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Considering freedom, God, and happiness

05 August 2016

John Saxbee applauds an accessible, even gripping, study of Immanuel Kant

An indelible influence: the German philosopher Immanuel Kant

An indelible influence: the German philosopher Immanuel Kant

The Intolerable God: Kant’s theological journey
Christopher J. Insole
Eerdmans £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18



IMMANUEL KANT is as complex a character as they come in philosophical circles. A native of Königsberg, he never left Prussia, and yet the mark he made on the modern European mind is all but indelible.

This is not attributable to his accessibility. His style is challenging even to a seasoned philosophical practitioner, and tracing the interwoven threads of his thought is not for the faint-hearted. So it is a joy to engage with a book about Kant which is accessible to the uninitiated reader — and even something of a page-turner.

Christopher Insole is Professor of Philosophical Theology and Ethics at Durham University, and achieves this lucidity by the use of carefully crafted literary devices. Vivid images and analogies abound, as Kant’s intellectual journey is unfolded in terms of Dante’s imagined journey in the Divine Comedy.

In so far as there has been any kind of consensus regarding Kant’s writings, it is that there is marked discontinuity between his earlier theological and metaphysical thought, and his later “critical philosophy”. He may have had a Pietist upbringing, and in his early works he may have advocated something akin to a Deist belief in God, but “his mature philosophy has standardly been received by theologians as attempting a straightforward refutation of the possibility of theological discourse”. His works were banned by the Roman Catholic Church until 1929.

This is the analysis Insole sets out to challenge, and he does so by clearly describing how Kant’s “theological rationalism” evolved towards a sophisticated account of God, freedom, and happiness, which may not match the doctrinal requirements of orthodox Christianity, but which certainly cannot be described as “secular”.

For Kant, reason can be “theoret­ical”, and, as such, it cannot estab­lish God’s existence beyond doubt. But reason can also be “practical”, with God’s existence posited as a moral imperative.

Yet reason is also about acquiring knowledge, which may be of things in themselves or, as Kant comes to believe, of things as they appear to our consciousness. For a while, this enables him to reconcile God’s creative and providential activity with the requirements of human freedom. Even then, he runs up against the problem how God creates a being necessarily orient­ated towards divinely pre-ordained goodness, but yet capable of evil for which the creature rather than the Creator must be held responsible.

Kant does not deviate from belief in God, but this belief evolves to the point where divinity resides in humanity rather than elsewhere. This is as far as reason can take him; but Insole credits Kant with recognising that this does not preclude the reason-transcending mysteries of Christian faith.

So Kant takes theological ration­alism as far as it can go — that is, until, for reason, God becomes “intolerable”. Then it is for theo­logians to pursue the possibilities offered by faith in the face of life’s mysteries.

Insole’s account will not meet with universal assent, as too many commentators have a stake in Kant as an ally in their atheism. But the case he makes here is both com­pelling and convincing.


The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

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