October 22, 2010


Categorical Imperatives Impair Christianity in Culture (Douglas A. Ollivant, Religion & Liberty)

In his must-read Christian Faith and Modern Democracy, Robert Kraynak introduces us to the concept of “Kantian Christianity.” Kraynak claims that the “Kantian influence on modern Christianity is … deep and pervasive.” What he means is that Christian thinkers no longer speak about culture and politics in terms of the more enduring principles of moral virtue, law, and the common good but now focus on social justice, understood as solely the immediate, material rights and dignity of the human person. Moreover, they have drastically reduced the role of prudence in politics accepted under the historical Christian anthropological understanding, which has recognized a variety of political regimes depending on the circumstances. This historical understanding also acknowledged the harsh realities of the political realm in a fallen (albeit redeemed) world, and the difficulties and agonies involved in fashioning a just or moral response to contingent events. Instead of prudential judgments, Kraynak maintains that we now hear only moralistic pronouncements about peace and justice that severely limit the range of (legitimately recognized) political options.

Kraynak maintains that Kantian Christianity has seeped into the language of contemporary Christians even though contemporary Christians do not seem to have a full understanding of the underlying anthropology that comes with it. The rights and dignity of each person replaces moral and theological virtues—rational and spiritual perfection. Further, an emphasis on personal autonomy or personal identity diminishes long-established Christian teachings about the dependence of the Creature on the Creator, original sin, grace, and a natural law through which human beings may share or “participate” in eternal law.

Following Kraynak, it is clear to see that in our public life and culture, this language of rights and dignity tends to lead to absolutes in morality, or “categorical imperatives.” Now, Christianity has no problem with moral absolutes (and in fact dictates several), provided they are properly stated. But a proper statement of a moral absolute is made difficult by the anthropology lingering in Kant’s legacy.

Kant’s original categorical imperative, of course, states that one must live in such a manner that one’s actions could form the basis of a universal law. It is the quest for “universal laws,” exclusive of a prudent account of circumstance, that proves troubling. This universalist language is incompatible with the more prudential approaches to public life articulated by Augustine and Aquinas, which was driven by their much richer understandings of the human person and his or her relation to the physical world and the divine. Examples of this Kantian, univocal language can be seen in many uses of our three most cherished “rights”—life, liberty, and property. Let us address these in reverse order, dealing briefly with property and liberty before examining life questions in some detail.

The Influence of Kant on Christian Theology: A Debate About Human Dignity and Christian Personalism (Derek S. Jeffreys, Fall 2004, Journal of Markets and Morality)
In recent writings, Robert Kraynak indicts modern liberalism, arguing that it is incompatible with the Christian faith. The modern language of human rights, he believes, undermines Christian virtues, producing a dangerous individualism. Kraynak suggests that constitutional monarchy comports best with Christianity but recognizes that it is unlikely to reappear on the historical scene anytime soon. He advises us, therefore, to embrace democracy on prudential grounds, tempering it by firmly distinguishing between spiritual and temporal realms.

Many scholars today raise challenges to democracy and question whether we ought to use human-rights language. I disagree with some of Kraynak’s prudential judgments about these two issues, but they do not surprise me. What disturbs me is how he uses Kantianism to caricature and undermine personalism. In this article, I argue that what he says about personalism is historically and philosophically simplistic. First, I outline Kraynak’s account of Kantianism, noting how he ascribes it to personalists. Second, I show how important twentieth-century personalists explicitly reject Kant’s metaphysics and epistemology. Third, I discuss how personalists use Kant’s ethic carefully, fully aware of its dangers. Fourth, I argue that personalism originates notin Kantianism but in a metaphysic of being, which Kraynak never philo-sophically engages. By presenting it crudely, he is able to evade its powerful metaphysical and ethical challenge. Dismissing personalism, he develops a troubling argument about hierarchies of value within the human race that is metaphysically and ethically untenable.

A Response to Derek S. Jeffreys (Robert P. Kraynak, Fall 2004, Journal of Markets and Morality)
Let me begin by stating as precisely as possible the disagreement between Professor Jeffreys and me. We both acknowledge that there is something new about Christian theology in the modern age and that the label most commonly used for the new school is “Christian personalism.” This label refers to the “human person,” which modern theologians present as a new way of talking about man or human nature—a new Christian anthropology—that builds upon and expands older notions.

Traditional Christian anthropology viewed man as a type of substance—a created being with a specific nature that is spiritual, rational, and social. In this view, man has a spiritual nature made in the image of God with an eternal destiny, a rational nature with intellect and free will as well as an inherited propensity to sin, and a social nature directed to family and political life that achieves its perfection in charity or love. While retaining many of these features, Christian personalism adds new dimensions to Christian anthropology—a greater awareness of man as a “subject” or possessor of subjective consciousness; a new emphasis on self-determination in action; a greater appreciation of personal identity, the irreplaceable uniqueness of everyone, and the interiority of spiritual life. Above all, personalism brings a new and heightened awareness of human dignity and human rights. Formulating these new features into a grand moral principle, Christian personalists refer to “the dignity of the human person” as the new standard for Christian ethics and natural law. From the dignity of the human person, a new political orientation also follows—an affirmation of the rights of the human person as a basis for supporting modern liberal democracy. Both Professor Jeffreys and I agree that Christian personalism as such has become the dominant school among theologians and church leaders over the last century.

To give a sense of its widespread appeal, I would list the following figures as Christian personalists: (among Catholics), Jacques Maritain; Gabriel Mar-cel; Emmanuel Mounier; Heinrich Rommen; John Courtney Murray; Popes John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II; Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger; Karl Rah-ner; John Finnis; Michael Novak; and W. Norris Clarke; (among Protestants), Walter Rauschenbusch; Reinhold Niebuhr; Dietrich Bonhoeffer; Martin Luther King Jr.; Archbishop Desmond Tutu; and Glenn Tinder; (among Eastern Orthodox), Nicolai Berdyaev and Alexander Schmemann. Beyond individual figures, personalism is especially influential in the Catholic Church. It can be found in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, which says, “the human person … ought to be the principle, the subject, and the end of all social institutions” and “public authorities are bound to respect the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person.” These statements give some sense of the significance of Christian personalism, a fact that Professor Jeffreys and I both recognize.

Our disagreement arises over how to understand the origins of Christian personalism and how to judge its effects. I claim that Christian personalism cannot be understood without acknowledging the influence of Kant on its central principles. Let me be clear about what I am claiming here, because, at one point, Professor Jeffreys misstates my position. I distinguish Kant’s metaphysics and epistemology from Kant’s ethics and politics. In addition, I claim that Christian personalism is a combination of Thomistic metaphysics and Kantian ethics—a combination of the metaphysical realism of Thomas’ philosophy of being (which affirms the reality of man as a rational being in the created order and the reality of objects of knowledge) and Kant’s ethical idealism (its moral imperative of respecting people as ends-in-themselves and its political philosophy of freedom and human rights). Professor Jeffreys is therefore unfair in citing certain European personalists who reject the epistemology and metaphysics of Kant; I acknowledge this point. I clearly state that most personalists embrace Thomistic metaphysical realism and try to combine it with a new ethical orientation that reflects Kantian liberalism (of course, there are “transcendental Thomists,” such as Bernard Lonergan and Karl Rahner, who seek to incorporate Kant’s epistemology as well as Kant’s ethics into a Christian framework).

My precise claim, therefore, is that most Christian personalists have preserved Thomistic metaphysics while adopting Kantian liberalism in their ethics and politics. In particular, they have been profoundly influenced by Kant’s distinction between “persons” and “things” in the Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals and Kant’s command to treat persons as ends, never merely as means for profit, pleasure, or exploitation (Kant’s famous second formulation of the categorical imperative). I would even say that “the human person” in Christian personalism is primarily Kant’s moral personality rather than Scholasticism’s metaphysical notion of the person, either as substance or relation.

I further claim that the political views of Christian personalists are mainly a reflection of Kant’s views, especially as found in the Metaphysical Element of Justice (where Kant says “the one and only legitimate constitution is a pure republic,” meaning a representative democracy that protects human rights) and in Perpetual Peace (where Kant says we have a moral duty to work for world peace under international organizations such as a League of Nations). Christian personalists reflect Kantian liberalism in their the views that liberal democracy or republicanism is the only legitimate political regime because it alone accords with the rights and dignity of people, that social justice requires social structures based on the equality of people, and that working for world peace under the League of Nations or United Nations is a moral, even a religious, duty. I also make the judgment that Christian personalism is flawed for the same reasons that Kantian liberalism is flawed: Its categorical character lacks the prudential wisdom of traditional Christianity, and it needs to be reconsidered in the light of a sober, “politics of prudence” that aims at approximating the temporal common good in the conditions of the fallen world.

Professor Jeffreys, by contrast, is an ardent defender of Christian personalism and asserts that “personalism originates not in Kantianism, but in a metaphysics of being”— meaning, personalism emerges through developments within Thomism alone. In making this claim, Professor Jeffreys suffers from the same delusion as other Christian personalists, such as Jacques Maritain and John Finnis, who also believe that the rights and dignity of the human person can be derived simply by a development of Thomism. The problem is that none of them offers a convincing account of how the political principles of Christian personalism—human rights, liberal democracy, and support for the United Nations—flow from developments of Thomistic metaphysics.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 22, 2010 6:32 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus