The Influence of Kant on Christian Theology: A Debate about Human Dignity and Christian Personalism: A Response to Derek S. Jeffreys
Kraynak, Robert P., Journal of Markets & Morality
The debate before us is an attempt to understand and to evaluate the principles of Christian personalism, focusing on two key issues: (1) the origins of Christian personalism, especially the question of whether personalism has been influenced by Kant or is largely a product of developments within Thomism; and (2) the wisdom of adopting Christian personalism--whether the "personalist" approach has improved Christianity or whether it has fatal flaws requiring major revisions. In the debate so far, we have emphasized the first issue and only touched upon the second issue. In my final remarks, I would like to add a clarification about the origins of personalism and then highlight its problems--explaining why I am not a "personalist" but an "impersonalist," as Simone Weil might have said in her trenchant criticisms of personalism. (1)
Regarding the influence of Kant on Christian personalism, I would like to reply to Professor Jeffreys' charge that I have invented a "Kantian straw man" or made "absurd allegations about repressed Kantian presuppositions." He is correct in noting that I believe most Christian theologians today are "in denial" (a psychological term that I use somewhat humorously) about their debt to Kant: They may think they are merely developing Thomism or adding a little phenomenology, but they are actually picking up and smuggling in a great deal of Kantian and neo-Kantian liberalism from the surrounding culture. While Pope John Paul II explicitly acknowledges his debt to Kant, others such as Martin Luther King Jr., Jacques Maritain, John Finnis, and Professor Jeffreys himself are reluctant to admit Kant's influence. Yet, in his writings, Professor Jeffreys contradicts himself on this issue, sometimes denying the Kantian influence and at other times admitting it by saying, "Thomistic personalists can selectively use Kant's ethical ideas without worrying about Kantianism's alleged dangers." The latter statement clearly indicates that Professor Jeffreys incorporates Kantian ethics while believing he can control its negative effects. This is an important admission because it means Professor Jeffreys views Christian personalism (or "Thomistic personalism," as he prefers to call his position) as a synthesis of Thomas Aquinas's metaphysical realism, Max Scheler's phenomenology, and the ethical idealism of Kant. Concerning the last element, Professor Jeffreys acknowledges that he embraces the Kantian ethical principle of treating people as ends, never merely as means and respecting the inherent dignity of "persons" rather than using them instrumentally as "things."
By acknowledging this principle, Professor Jeffreys takes a step in the right direction; but he needs to concede a much larger point as well. Christian personalism not only affirms the dignity of the human person, but it also links human dignity to a specific political agenda--namely, universal human rights, liberal democracy, and support for the United Nations. In embracing this political agenda, personalists have adopted the main features of Kantian liberalism, whether they admit it or not. Surprisingly, many distinguished scholars, such as Jacques Maritain and John Finnis, do not admit it and foster the illusion that their political views are merely developments of Thomism or neo-Scholasticism. They apparently have forgotten the political teaching of Thomas Aquinas, which is monarchist and hierarchical, as well as the fact that Christian theology over the last two hundred years has undergone a radical reversal in its attitudes toward liberalism, democracy, religious liberty, women's rights, war and peace, and international organizations.
It is widely believed that such changes have occurred by developing earlier traditions of Thomism, Augustinianism, Calvinism, or Lutheranism and that continuity has been preserved with traditional Christian notions of freedom, justice, and natural law, but these claims are not really true. We need to remember that Saint Thomas Aquinas thought the best form of government was constitutional monarchy rather than liberal democracy. …