Enlightened Religion? Idealism as the History and Destiny of Modern Theology

Samuel Loncar on Gary Dorrien’s Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealist Logic of Modern Theology

Gary Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealist Logic of Modern Theology, Wiley-Blackwell, 2012, 616pp., $174.95
Is a truly modern religion possible? Can faith survive in the face of modern science and knowledge? These timely questions are central to a major new work by Gary Dorrien, Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealist Logic of Modern Theology. Answering these questions leads Dorrien back to Immanuel Kant, for it is to Kant and the world he created that we must turn if we want to understand the possibility and challenges of a distinctively modern religion.

“The Second Immanuel”

The long nineteenth century is said to begin in 1789 and end in 1914. Politics, and their continuation by other means, shape our historical categories. But it was the overthrow of ideas in Germany rather than the storming of the Bastille in France that marked the beginning of the nineteenth century. Despite its revolutionary character, the publication of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason in 1781 took time to have effect; it wasn’t until well into the 1780s that a serious discussion of the first Critique ensued. Once it was understood, philosophy and religion changed forever.

Kant saw himself as part of the German enlightenment, or Aufklärung, which, unlike its French counterpart, saw enlightenment as fully compatible with religion. The central idea of the Aufklärung was the supremacy of reason, the idea that reason was the arbiter before which all other authorities must be judged, including the venerable authorities of tradition and religion. Enlightened thinkers in late-eighteenth-century Germany thought reason’s supremacy and autonomy would not cause trouble for religion, whose rational tenets most of the Aufklärer defined as the existence of God, moral duty, and the immortality of the soul — these beliefs were held to be interconnected and necessary for the moral stability of society.

Kant was dismayed when he surveyed the state of metaphysics in 1781. He saw the profound disagreement and lack of progress in philosophy in marked contrast to the progress and consensus in the natural sciences, symbolized above all by Newton’s mathematical physics and the mechanistic worldview it implied. On Kant’s analysis, the disagreement on fundamental philosophical issues ultimately derived from Reason’s failure to understand herself. A critique of reason itself was therefore the essential prerequisite for progress in philosophy. To determine the nature and extent of human reason would unshackle it from its embarrassing lack of progress and lead it on to “the sure path of science.”

Science, of course, provided both the model and the challenge. Newton’s physics seemed to imply causal determinism and thus undermine freedom. Part of Kant’s great innovation was to attempt rationally to ground our belief in real human freedom and, simultaneously, in the mechanistic view of the natural world that Newtonian science entailed. The project of the first Critique was thus nothing less than to reconcile our highest values with modern science.

But the combination of Newtonian science and human values came at a cost. Kant famously claimed that he had “denied knowledge to make room for faith.” He did this by putting crucial ideas, like freedom and God, in a separate, unknowable realm (which he called the noumenal), distinct from the world of science (the phenomenal), thus defending God and freedom against the encroachment of the natural scientific view in which they seemed to have no place. What we can know for Kant is limited by possible experience, and experience is construed in terms of empirical input from the world combined with certain ideas, or categories, in the mind. Thus, a core element of Kant’s transcendental idealism was precisely this division between the noumenal and phenomenal, the former referring to the realm of “things in themselves” and the latter referring to the realm of “appearances,” i.e., the empirical realm governed by physical laws and thus capable of being known in Kant’s strict sense.

Crucially, Kant’s philosophy did not receive significant attention until 1785, the date of the so-called Pantheism controversy. In that year, Friedrich Jacobi, a public intellectual and controversialist, claimed that the recently deceased Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, a symbol and model of the Aufklärung, had confessed to being a Spinozist. The name of the seventeenth-century philosopher Spinoza was at this point in European history a synonym for atheism, fatalism, and nihilism, and Spinoza’s books were widely regarded as pernicious. This dispute seriously threatened the Aufklärung’s faith that the authority of reason was compatible with religion, morality, and a stable society.

Jacobi famously argued in a series of letters for two crucial claims: (1) all philosophy is Spinozism, and (2) Spinozism is atheistic, fatalistic, and ultimately nihilistic. To Jacobi, Spinoza was the most radically consistent rationalist in history: he was committed without compromise to the authority of reason, and thus held that there had to be a sufficient cause or explanation for everything. The end result was a radical monism and pantheism in which God was identified with nature as the source of all events, and everything followed necessarily from its antecedent conditions. In short, the triumph of reason and science — Enlightenment — led to the destruction of freedom and religion and an ineluctable descent into nihilism.

Kant’s philosophy appeared as the answer to Jacobi’s dilemma, a way of preserving the sovereignty of reason while leaving room for religion. Kant’s follower Karl Reinhold hailed him as the “second Immanuel” for his role in harmonizing science and religion. But this would be a new kind of religion, centered in human freedom, and it would give birth to a new theology.

Idealism as History

Gary Dorrien masterfully tells the story of this new theology — liberal theology. The author of over fifteen books, including a magisterial three-volume history of liberal theology in America, Dorrien’s latest monograph is the capstone of an essentially complete history of liberal theology. There could be few stories of greater importance, for the compatibility of reason and religion, of science and human values, remains perhaps the defining question of modern culture. The fate of liberal theology concerns everyone interested in this question.

The relation of religion and reason is also the most important part of the story. Dorrien’s historical argument is that liberal theology is built on the foundations of Kant’s transcendental Idealism and the transformation of Kantianism in the systems of the great German Idealists, J.G. Fichte, F.W.J. Schelling, and G.W.F. Hegel — a transformation inspired by the Pantheism controversy. The story of liberal theology is a predominantly German story, and Dorrien characterizes it by three features: the grounding of truth claims in reason and experience rather than authority; the positing of a viable alternative between orthodox religion and disbelief; and the articulation of Christianity in a manner consistent with contemporary values and knowledge.

The key concept of German Idealism that becomes central to liberalism is freedom, and the progress of freedom is the Leitmotiv of history. Dorrien here revives an older, broadly Hegelian interpretation of German Idealism. While he is clearly aware of more recent scholarship, he sees the older account of German Idealism as essentially right in viewing Hegel as the culmination of the Idealist tradition. Although scholars of German Idealism would have much to argue with in Dorrien’s reading, here he is on solid ground, particularly given his focus on the importance of Idealism for modern theology. Most recent scholarship by philosophers on German Idealism ignores or downplays the religious and strongly metaphysical dimension of their thought. An innocent byproduct of specialization, perhaps, but a misleading one. Religion was profoundly important to the Idealists and any serious historical study of the influence of German Idealism would have to focus heavily on religion. Even Frederick Beiser — one of the leading scholars of Idealism, and one who emphasizes its metaphysical dimensions — does not focus on the religious aspect of the Idealists, so Dorrien makes a significant contribution in giving such sustained attention to German Idealism’s influence on modern religion.

Even more important is Dorrien’s clear and persuasive argument for the founding role of Idealism in liberal theology. His treatment of Kant, Fichte, Schleiermacher, Schelling, and Hegel lays the foundation for the rest of the book, just as these figures prove foundational for subsequent theological developments. Dorrien’s focus on Coleridge as the founder of a British tradition of liberal theology demonstrates his importance as a mediator of German thought to the American transcendentalists and the subsequent liberal theological movement in the Anglophone world. Although only two of the nine chapters concern the English tradition, they suffice to give the reader a strong sense of the rise of liberal theology in Britain and the extent of its dependence on German Idealism and German liberal theology.

Aachen Cathedral, Germany
Aachen Cathedral, Germany – Image via Wikimedia Commons

Dorrien traces the rise of modern theology within the shadow of Idealism. He presents a detailed and continuous narrative from the German Idealists to the reactions to Hegelianism and the birth and demise of the most influential form of liberal theology, Ritschlianism. His lengthy treatment of Kierkegaard in the context of David Friedrich Strauss and Hegelianism is of great value in situating Kierkegaard in his proper historical context, viz., German Idealism and modern theology. He takes the story through the pinnacle of liberalism in Wilhelmine Germany to its crisis and collapse at the hands of Barth and the movement of dialectical theology (or neo-orthodoxy) that arose around him.

The force of the book is cumulative. To say that Idealism is important for modern theology is one thing. Many people have said this, and practically all scholars in the field would agree. But to show it effectively is something quite different, and this is what Dorrien does, first by carefully analyzing the major Idealists, and then tracing directly how their concepts shaped modern theology.

The significance of German Idealism for theology has, until this book, rarely been given the justice it deserves by modern theologians. Claiming Idealism is important may be simple, but genuinely acknowledging this claim has serious implications for the practice of theology itself. For example, one may have to engage philosophers directly in order to deal with ostensibly theological topics, if those topics are shaped and framed by fundamentally philosophical assumptions. Modern theology as an academic discipline has long claimed independence from other disciplines, especially philosophy. This claim to independence is clear in the work of liberal theology’s founder, Friedrich Schleiermacher, who declared the autonomy of theology as a discipline, sharply separating it (in theory) from philosophy. Ritschlianism, as Dorrien demonstrates, carried on this element of Schleiermacher’s thought, and the independence of theology from philosophy is ironically constitutive of Karl Barth’s revolt against liberalism, a deeply held inheritance from his teacher, Wilhelm Hermann. Due to the exigencies of specialization, few religious scholars or theologians have the philosophical understanding and background of Dorrien, and a clear implication of his largely philosophical story is that, contrary to much of liberal theology’s self-image, it is powerfully dependent on the legitimacy of Idealist philosophy. Liberal theology’s claim to autonomy is thus belied by its own history.

But the inadequately acknowledged dependence of modern theology on Idealism makes its foundations unstable. Since liberal theology conceptualizes Christianity in terms of contemporary thought, changes in what is considered scientific and respectable pose a problem when these changes lead beyond Idealism. When liberal theology was founded, contemporary knowledge and values were indeed those shaped by German Idealism, and its claims were woven into the pattern of liberalism. But by the time of liberal theology’s collapse under the Barthian revolt, the values and accepted knowledge had changed: Idealism was out of favor, and the mood was one of pessimism, disbelief, and apocalyptic expectations.

Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit ends with Karl Barth, the great critic of liberal theology who yet remained within its borders. This irony symbolizes the inner conflict of liberalism while raising a question about Dorrien’s argument as a whole. Dorrien executes his descriptive argument about the founding role of Idealism in modern theology with overwhelming force and rigor. Yet its very success imperils his normative argument that “there is no vital progressive theology that does not speak with idealistic conviction, notwithstanding the ironies and problems of doing so.”

Idealism as Destiny

If liberal theology requires an Idealist foundation yet Idealism no longer shapes our accepted knowledge and values, then either liberal theology deserves its demise or its resurrection presupposes the revitalization of a philosophically powerful form of Idealism. But this understates the challenge. While there has been a revival of scholarship on German Idealism in the past few decades, the academic world is itself riven by contradictions and disagreement.

To what knowledge or values is liberal theology supposed to relate itself if not to the Idealism that lies at its foundation? To the natural scientific orientation of analytic philosophy? To the post-Hegelian orientation of continental philosophy? Or to the social or natural sciences directly, without humanistic mediation? Accommodating what is currently respectable is not without its dangers, even when there is a clear consensus. Racism, for example, was once scientifically legitimated, and many liberal theologians incorporated racist ideas into their theology. Scientific respectability is thus one dimension of the often unabashedly white supremacist dimension of many liberal theologians, a fact Dorrien brings out clearly, especially in his discussion of the theologian Hastings Rashdall. But what is one to do when there is no clear consensus as to what constitutes legitimate knowledge or value?

These questions and the challenge they pose can scarcely be avoided by anyone concerned about the project of genuinely modern theology, for they express crucial tensions within that project: between claiming that theology is autonomous and making theology dependent upon Idealism; between denying philosophy a key and clear role in theology and requiring undefended philosophical foundations on which to build its theological house; between academic respectability and genuine religious content. If liberal theology so frequently denies its own foundations in other fields, how can it rise to the challenge of defending or changing these foundations? Barth, like Schleiermacher, provides little help in answering this question.

The vitality and importance of Dorrien’s work are evident in the clarity and skill by which he lets these tensions and challenges reveal themselves. His normative argument is far more radical than it seems, and not as implausible as the challenges might suggest.

Liberalism relies on Idealism because Idealism is the greatest movement in modern philosophy to uphold freedom as the highest ideal of humanity while constructing a metaphysics that attempts to accommodate modern science, perceive meaning in history, and acknowledge the importance of religion for human life; modern theology in this sense is the theological corollary of German Idealism. The fact that Idealism lost its force in culture and the academy does not mean other alternatives, equally capacious and plausible, rose to replace it. Dorrien rightly notes that German Idealism was never refuted. The scholar of British Idealism W. J. Mander supports this judgment in his work British Idealism: A History, arguing that analytic philosophy at its origin offered no serious refutation of the Idealism of its fathers. It simply moved on.

Dorrien thus adds to the recent revisions of the history of American liberalism offered by scholars like David Hollinger and Matthew Hedstrom his own profound depiction of the philosophical foundations of theological liberalism, its rise and fall, and the ironies, contradictions, and importance of its history. The story of liberal theology affects everyone who wishes to respect modern thought without leaving religion behind, and it is a story with a moral. If Dorrien is right, perhaps the most significant development in contemporary theology would be the renewal of Idealism in philosophy and the rise of a critical attitude among contemporary theologians to the philosophical and historical basis of their work. Jacobi’s dilemma — Enlightenment or Religion? — remains our own. Dorrien has shown us that the future of a vital modern theology may depend on nothing less than a return to its nineteenth-century foundations.

Samuel Loncar  is a philosopher and scholar of religion and editor of theMarginalia Review of Books, currently teaching at Yale Divinity. His work focuses on integrating separated spaces, including philosophy and poetry, science and religion, and the academic-public divide. His speaking and workshop engagements include the United Nations, Oliver Wyman, and Trinity Wall Street’s retreat center.  His website is www.samuelloncar.com. Tweets @SamuelLoncar.