Harrowing Of Hell
April 18, 2021

Moral Blindness and Immanuel Kant

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

We find ourselves today with Peter and John at Solomon’s portico at the Temple in Jerusalem. They are surrounded by throngs of people who are stunned by their capacity to heal a man crippled from birth. Peter says to the crowd: “This healing was not done in our names, but the name of Jesus… You remember Jesus the Righteous One, the Author of Life, The Prince of Peace, the one you murdered, and God raised him from the dead! We are witnesses to this.” Peter goes on to say: “Friends, I know that you acted in ignorance as did your rulers, therefore repent and turn back to God.”

Now there’s a lot of rich theology in this story, but today I want to simplify it to one word – ignorance. Peter says: “Friends, you have acted in ignorance.” The Greek for ignorance is agnoia, which was a word well-known to the learned people there at Solomon’s portico. It means moral blindness and traces its roots to ancient the Greek Philosophers;  Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It is a word they uncovered, more than coined; for moral blindness seems a systemic attribute of the human condition; which is why it is carved onto the wood of the cross…

We see it right here in the sanctuary of Epiphany. The stained glass window, the one with Jesus hanging on the cross, under which is written: “Father, they know not what they do.” Moral blindness. And Jesus’ response: “Father, forgive them.”

So, today we are going to talk about moral blindness because it’s as relevant now as it was two thousand years ago. We each experience moral blindness, and part of the spiritual journey is to identify what it is and then reduce it. One way of thinking about moral blindness is as a moral blind spot, like the blind spot you have when driving. It’s important to know it is there, because to not acknowledge it can actually make driving more dangerous.

It is the same with your spiritual life. If you don’t acknowledge that you have a moral blind-spot, then you are living in perpetual risk of diminishing all your relationships, including your relationship with God.

Admitting the existence of moral blindness, however, even if you don’t know what it is, engenders humility and curiosity, leading toward insight and enlightenment, not to mention better relationships. Because here’s the reality: whether you acknowledge your blind spot or not, other people surely are aware of it. And here’s the funny thing: even if they were to tell you what it is, that blind spot doesn’t diminished until you identify it, own it, and seek to understand it thoroughly. This is one of the functions of the spiritual journey…to align who you are with how you are in the world around you. And part of that process is understanding your moral blindness.

Here is the definition: an unconscious blinder, produced externally from yourself, that inhibits you from seeing your actions clearly, and runs counter to what we might claim to be your actual moral values. Moral blindness, as you might imagine, was talked a lot about after World War II but it was also part of the language of the Enlightenment philosophers as well. We’ll get to that later. 

Moral blindness comes upon us from three particular external sources: The first is authority, particularly as exercised by governments. The second is from commonly accepted cultural beliefs, such as the value of education or the truth of science. The third is from family or tribal traditions such as spare the rod and spoil the child or hard work is the key to success.

Each of these categories of external influences deserve their own sermon, and maybe we’ll indeed get to that, at some point, but for today I want to look at moral blindness that comes upon us through the external influence of commonly accepted cultural beliefs.

Our protagonist to help us think about moral blindness caused by culturally assumed ideas is none other than the famous Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. Why Kant? (Because I Kant do otherwise) First of all, he was interested in the ethics of moral blindness. And secondly, it’s interesting to track how he moved through his own moral blindness to reveal a greater insight into the role of the State.

Kant was born in 1724 to German family in Konigsberg, which today falls in the Russian region of Kaliningrad. He grew up Christian, in a fundamentalist Lutheran household. The early impact of that super rigid tradition is probably what formed him into such a disciplined person. People would say that you could set your clock by Kant’s daily walks.

He wrote a great deal throughout his career, but of all of his writings I would like to just focus on two. The first was written in 1777 when Kant was 53 years old, titled On the Different Races of Man. The second was written in 1795 when he was 71 years old, titled Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.

Like you and me, Kant was a man of his time. He lived in the era of colonialization and the pillaging of nations by European countries. At the core of the colonialist manifest destiny was the divine right of Europeans (that is to say white Europeans) to take what they found and propagate their culture. One piece of this culture was science, which, incidentally and conveniently, justified their manifest destiny.

And so, being part of the intellectual elite, it is no surprise that Kant would write on race. His thinking on race coincided with the advent of the science of phrenology, which was the study of the bumps on the skull. This science was followed by the complementary study of craniometry, the measurement and weight of the skull, and physiognomy, which was the study of facial features. These were the scientific fields of inquiry, of course, that naturally and indisputably proved racial hierarchy. It was just science, objective science…. after all.

Here’s something interesting about Kant: unlike most philosophers, it is believed that Kant became more creative and influential in his thinking the older he got. What that reflects to me is the natural outcome of a spiritual journey taken seriously and with courage, seeking and wiping away, along the way, moral blind spots discovered. That is the work of a lifetime, as one seeks more and more the fullness of their being. True for Kant, true for you and I as well.

And so, as Kant got older, he begin to think more and more about peace. In 1795, 18 years after he wrote his paper on race, Kant wrote a seminal work entitled: Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.It seems that as Kant got older his perspective expanded.

It reminds me of Margaret Whitlock. Some of you may remember her. She was the oldest member of our congregation who died a few years back on her 115th birthday. Right up until the end, Margaret had a wonderful, wry sense of humor. One day I was sitting with her over at Parkshore and there was a little cabinet made of wood with a glass door that hung on her wall. Inside were some knickknacks. And so, as a way of making conversation, I asked Margaret to tell me about the cupboard and the knickknacks. She looked me in the eye, and she said, “Oh, that’s just a bunch of junk.” And what I heard in her reflection was that stuff wasn’t really important.  Knowing Margaret as I did her philosophy on stuff, on materialism, expanded as she got older.For Kant, the expansion was around peace.

What Kant was wrestling with when he wrote Perpetual Peace was a tension within the modern European State; for while he believed that the State had achieved  the highpoint of organizational governance, he was confounded as to why the State continued, in so many circumstances, to act oppressively and brutally. To Kant’s mind an evolved, modern State should be a State in a state of perpetual peace.  And so, the question was: “Why is there not perpetual peace in the modern European state, and how could one bring it about?”

What Kant quickly came to realize is that for peace to be normative; equality was essential. There can be no peace, if there is no equality. No equality, no peace. It was this insight that quickly drew Kant to his own moral blindness around the hierarchy of race. For peace to even be possible, it must be true that all humanity is made equally. Sound familiar? Like something the Prince of Peace might say…Which may be why Nietzsche accused Kant of having “theological blood.”

As his moral blind spot became more and more apparent, Kant began to unleash blistering critiques of colonialism and slavery, doing so despite the fundamental cultural belief in the science of racial hierarchy. What Kant was able to do was to get out of his skin through additional thinking and studying and observing the world around him and coming to see, through the wisdom of years, that there is both a higher principled calling, that of universal peace, and that for universal peace to be achieved the moral blindness of racial hierarchy must be found, named, and denounced. 

It took Kant from age 53 to 71 to undergo this radical change in thinking; or shall I say this spiritually mature way of seeing God’s world. I hope it doesn’t take me that long.

It is so easy to be blanketed by moral blindness put upon us by a cultural belief that perpetuates action that don’t match our moral values. What we need, to extricate us from this blindness, is a commitment to a larger Kingdom of God principle. For Kant is was peace.

The risk of moving from where we are to what God desires, is that some well-formed beliefs, ideas we have lived by and defended and taught, may actually prove to be moral blind spots, if we vigorously and honestly reflect on our life and the world as Kant did.

And that can be scary. It can even provoke shame. What if, after all these years, what you believed, and advocated for, and maybe even worked towards was really in the service of a lie that had been put upon you? What if your life’s work, or your philosophical foundation was really a pernicious moral blindness? 

Even still, friends… we are forgiven by God. It is carved onto the wood of the cross. It is punctuated by the resurrection. Jesus forgives us. And our response to his mercy, is mercy. And our response to his grace, is grace. And our response to his love is to follow him, the Prince of Peace. It is what Kant did, whether he knew it or not.

And so, as you leave here with moral blindness on your mind, I invite you to also take with you this prayer by Rev. Ted Loder: Come, find me, God, be with me exactly as I am. Help me find me, God. Help me accept what I am, so, I can begin to be yours.