My Kantian-Kierkegaardian Christianity

In accordance with my standing as an outsider, I’ve been increasingly inclined over the years to make up my own mind about matters of philosophical theology, attendance of religious ceremonies, and matters of faith. I am unimpressed by the tenured faculty member who proudly proclaims his atheism, unless he can show that he or she has actually read a few lines of the New Testament — or has an explanation for those curious events many of us have experienced that don’t quite add up, given the materialist view of the universe.

These days I think of myself as a Kantian-Kierkegaardian Christian. What does that mean, and how does it differ from some kind of fundamentalism?

First, I’ve long accepted the idea that Western civilization is the scene of a long cold war between two worldviews. One is that of Christendom in a broad sense — the worldview of Christianity. The second is materialism, or materialist naturalism. There are other worldviews, but they are not major players, at least not at the moment. And there are several variations on both Christianity and materialist naturalism. There are the many Christian denominations, that is, leading to struggles over how you identify a person as a Christian. And there is Marxist materialism, which differs quite a bit from the varieties of materialism found in the so-called capitalist world.

I am more interested in what they have in common than where they differ. What all forms of Christianity have in common is the existence and centrality of the Christian God, and the believer’s fealty to His dictates, including how Christian salvation occurs (Jesus Christ). Can God’s existence be proven? is one of the most longstanding debates in philosophical theology, or in Western philosophy generally. The upshot of over 2,000 years of conversation is: probably not. The three most widely studied arguments for God’s existence of interest to philosophers, the ontological, cosmological, and teleological arguments, all face well-known and daunting criticisms. But where do we go from here? is the really interesting question. We can, of course, simply become atheists. But atheism does not follow logically from the failures of the arguments. How about agnosticism? Agnosticism might seem to be on safer ground epistemologically, but not existentially. Sooner or later, you must choose. Do I believe, or do I disbelieve? You must commit to one or the other. And be willing to accept the consequences. To refuse to talk about it and live a life under the assumption that belief in God has no part to play in it is to commit to God’s nonexistence. Are there grounds for belief, absent a decisive argument for God’s existence? Is an argument for the existence of a Being such as God even a good idea? An argument is possible that it is not, that such arguments really are a misuse of whatever rational faculties we have, however construed.

From the German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724 – 1804) we obtain the idea that the human mind is structured to operate in a world of three dimensions plus time. He developed this idea in great detail in Critique of Pure Reason. To make this as easy as possible and hopefully without oversimplifying too much, Kant had the idea that the world of experience is a kind of construction of consciousness, via forms of intuition (space, time) and categories of the understanding. Reality apart from the constituting human consciousness is an unknowable Ding-an-Sich (thing-in-itself). To make this a tad more accessible, all we need to say is that we cannot step outside our humanness, to see what reality looks like from a totally neutral vantage point, outside the structure our conscious intellects bring to experience. You cannot cease being human. You don’t have a “God’s eye point of view.” If God exists, only He has a “God’s eye point of view,” standing outside of space and time. Subtract the theistic element here, and we have what has been a common theme of much subsequent philosophy, explaining the increasing importance assigned to such matters as historicity, culture-centeredness, and so on. For if it is true that we cannot cease being human, nor can we cease being members of particular cultures. How to construe these apparently genuine limits on our cognition remains a problem, because if they are pursued too far in the extreme, they lead to various forms of self-stultifying relativism and subjectivism.

A realist, non-constructionist version of Kant’s ideas is possible that would enable us to avoid a variety of problems. It would hold that our world of experience, of physical nature, is real insofar as it goes, as indicated by our ability to act effectively in it. The objects of experience, that is, are real, but our experience is only of certain elements of them. I have a visual experience of the table my computer is sitting on as I type this, that is, but not of the atoms and molecules which comprise the table, and given the limitation of my visual perception resulting from the way my eye, optic nerve, and visual center in my brain is put together, this is to be expected. Physical nature extends beyond the senses, in other words, and this is the testimony of modern theoretical physics.

Physical nature, too, hardly needs to exhausts reality (as materialism asserts). Theoretical physics supports this idea as well. Theoretical physics is based on higher mathematics, not experience; higher mathematics is, in turn, based on necessity. It is not arbitrary, even if we can find many cultures that make no use of it. The mathematics of, e.g., superstring theory, appears to require higher dimensions: nine, according to one count (the number may have increased). The details are unimportant for our purposes. All that is required is that we be realists about mathematical objects and their ontological implications, as it is unclear what our being something else (nominalists?) would amount to. We find ourselves in a transcendental reality vastly different from the world we experience, something that was evident over a hundred years ago when Albert Einstein (1879 – 1955) was writing.

The most advanced modern science, in this case, is at variance with the requirements of materialism but compatible with Christianity. Note carefully: compatibility is a logical relation. Two propositions are compatible if both can be true in the same possible universe. Physical science may not prove or even offer direct evidence for the existence of any deity, or set out to do so. It, like experience, begins with the assumption of a physical universe of three spatial dimensions plus time, at least until reasons appeared for questioning that assumption. Its presuppositions that this universe is both ordered (not chaotic) and that its order is comprehensible to the human mind, are suggestive. For are these presuppositions true? What does it mean to ask this?

All of which brings us to the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard (1813 – 1855). Some historians of ideas label Kierkegaard’s philosophy “Christian existentialism.” He himself had no label for it, and would have rejected labels. And he would have been suspicious of the above presuppositions, which are just too easy — thrown into doubt by what we would today call “black swan” events.

Kierkegaard emphasized that God’s existence is impossible to prove. He singled out the design argument, popular in his day, and still popular now among many Christian theists, who use the term Intelligent Design even though neither does Intelligent Design necessarily entail that the Designer is the Christian God. The point is, perceived disruptions in the design would cause the perceiver to throw out the whole thing (cf. Philosophical Fragments, ch. 3), in the context of the absence of logical entailment from “Intelligent Design” to Christianity’s God. An agnostic friend once reasoned to me, “There’s no proof.” It dawned on me later that day: that’s true, and it’s the key! Christianity is based on faith, on a Kierkegaardian “leap” (his term), and cannot be based on anything else.

Nor can any other worldview be based on anything else. Materialist naturalism seems to me refuted by recent findings of theoretical physics, the many experiences we have that do not align with it, as well as careful attention to what goes on with language and our understanding of it (not a material process). I know that any materialists reading this will complain that I don’t understand materialism. It is always possible to reinterpret experience so that it fits a favored point of view, usually by ignoring or discounting those elements that “don’t fit.” The point I would make is, materialism is not a finding of any science. Nor does any scientific theory entail it, not even the ones on which there is largescale consensus, like Darwinian evolution. Those who believe otherwise, all they have to do is lay out the logic leading from specific findings of these sciences to the general thesis that materialism is a true account of reality. I submit that this cannot be done. Materialism is, if anything, a presupposition of a certain way of looking at physical reality alone through science. Empirical science, therefore, has not refuted Christianity, nor could it do so. Much modern philosophy of science begins by having science on an epistemic pedestal (except for a few writers such as Paul Feyerabend): positivism and its immediate descendants. Remove it from this pedestal, and this becomes instantly and abundantly clear.

We can say all this before we even get to ethics, or political philosophy, or legal philosophy, with all the practical problems they lead to. I submit: in all three of these areas, if our goal is to base our conclusions on reason instead of obedience to secular authority, materialism leaves us completely at sea. You can see this by googling the essay by British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872 – 1970), “A Free Man’s Worship,” and reading it carefully. It is a classic statement of the secularist’s stance based on purported findings of modern science … and dilemma. In different ways, the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881) and the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900), each had far more dramatic and compelling accounts of the actual consequences of “God [being] dead.”

But this should be sufficient for now. Normative matters require a far different discussion than we’ve provided here. I will discuss them in a future post. Just as a teaser: while it is possible to quarrel with Christian ethics, or claim that there are many points where the Christian worldview is unclear, all I can say at this point is, Christian ethics is no worse off than any of the available secular theories, all of which fail miserably if the idea is to establish them with something more than, “This is where I make my stand.” As for legal philosophy, I will invoke the idea of legal positivism: the idea boils down to the law being whatever those in power say it is. Legal positivism stands unnoticed in the background behind social issues ranging from abortion to Kim Davis’s refusal to put her name on marriage certificates for gays, and behind Judge Bunning’s contention that natural law would set a terrible precedent. It would at that, because it would destroy the entire edifice of legal positivism! But … I get ahead of myself. More on a future occasion. Where we will end up … there are propositions worth believing … even if you cannot prove them true! This ought to be compatible enough with all the modern and postmodern tendencies to be of some interest!

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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1 Response to My Kantian-Kierkegaardian Christianity

  1. lecox says:

    I became aware of this blog due to it being mentioned in a post on another blog I frequent (one maintained by Jean Haines) which featured, if I remember right, your previous article on Political Economy. I feel a little like I’m barging into a private conversation, and you can let me know if it feels that way to you, too. However, I assume you write on a blog with some expectation that others may read what you have to say!
    I encourage you, if I may, to step back for a minute from these concerns about beliefs and what can or can’t be proven, to an attitude towards life that you may have shared when you were, perhaps, younger. Your days may have been filled, not with philosophic concerns, but with deep involvement in some creative process, or learning a skill you wanted to have, or getting your homework done, or planning what to do next weekend. Sure, you read books, you got ideas about things, your ideas were occasionally challenged, but that was a relatively minor part of life. For most of the time, you just lived.
    But as you went about living, you bumped into some interesting barriers. Such as being told that if you wanted something you had to pay for it yourself. Or having to decide whether or not to go to college. Or running into some social or political situation where beliefs mattered. People around you perhaps began to get interested in preparing you for “adult life,” or you saw the inevitability of it yourself. What exactly was this game called “being an adult?” Where did it come from? Who’s idea was it? And how would you deal with it?
    If you grew up at all like I did, you probably found out that almost no one seemed interested in such questions, that if you wanted answers you’d have to figure them out for yourself, and deal with the situation as best you could. Most people decide to just carry on. They “grow up,” get more serious, and hopefully more responsible. They find some place to fit in in life, and they just sort of roll with it. Those who feel compelled to stand aside and try to figure it all out become the philosophers of the world, I guess. While those who have the impulse to have a better understanding, yet don’t think that disengagement is the way to attain that understanding, are rarer still.
    I was raised without a religion, and never attended a church while growing up. My parents seemed to think this wasn’t a very important part of life, but realized they were in a minority on that subject. They thought they were right, though. But I saw the huge majority of the population proclaiming some faith, and many embroiled in conflicts that seemed to be based on religious differences. How, I thought, could this phenomenon be ignored? It was grossly contributing to making Earth hellish and very unwelcoming for many people, yet it was also clung to as something indispensable. If children were to continue to experience the simple thrills of just living, wouldn’t we have to do something to come to terms with this unstable mixture of faith and insanity that seemed to be engulfing the planet?
    In sorting this out for myself, I came across some amazing data and some amazing people. I don’t know that I’ve met any of the most amazing personally, but I have learned of them through their work. I also opted for no college. This protected me against that self-defense mechanism known as “academic rigor” which seems to be something they specialize in teaching at universities. I trained to be an electronics technician, a kind of junior engineer. An engineer, a kind of practical artist, comes up with ideas and tries to make them work. He doesn’t necessarily care about the intricacies of the technologies involved, as long as those technologies produce the desired effect. So I wasn’t choosy about who I consulted to answer my questions, or how rigorous their theories were, I just wanted to know: Would acting based on those answers be workable?
    In this process I came across one set of research findings in particular that was obviously being put to practice and was getting results, yet was maximally incredible and minimally mainstream. As such, a church had been organized as a way to protect the work from being stopped, altered, or destroyed, and I joined it. So, I came to have a “religion.” It is a religion that demands no “faith.” It only demands that if you become a professional practitioner, the people you help should feel honestly helped, and if they don’t you’re doing something wrong. It is a religion of practical help, but also of some of the most esoteric discoveries you’ve ever heard of.
    In these discoveries I found answers to why even the faithful act so crazy, where most religious teachings really come from and the motive behind them, what past societies have experienced and how that compares to what Earth has been going through, and how to get a being to go exterior from their body and thus gain a better awareness of their true identity – without nearly killing them.
    I give the above to you as an example of what can happen if one moves “outside the envelope” of traditional academia. The potential level of insight available is amazing, with absolutely no reliance on faith. It’s all in the practice. In that way it could be compared to Buddhism (a “religion” seldom mentioned in the West, as it has no God, but of untold influence over untold generations, including Christ’s generation), and might be considered as its modern replacement. Something for you (and your readers?) to ponder.

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