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The DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church exists as a beacon of liberal religious thought and practice. Amid the challenges and changes of a chaotic world, we aspire to proclaim and embody the possibilities of meaning in human life, of freedom in human thought, and of peace and justice in human community.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Reflections on Immanuel Kant by Reverend Tom Capo



Reading from Kant on philosophy
          This is a reading from Kant’s Introduction to Logic:  “The question is always asked in the end, What is the use of philosophizing  … [Is it to] master of the art of reason… [to] strive merely for speculative knowledge, without concerning [oneself with] how much this knowledge contributes to the ulitmate end of human reason? [Just to] give rules for the use of reason for all kinds of ends?  [Or can philosophizing be put to practical use?] The practical philosopher [is] the teacher of wisdom by [writing] and example.  [He or she] is the true philosopher.  The field of philosophy… may be [ultimately] reduced to the following questions: What can I know? What ought I to do? What may I hope? [and] What [does it mean to be human]?...The philosopher, therefore, must be able to determine: the sources of human knowledge, the extent of the possible and useful employment of knowledge, and lastly, the limits of reason.  The last [determination] is the most useful, but also the most difficult…The true philosopher, therefore, must, as an independent thinker, make a free and independent, not a slavishly imitative, use of his[or her] reason.  [It is the role,] the dignity, [of the philosopher to know and teach] Wisdom.”

Sermon: What I Kant know 
(Video that was part of the service:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JH7vJgDozc)
         Well, I am going to head into some philosophizing, at least in part because I do believe the unexamined life is not worth living.  You might ask, as Kurt Vonnegut does, what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker?  Whether or not it’s a clunker, there is value in examining who you are, what you believe, and how you live, so that you can, to the best of your ability, live in accordance with your personal ethics and morals, so you can find meaning and purpose, so you can make this world a better place for all.
Before we head any further into this sermon, I want let you know a few things.  First, I will consider “what is philosophy” before going into some philosophizing.  We need a common definition if we are not going to spend most of our time looking at kittens this morning. Secondly, I will share some teachings of Immanuel Kant that provoked me, led me to think about our Unitarian Universalist values; I will not go into depth about all of his teachings.  Do I hear a collective sigh of relief?  Also I had initially thought I would talk about three philosophers and how their teachings resonate with me and with Unitarian Universalism, but that would have been a 10 hour sermon; I am pretty sure none of us wants that.   And finally, I believe it is important to acknowledge that Kant is an old white guy; like many of the early philosophers that we have heard about or been taught about.   Hypatia of Alexandria, who developed Neo-Platonism in the late fourth century, and Simone de Beauvoir, who in the early part of the 20th century wrote about more radical explorations of feminism and existentialism, are not part of today’s sermon. 
            Let’s look at a definition for philosophy?  The dictionary defines philosophy as the study of the nature, causes, or principles of reality, knowledge, or values, based on logical reasoning. (Free Dictionary by Faralex) Kant believed that a philosophy that simply studied knowledge and reason in a vacuum was useless—it was just a head game.  He believed that a system of philosophy ought to include practical applications, ought to undergird or amplify the ethics and morals humans are taught as part of their socialization.  In essence, philosophy, to be true philosophy, ought to bring wisdom to our use of knowledge, wisdom to make sense of our experiences, and wisdom to inform our use of reason.
            Who was Kant? Immanuel “Kant is probably [one of] the most important philosophers of the past 2,000 years, yet he lived a remarkably boring life. He was born, lived, and died in the provincial Prussian university town of K√∂nigsberg.  He was so regular in his habits that locals set their clocks by his afternoon walk. Kant was the first great modern philosopher to be a university professor and spent his entire student and professional life at the University of K√∂nigsberg.”(http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/kant/context.html)“His works, … (on the theory of knowledge), aesthetics and ethics had a profound influence on later philosophers, including contemporary ones.” (http://www.philosophers.co.uk/immanuel-kant.html)
Kant wrote: “Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law [of nature]." (http://www.iep.utm.edu/kantmeta/)  In other words, the moral worth of an action is not based on the outcome achieved by that action, but by the motive behind that action.  And the motive is moral only if it can be used as a universal principle for the behavior of all reasonable persons.  Kant was critical of the golden rule—you know “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”—because it is too variable; it depends largely on how you feel about what was done to you. If the motive is variable, then it cannot be a universal principle.  For Kant, the golden rule lacked a truly universal perspective for all reasonable beings.  We will talk more about universal principles in a moment.  Let’s keep this maxim in mind as we look further into Kant’s moral teachings.
             Okay, raise your hand if you need to watch the kitten video again.  Let’s head into his teaching on morality.  Remember, his system of philosophy includes practical applications.  His view of philosophy is that it should bring wisdom to our use of knowledge, wisdom to make sense of our experiences, and wisdom to inform our use of reason.
            Anyone here been “friend-zoned”?  That was trick question.   I don’t think any of us want to unfairly blame someone for not wanting to be more than a friend.  Let’s look at this issue of unfair blame in another social context.  If a black person is driving through a predominantly white part of town, they should expect to be pulled over by the police.  If a woman is dressed provocatively (whatever the heck that is), she should expect to be sexually assaulted.  Do you agree with either of those statements?  Again a trick questions.  These are examples of unfair blame. 
            How does unfair blame relate to us as Unitarian Universalists?  Well our second principle alludes to how we might address unfair blame in our lives: by promoting and affirming justice, equity and compassion in human relations.  Justice, as I see it, means that everyone deserves to be treated fairly and equally, without prejudices impacting their treatment.  That even those on the margins of society and those in any way different from you and me ought to be treated with the same justice that we receive.  A woman’s decision about who she wants to be in an intimate or committed relationship with ought to be respected.  A black person ought not be pulled over just because he is black.  A woman ought not be sexually assaulted.  There are no reasons, no reasons, that justify a police person pulling someone over due to their race; there are no reasons, no reasons that justify sexually assaulting another human being.  Are these universal principles?  I think they are.
            Did you know that there were people talking about objectification in the 18th century?  Just about blows my mind. 
            Young black males.  Think about them for a moment.  What have you been brain-washed to believe by the dominant white culture?  That they are violent, abusive, irresponsible, criminals, gang members destined for prison? 
Listen to this from Ta-Nehisi Coates in Between the World and Me:  “Last Sunday the host of a popular news show asked me what it meant to lose my body. The host was broadcasting from Washington, D.C., and I was seated in a remote studio on the Far West Side of Manhattan. A satellite closed the miles between us, but no machinery could close the gap between her world and the world for which I had been summoned to speak. When the host asked me about my body, her face faded from the screen, and was replaced by a scroll of words, written by me earlier that week.
The host read these words for the audience, and when she finished she turned to the subject of my body, although she did not mention it specifically. But by now I am accustomed to intelligent people asking about the condition of my body without realizing the nature of their request. Specifically, the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress … was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history… it must be said that the elevation of the belief in being white was not achieved through wine tastings and ice-cream socials, but rather through the pillaging of life, liberty, labor, and land… [the week of the interview] was the week [my son], learned that the killers of Michael Brown would go free. The men who had left his body in the street would never be punished. It was not my expectation that anyone would ever be punished.” 
             As a white culture, do we undermine a black man’s autonomy?  Has the white culture’s objectification of black males resulted in a survival skill that requires black males to objectify us?  Is your initial response to try and change his mind?  Or is your initial response to try and deal with your own objectification of black males?  Do I find myself eager to force my reasons, my views, my worldview on him as I listen to his words?  Do I want to say to him, “that’s not the way I feel; I am not like that; I didn’t pillage anything; I didn’t kill any of those young black men.” In doing so, would I just be trying to change his mind, or would I be undermining his autonomy?  Do I really want to put aside my objectification?  Am I ready to see the world through his eyes, to understand his reasons for his choices?  Can I grant him the autonomy that I want him to give to me?
            Our first Unitarian Universalist principle calls us to respect the inherent worth and dignity of everyone, everyone; no exceptions.  Kant clearly states he believes that we all do have inherent worth and dignity.  He calls it autonomy.  He starts out with this assumption.  Do we base our interactions on that assumption?  With everyone?  No exceptions? How do we affirm and promote inherent worth and dignity as well as justice, equity, and compassion?  If you find this a principles you’d like to focus on, I encourage you to look on the Unitarian Universalist Standing on the Side of Love website.  From Saturday, January 16 through Sunday, February 14, 2016, during the Thirty Days of Love campaign, we, Unitarian Universalists are being asked to consider what it means to live our principles, to actively consider the links between love and justice, to consider how contemplation, action, and service fit into our affirmation of our First and Second Principle, and how we might reimagine Valentine’s Day as a day to express our love by opposing oppression and objectification in any form.  It’s a form of Unitarian Universalist spiritual practice that I think has the potential to change your life, and change the lives of the people around you.
            There was a young minister in Cedar Rapids who preached to his congregation that the consequence of marital equality was the same or worse than the historic flood that crippled Cedar Rapids 8 years ago.  This position statement was printed in the Cedar Rapids Gazette.  And as I was the liberal pastor in town, the paper contacted me for a response.  I said that this statement was inflammatory and hurtful to the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender community.  I went on to say that ministers must realize that what is said from the pulpit has consequences; the minister has been empowered by his/her congregation to speak the truth, and he/she must realize that words spoken from the pulpit will have an impact beyond his/her church.  Then the local ABC station carried an interview with me and an interview with this minister.  After a week of both of us publically becoming further entrenched in our opposing viewpoints, he, the conservative, me the liberal, an unsettling thought came to me.  Was I using this minister’s inflammatory statements as a means to get publicity for my church?  For the liberating theology of Unitarian Universalism?  This is a sensitive issue for me because I don’t want to treat people as means for my personal ends.  And yet it was so seductive, getting Unitarian Universalism out there in the paper, on the local news—raising our visibility.  Maybe I’d get an article written about me in the UU World.  Maybe I’d even be on the cover.  So I reached out to the minister to have a conversation.  I wanted to be careful with this, again not objectify him or try to change his way of thinking to my way of thinking.  But I did want what was becoming a theological cage match to come to a close.  I wanted to reach out to him to treat him as an end, a person, someone who has worth and dignity. 
           So we got together, and as we talked he shared that he was quite distressed by the negative responses he had gotten from people all over the country for what he had said.  He didn’t understand why all these people being so mean to him.  I listened.  I tried to mentor him as one minister to another, again not trying to change his views, but trying to offer wisdom—to help him to understand the power of the pulpit.  In essence, I was acting in accordance with Kant’s philosophical view, bringing wisdom to my use of knowledge, wisdom to help make sense of my experience and his experience.  And, as well, I was putting the internal reasoning of our Seven Principles into practical use by honoring his worth and dignity, even though we deeply disagreed with each other.  By treating him with compassion, accepting him just as he was.  By understanding his free and responsible search for truth and meaning still had value, even though it had led to a completely different understanding of the world than mine.  By understanding his right of conscience.  By respecting him even as I disagreed with him. 
            I believe there is much we all can learn from Kant.  And I believe our Unitarian Universalist Principles are in alignment with some of those Universal Principles that Kant speaks of.  As you consider what it is you take away from this service, I hope you consider making time for contemplation and action and service.  Contemplation-- considering your motive behind your action, at least some of the time, and then considering if your motive is consistent with our Unitarian Universalist Principles and your own personal values and principles.  And action—living your Unitarian Universalist Principles and your personal principles, morals, and ethics consciously and intentionally in your life.  And service—affirming and promoting your Unitarian Universalist Principles and your personal principles, morals, and ethics to help make the world more just, equitable, and compassionate. 
            I leave you with three questions that Kant often reflected on: “What can I know? What ought I to do? What can I hope?”  To me these are questions that are at the heart of all of our spiritual journeys.  There are limits to what we can know.  We can never have all the information to discern what we ought to do.  So we hope that we are doing our best to live a moral/ethical life, treating others with integrity and autonomy.  Let us go forth and make it so.

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