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Kant’s Wisdom on Fundamentalism | Righting America

by Susan Trollinger and William Trollinger

We (Bill and Sue) have never been enthusiasts for Kant. The categorical imperative has always left us rather cold. But the other day, as we were preparing for class (we team teach an interdisciplinary course with six other faculty, so we all read the same texts for that class), we were both blown away by how powerfully Kant speaks into the present.

In his essay, “An Answer to the Question: ‘What Is Enlightenment?’” Kant argues that what is at the heart of Enlightenment is the freedom for “the public use of reason” or the freedom to think carefully and then argue convincingly on any matter in public. Kant contrasts this freedom with the obligation to passively obey some command (such as to pay one’s taxes). And while a citizen must obey certain commands like paying their taxes, he argues, they also ought to make public use of their reason by objecting to the tax if their reason tells them that it is unjust.

In the course of the essay, Kant lets his reader know what is at stake here. In calling for the public use of our reason, he is encouraging instability since our public use of reason has the potential to challenge, even overturn, any set of ideas, doctrine, consensus, or apparent truth.

Taking this point seriously, he asks, “But should not a society of clergymen . . . be entitled to commit itself by oath to a certain unalterable set of doctrines, in order to secure for all time a constant guardianship over each of its members, and through them over the people?” (2). Shouldn’t a people of faith (any faith) settle on certain truths and lock them down for all time?

Kant says no because, as he sees it, there is a grave problem in this. And that problem is human beings. Interestingly, for Kant the problem is not so much an epistemological one—human beings are not able to know truth because they are limited, fallen, etc. Rather, the problem is who human beings are by their very nature as reasoning beings. For Kant, to forbid human beings from interrogating some truth in religion (or anything else) is to infantilize them or, worse, dehumanize them. When we do that, we force them to be something that they aren’t. We strip them of what gives them value.

Since 1919, Protestant fundamentalism has been dedicated to the project of nailing down once and for all the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith, as seen by fundamentalists. Answers in Genesis’ “apologetics ministry” continues in that effort. And just as Kant describes such an effort in the quotation above, theirs is a two-part task: 1) to identify the truth(s) that may never change (the inerrant word, a historical Adam and Eve, a young universe, and so forth), and 2) to maintain a “guardianship” over AiG’s members and all fundamentalists. It is AiG’s job (which AiG clearly embraces) to decide which truths may not be contested by fundamentalists and to make them impervious to any critique or challenge whatsoever to those truths.

Is there a problem in this? Kant would reply with a resounding yes! He would surely argue that AiG’s apologetics ministry (and fundamentalism’s project more generally) seeks to strip earnest Christians of what makes them human. Just as bad, it aims to disable their capacity to think carefully and meaningfully about a topic most dear to their hearts—their faith. Rendered silent on what are arguably the most important truths for them, they are called by AiG to a dehumanizing obedience.

What human beings need, Kant would argue, is not ANSWERS in Genesis, but the freedom to ask hard questions about Genesis. While embracing such freedom does bring with it a certain instability, he would admit, the greater risk is in stripping ourselves of what makes us human.