Pentecost Sunday, 2013 Acts 2:1-21; Romans 8:14-17, and John 14:8-17 and 25-27)
Among the great events of the 18th Century is, of course, the American Revolution. But ask historians and they will tell you that there is still another 18th Century revolution with greater and even more far-reaching significance than our great American Revolution. As unlikely as that may seem, those who study such things assure that it is true. The so-called “Kantian Revolution” begun by an obscure philosophy professor in Germany has changed the world in far more significant ways than our American revolution. Now I will tell you why.
Kant maintained that human beings cannot know God through observation involving any of our five senses, and, that moreover, we cannot know God through reasoning. God may be a practical sort of idea, but we can never be really sure that we are not imagining Him. Others before Kant had maintained such things, but no one had maintained these ideas with such force, such precision and such such thoroughness.
It is said that Kant built a wall so high, you can’t go over it, so wide you can’t go around it, so thick you can’t go through it. It nearly universally accepted today that there is no door.
It’s hard for us today to understand just how transformative the impact of this philosopher’s work was on the world. Suffice it to say that every major philosophical movement of the 19th and 20th Centuries descended from this one man’s work. Marxism, Communism, Relativism, Nihilism, Nazism, and all of the more respectable philosophical movements as well, were born of this man’s work. And that is why historians say that the Kantian Revolution was more significant than the American Revolution.
Theologians today, at least those who haven’t simply given up on theology and embraced relativism, tell us that the most important task for Christian theologians today is to try to break down this wall that separates man from God, the “epistemological wall” erected by Kant. A lot of church leaders today kind of smile at this, or maybe wink, expecting everyone to know that we can’t really know God.
That is unfortunate because someone has already broken down this wall that is presumed to be so high you can’t get over it, so deep you can’t get under it, and so wide you can’t get around it. Well, maybe I should say “broken down”. It would be more accurate to say that this person has provided a door through which we may go through the wall that separates man from God.
A lot of people dismiss Christianity because they think that, as Kant taught convincingly, there is no way to know God. They assume that Christianity should be dismissed because of this, that it is no more valid than any other figment of human imagination. But what these critics of Christianity fail to understand is that Christ himself is in full agreement with Kant. There is no human way to know God. And Christ was the first to assert this truth. Now, if we can just come to understand why, we will then realize that Kant hasn’t done Christianity as dis-service, but in fact has made an immense contribution to the building of God’s kingdom. And now, let me connect the dots to explain why.
Let’s take a look at what Jesus said in today’s Gospel lesson. In John 14 Jesus was asked to show the disciples God. Jesus did not then directly show the disciples God, because God may not be perceived by the 5 senses nor understood through human reason alone. Here we see that Jesus is in full agreement with Kant. There is now wall to bridge on this issue. Instead Jesus pointed to a metaphor, himself, for He himself could be seen and heard and understood by the disciples.
Elsewhere, Jesus stated that no one has seen God but the one who has come down from heaven. Again, he acknowledges that there is no human way that God may be known through the five senses, nor through the use of reason.
Our knowledge of God, such as it is, comes through a sixth sense and a new form of reasoning—this sixth sense, this new form of reasoning, is faith, and faith is more than trusting and obeying. Faith as a gift of God is the union of the human and the divine being. And in this new being we enter the realm of knowing God.
How do we know something is truly true—we can know by listening to instruction of the Holy Spirit. Christ has become the door—the chief metaphor by which we can know God—but not through the five senses—rather through Christ living in us, through the illumination of the Holy Spirit who dwells with those who love the Lord.
Why is this significant? I mention it on this Pentecost Sunday because Christianity and indeed civilization itself seems everywhere to be under attack and in decline. We sometimes wonder if Christianity is after all but an illusion, and if failure of civilization itself is near at hand. There is a greater truth at hand. What the five senses and human reason fail to disclose, however, is that we can in fact know God. We can know that He exists and that He is in control. We can know meaning and peace and truth. The wall that Kant erected is one that Jesus many years before acknowledged. But what so many fail to see today is that there is a door, a way through the wall.
This Kantian Revolution that seems to have pretty much wrecked our world can in fact be a stepping stone toward greater understanding and to new growth for the church. And I believe it will. When we acknowledge that there is no human way to know God, then we are that much closer to finding the true way of knowing God—the Holy Spirit living in people who love the Lord
I believe not only that the evangelization of the world in the 21st Century is not impossible, but that we are at the brink of an explosion of the Holy Spirit breaking forth into the world setting it ablaze with truth. Yes, the wall that separates man and God really is so tall you can’t get over it, so deep you can’t get under it, and so wide you can’t get around it, but you can, yes you can, come in through the door—and that door is the Holy Spirit. Our task today is not to smash down the wall that separates man from God, but rather, to make more clearly known the door, the sixth sense, the new life, the new reasoning, the illumination by which we might know the truth.
If we will but embrace, preach and teach this the Pentecost message, all of the threatening changes that have come about as a result of the Kantian Revolution will become as nothing. The day of the Lord is at hand. He will yet reign in America. People will know God, He will abide with them, and they will become his people, and he their God. I do not see the Kantian Revolution as having killed Christianity. On the contrary, I am so thankful that Kant was right. Yes, with Christ I affirm there is no human way to know God. There is only a supernatural way, and that way is through Jesus Christ who has shown us the Father, Jesus Christ who gave us the Holy Ghost to transform us that as new supernatural beings we too might see God and know the truly true. Amen.