We can or we Kant?

FriendsKant
There is an episode from
the hit sitcom "Friends" where Joey and Phoebe are engaged in a philosophical debate about good deeds.  Joey doesn't believe in any selfless deeds, in other words, when you do something good, then you will feel good for doing it thus making it a "selfish" act.  Phoebe disagrees and sets out to do nice things for Joey without being "happy " about it.  In the end, Phoebe is proven wrong as she donates money to a charity only to end up feeling good about it. 

Immanuel Kant, the 18th century philosopher, asserted that the notion that the moral value of an act decreases as we aim to derive
any benefit from it. Acts are good if the doer is 'disinterested.' We
should do the good because it is good. Any motivation to seek joy or
reward corrupts the act. 

In other words, if we get any pleasure from doing good deeds or obeying God's commands, then we are selfish and it's not truly a good deed in the highest sense.  In Kant's view, there is a higher level of morality in doing things minus enjoyment. 

This philosophy does not ring true in the scriptures however as we read "delight in the law of the Lord" and "God loves a cheerful giver".  It is amazing how philosophies of long ago can infiltrate our thinking as Christians.  Recently, someone came to the church where I work to request benevolence.  Since this is a common occurrence, I often hear stories that accompany such requests.  Some testimonies are very creative in their content, while others I've heard many times.  This particular woman told of health issues and how she needed assistance.  My initial feeling was that I didn't need to hear the story this woman would tell because I was going to help her anyway.   My job is not to determine if her story makes her worthy of assistance, my "job" is simply to help her. 

It would be easy to make Christianity our "job".  It would seem natural to make things like church attendance and tithing our Christian "duty".   Immanuel Kant would definitely view Christianity that way because to him Christianity was merely an expression of some universal morality.  In other words, any religion can serve the purpose of "doing good" in the world thus it doesn't matter what you believe about God as long as morality is achieved.  The problem with this view, however,  is that the question of being right with God goes unanswered and truth becomes relative. 

Thankfully, being a Christian runs deeper and more eternally significant than morality.  Submission and obedience to God shouldn't look different than submission and obedience in a marriage.  Marriage, for example, is God's parable to show us what Christianity is supposed to be about.  When you please your spouse there is also a sense of pleasing yourself in the process.  What kind of marriage is built on mere duty?  Valentine's Day is coming up and what kind of love is it where a husband buys flowers for his wife because it's his duty? Does he commemorate such days to avoid the misery his spouse will enact upon him in the coming days?  Oh sure, a man does these things often to avoid pain, but wouldn't it be better if he simply embraced the joy he feels when he pleases his wife?  Should he feel guilty for "feeling good" when he loves his wife?  What about sexual intimacy?  Should a spouse attempt to satisfy the other devoid of his own satisfaction? How preposterous is that?

And while 1 Corinthians 13 reveals that true love "seeks not it's own", we shouldn't interpret that to mean that we should avoid pleasure of any kind when we love others.  There is an old saying that describes love as an action not a feeling.  On the surface it seems logical, except that it's not true.  In fact, true love always involves feelings.  The better saying would be that "love is not just a feeling but rather a feeling that actively expresses itself."  As John Piper passionately puts it, "Love is not a bare choice or mere act. It involves the affections.  It does not just do the truth.  Nor does it just choose the right.  It rejoices in the way of truth."

So when Paul says "love does not seek out it's own", he's not saying "don't seek joy in loving others". Rather, he's saying don't seek selfish gain that is a "gain" that is impure.  As Piper points out, there must be two kinds of "gain" because earlier in the same chapter of 1 Corinthians, Paul provides a list of "deeds" and informs us that without love "he gains nothing" in performing these deeds.  So Paul is not against seeking "gain" for ourselves in the performing of loving acts.  He is trying to teach us that God honoring deeds are loving acts motivated by feelings of joy!

When the lady I mentioned earlier told me her story of health problems
and great financial need, I was overcome with feelings of compassion.
Yes, feelings!  I still don't know if she was telling the truth, yet in
that moment, I knew she needed compassion and I wanted to help her. 
Afterward, I felt good that I helped her (with someone else's
resources), and I felt good that I was compassionate.  But later, I
felt like Phoebe Buffay did at the end of the show. That somehow, my
deed was worthless because I felt good about myself. After much thought, I realized my deed would have been worthless in the eyes of God if I had performed it out of mere duty.  But wait! Kant would say, "it doesn't matter how you felt because the woman was helped when you gave her a food card."  In retrospect, and as a rebuttal, I would say that this particular woman didn't need a food card, she needed to experience compassion! She needed someone to "feel" compassionate for her!  We all do.

What are the practical implications?  First, we need to shed the cloak of guilt for seeking pleasure.  Next, we need to seek pleasure in the things God commands us to do and realize that feelings are not only acceptable but God-pleasing.  As Paul states "love rejoices in all things and hopes in all things".  These are feelings.  Love does not perform Christian service out of dutiful feelings.  It's not love in that case.  If I give money to the church from a sense of duty or superstition, then it really would be better that I don't at all. God will not bless dutiful giving.  (now, I'm sure your Pastor would rather you give money to the church whether you want to or not)  

Finally, we need to recognize God as the ultimate pleasure we seek!  Psalm 16:11 tells us "You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

We need to let go of the Kantian philosophy that Christianity and morality are equals.  Christianity is more like "base jumping" than morality.  True Christianity is for thrill-seekers of all ages because it is a pursuit of God!  The joy is robbed when we replace the glory of God with our own righteousness because Christianity that is practiced from mere duty is not Christianity at all.

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9 thoughts on “We can or we Kant?

  1. Greetings- Actually, Kant wouldn’t have had a problem with anyone feeling good for what they’d done. His objection was to feelings as motivation for doing the right thing, not to the feelings in and of themselves. An act is moral because it’s the right thing to do, and this should be the only reason to do it; how anyone may feel about it is irrelevant. Kant was the foremost proponent of deontogical ethics, a moral theory that lies in contrast with Utilitarianism (which defines morality in terms of maximizing happiness). If I had to choose, I’d go with Kant. Any number of sick things can make people happy. Fortunately, I don’t have to choose, and I think you’re right to point out how inadequate a philosophy of mere duty is when compared to Christianity.
    I believe that Kant’s willingness to divorce duty from feeling came from how he determined what is the right thing to do. Kant did believe in universal truth. Related to morality, this means that some things are abosolutely right while others are absolutely wrong (Utilitarianism would never allow for this since feelings change). Kant was a rationalist. He believed that anything that can be known must be known through reason. We can access universal moral truth through the categorical imperative, which states “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Technically, this could work. But it will give you the righteosness of Pharisees and other legalists. There is simply no way for the categorical imperative to be compatible with any motivation outside of pure duty. The problem was that Kant’s rationalism prevented him from seeing a better way. Rationalism cannot admit to the possibility of supernatural revelation.
    In agreement with Kant, Christianity does accept the idea of a universal moral standard. However, for us, our knowledge of that standard is not rooted in our own ability to reason, but in God’s revelation of himself. God himself is the universal standard for morality. And no one who seeks after the true God can fail to find joy. Hebrews 12:2 does not say, after all, that Jesus endured the cross because he had to.

  2. Good insight Kevin. Do you think we should obey God’s commands if we’re not joyful in doing so? Also, can “reluctant obedience” serve as a form of discipline (for the Christian) that will eventually result in a fruit of joyful obedience later? Take the issue of giving for example. Is it better to give grudgingly than not at all and if so, is it possible that the mere practice of giving will produce a “cheerful” giver in due time?

  3. Just turn the question around- is it alright to disobey God if we don’t feel like it? At some point, the expectation to be joyful can, itself, become just another form of legalism. One of the great recoveries of the Reformation was the doctrine of justification. We are declared righteous first. Then we are sanctified. The ability to be joyful in God, no matter what, is not so much a result of regeneration (though it is that) as it is of spiritual maturity. Consequently, while duty driven morality may result from a lack of faith, it could just as well indicate a genuine, yet immature, believer.
    Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. That is, it finds its sole source in him. Therefore, no mere practice will produce anything of spiritual value. That being said, the Holy Spirit does not work in a vacuum but uses means in order to conform us to Christ. He’s much more likely to use obedience as opposed to its alternative.

  4. Kevin,
    Let me rephrase the first part of my question. Is God pleased with you and I when we obey Him out of sheer duty. Is He more pleased when we joyfully obey Him?
    I once heard Piper tell his congregation during the collection of the offering that if they were going to give reluctantly or out of duty that he would prefer that they wouldn’t at all because it was “cursed” money. I know I am paraphrasing. Is that too far?

  5. Duty is an honorable thing, and the performance of one’s duty does please God. Kant’s mistake was not in his praise of duty, but in the assumption that doing something for reward somehow diminished the morality of an act. The two motivations are not mutually exclusive. There can be sheer duty in the sense of not being mixed with the desire for reward. In another sense, however, sheer duty is an oxymoron. Much like people who claim to have faith but find no need to specify an object for that faith. Faith must be in something. In the same way, duty must be to something. Duty is, in itself, motivated by something. When it comes to morality, is the duty to the written code of the law, or is it to God himself? Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” This is duty in its highest form: duty motivated by love. While there is nothing wrong with being rewarded or in seeking reward, love will act even when this is not an option. Turning Jesus’ words around, the evidence that we love him is not how we feel, but the fact that we keep his commandments.Love is legitimately associated with feelings; however, while emotions can turn on and off, love remains constant and, so too, the duty that it motivates. I suppose that, if our duty is based in love, then we are joyfully obeying God. It’s all the fruit of the Spirit. Does this mean that our feelings of joy must be as intense as someone else’s (as though that could be measured)? or even that these feelins must increase in ourselves? Not necessarily. Joy is joy, whether it be subdued or ecstatic.If someone is doing something reluctantly, the issue is not duty, but the object of that duty. Duty and reluctance should not be conflated. In the case of giving, I would agree that it is better not to give at all than to give reluctantly. But then, I see a distinction between giving and following the moral law. Whatever is a gift, by definition, cannot be owed. There is no law commanding it. [I would have a problem with Piper had he applied this standard to something like telling the truth. “If you’re being reluctant in your honesty then I would prefer you lie because your truth is cursed.”]

  6. Duty is an honorable thing, and the performance of one’s duty does please God. Kant’s mistake was not in his praise of duty, but in the assumption that doing something for reward somehow diminished the morality of an act. The two motivations are not mutually exclusive. There can be sheer duty in the sense of not being mixed with the desire for reward. In another sense, however, sheer duty is an oxymoron. Much like people who claim to have faith but find no need to specify an object for that faith. Faith must be in something. In the same way, duty must be to something. Duty is, in itself, motivated by something. When it comes to morality, is the duty to the written code of the law, or is it to God himself? Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” This is duty in its highest form: duty motivated by love. While there is nothing wrong with being rewarded or in seeking reward, love will act even when this is not an option. Turning Jesus’ words around, the evidence that we love him is not how we feel, but the fact that we keep his commandments.Love is legitimately associated with feelings; however, while emotions can turn on and off, love remains constant and, so too, the duty that it motivates. I suppose that, if our duty is based in love, then we are joyfully obeying God. It’s all the fruit of the Spirit. Does this mean that our feelings of joy must be as intense as someone else’s (as though that could be measured)? or even that these feelins must increase in ourselves? Not necessarily. Joy is joy, whether it be subdued or ecstatic.
    If someone is doing something reluctantly, the issue is not duty, but the object of that duty. Duty and reluctance should not be conflated. In the case of giving, I would agree that it is better not to give at all than to give reluctantly. But then, I see a distinction between giving and following the moral law. Whatever is a gift, by definition, cannot be owed. There is no law commanding it. [I would have a problem with Piper had he applied this standard to something like telling the truth. “If you’re being reluctant in your honesty then I would prefer you lie because your truth is cursed.”]

  7. If one wants to joyfully obey God, how does one move from outright disobedience to joyful obedience bypassing an engagement in alternative motivations such as fear, self-righteousness, guilt, etc? Or maybe the whole problem with such a question is the turn phrase “how does one move”.

  8. This may be like asking how one moves from infancy to being grown-up bypassing adolescence. Unless God just decides to kill you, it’s probably not going to happen- spiritually or physically. But I do think that there is hope for making the transitions smoother and for not getting stuck at a lower level. There is never any excuse for self-righteosness and, consequently, no reason to go through it. The other two motivations you listed, fear and guilt, are part of what the Holy Spirit uses in our sanctification. They can even be compatible with joy.
    For me, the greatest source of joy and of joyful obedience is the gospel; especially that aspect that was so foundational to the Reformation. We are justified by faith alone. All of our sin, past and future, has been forgiven. What’s more, God doesn’t even hold a grudge. Paul says that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us. Jesus says, “Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” I sin and, the whole idea of sinless perfection in this life being a farce, will continue to do so until I enter heaven. However, I have found that whenever my attention is focussed on the gospel, the mourning that accompanies my realization of sin is concurrent with, and soon overpowered by, joy. Since the Kingdom is real right now, so is the promised comfort of the beattitude.
    One of the tragedies of many present-day churches is found in their neglect of the gospel. And I’m talking about those churches that are comprised of true believers. The gospel has been misdefined as an initiation right. Its application ceasing once the pagan soul has been won. Church members are then treated to sermons amounting to little more than practical advice to fortify the will. This is wrong. The gospel was intended for the church. What is the best way to live a life of joyful obedience? Attend to the means of grace. Be regularly exposed to the faithful preaching of the Word and the proper admististration of the sacraments.

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