. What one chooses for their own standard – let them live at peace with that.

    I learned early on that I had to “own” my own belief system. Things became troubling when I had so much difficulty learning Greek. I have just limped along my own path from there, picking up bits and pieces that I thought were wisdom along the way.

    • rogereolson

      I was thinking, for example, of a song that was popular when I was a kid–at least popular to some people I knew who did not want to grow in their understanding of the Christian faith and challenges to it and how to respond. The song was written by the evangelist Gypsy Smith and is entitled “If I Am Dreaming, Let Me Dream On.” Smith was on a train and tried to witness to a person hostile to faith. The person said that Smith was “just dreaming” (about the truth of the gospel). He wrote the song out of that experience. This is the kind of folk religion that drives me nuts. Some people don’t care whether Christianity is true or not; to them it fills a need in their lives and that’s all they really care about. Wouldn’t it have been better for Smith (and others like him) to have known how to discuss his faith intelligently with his interlocutor on the train? I think so.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        “I didn’t go through your colleges and seminaries. They wouldn’t have me…but I have been to the feet of Jesus where the only true scholarship is learned.”
        – attributed to Rodney (Gipsy) Smith

        I find it hard to criticize Gipsy Smith as he was a lifelong evangelist. For someone to put themselves out to the world as an ambassador of God takes great courage and great faith. It is said that in his time with the Salvation Army, he was instrumental in 23,000 decisions for Christ.

        If our talents are wielding a hammer, it is tempting to think that all problems are solved by pounding them. The life of the intellect is very important, and all should partake of it and be better for it. But it is not the only talent, nor the only important one. Nor is every problem a nail just waiting to be hammered. I have to believe that God used Gipsy and his talents in spite his obvious disdain for the hard-core intellectual life.

        My source of information: here.

        But your response has a larger point: Faith in Christ seems to have at least some intellectual requirements. If I find someone who has no curiosity or vigor about life in Christ, I wonder if they really understand what following Jesus is all about.

  • Roger,

    I have been thinking about this of late, reflecting on my own journey from fundamentalism. I haven’t written anything down yet, but you have served as a great inspiration! Thank you.

  • Theophile

    Hi Roger,
    You said: “I looked deeply into why I no longer believed it and realized it was not justified by Scripture…”
    Too much “reading scripture” can do that, particularly if one read on ones own, instead of following along on Sunday, reading cherry picked verses to back up a sermon. The thing that gets You thinking is: What was being referred to by Jesus as “scripture”? didn’t He say “Moses and the prophets they testify of me”?
    Q: What is the most mentioned date in the Bible?
    A: Passover.
    Q: What were Jesus and the disciples “doing”, that Jesus said to “do in remembrance of Him”?
    A: keeping Passover.
    Q: Why is Herod, the enemy of the church, beheader of John the baptist, the only one mentioned in the Bible observing Easter?
    A: This and many more answers can be found in Foxes book of Martyrs:

  • Zach

    Great post! Reminds me of a review I read of Stanley Hauerwas’ book With the Grain of the Universe (I believe by Ronald Stone?). He said that this was what Stan had missed: the critical decision to, again and again, choose for yourself (Kierkegaard!). Luther basically said that with his here I stand right?

    • rogereolson

      With the Grain of the Universe is one of the worst books I have ever read. In my humble opinion, a complete waste of time (i.e., both writing it and reading it). There are many points where I disagree with Niebuhr, but to claim he wasn’t a Christian and that his theology was hardly different at all from William James’ philosophy seems so wildly off the mark I can’t understand why it was published at all. For a solid refutation of Hauerwas on Niebuhr see Gabriel Fackre’s response in Christian Century.

  • Mikael Stenhammar

    Excellent! Thanks for this.
    In the context I work, spiritual experiences and “revelations” from supposedly men (!) of God are taken as final authority and not to be questioned. But it is very interesting that Paul added “Brothers [and sisters], stop thinking like children…in your thinking be adults” (1 Cor 14:20) in the middle of discussing the charismata! To be spiritual (whatever that means) always goes together with thinking.

  • Nishant Xavier

    Hi, I was directed here from another blog, and seeing as the Catholic Church was mentioned,

    “It’s a paradox, isn’t it? People who claim they are simply accepting authority in deciding what to believe are actually deciding what authority to accept!”

    Except that the Savior Himself promised that He would be with us for ever, that His Spirit would lead us into all truth (Jn 16:13), that the gates of hell would not prevail (Mat 16:18) against His Church, which St.Paul calls “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15). Hardly arbitrary, I would think!

    If we believe that of all things the Lord’s promises are surely trustworthy, that He will not give us a duty without giving us a superabundant means of fulfilling it, then we have excellent reasons to believe in what He teaches us even today through His body and bride, whom He appointed to speak for Him saying, “He who hears you, hears Me”

    The First Vatican Council laid out some of these things,

    “The Son of God, redeemer of the human race, our lord Jesus Christ, promised, when about to return to his heavenly Father, that he would be with this Church militant upon earth all days even to the end of the world [3]. Hence never at any time has he ceased to stand by his beloved bride, assisting her when she teaches, blessing her in her labors and bringing her help when she is in danger.

    The Church, appointed by God to be mother and mistress of nations, recognizes her obligations to all and is always ready and anxious to raise the fallen, to steady those who stumble, to embrace those who return, and to strengthen the good and urge them on to what is better. Thus she can never cease from witnessing to the truth of God which heals all and from declaring it, for she knowsthat these words were directed to her:

    “My spirit which is upon you, and my words which I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth from this time forth and for evermore.”[9]

    So it comes about that, like a standard lifted up for the nations [22], she both invites to herself those who have not yet believed, and likewise assures her sons and daughters that the faith they profess rests on the firmest of foundations.

    3 Mt 28, 20.
    9. Isa 59, 21
    22. Isa 11, 12

    I’ll say it again, none of this is to say that we must stop thinking, nothing could be further from it. In Catholic Christianity, from the great Fathers of the early Church to the medieval Doctors of scholastic theology, from Augustine to Aquinas, and all the way down to the present day, there is a long intellectual tradition that is recognized by many of our brothers and sisters outside the Catholic Church as well. It is much rather that we might have that gentle grace of the Spirit, that blessed assurance that both the natural light of reason and the supernatural light of faith will unfailingly illumine our path toward that same divine Truth, who sets us free.

    God bless.

    • rogereolson

      Okay. Does that contradict something I wrote? I don’t see it so.

  • DavidW

    What does reason have to do with faith? I see them as opposites of each other. There’s a lot truth in the old evangelist hymn, “Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus”. I attend a major protestant church every Sunday, mostly out of family tradition perhaps. I often wonder as I sit and listen, do these people not see the elephants in the room? How can a reasonable person believe in a virgin birth for example? Or how is it that the Bible contains quotations from God? I’ve never heard Him speak. Or what’s this about angels? Most people, including most Christians I suspect, would consider someone mentally unbalanced if they said they’d seen or talked to one. But angels are common in the Bible. Or who would actually take action based on what they saw in a dream? They do in the Bible. These are just a few examples. And yet the author of this article submits that reason is involved in faith somehow.

    I wish I was one of those who “trust and obey” because those that do seem to be happiest with their faith, as the hymn says.

    If God exists, then His reasoning ability far outstrips that of man. Man’s (and Women’s) reasoning capacity is insignificant in comparison. I might as well consult my dog to learn the truth about life after death. He probably knows as much about it as the rest of us.

    I never mention the things I’ve just stated to believers I know. If they are happy in their faith then I’m happy for them. I even hesitate to mention my questions here. I don’t want to create doubt for anybody. It’s not for me to stay that “true believers” are not absolutely correct.

    • rogereolson

      You need to read Proper Confidence by Lesslie Newbigin who shows, using postmodern philosophy, that reason and faith are not opposed to each other.