- Naturalism as a Theological Problem:Kant, Idealism, the Chicago School, and Corrington1
My subject is the idea of naturalism in liberal theology, an idea that Robert Corrington has taken far beyond liberal Christianity and religion in his many brilliant books on aesthetic naturalism. I am going to tell this story in a way that leads to Corrington without saying that liberal theology itself leads to Corrington. Liberal theology, liberation theology, religious naturalism, and progressive Christian social ethics are precious to me, and these things are taught almost exclusively in liberal theological seminaries.
The entire tradition of liberal theology is naturalistic in the sense of accommodating naturalistic explanation. Some traditions of liberal theology are not historicist or pragmatic; some disparage metaphysics; some are not biblical or churchy; some subordinate naturalism to idealism, or mystery, or value, or a doctrine; and some are not radically empiricist. But every tradition of liberal theology negotiates some kind of peace with scientific naturalism, and some liberal theologies are fully naturalistic in the sense of the term variously adopted by Robert Corrington, Robert Neville, Jerry Stone, Charley Hardwick, Nancy Frankenberry, and Wesley Wildman: Nature is all there is; it requires no sufficient reason beyond itself to account for its origin or ontological ground; and all causation is natural. This definition leaves plenty of room for debates over value as a construction, the conservation of value, the possibility of a cosmic or ontological teleology, and what to say about pantheism and panentheism.
Liberal theology began with the eighteenth-century German biblical scholars that developed the historical critical method: Johann S. Semler, Johann G. Eichhorn, Johann J. Griesbach, Johann D. Michaelis, Friedrich V. Reinhard, and Johann J. Spalding. They called themselves neologians, but in the 1760s Semler proposed that “liberal” was probably better. The neologians claimed to study the Bible from a scientific standpoint stripped of dogmatic presuppositions. Everything, for them, was at stake in proving that theology was compatible with scientific naturalism. [End Page 49]
The neologians revolutionized biblical scholarship by deciphering the historical development of the biblical text. Debates between orthodox overbelievers and atheistic rationalists were making a mockery of theological scholarship. The neologians said that both sides were ideological and superficial. Both sides assumed a flat text, conservatives treated biblical myth as history, and rationalists provided simplistic naturalistic explanations for biblical miracles. The neologians countered that the Bible contains myths like other scriptures and there is such a thing as rational Christianity. In their telling, they stuck to the facts and spurned any kind of special pleading, claiming to know only what is known. By the 1780s they had embraced “liberal theology” as the best name for their party, now under the intellectual leadership of a commanding thinker, Immanuel Kant.
Kant is the unavoidable figure in modern philosophy and theology because he revolutionized modern thought by thinking rigorously about what it means to have a thought. He redefined the limitations of reason, he made a colossal attempt to unite reason and experience, and he had a place for religion, in moral reason. Kant compelled philosophers to stop conceiving the mind as a passive receptacle, arguing that the mind is active in producing experience out of its transcendental categories. We view the world as spatial and temporal because time and space are necessary conditions of experience, not because they are out there somewhere as objects of perception. We experience anything only in and through the pure forms of sensibility, which are space and time. These representations are unified by the understanding, which contains pure concepts that Kant, following Aristotle, called categories. Human reason makes sense of the world by applying its a priori categories of quantity, quality, relation, and modality to phenomena perceived by the senses. Knowledge occurs only in the form of categories, which are representational constructions for the purpose of apperceiving what is given.
Before Kant came along, the march of materialism in philosophy seemed unstoppable. Kant stopped it in its tracks by showing that powers of mind are fundamental to human life. On the one hand, metaphysics had a limited role in Kant’s thought, and so did religion. On the other hand, Kant rehabilitated metaphysical reason around two...