Tradition dictated that one of Immanuel Kant’s responsibilities as professor of metaphysics at the University of Königsberg was to lead the faculty in a march to the college chapel before worship services and other religious functions. The figurative move from reason to revelation would be thereby embodied in a literal trek towards sacred space. But according to an old—perhaps apocryphal—legend, Kant would dutifully march to the church door in full academic regalia, stop just before entering, and quietly dismiss himself from the service, content to contemplate the moral law he had so forcefully argued lay within us all.
We see this same attitude formalized philosophically in his little-read essay, “On the Miscarriage of All Philosophical Trails in Theodicy,” originally published in the journal Berlinische Monatsschrift only three years after his Critique of Pure Reason (1788). In contrast to the distinctions I sketched in my previous post, where I took a stab at untangling some of the terminological knots of my project, Kant approaches the question of defining theodicy from an entirely different angle in order to suggest the project is doomed from the start. According to Kant, a theodicy constitutes a defense of divine wisdom against “whatever is counterpurposive [das Zweckwidrige] in the world.” And while this might seem a bit broad, and roughly consonant with what I outlined previously, one quickly sees that under Kant’s view the phenomenal consideration of the order of things can never cross into the noumenal realm of the creator’s intention. Rationalize counterpurposiveness all you want—it will bring you no closer to divine wisdom.
The insight of Kant’s critique is in drawing a more fundamental distinction, one between dogmatic and authentic theodicies. It’s here, I would argue, that he’s truly original. In his view, dogma is mapped onto the realm of pure reason and, strictly speaking, always fails since, with respect to God’s purposes, “the world is often a closed book”. By contrast, the authentic theodicy falls under the purview of practical reason thereby calling the philosopher-theologian to humility in the face of the limited scope of the “tribunal of reason”. The authentic theodicy forcefully reasserts the limits of human cognition and sees itself emblematically expressed in Job’s refusal to join in his friend’s self-flagellating ratiocination: “. . . only sincerity of heart and not distinction of insight; honesty in openly admitting one’s doubts; repugnance to pretending conviction where one feels none, especially before God [is commendable].” For Kant, theodicy instances the sublimity of the providential.
What a theodicy asks us to do, in other words, is to move from the cognitive work of the mind to the much more affective position of what he designates “formal conscientiousness,” or an honesty with oneself about one’s own limited beliefs and subjective inclinations. The triumph of Job lies precisely in this virtue, and thus the authentic theodicy is fundamentally about trust in this abstract good somehow superintending “out there.” The triumph of Job is that his faith rests on this pristine moral insight and not the other way around; his faith dictates that he refrains from dogmatic speculation: “however weak this faith may be, yet it alone is of a pure and true kind [. . .] a religion of good life conduct.” Ultimately, Kant suggests, the pious subject stops at the doctrinal door, content in the firm conviction that, following his “Copernican Revolution,” firm convictions are in short supply.