A bit of blog-name trivia: You know the weblog, Crooked Timber, and you know the source of the name is Kant, but do you know the context in which Kant makes his remark about the crooked timber of humanity? It is from Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone; he makes the remark in the middle of arguing that the ethical commonwealth cannot be created by human beings but only by God.
The following is a Kant-inspired meditation. It is, in fact, a paraphrase of three passages in RWLRA, with some modification, since I am not giving a meditation by Kant but by someone like myself along lines very similar to Kant's. The paraphrase, therefore, in some places is very close to Kant and sometimes is heading in a different direction, as can be seen if you nab a translation of RWLRA and compare. 'New Jerusalem' is the name I have given, to conjure up the imaginative associations of that name. The argument is an interesting one; Kant's philosophy of the kingdom of God (i.e., the ethical commonwealth) is actually very good. Where the account in RWLRA really fails as an attempt at 'moral Christianity', I think, is in its philosophy of Judaism: Kant's argument collapses in the face of certain elements of Christianity, and they are, by and large, its Jewish elements. But that's a discussion for another time.
The dominion of good begins, and a sign that the kingdom of God is at hand appears, as soon as the basic principles of its constitution first become public; for in the realm of the heart, something is already there when its causes have generally taken root, even if the consummation of its appearance in the sensuous world are still immeasurably distant. The uniting of oneself into a community devoted to moral excellence is a distinctive moral responsibility of human beings insofar as they are rational and therefore morally social creatures. If everyone heeded only their private moral responsibilities, we could infer an accidental agreement of all in a common good, even without the necessity of a special organization. However, such a general agreement cannot rationally be hoped for unless people are specially united with each other for one and the same end, or, in other words, unless there is more than a society of happenstance. There must be a commonwealth under moral laws, federated so as to be a stronger power for withstanding evil and fighting the good faith in common conscience. (Otherwise we are tempted even by each other to do or accept evil as if it were natural to us.) Such a commonwealth can be called Zion or New Jerusalem. Presented with the image of a New Jerusalem, natural reason cannot help but regard it as an object of rational hope; and, indeed, it would be both irrational and immoral not to hope for at least something like it to come to be.
If Zion or the New Jerusalem is to come to be, all individual persons must be ordered together by a public legislation, and all the laws of this public legislation must be the dictates of a common legislative power. In the New Jerusalem, the people, as a people, cannot itself be this power, for the laws of the New Jerusalem are moral (and thus inward, being neither externally imposed nor concerned with merely external behavior). There must therefore be someone other than the populace who is the common legislator of the New Jerusalem. In its foundation, however, moral law cannot be thought of as emanating purely on condition of a legislator's command, for then it would not be moral law, and the response proper to it as law would not be the free excellence of virtue but regard for its sanction and legality. Hence none can be the highest legislator of Zion unless the moral law he commands and makes effective is one with the dictates of eternal reason. Likewise, he must be one who knows the heart, who sees the inwardmost disposition of each person and who is capable of tailoring the ultimate consequence to the worth of the action as determined by moral law. This, however, is the concept of God as moral ruler of the world; thus Zion or New Jerusalem must be thought of as the people of God, ruled by eternal reason. Presented with this image, too, natural reason cannot help but regard it as an object of rational hope.
Now, it is indeed possible to conceive of a people of God under merely statutory laws; in such a system God would be legislator, but although the constitution of such a state would be theocratic, the actual government would be an aristocracy or oligarchy of human mediators. Such a system, being a system of positive rather than moral law, must be distinguished from the New Jerusalem, whose law is inward and moral, being a realm organized by the principles of virtue, and a people of God that is zealous of good works. Such a people are not a rabble or a mob, nor are they a rabble organized by a government, nor are they even a rabble organized by God through a government of priests. Rather, such a people is a spiritual temple, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's possession, who have been called out of darkness into his light. This idea is truly sublime; too sublime for human construction. For when human hands attempt to build this, they only (at best) create an institution that merely intimates to the sensuous imagination and the earth-bound intellect the possibility of Zion. This intimation, however it might be confused with that which it intimates, shows itself, on further examination, always to suggest also the impossibility of going beyond the merely intimating institution by human means. And, indeed, when we speak of human beings, how can one expect to make something perfectly straight out of such warped wood? To found a moral people of God, therefore, is a task whose consummation can be looked for only from God Himself, not from ourselves, however good we may be. Yet we are not therefore entitled to be idle, attending only to our own private moral affairs,as if the moral destiny of all humanity were a matter indifferent to us; rather, we must throw ourselves wholly into the establishment of the cause of Zion. The wish or hope of a virtuous people is always that God's kingdom come, and His will be done, not merely in heaven, but also on earth. A people under divine moral law is a church that, so far as it is united in God (the idea of such union being the archetype of what is to be established or instituted by us) may be called the church invisible. The visible church is the actual union of human persons into a whole striving to harmonize with that archetype.
As we have seen, however, to found a church as a people under moral laws seems to call for more wisdom (both of insight and of good disposition) than can rationally be expected of ourselves, especially since it seems necessary to presuppose the presence in the midst of us of the moral goodness which the establishment of such a church has in view. Actually, it is nonsensical to say that human beings ought to found a kingdom of God; God Himself must be the founder of His Kingdom. Yet, since we know only a little of what God might do directly to translate into actuality the idea of the New Jerusalem, and since we find ourselves the call to become citizens and subjects in that moral city (it being, as we have said, irrational and immoral not to hope for such a possibility, and being, as we certainly are, called to moral life), and since we do know how we may participate in the indirect activity of God toward this end, fitting ourselves to be members thereof, the idea of the New Jerusalem, however discovered or made public, magnetically attracts moral reason to a church of whose constitution God Himself, Founder of Zion, is the author, and to come together into an organization suitable for our striving against what draws us away from that goal.