KANT'S THREE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTIONS Some Personal Perspectives What Can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? A Sermon By Ronald Knapp, Minister Emeritus FIRST UNITARIAN CHURCH OF OMAHA July 17, 2011 A Return with me now to those days of yesteryear. Some of you who have been around this place fifteen or more years may remember my September Sermon Series. Every September, while I was the settled minister here, I would begin each new church year, beginning with the first Sunday after Labor Day, with a series of three sermons on some interrelated theme. And then, on the fourth Sunday, we would have what I called “The deacon's bench.” The deacon's bench was composed of three lay people from the congregation who would have the charge of listening to my three sermons and then reacting to them on the fourth Sunday, when I would be charged with listening to what they had to say. The idea of the deacon's bench comes from an old Calvinist custom whereby the deacons would literally sit on what was called the deacon's bench and were charged with making sure that the minister did not stray from pure Calvinist orthodoxy. Now, since there is no pure Unitarian Universalist orthodoxy that I would have to uphold, they would be free to express their own opinions, feel free to argue with me, feel free to take exceptions to what I had to say. And since I could say what I wanted to say because of our idea of “freedom of the pulpit,” they too would have freedom of the pulpit on their Sunday. I'll bet there are at least a few of you here who remember those days. Twenty eight years ago, in September of 1983, My September Sermon Series was titled “Kant's Three Fundamental Questions.” The deacon's bench was composed of Nancy Easley Uhl, Jim Van Arsdall, and Rachel Jones. The series was based on a single sentence from Kant's The Critique of Pure Reason although I did not get it from that source. I found it on the frontispiece of Walter Kaufman's book, The Faith of Heretic, a book I would suggest every Unitarian Universalist should read. Kant's sentence is this: All the interests of my reason, speculative as well as practical, combine in the following three questions: What can Can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? In that series I dealt in order with those three questions. In preparation for this sermon, I read my three sermons from the series, along with the reactions from the Deacon's Bench. And I decided that I would return to that theme and see how I would respond to those questions today. Of course my remarks on each question will be brief. After all, twenty eight years ago I had three Sundays to cover the waterfront! In a sense, Kant's fundamental questions are the questions I have tried to answer in my sermons over the years. And they are, perhaps, the fundamental questions which Unitarian Universalism needs to confront.
As I deal with Kant's fundamental questions, I am trying to deal with them from a personal perspective, but I expect that I will readily move from the “I” to the “We.” B WHAT CAN I KNOW? Kant's first question, “What can I know?” is especially important to me. A lot of my religious thought has centered on this question over the years. And it is this question that led me out of Methodism and into Unitarian universalism. Many of you will know this story from past sermons, and more recently from my address, a few weeks ago, to the “Tolerant Atheists.” But perhaps it is worth repeating. Many or most of you will know that I began my ministerial career as a Methodist minister, When I was in my late twentys I had a funeral for a young man, about my age, who had died of cancer. It took a couple of years to bring about his death and in those years I got to know him quite well. This young man had a younger brother, his only sibling, who had shot off half of his face in a gun accident when he was a boy and had become a drunk. And he was drunk at his brother's funeral. As I was going through the ritual-In my fathers house are many mansions. If it were not so I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you that where I am there ye may be also. --the drunken brother jumped up, shouted at me, “how in the hell do you know,” and stormed out of the room, slamming the door. As for me, I took a deep breath, hitched up my pants, as is my wont, and went on with the ritual. But more and more, as time went on, the question haunted me. And more and more, I came to understand that I did not know and wanted to know a whole lot more than I wanted to believe. In a letter to his mother, seeking to explain why he had renounced Christianity, Frederick Nietzsche wrote: Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire. That's me. What can I know? The answer begins with inquiry. Inquiry leads to knowledge. And for me, from my perspective as a religious humanist, a perspective I believe ought to be central to Unitarian Universalism, knowledge always stumps belief just as reason trumps faith! Our beliefs ought to expand as knowledge increases. Our faith ought to expand as reason opens up a wider universe. In our day and age a great deal of what we know about the universe comes from the world of science. A religion adequate for the twenty first century has to pay close attention to new knowledge as it emerges from science. My favorite literary reflection on this thought comes from my poetic muse, Walt Whitman. There is a passage in “Song of Myself” where Whitman is talking to the scientists. “Your house is not my house,”
he wrote. That is, the house of science is not the house of poetry or the house of religion. But, he concludes “I must go through your house to get to my house.” That is, I must go through the house of science to get to the house of religion. I must go through the house of emerging knowledge to get to an adequate religion for the modern world. So thought Whitman and so say I. What can I know? As I dwell on this question there is something that seems almost trite to say and yet seems of the utmost importance. And that is that I can know only that which I can know. Human beings can know only that which human beings can know, with human brains, with human central nervous systems, with all of that which makes up the human perceptual apparatus. We know the world, we know the universe, only as human beings are biologically equipped to know it. As William James noted in his Principles of Psychology, “how different must be the world in the consciousness of ants, cuddle fish, or crab!” When one considers the universe on these terms, how arrogant it becomes to think that human beings can know the mind of God. How preposterous to imagine that adherents to the myriad forms of religion found throughout the world,and throughout human history, can know the ultimate truth which so many do, such as “Christ died for our sins,” or “There is only one God, Allah, and Mohamed is his prophet.” One more thought about the question “What can I know?” – a thought that has to do with humility. The more we know, the more we need to understand that there is even more that we do not know. It behooves all of us, as we think about what we know, to emulate one of the greatest thinkers of all time, one of the greatest scientists, Sir Issac Newton, who did know a lot, but who also said, I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy laying on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. C What Ought I To Do? Immanuel Kant's second fundamental question is “What ought I to do?” Kant himself answered his question with what he called “”The categorical Imperative.” Act according to the maxim that you would wish all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law. That seems to be a philosophical variation of something found in most of the religions of the world, commonly referred to as “the golden rule.” Do unto others as you would have others do into you. Or as it is sometimes expressed negatively, and perhaps more meaningfully, Do not do unto others as you would have others not do unto you. In my sermon twenty eight years ago, I tried to expand on this a bit, including what I see as the more intimate aspects of the golden rule, that is acting in immediate circumstances, actual human
experience, to something more broadly defined. I said, in that sermon, All human interactions have results that affect not only those immediately involved, but like ripples caused by the rock thrown in the water, have affects which we cannot foresee. And any system of moral understanding, especially in the modern world, has to make room for those unforeseen affects. I am trying to suggest that morality involves not only ourselves and our connections to things, in our immediate relationships, but in the connections of things to other connections of things, connections that travel all the way around the world, connections that transcend time. And then I came up with my own attempt at articulating a categorical imperative. For what its worth, here it is. To act ethically and to act morally, always act in such a way as to demonstrate an honest and proper regard for yourself, for your own being in the world. And always act in such a way as to show an honest and proper regard for the immediate context in which you live, for the people and things that make up your world. And always act in such a way as to show an honest and proper regard for those people and contexts which are distant from you, both in terms of space and of time. Thirty five years ago, 1976, when I was installed as the settled minister of this church, my fiend, Don Johnson, gave the installation address. In his address Don said that the world was getting “shouldier and shouldier.” I kind of gasped and held my breath for a moment. It sounded to me like he said some variation of a common four letter word. But, no, he was talking about something that was characteristic of the time, especially so among Unitarian Universalists. The popular liberal religious spirit of the time was a spirit that disdained rules of behavior, that rejected any socially constructed morality, that made '”feeling guilty” almost the worst possible sin. At the time we tended to tell each other that we did not come into the world to live up to their expectations. “Do your own thing,” we said, “If it feels good do it.” We were in rebellion against the “shoulds” and the “oughts.” But as we moved out of the twentieth century and into the twenty first, it became clearer and clearer that there are a lot of “oughts” that we “ought" to pay attention to. Those "oughts" range from the more mundane -- we ought to be using reusable grocery bags rather than plastic ones or we ought to walk more and drive less or we ought to eat less meat and more vegetables or we ought to live more simply and waste less. And move on to the more profound. In a world where populations are growing and available food supplies are not keeping pace with that expanding population, in a world where more and more children are going to bed hungry each year, and dying, we ought to be involved in creating a world that provides more equitably for the whole human race. In a world of climate change and global warming, where low lying areas of the world may be inundated by deeper oceans – like Bangladesh, for example – we ought to be concerned about how we prevent such disasters. In a world where this country utilizes far more than its fair share of the earth's abundance we ought to seek ways to share. It looks to me that the world is getting "shouldier and shouldier," that there are a lot more “oughts” that we ought to pay attention to. One could go on with an extended litany, but this will have to do for now. I readily admit that I don't know what I ought to do about all of them, what we ought to do – or even how willing I am, or we are,
to do it – but the ought remains! We ought to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. When I think of Kant's question, “What ought I to do?”and see the problems confronting the world, there is a wonderful little poem that comes readily to mind. It is from Bonaro Overstsreet. You say that the little efforts that I make will do no good, They never will prevail to tip the hovering scale Where Justice hangs in balance. I don't believe I ever thought They would. But I am prejudiced beyond debate In favor of my right to choose which side Shall feel the stubborn ounces Of my weight. D WHAT MAY I HOPE Kant's third fundamental question is “What may I hope.” I think I shall begin a brief discussion of this question with a negative, “What may I not hope?” In a book that has long been important to me, “Chance And Necessity,” Jacques Monod wrote that “All religions and even a great part of science” Testify to the unwavering effort of humanity to “deny its own contingency.” We are contingent upon the unfolding of the universe, We are no less and no more than the products of an evolving life process and the evolution of the physical cosmos. I believe that. I come out of this unfolding universe, live my life, and return to the universe from whence I came. And I cannot hope any differently. Every body seems to like to sing “Amazing Grace,' even Unitarian Universalists for reasons I cannot comprehend. It begins with a “wretch like me” and concludes with these words: When we've been there ten thousand years Bright shining as the sun, We've no less days to sing God's praise Than when we first begun. Now, I suppose those words are meant to be a description of heaven. But to me they seem like the best description of hell I can think of. Singing God's praises for an hour or two might be fun. But ten thousand years and on on and on. No thank you. I would like to see my life, from birth to death and beyond, as simply a part of nature. Both Anne and I, in our wills, have instructed our children, after the university gets through with our bodies, and they are cremated, that the ashes be spread around the flower garden of this church so that the elements that made up our bodies become the elements that nourish new life. What may I hope? Well on an intimate personal level, I may hope that I will have a few more years to enjoy life. And I hope that I will have at least a few more opportunities to preach the word, since I do so love doing it.
On a broader level, I may hope that, in my lifetime, I have done more good than I have done harm, I may hope that the world is a better place because I lived. But more important than my or our personal legacies, I may hope that we. As a nation, and the international community, can really begin to take the problems of the earth – the only home we have – seriously. With the terrible effectiveness of modern weaponry, I may home that we can find a way to end the scourge of war. I may hope that we will cease killing ourselves and others in the name of God. I may hope that we will so appreciate Mother Earth that the whales and the polar bears, The redwoods and the saguaros , will all be saved to be enjoyed by our great grand children. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his “Psalm of Life,” wrote: Lives of great men all remind us We can make our lives sublime, And, departing, leave behind us Footprints in the sands of time. We all leave footprints in “the sands of time.” And we may hope that the footprints we do leave do not diminish the human and the natural landscape. Viktor Frankl uses a different imagery, but he means the same thing, when he suggests that every day and in everything we do, we are building “a monument to our existence.” I may hope that my monument will be a good one. And yours too. E CONCLUSION What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? One could write many sermons, even many books, on each of those questions. But what I have just said is the best I can do for now. I have tried to come up with a reading that might encompass, as a conclusion, at least much of what I have been trying to say. And I came up with this passage from “The New Spirit” by Havelock Ellis: The present is in every age merely the shifting point at which past and future meet, and we can have no quarrel with either. There can be no world without traditions; neither can there be any life without movement. There is never a moment when the new dawn is not breaking over the earth, and never a moment when the sunset ceases to die. It is well to greet serenely even the first glimmer of the dawn when we see it, not hastening towards it with undue speed, nor leaving the sunset without gratitude for the dying light that was once dawn. In the moral world we are ourselves the light-bearers, and the cosmic process is in us made
flesh. For a brief space it is granted to us, if we will, to enlighten the darkness that surrounds our path. As in the ancient torch-races, which seemed to Lucretius to be the symbol of all life, we press forward torch in hand along the course. Soon from behind comes the runner who will out-pace us. All our skill lies in giving into his hand the living torch, bright and unflickering, as we ourselves disappear in the darkness.