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Back on April 22nd, I messaged Fred Nielsen, “Happy 300th Birthday to Immanuel Kant.”  To which Fred replied, “Will you be celebrating in a particularly philosophical way?”  To which I responded, “Of course.  I’m going to respect the dignity of persons.”  Fred messaged back, “Superb answer.  We should celebrate Kant’s birthday every day.”

Which, on one level, the world does, as Kant’s thought is one of the sources for contemporary international human rights law.  And, in many ways, we also unknowingly celebrate him daily in the United Church of Christ because he is an influential part of our tradition.

Kant taught that because of their rational ability, persons are “objects of respect” deserving of dignity.  Persons are not “things.”  Which means that persons must never be used by anyone for their own purposes.  Persons must always be treated as an end, never as a means.  Persons are of “absolute value” and “wholly free.”  You might be familiar with his categorical imperative (basic moral law)–Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end and never simply as a means.

I think it can be safely said that Kant was one of the smartest people who ever lived and that his ideas have had profound influences in multiple fields of human endeavor.  He was born in Konigsberg, Prussia and grew up in a family of Lutheran Pietists.   UCC historian Randi Walker describes the Pietists–“They emphasized feeling, not just emotion, but as embodied experience, and stressed the human element in Christ’s life.”  They rejected the authority of dogma, were alarmed at the wars between various Christians, and thought how you lived your life was more important than what you believed.  The Evangelical and Reformed predecessors of the UCC often came from or were deeply influenced by the Pietist movement, and their reactions to the European establishment and its wars were among the reasons they immigrated to the United States.  Pietism’s ideas also shaped the beginnings of theological liberalism and its influence on the Congregationalists and Christians in America.

Kant himself was the paragon of Enlightenment thinking, upholding the centrality of reason, but you can trace the influence on his thought of Pietism’s emphases on feeling and experience.  Those Pietist traces also helped lead into the Romantic movement that came after him.

Kant also assisted in shaping the beginnings of theological liberalism.  He argued that the free use of human reason would set us free from slavery and superstition–“Have courage to use your own understanding!”  Kant wanted us to grow out of our superstitions into a more mature and rational faith.  As such, he taught us to read for ourselves.  Also to understand that our brains are always actively interpreting what we read and experience.  David Jasper summarizes this point, “Thus the reader does not contemplate a text in which there is a ‘meaning,’ but brings to the text (and to the world) his or her own perspectives and prejudices.”  This includes reading the Bible.  Subsequent thinkers would take these ideas and develop them fully into the critical, liberal interpretations of scripture that have deeply shaped the UCC.

Maturing in our faith also includes learning to acknowledge and accept our limits.  As Randi Walker writes, “Kant warned . . . that it was not the individual using his or her reason privately who found the truth, but it is rather the exercise of reason in public, where the results of one person’s reason may encounter the results of others’ free use of reason, that promotes truth.”  From this she claims “Kant’s principle runs through the UCC traditions, and we value free discussion of alternative ideas as a good way to understand the mind of God on any matter.”

From how we read and interpret scripture to how we treat other people and advocate for their human rights, Immanuel Kant is an important part of our religious heritage.

So, take some time in 2024 to acknowledge and celebrate this great thinker, who helped to shape us and the modern world in which we live.


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