Kant on prayer
Does Kant have anything to teach us about the unity of contemplation and action? One might doubt it, given the wedge which he drives between theoretical and practical reason. And yet, within the practical domain, he m have some important things to say. In particular, I’m concerned with his account of contemplative prayer and how it relates to his theory of moral agency.
In the fourth “General Observation” of his Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone (Harper, 1960; originally 1793), Kant briefly discusses prayer as one of four “means of grace” (the others are church-going, initiation, and communion). Means of grace are, in turn, one of three kinds of “illusory faith that involve the possibility of our overstepping the bounds of our reason in the direction of the supernatural” (the others are beliefs in miracles and mysteries) (182).
In view of these categorizations, one might expect Kant to say that prayer as such is an action pointing beyond the realm of pure reason and therefore wholly illusory. Interestingly, this is not what he says. Rather, he distinguishes two sorts of prayer. One sort, which Kant calls “verbal prayer,” can be a dangerous “superstitious illusion (a fetish-making); for it is no more than a stated wish directed to a Being who needs no such information regarding the inner disposition of the wisher; therefore, nothing is accomplished by it, and it discharges none of the duties to which, as commands of God, we are obligated” (183). And yet, even this dangerous form of prayer as verbal address is good for children who need it to acquire an idea of God (186) and for some adults who need the spoken word as a kind of temporary crutch, helping them to reach the true moral disposition (185).
The other sort of prayer is something occuring within. Kant calls it “the spirit of prayer, which can, and should, be present in us ‘without ceasing’” (183). This spirit of prayer captures the core experience of reflective faith which Kant believes is the basis for moral religion. One finds in this form of inner prayer, for which Jesus’ teaching provides the model, “nothing but the resolution to good life-conduct which, taken with the consciousness of our frailty, carries with it the persistent desire to be a worthy member in the kingdom of God” (183). Such prayer contains “no actual request for something which God in His wisdom might well refuse us” (183). Even when the “Our Father” asks God for daily or superessential bread, this, in Kant’s eyes, is “more a confession of what nature in us demands than a special deliberate request for what the man [in us] wills” (184). Moreover, there is nothing in the spirit of prayer which addresses God, attempts to work upon God, or even presupposes God’s existence or presence; rather “the man” [sic] who abides in the spirit of prayer only “adopts an attitude (even inwardly) as though he were convinced of [God's] presence” (183).
My take on this is mixed. On the one hand, there are many things to critique: (1) the false separation of verbal and spiritual prayer, which no serious thinker today could formulate so dichotomously; (2) the regulative “as though,” which disallows, it would seem, sincere faith in the presence of God, and for what reason?; and (3) the flimsy rejection of prayer in the mode of address based upon a doctrine of divine omniscience, which overlooks the consensus in the Christian tradition that prayer is not meant to give God information. On the other hand, despite the rationalism of his age (which he fosters and exemplifies) and the correlative suspicion of pietism, Kant nevertheless manages to distill a certain essential connection not only between contemplation and action (taken abstractly) but more specifically between contemplative prayer and the moral disposition which leads to good action grounded in good reasoning. The other problems aside, Kant may actually be a resource for thinking through the idea that the spirit of prayer–more adequately conceived (1) as inclusive of voice, (2) as sincerely affirming the mysterious presence of God, and (3) as a real address whose goal is nevertheless not to give information–has a lot to do with the struggle for moral agency in the modern world (for which Kant, despite–or rather because of the endless criticism–remains a touchstone).