Sunday, March 08, 2020

Evening Note for Sunday, March 8

Thought for the Evening: Kantian Marcionism

The postmedieval period sees a number of people attempting to put forward purely moralized interpretations of Christianity. There are several things in Christianity that resist such an interpretation, however. Kant, who is a major figure in this kind of moralized interpretation, puts a great deal of effort into addressing some of these in Religion within the Bounds of Mere Reason. One that requires particularly drastic action is Christianity's Jewish inheritance. While it's impossible to ignore that historically Christianity originated in a Jewish context, that the Founder of Christianity was Jewish, and that the Apostles and Church Fathers clearly saw Christianity as continuous with, and a fulfillment of, all of Jewish history up to that point, the connection with Judaism has to be minimized for his moralization of Christianity to work. As Kant puts it:

...the Jewish faith stands in absolutely no essential connection, i.e., in no unity of concepts, with the ecclesiastical faith whose history we want to consider, even though it immediately preceded it and provided the physical occasion for the founding of this church (the Christian). (6:125; p. 120)

The easiest way to break the unity of concepts when you want to interpret Christianity as a purely moral religion is to deny that Judaism was originally any kind of religion at all. This is precisely what Kant sets out to do, and he is helped by two things: the beginnings of the rise of Higher Criticism in a Lutheran context and the work of Enlightenment Judaism. Jews in the Enlightenment had finally begun to make some headway in convincing Christians that Judaism was primarily a religion of practice and not of doctrine; as Mendelssohn would put it in Jerusalem, the Jewish religion was not a religion of divine revelation, in the Christian sense, but of divine legislation. Mendelssohn obviously still regarded Judaism as a religion; but, from the Kantian perspective, a position like his makes Judaism, as such, purely a matter of positive law, which Kant, influenced of course by Lutheran suspicion of legalism and ceremony, can treat as not relevant (at least as positive law) to morality and doctrine. The work of various scholars like Johann Salomo Semler had begun argue that the fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity was that Judaism was nationalistic in character whereas Christianity was universal; thus Christianity, to rise, had to nullify Judaism, and start over with the New Testament, casting aside Jewish law and ceremony. Judaism for Semler and others like himwas purely a ceremonial and political entity, concerned wholly with external observance; while some of the Old Testament had moral value, it was thoroughly interlaced with the family stories of a provincial people, which always and everywhere were the primary focus.

Kant will proceed along similar lines, but in his own way. The Jewish faith in its original form is, he argues nothing but a collection of statutory laws for a political state. It is structured like a political state, even though a theocratic one, with laws of a kind appropriate to a state, focused purely on external observance, and involving rewards and punishments that are purely this-worldly, and, far from being universal, excludes almost everyone from its communion. True, the Jews saw themselves as a theocracy, ruled by God, but it was a purely political relationship with God. On the basis of this,

We cannot, therefore, begin the universal history of the Church (inasmuch as this history is to constitute a system) anywhere but from the origin of Christianity, which, as a total abandonment of Judaism in which it originated, grounded on an entirely new principle, effected a total revolution in doctrines of faith. (6:127, p. 132)

Thus Kant's moralized Christianity has to be purely and totally a Christianity of the New Testament.

Now, obviously the big objection here is that Christian teachers regularly, and perhaps have always, taken care to connect Christianity to its Jewish roots, and especially have affirmed the divine character of the Old Testament, so that they are in some way continuous. Kant's reply is that this was purely in order to make the pure moral religion palatable to those habituated to the old way of doing things. He gives as an example Christianity's rejection of circumcision as one of its signs: circumcision marked off the Jews as different from other nations, but Christianity, for the world, rejected that limitation. The appeals to continuity were in fact just concessions to the bigotries of the early audience. (He will argue in an analogous way when considering another objection, the apparently divine character of Jewish survival, arguing that it speaks more for Jewish insularity than divine favor.)

Why is all of this embrace of a version of the Marcionite heresy important? The answer is found in the very explanation: early on, Christians found it useful to appeal to Jewish history to convince their audiences of the pure moral faith, but over time and due to custom, later Christians began to treat these rhetorical stratagems as essential to Christianity. Thus a church, in our usual sense of the word, was born, distorted by the Councils and by treating traditions and interpretations of Jewish history as relevant to the interpretation of Christian doctrine. The result was a religious delusion resulting in a counterfeit service to God -- fake worship -- rather than the real service of pure moral action. What should have been a moral service became a temple service, and from this came priestcraft and the view that the Church is superior to the state, as well as the view that by performing certain actions like baptism and church-going you can be more pleasing to God. All of this, Kant thinks, comes from the view that Christianity has roots in Judaism, which therefore ends in treating ceremonies as giving grace and being themselves of value.

Of course, the problem with all of this is that there has always been good reason to take various forms of Marcionism as heresies, namely, that they are bosh and nonsense. The Old Testament cannot be torn out of the Christian Bible, being essential to understanding the actual Christian message. (One can also, of course, question it from the other end, namely, the view that, for all their differences, the Jewish religion and the Christian religion are quite so different; later the Neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen would write the Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, which would attempt a moralized interpretation of Judaism along the lines that Kant had attempted for Christianity.)

Nonetheless, the attempt to replace actual Christianity with a moralized imitation stripped of its inheritance and tradition has arguably been one of the consistent impulses of the age.

[Immanuel Kant, Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, Wood & di Giovanni, eds. Cambridge University Press (New York: 1998).]

Various Links of Interest

* literalbanana, Ignorance, a learned practice at "Carcinisation"

* I've recently talked about Oulipo. Probably the major work of Oulipo is Raymond Queneau's One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets, which consists of lines, fourteen groups with ten lines each, in which any one of the ten lines can be used for a line of a sonnet. It is probably the most famous example of Oulipo concept of 'potential literature'; the work is potentially 10^14 different sonnets. Of course, it's rather awkward to put to paper; but the digital age lets you do an electronic version.

* How make your own hand sanitizer at home.

* Rob Alspaugh, Debt, Worship, Sacrifice

* Jamie Lombard on how Marcus Aurelius helped her to get through a particularly difficult time of her life.

* Waugh's religious conversion

* Martha Nussbaum, The Weakness of the Furies, discusses the limitations of anger.

* Sarah Hutton, Lady Anne Conway, at the SEP

* Ashok Karra on Martin Luther King Jr's Letter from a Birmingham Jail

* Hans Boersma discusses the new Monothelites at "First Things".

* Ian Birrell, Where the American dream goes to die, discusses the predatory practices aimed at people who live in trailer parks.

* World Cheese Map. Obviously the big cheeses (mozzarella, cheddar, etc.) are on there, but you can also zoom in to discover cheeses like the highly illegal Sardinia casu marzu or the barely-a-cheese Icelandic skyr or the relatively recent Mauritanian caravane.

* Allauren Samantha Forbes on Mary Astell.

* Kenneth Libbrecht, probably the world's foremost expert on snow crystallization, has provided online a monograph on practically everything we currently know about snow crystals.

Currently Reading

Julian of Norwich, The Showings of Julian Norwich
Simon Winchester, The Map that Changed the World
Rudolf Otto, The Idea of the Holy
Susanna Clarke, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell