I just Kant help Myself

1 Peter 2:19-25

19For it is a credit to you if, being aware of God, you endure pain while suffering unjustly. 20If you endure when you are beaten for doing wrong, what credit is that? But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval. 21For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.
22   “He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.”
23When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly. 24He himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed. 25For you were going astray like sheep, but now you have returned to the shepherd and guardian of your souls.

John 10:1-10

1“Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

7So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

immanuel-kant.jpg
This guy’s out of Kant-rol……

Recently my husband and were driving in the car and we had the rare chance to enjoy one of those adult conversations that have become so rare for us lately.  We didn’t talk about our kids, or our schedules, or who is making what for dinner, or who needs to clean what when.

So you may be wondering–What did we talk about?

We spent an hour talking about Kant’s categorical imperative.

Of course, you are saying to yourself! The Categorical Imperative! I’m sure you and your partner discussed the Categorical Imperative at length last summer over mimosas in the garden! Your toddler reminds you of the Kant’s analytical thought all.the.time.  Right?

Of course, there may be a few of you who haven’t found yourself wading into German Philosophical Waters recently, so let me explain.  First of all, who the heck is Kant?  Well, Kant was an 18th Century philosopher.  As a young man, he wasn’t all that remarkable.  In fact, he was darn ordinary.

Until the Categorical Imperative.

His thinking on this subject launched him from relative obscurity to mega-star status–he was the Bruce Springsteen (for all you PA-NJ types), the Michael Jackson (for the rest of us) of his time. And he had a heck of a lot to say about moral action, where it comes from, and how we know what it is.

His Categorical Imperative can be summarized as the following:

The idea that things that are right are right in themselves, what is wrong is wrong. That these are things that are able to be discovered through reason alone.

But how do you know if something is “right in itself?” Kant proposes three conditions, all of which must be satisfied in order for a decision to satisfy his categorical imperative:

1) all actions must be universal. You should only act if it makes sense for you to will everyone to act in the same way. Your will must be consistent. (thy will shalt make sense)

2) every human must be treated as an end rather than a means to an end. In other words, manipulation is always wrong.

3) We have a responsibility to be a moral agent: We are ALWAYS setting an example for other people. Always behave as though you are the moral authority of the universe.

 

Wait a second.

This sounds an awful lot like something we heard in our scriptures earlier this morning.  What was it that Peter said?

But if you endure when you do right and suffer for it, you have God’s approval.

In other words, doing what is right is more important than being comfortable. It is, pardon the pun, categorically imperative.

Which is why it MUST, according to Kant (and Jesus), come from within.
Remember that first condition of Kant? That our actions must be universal? That means that our actions should be consistent with the kind of world where you think everyone should act the way you are choosing to act in that moment. Whenever you have a choice before you, ask yourself : what would the world be like if everyone were to act this way? And then do what seems best for the world. That is an act of good will.

For Peter, an act of good will is to follow Jesus, to do what Jesus did, even if it threatens your own safety and well-being. Because it is right. And that, to Peter, makes sense.

Consider the following example: I have always felt personally uncomfortable in the presence of the suffering of another person. When my son got stitches on his lip after falling off a chair, my stomach was in knots at the Emergency Room. Whenever I encounter someone begging on the side of the road, or struggling with a particularly heavy burden, I am tempted to look away.

So I ask myself: would the world be a better place if it were morally acceptable to avoid the suffering of other people?  If we were not morally obligated to bear witness, would the world be a better place?

I wonder.

Which is precisely where our second condition from Kant. Because it isn’t enough just to be consistent. Our choices also must respect the dignity of other people. Kant’s second maxim for discerning what is right is that you may not manipulate another person or treat them as a means to an end. Which is another way of saying that your choices, your decisions, your moral code must not take advantage of another person, or forget their inherent worthiness.

That means we can’t go around ignoring inconvenient people, and we also cannot go around imposing our will on others just because we think it is good for them (or for us). Which, incidentally, we do all the time at church.

If this isn’t sounding utterly insane to you, let me put it another way: if we are to take Jesus and Kant at their word, then logically it follows that we need to stop teaching people “because I said so” kind of rules, and instead create the kinds of opportunities that lead people to impose these rules, our moral framework, upon themselves. Under this framework, the good will of the Christian Community should be to create opportunities for individuals to take Christ’s yoke upon them. The last thing we should be doing is throwing up barricades and boundaries on the behalf of others. Once we do that, we have ceased to do God.

To be a little more Gospel, you cannot put down the nets and follow Jesus for anyone else. You can only do it for yourself. You cannot choose to suffer for anyone else; only they can make that choice.

Kant’s second maxim: you can’t manipulate someone—everyone deserves to be treated as an end rather than a means to an end.

Or, in the words of our Gospel today: you cannot make someone be a sheep. A sheep chooses to obey the master. Trust me, as someone who raised sheep herself—you can’t make a sheep do something she doesn’t wanna do. You will NEVER gain the trust of that sheep through force, threats of violence, or coercion. The sheep must choose for itself. When the sheep has the freedom to choose, only then is it capable of good will.

If we want more sheep in the pasture—well, then, we need to act like that pasture is worth living in. Finally, we find ourselves at Kant’s final condition: there is a responsibility to being a moral actor. We must remember we are always setting an example. So we have to act like it. At all times. Even when nobody is looking. Because it doesn’t matter what happens. What matters is our intent. Remember, it was Jesus who said that sin is a matter of the heart as much as a matter of our actions. Because it doesn’t matter how kind you act, what matters is what you think.

We who have chosen, we who believe these words of Christ to be true and timeless, not because someone told us to long ago but because we have experienced it, we must take care to honor our neighbor, and to be a good example. We are all potentially somebody’s big sister or brother in this faith, and our actions will determine whether this family, this flock, continues to grow and bear fruit, or withers on the vine.

We must be constantly open to improvement, to the opportunity to do the right thing, whatever it is, because we will it. Because it is good and right.

Jesus believes it ISN”T enough to just do what you are told. You have to believe in it for yourself. In Kant’s words, it needs to originate within you. What is good and doing good only count if they originate out of the system of rules that you place upon YOURSELF. That means you have to have decided to adopt them. They must be freely chosen—no one can impose them upon you.

This is I think what made the early church so special. They shared out of their abundance, they gave to one another as anyone had need, they worshipped because they BELIEVED IN IT. And the response was overwhelming: daily they added to their number.

At this point one of a couple things have happened to you:
1) you tuned out somewhere along the way—in which case, my apologies for losing you!  Watch this awesome youtube video for a more interesting overview of Kant.

OR…..

2) perhaps you have found yourself thinking a little differently. Perhaps you have found yourself asking: what is MY categorical imperative? How have I made a commitment, or how CAN I commit to “will the good” in the world? Perhaps you have come to the conclusion that Philosophy is not actually the worst choice of major that your grandkid/child/best friend could have chosen after all. Perhaps it actually may have something important to say.

So what is OUR Categorical Imperative? What can we not live without? What kind of world do we imagine? If we are Christian, our Categorical Imperative is contained within the vision of the Kingdom of God—the blueprint is laid when Jesus directs us to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, tend the sick, visit the imprisoned. Not because he told us to. But because we believe it is the right thing to do. Until we are whole. Until, alleluia, we are one. Amen, and may it be so.

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