Reason within the Bounds of Liturgy

by Michael McEwen

For 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, religion needed to know its place: within the bounds of reason. In his work, Religion Within the Bounds of Mere Reason (hereafter, Religion), Kant attempts to demonstrate how one can live an exemplary and moral life without the earthiness of the Scriptures and the messiness of organized religion.

Kant’s Understanding of Scripture

Instead of seeing Scripture as a sola, Kant argues that moral perfection is achieved through reason and reason alone (sola ratione). Now, Scripture has a place in his thought, but it serves as a fallible vehicle for “the universal practical rules of a religion of pure reason.” The Christ of the Scriptures functions an archetype, at best, of how we too can become “Sons of God” through moral enlightenment. In his schema, the Scriptures are a “statutory” slave to his transcendental ideals. Christian Scripture, for instance, is historically contingent and thus, by nature, cannot deliver universal truths for all human beings.

Kant’s Understanding of the Church

When Kant speaks of the church as historical and contingent, he refers to it as the visible church; when the church is transcendental and universal, he refers to it as the invisible church. The visible church is comprised of external traditions, rituals, creeds, and confessions that typically inhibit someone from understanding the higher moral absolutes by which we should strive–even though some earthy components of the “historical ecclesiastical faith...must be utilized.” The invisible church, then, is purer because it transcends traditions, rituals, creeds, and confessions. The invisible church is beyond space and time and therefore is the paradigm by which we ought to pattern our inward, moral lives.

Kant and an American Religious Ethos

Kant’s ideas, I believe, are illustrative in two ways of an American religious ethos: first, the understanding that being covenanted to a local body is unnecessary for spiritual development with Christ. Certain streams of American Christianity often proclaim a motto: “spiritual, not religious.” This motto exalts the “spiritual” union one has with a transcendent Christ while degrading a “religious” union with Christ’s tangible body, the local church.

Another religious ethos in America is the belief that reasoning about God doesn’t require creedal or confessional commitments. Solo scriptura (Scripture only) becomes another chant where all traditions are historically contingent and therefore, inevitably fallible and false. Solo scriptura is contrasted by sola scriptura (Scripture alone), which instead heralds that traditions are historically meaningful and ministerial; yet they are to submit to the magisterial source and norm of Scripture [2].

As a student of liturgical studies, I have wondered what gathered worship might have to say in light of Kant’s thoughts. So I asked, “What does reason look like within the bounds of liturgy?” [1] My aim is to demonstrate that biblical reasoning is primarily funded within the bounds of Scripture as well as a local body–whose liturgy fruitfully fosters spiritual growth.

The “spiritual, not religious” ethos in America is malnourished because Christian identity is cultivated when the Scriptures meet the gathered community. Liturgy thus offers a fecund space where the Spirit can “sow” his Word through confession, song, bath, sermon, and bread and wine. As worshipers commune with others within such a sanctified space, they are beckoned to participate in the redemptive drama enacted in a historical liturgy. The “spiritual, not religious” wants Jesus without his local body–a gross and gnostic portrait of Christ. This is what Charles Taylor refers to an “excarnation,” or “the steady disembodying of spiritual life, so that it is less and less carried in deeply meaningful bodily forms, and lies more and more 'in the head'" (The Secular Age, 771).

The Incarnation, by contrast, offers a doctrinal paradigm whereby the church can retrieve the creational goodness of materiality found in liturgical elements such as melodic air passing from vocal chords, grubby children routinely reciting Creeds, lukewarm baptismal waters for fervent faith, bended knees bent to hear Christ’s voice, and moistened loaves and bitter wine for hungry and thirsty pilgrims. These ancient threads of a liturgical tapestry are woven together within the bounds of a local church body to shape worshipers to reason rightly about the triune God.

Biblical reasoning, for theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, “is a matter of forming the same judgments about God (e.g., doctrines) in terms of present-day conceptualities as those expressed in Scripture in terms of conceptualities that may no longer be extant” (Remythologizing Theology, 188). In short, Vanhoozer submits that, as source and norm, the Scriptures are to bind the church’s identity and imagination. Now, the language of “binding” and “being bound” can seem intrusive, limiting, or worse, oppressive. It could be, if we agree with Kant. But maybe Paul has a different perspective: “You are slaves of the one whom you obey [either sin or Christ]” (Rom. 6:16). The church, being bound to Christ and his Scriptures, is freed from sin to hear and heed the voice of the Father through the Son’s Spirit.

Within this space of a local body and the performances of its liturgy, the Spirit cleanses and sanctifies the mind to see Christ in the stranger (Matt. 25:35), to seek the good of the body (1 Thess 5:15), to forgive others (Col. 3:13), to show hospitality (1 Pet. 4:9), and to speak the truth (Eph. 4:25). Contra Kant, reason then is nurtured by a particular community and its religious practices.


Let me be clear: I’m not saying Immanuel Kant is the direct cause of these effects in our current religious ethos. But I do believe there are salient connections between Kant’s ideas and the spirit of our culture. We certainly see individuals wanting the spirituality of Jesus without being covenanted to a local body, and also, we notice how tradition is disparaged and thus discarded from the scenes of our weekly worship. In light of this ethos, may our local churches seek creative ways to manifest the ministerial and missional nature of our liturgies to cultivate worshiper’s minds to love Christ and neighbor.



[1] Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff addresses a similar question in his Reason Within the Bounds of Religion, but he is primarily concerned with religion as a foundation for reasoning in the academy. My aim is tangential to Wolterstorff’s while targeted toward the space of liturgical worship.

[2] The Reformers, Timothy George has pointed out, sought to conform their exegesis to both Scripture and the patristic tradition (Theology of the Reformers [Nashville: B&H Publishing Group], 2013).