I Just Kant Even

Not every sermon applies directly to our lives, and that is OK.


Cherri Yoon/THE CHIMES.

Logan Williams, Writer

Imagine with me for a moment.

You go to a church. You grab a coffee, the greeters greet you, the musicians play their music, the assistant pastor gives some updates and then, the sermon. The head pastor gets up and preaches on Isaiah 6:1-7. He talks about the holiness of God for thirty minutes. He gives no commands. He closes in prayer and steps off.

And many leave dissatisfied.

Why? Because many Christians within the evangelical movement have been unknowingly influenced by the work of Immanuel Kant, the 18th century German philosopher. Kant’s philosophy of religion holds ethics — what we should do — as superior to metaphysics — what is objectively true. For Kant, religion can only tell us what we must and must not do; it cannot tell us what is, what is real, what is objective. Kant eclipses the “is” with the “ought.”

The post-Kantian hangover that many evangelicals experience carries many symptoms, one of which I have labeled “the ultimacy of ethical relevance.” The ultimacy of ethical relevance is the inability to be satisfied with purely theological statements followed by no explicit command. To state it more simply, this means if somebody preaches about God without stating how the congregation should respond, then all that was preached was pointless — if there is nothing “practical” about the sermon, it cannot and will not satisfy. Hence, we often hear, “This was a good sermon. It really applied to my life.” Or contrarily, “I just don’t see how that sermon is applicable. It was not helpful or even relevant.”

When people ask of theological claims, “But how is this relevant?” what they usually mean is “How can this be translated into a command — what does this tell me to do?” Those who think this way assume that relevance deals primarily with the realm of ethics, the realm of obedience. This results from the influence of Kant. In this scheme, ethical relevance — i.e. ‘what do I do?’ — stands paramount, while theology holds a secondary status. Theology functions as a mere stepping stone to obedience and therefore does not directly “relate” to our lives as much as all the practical stuff.

But the Christian worldview certainly cannot sustain such a Kantian notion. Neither can it sustain the converse — that theology supersedes obedience.

I suggest that the formula in Leviticus 20:26 and 1 Peter 1:16 provides a way for us to avoid viewing theology and obedience as competing priorities — “Be holy as I am holy.” In other words, we must imitate God in all that he does, and all that he commands reveals his own holy character. This means that every statement about God carries within itself an implicit command to imitate him in some way or another. It furthermore implies that every one of God’s commands tells us something about him. So, every theological statement is inherently a command and every ethical command is inherently a theological statement. In this scheme, neither obedience nor theology stand as more important than the other; neither may subvert the other. They are both equally valuable.

Sometimes we just need to hear about the glory of God. Sometimes we just need to stand in awe of his majesty. Sometimes we just need to fall on our faces before his beauty. And this is perfectly okay. This truly is relevant, if indeed it is right for us to be holy as he is holy. If we always rush to the ethical relevance of every point of theology, we may drown out theology with obedience just like Kant did. The Christian worldview must affirm that obedience and theology are equally ultimate. We must not choose one rather than the other. Both are meaningful. Both are relevant.

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