Volume 44 - Issue 2

The Intolerable God: Kant’s Theological Journey

by Christopher J. Insole

Christopher Insole’s The Intolerable God: Kant’s Theological Journey is an accessible presentation of material worked out more fully in his earlier Kant and the Creation of Freedom: A Theological Problem (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013). While the earlier book deals in more detail with issues pertaining primarily to Kant studies, The Intolerable God is suited to readers “who have an interest in theology and who have encountered the figure of Immanuel Kant, and who want to know more about his thought and significance” (p. 1). Insole’s approach is set within “a new wave of more historically sensitive, theologically open-minded, and holistic Kant interpretation” in place of the more traditional view of Kant “as attempting a straightforward refutation of the possibility of theological discourse” (pp. 1–2). When Kant is read in this new way, certain theological issues come to the fore, making the book important for any reader interested in the engagement between philosophy and theology. Insole focuses upon the relationship between Kant’s notion of human freedom (requiring autonomy) and divine action in the world. The book’s title and main theme come from Kant’s statement: “One can neither resist nor tolerate the thought of a being represented as the highest of all possible things, which may say to itself, ‘I am from eternity to eternity, and outside me there is nothing except what exists through my will’” (p. 7). Insole shows Kant’s struggle with this concept of God, which Kant says is irresistible, yet intolerable in relation to our own freedom.

Chapters 1–4 outline the background of Kant’s thought and his intellectual development, especially his theological rationalism (the view that the divine mind contains essences which are the fundamental reality of things, coupled with the view that human reason provides access in some way to these essences), and the highest good (happiness in proportion to moral worthiness), while tracing Kant’s struggle to see the possibility of human freedom in this worldview. Chapters 5–6 present a metaphysically robust interpretation of Kant’s transcendental idealism—namely the view that space, time, and the things we experience in space and time are empirically real for us but are not fundamentally (transcendentally) real in themselves—as Kant’s solution to the problem of freedom. This maneuver allows Kant to hold to determinism in the empirical world while preserving freedom in the noumenal world (the world of essences for theological rationalism), which includes our true selves (rather than merely our empirical selves). Chapter 7 presents the doctrine of divine concurrence—the view that God acts directly in all creaturely actions while these actions are still freely performed (preserving libertarian freedom)—as a notion that is not irrational but still goes beyond reason, while explaining that Kant (limiting himself to reason alone) rejects concurrence. Chapter 8 presents Kant’s radical notion of autonomy (giving the law to oneself), leading him to reject the notion of God as directly involved in human actions.

The book’s central issue is the relation of human freedom to God’s existence, offering an engagement between theology and Kantian philosophy and serving as a helpful model of philosophico-theological engagement generally. While concurrence is the classical theological option, Kant rejected concurrence, as he limited himself to reason alone (with concurrence transcending reason). For Insole, Kant could have accepted divine concurrence, since “God acting in all our actions is perfectly consistent with everything that Kant demands from freedom, that is, our being ultimately responsible for our actions, and our being able to do other than we do” (p. 124). It seems that Kant had another reason for rejecting concurrence—his radical notion of autonomy. Insole notes that Kant rejects the notion that the will can be autonomous while being moved by “any external object (Object/obiectus) at all, even the uncreated good that is God, or the perfection of rational nature” (p. 150), such that Kant “rejects the claim that the ultimate object of theology (God) can be a worthy object for us” (p. 151). In the end, “Kant’s inability to accept concurrence accounts leads ultimately to the tearing apart of his system, as the demands of freedom render the hope for the highest good ultimately impossible, or at least, impossible for God to achieve while God is something distinct from us and our reason” (p. 128).

In certain regards, the reader is still left with certain questions about how Insole understands Kant’s relationship to theology. Looking at Insole’s work in light of other approaches to Kant and theology can help to illustrate this. Lawrence Pasternack presents Kant’s position in terms of the aptly spelled out formula: “Pure Rational Faith (reiner Vernunftglaube) = Saving Faith (seligmachender Glaube)” (Routledge Philosophy Guidebook to Kant on Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason [London: Routledge, 2014]), p. 3). For Pasternack, Kant’s goal is to determine whether all that is required for salvation is present to reason. Chris Firestone interprets Kant such that philosophy (relying only on reason and freedom) and theology (utilizing Word and Spirit) are meant to chasten one another such that Kant’s philosophical system is open to new rational insights from theology, provided that theology can show a rational need for them (Kant and Theology at the Boundaries of Reason [Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2009]). In The Intolerable God, Insole argues that Kant is using a notion of philosophy that “affirms and believes in God and divinity, but which, on principled grounds, engages only with what reason (albeit expansively understood) can show, rather than with revelation and mystery,” speaking of Kant’s “self-studied and apophatic refusal to have a philosophical position on that which goes beyond, or falls below, what philosophy can say” (pp. 154–55). While affirming that theology must go beyond Kant/reason, Insole does not address the issue of the meaning of Kant’s philosophical position, whether it might be related to Kant’s view of salvation. He says that Kant, as a philosopher, “could regard with complex approval, and regret, the theologian who embraces revelation and mystery: approval, inasmuch as the theologian is led to philosophical truth, and regret, perhaps, at the means of doing so” (p. 155). The question still remains as to what might possibly count as philosophical truth for Kant, especially on reason “expansively understood,” as Insole never addresses the issue of whether Kant’s system is open or closed.

Insole presents a parallel between Kant and Virgil in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Kant, like Virgil, goes only so far as reason allows, whereas the full range of humanity (including reason) may well require more than reason can provide. For Insole, “If Kant is our Virgil, Aquinas is our Beatrice” (p. 116). We are encouraged to go beyond Kant, as Dante joined Beatrice to enter paradise. It seems to me that not even Firestone would allow Kant to be Beatrice. The issue is how far Kant can proceed, or (per Pasternack) if paradise (salvation) is at issue for Kant at all. Perhaps dealing with these specific issues would be too much for Insole’s project in The Intolerable God, especially, as the subtitle makes clear, since the focus is Kant’s Theological Journey. Insole most certainly presents a worthwhile journey.

Brandon Love

Brandon Love
Hong Kong Baptist University
Kowloon, Hong Kong, China

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