I like to think of this blog as a series of experiments in the vein of what the 18th century called “ethicotheology”–but what is that? Briefly put, ethicotheology is the discipline of rational reflection about the divine upon the basis of ethical experience. Ethicotheology is therefore not merely the study of how to do theology as an ethical person, except perhaps in the sense that a certain moral sensitivity on the part of the inquirer would have to be a prerequisite for adequately perceptive insights into ethics. Instead, ethicotheology is the attempt to understand the proper object and practice of religion from the starting-point of what we can know upon rational reflection to be the morally good. The ethicotheologian comprehends God as superlatively good, and focuses upon the moral excellence of God as opposed to other divine attributes (God’s omnipotence, for example). Through discursive argument, the ethicotheologian hopes to show the inherent (although perhaps hidden) rationality of religious faith in an omnibenevolent Creator, especially as represented in the Christian tradition. In this way, ethicotheology is a kind of natural theology–theology done in accordance with the rational capacity we have by virtue of human nature, rather than through revelation we have through membership in some specific religious tradition–along with its counterpart, “physicotheology.”
Whereas physicotheology aims to demonstrate the existence and providential character of God by reflecting upon the intricacies of the physical world–in brief, by arguing that the complexity of the natural order could not exist without an omniscient and omnipotent Architect–ethicotheology argues through reflection upon ethical experience. (Many people are familiar with a kind of physicotheology in our current day and age, via the so-called “argument from design.”) Kant rejected physicotheology as insufficient for establishing genuine belief in a perfect deity, but took ethicotheology to constitute the highest form of rational reflection upon the divine. Since Kant argued that self-consistent moral agency requires that one uphold this kind of religion, and since Kant also argued that morality is nothing other than the self-consistent use of one’s free will, it follows that in ethicotheology we find the fullest implications of freedom (at least as Kant saw it). In this way, Kant’s ethicotheology echoes the emphasis placed upon freedom by earlier writers in the Christian tradition–such as Christian August Crusius (1715-1775), who argued that a God who would have created us without free will is no proper God at all.
While there has been, and continues to be, some heated debate about whether reason has any business to do with religious matters, studying the natural theology of Kant’s time is vital for a deeper understanding of the arguments he and other philosophers made–and by extension, for understanding the arguments that philosophers have gone on to make, insofar as they draw from Kant’s colossal undertaking. As newcomers to philosophy readily notice, the history of philosophy is full of philosophers who talk about God quite often. To fully grasp what struck these thinkers as an appropriate usage of the term God–and what that would entail for metaphysics, ethics, aesthetics, epistemology, natural science, and all of the multifarious domains philosophers strove to encompass–it is necessary to explore the natural theology with which they were in dialogue.
For example, many of the terms Kant uses while he philosophizes about religion are terms he adopted and modified from Johann Friedrich Stapfer (1708-1755), a Swiss pastor whose gargantuan, twelve-volume Grounding for True Religion was widely known at the time. Kant’s use of the term “reverence” (Ehrfurcht) chimes with the way Stapfer used it: to connote an attitude of awe grounded in respect (Achtung) for God as supremely just, mingled with the acknowledgment of God as having the power to secure a just world. One consequence of this argument is that Kant reserves the notion of reverence to refer only to God (or the moral law God personifies), and thus whereas human beings are worthy of respect they are not to be revered. This suggests that current interpretations of Kantian religion as a kind of crypto-humanism are misinterpretations.
As I see it, we can draw from these historical arcana a number of vibrant possibilities that aren’t open us to today, or perhaps more accurately, that we hear only faintly. At the same time that we need better ears to hear the past, we need better ears to hear the wisdom of the marginalized in the present. The two augment one another, for I believe myself to have run across things past and present that are vocalizing in a similar key. By learning about care ethics, we can better notice the resourceful wisdom within Confucius, and vice-versa. By analyzing Toussaint L’Ouverture’s response to Napoleon that conditional freedom is no freedom at all, we can see the urgency of points made by Black liberation theologian James Cone. So even though I do take things in a theological direction, it is absolutely imperative to expand our understanding of what ethics is in order for ethicotheology to take place. And it is worthwhile to me simply because I think learning about these things might have an impact on my mindset as I go about daily life. So even if theology is not your thing, by all means, please share your thoughts about ethics and aesthetics and all the myriad ways that the world is a big and complex place, as I keep on finding on my way between one untruth and another.