By Father Thomas Esposito
Special to The Texas Catholic
Immanuel Kant is not a household name among suburban Americans who don’t read philosophy, but he is one of those giants in the history of human thought whose influence is so immense that it appears anonymous to most. Kant (1724-1802) is perhaps the greatest representative of the Enlightenment, a philosophical and cultural movement that claimed to liberate human reason from the perceived fetters of faith. The program may be summed up in the opening lines of his famous essay “What is Enlightenment?”: “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s own understanding without the tutelage of another. […] The motto of Enlightenment is therefore: sapere aude [dare to know]! Have courage to use your own understanding!”
Immaturity, according to Kant and cronies, is the domain of popes, priests, and unthinking Christians who cling to their creeds and superstitious practices at the expense of pure reason. How effective was this program at instilling the distinction between faith and real thinking? The designation of the medieval period as “the Dark Ages,” in contrast to the bright age of “Enlightenment,” is standard in both popular and academic minds, and the cute children’s phrase Hocus pocus, a mockery of the Latin Eucharistic words Hoc est enim corpus meum (“This is my body”), reduces the sacred act of Christ’s redemption to the playful absurdity of magic.
The vision of Enlightenment outlined by Kant foretells the indefinite progress of humanity guided exclusively by the principles of reason, as defined by the enlightened few. As individuals and nations free themselves from the shackles of religious devotion and creedal allegiances, Kant asserts, they will gradually develop an increasingly perfect morality, and the progress of technological knowledge in tandem with this elevated morality will ensure a “perpetual peace” among rational nations. Kant even employs Christian rhetoric, but with a curious twist: he expresses confidence that reason will guide enlightened human beings to bring about “the Kingdom of God on earth” within human history, ignoring any consummation of time and history accomplished by Christ himself.
The program in itself sounds lovely – as do all utopias. Kant pinned high hopes on the French Revolution raging at the end of his life – the one that inaugurated the era of “liberty, equality, fraternity” by creating thousands of Christian martyrs. But he would surely rethink his rational optimism upon discovering that the very nations where the Enlightenment dream reached a fevered pitch (Germany, France, England, the United States) produced two astoundingly horrific World Wars, gas chambers designed to eliminate the Jewish people, and atomic bombs capable of annihilating entire nations. Yet strangely, the certainty that science is its own moral compass, and that reason forges humanity safely ahead on its evolutionary destiny of technological improvement, still possesses a strong allure.
The logical outcome of such a relentless championing of science divorced from any standard or reference beyond human reason, of course, is not the improvement of humanity, but its grotesque deformation. One need only ponder the movements of transhumanism and digital immortality gaining traction today in the popular consciousness.
Was this trajectory from the Enlightenment to the carnage of the 20th century inevitable? No. Yet a brilliant mathematician and Christian apologist named Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) foresaw the dangers more than a century before Kant. For Pascal, the Enlightenment project will inevitably misunderstand the nature of the human person; it will rightly recognize the godlike majesty of human reason, but it will utterly fail to note the misery-inducing reality of sin: “[The Christian religion] teaches men both these truths: that there is a God whom we are capable [of knowing], and that there is a corruption in nature which makes us unworthy of Him. It is equally important for us to know both these points, and it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own misery, and to know his own misery without knowing the Redeemer who can cure him of it.”
To my mind, Kant’s rosy-glassed philosophy of rational human perfection without Christ requires a far greater leap of faith than the philosophy of history and the human person unveiled in Pascal and, strangely enough, the book of Revelation. Provided the genre of Revelation is respected (it is an apocalypse, not literal prophecy of how things will go down), the entire drama of the human condition is on marvelous display in those mysterious yet beautiful concluding pages of the Bible – a far more accurate and reasonable presentation of human agony and ecstasy than Kant’s dream. The wickedness of human beings and institutions warped by the demonic forces of sin are powerless to salvage their own lives – that work can only be accomplished by Christ, the lamb who was slain and holds in his hand the scroll of history (Rev 5:9-12).
Father Thomas Esposito, O.Cist., is a monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas and teaches in the theology department at the University of Dallas in Irving.