Dr W Large


Kant and the Invisible Church


We can best interpret the direct relation between religion and morality in Kant through Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone and especially the fourth book, ‘Concerning Service and Pseudo-Service under the Sovereignty of the Good Principle, or Concerning Religion and Clericalism’. Let’s then look at the argument of this book in detail.

      Kant interprets the Kingdom of God as an ethical community which is the result of the unity of private wills that will the same common good: ‘Though we each obey our private duty, we might indeed thereby derive an accidental agreement of all in a common good.’ [139]. As can be interpreted from this quotation, at the level of morality this ethical community is only accidental. It has to do with the universality of the categorical imperative. It is what Kant named in the Critique of Practical Reason, ‘the kingdom of ends’.

The definition of religion, therefore, is the positive institution of this accidental ethical community:

We have also seen that such a community, as a Kingdom of God, can be undertaken by human beings only through religion, and finally, that in order for religion to be public (a requisite for a community), this kingdom is represented in the visible form of a church [139].

We might ask what kind of church this might be. Is it a real church or an ideal one? Whatever the answer to this question might be, we can see that this is a practical defence of religion, rather than a speculative one. Kant makes a distinction between the visible and the invisible church. The invisible church is the church of rational morality, or personal faith, whereas the visible church is the institutional church. Only the latter can be said to have public officials, for it makes no sense to say that the invisible church as the community of likeminded spirits would need an external organisation. The question is, then, what is the relation between the invisible and visible church?

Kant’s argument is that the visible church is moving closer and closer to the invisible church in becoming more rational and thereby based upon autonomy rather than heteronomy. Thus, for Kant, those officials who are against the invisible church for the sake of the visible church can be accused of ‘counterfeit service’. What is at stake here is an opposition to slavish acceptance of ordinances of the visible church as opposed to the arrival, on one’s own terms, to a rational faith and which precisely because of its rational basis would also be a public faith in the community of the invisible church:

By contrast the servants of a church who do not take this end into consideration but rather declare the maxim of constant approximation to it as damnable, while dependence on the historical and statutory part of the church’s faith as alone salvific, can justly be accused of counterfeit service of the church or the ethical community under the dominion of the good principle (which is represented through the church).

Religion subjectively defined is ‘the recognition of all our duties as divine commands’ [142]. There are important consequences that follow from this definition. God is not an object of assertoric knowledge – the existence of God is not provable since God is supersensible (or better the idea of a supersensible object), but a problematic assertion of theoretical knowledge as the idea of the supreme cause of things. We might need this idea this origin for theoretical knowledge, but this origin can only be an idea of reason, rather than an object of experience. However, what is problematic is relation to theoretical knowledge is assertoric in terms of morality, since the idea of God is necessary correlate of the idea of the highest good without which the notion of moral existence would be inconceivable.

Secondly, the subjective basis of religion means that it should not be confused with the mere external practice of duties towards God through the performance of rituals and observances, but is the ethical-civil duty of one human being to the other. This is because God as the idea of a supersensible being is beyond human cognition, and therefore there can be no immediate relation to God. The relation to God, therefore, can only be through the relation to another human being: ‘there are no particular duties toward God in a universal religion; for God cannot receive anything from us’ [142]. We might say, as an idea of religion, that God judges us, but we cannot judge another as though we knew what God might have judged about them. The only thing that is certain is that the laws that we institute between us as human beings and this must always take precedence. Thus, the visible church must always be subordinated to civil society. What God might or might not will cannot be known:

For anything permissible, which civil authority commands, is certainly a duty; whereas, whether something which is indeed permissible in itself yet cognisable by us only through divine relation is truly commanded by God this is (at least for the most part) highly uncertain [142].

From this Kant makes a distinction between two kinds of religion: revealed and natural. Revealed religion starts with God and then talks about duty; natural, with duties and then talks about God. Natural religion is rationalist, and revealed religion is supernaturalist. Kant, however, does make a finer distinction between these two extremes: Someone who denies revelation completely is a naturalist, whereas someone who does not deny revelation but argues that it is not necessary for religion is a pure rationalist.

A rationalist, by definition, is someone who holds his or her beliefs within the limits of human reason. Thus he can neither deny the naturalist nor the supernaturalist, since these matters are beyond the limits of what is answerable by human knowledge. Thus, the choice for Kant is not between supernaturalism nor naturalism, but a third way that is rational faith. What is decisive for Kant is the question of revelation and whether it is necessary to religion. If one thinks of this distinction in terms of the history of religion, or what Kant calls ‘external communication’, then this same opposition can be seen as the opposition between natural religion and learned religion. The reason why Kant says it is better to look at it this way is because whether the origin of a religion is revealed or merely the product of human reason is not something answerable, rather we should ask ourselves whether it is better to that religion is the result of internal rational conviction or merely the learning of stories and myths.

A religion can be said to both rational and revealed by arguing that its content could have been arrived at by reason alone, and revelation merely assists reason. Here revelation would only be an assistance to the individual; it has no objective truth, whereas the rationality of religion would have to be universal. Thus, religion is subjectively revealed, and objectively rational. The latter, therefore, is more important than the former, for the revealed content of a religion might be forgotten or superseded, without the rational aspect of religion losing out at all. This is not the case for a belief that is based upon revelation alone. For in this case, as soon as the written and ecclesiastical history were disappear, so too would the religion. Moreover the basis of such a learned religion is heteronymous. We depend on the church for the preservation and explanation of revealed religion, whereas the assent to rational religion is based upon our own will.

The question is: what is the balance between rational religion and learned religion in a pure rational faith? In other words, how much of a religion can I assent to rationally and how much must I simply believe since I have been told to believe. To answer this question we need a concrete example, Christianity. Ought we not to be suspicious of Kant’s choice of example? Does Christianity happen to be rational because Kant is a Christian? How much is this example without prejudice? Kant would say not because Christianity is already a moral religion (this is what his reading of the gospels intends to prove). We might be more suspicious: which comes first, the idea Christianity, which then becomes Kant’s model of morality, or the idea of morality, which just happens to be the same as the content of Christianity as opposed to other revealed religions?

Rational religion is universal; that is to say, valid for every human being. It is natural religion, therefore, that is the expression of the invisible church. The universality of the church is not based upon institutions, but on the universality of reason itself. The institution of the visible church, on the other hand, is particular to a tradition. Again the question is: what is the relation between the invisible and visible church? Is the argument that without the visible church, the invisible church would not be able to preserve itself? Yet the visible church has its basis in learned religion, whereas the invisible church has its basis in reason alone. Kant’s argument is that there is only one factual religion that has at its heart rational morality and that is Christianity. Christianity is the historical example of the union between the invisible and visible church and this is what makes it different from the other world religions, which are heteronymous.

Jesus is not founder of a true religion, which is found in everyone, but the founder of the first true church; that is to say, the first true visible church. Kant interprets Jesus’ message as the necessity of morality above obedience to the church, and this ethics interpreted in terms intrinsic value of the moral will, as opposed to reward one might obtain from moral acts. This morality is exactly the same as Kant’s description of morality in the Critique of Practical Reason. There are two ways of responding to this: one that there really is a universalist ethics in Christianity, or two, that the philosophical presentation has merely dressed up the particularity of Christianity in order to make it appear universal.

The truth of Jesus’ teaching is based its rationality and not on revelation. It does not matter even whether Jesus existed or not, or actually said these things, for their truth resides in their inner certainty, and not in divine sanction:

Here we then have a complete religion, which can be proposed to all human beings comprehensibly and convincingly through their own reason, one moreover, whose possibility and even necessity as a prototype for us to follow (so far as human beings are capable of it) has been made visible in an example, without either the truth of these teachings or the authority and the worth of the teacher requiring any other authentication (for which scholarship or miracles, which are not matters for everyone, would be required) [150]

What then would be a false religion, or a false Christianity for that matter? The delusion of religion is to make statutory religion (the observation of external laws) the true service to God as opposed to ‘good life conduct’ [158]. Religious delusion is also linked for Kant to anthropomorphism of God, which though theoretically harmless, is morally dangerous. We make God like ourselves, and thus believe that we win him over to our side without any moral disposition on our part through giving gifts, sacrifices or cajoling him by prayers. Here God is like despot whom we have to seduce. This is especially dangerous when it becomes the reason for a church to exist, since it will proclaim that it knows what God’s hidden intentions are, and how to differentiate between the worthy and the unworthy. The only relation to such a church is fear. For I know that is it is not possible to know what God’s plan might be and thus I could only agree to such a church through ignorance and fear. What is important for Kant is approximation to the moral idea, and the idea of God acts as a stimulus to this ideal, but not its substitution.

Moreover in the external service to God there can be no limit to what might or might be good service, for it would only be the whims of the external authorities as to what the content of the Divine plan might be. Any authority can say what they like as to what it might be, since it is beyond both reason and experience to determine it. It is product, on the contrary, of human imagination. Additionally all external service to God is identical, whether we are speaking of a pilgrimage to a cathedral in Spain on our knees or turning a Tibetan prayer wheel. Who could say that one is truer than the other?

All that we know is nature and the moral world, to which we might argue that the latter necessarily contains the idea of God. To see God everywhere and to think that human actions have an effect on God is mere delusion, madness and enthusiasm (the illusions of faith), for God is a supersensible idea of reason and therefore cannot be known by us or experienced by us except in these delusion states:

Enthusiastic religious delusion is, on the contrary, the moral death of the reason without which there can be no religion, because, like all morality in general, religion must be founded on principles [163].

For Kant it is important not to confuse the symbolic representation, the visible church, with the idea of God, which belongs to morality. To do so is to be guilty, he argues, of fetishism, which is the belief that through natural means one could effect what by its own definition is beyond the natural world. Morality is to be understood as the expression of human freedom and thus a church that embodies morality is a free church. The statutory church, on the contrary is slavish church in which obedience is to external authorities and not to the moral law within. Priestcraft, then for Kant, is a form of fetishism:

Priest craft is therefore the constitution of a church to the extent that a fetish-service is the rule; and this always obtains wherever statutory commands rules of faith observances, rather than principles of morality make up the groundwork and the essence of the church. [167-8]

True service to God is invisible, and it is only human needs which require that we have a visible support - the delusion occurs when the visible support is confused for the invisible, or becomes the guiding force of religion, i.e. the institutions become more important than the pure heart. The visible church as the support of the invisible church, on the contrary, can be divided into four basic duties:

q        Prayer

q        Church attendance

q        Baptism

q        Communion

A church that sees these duties as ends in themselves is a fetish faith. This fetish faith has three kinds of delusion for Kant:

1.      That we have cognition of something that is beyond human knowledge – miracles

2.      That we include within reason in relation to our moral sense of ourselves something that is beyond reason – mystery

3.      That through natural means we can bring about God’s intervention in our lives – Grace

The external church represents symbolically the universal ethical community, but it should not contain any formulas that would be seen as being higher than morality, and especially any images of God since this leads to anthropomorphism of religion. Baptism can be part of the external church, but only as the recognition of entering this community and not as a means of grace through the washing away of sins. Communion too can act as a symbol of this community, but it should not become debased into a fetish whereby by simply partaking in this ritual one gains grace from God. Only to this extent can the church be a true supplement to the supplement of religion. Whereas the history of religion has been the subordination of religion to the church and thereby morality to religion, for Kant this relation has to be changed if religious belief is to be rational: religion should be subordinated to morality, and the church to religion:

Apart from a good life-conduct, anything which the human being supposes that he can do to become well-pleasing to God is mere religious delusion and counterfeit service of God. [158]