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Orr and Kant: An analysis of the intellectual encounter behind ‘The Christian worldview’

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 May 2021

Michelle C. Sanchez*
Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, MA, USA
*Corresponding author. Email:


Today, Christianity is often described as a ‘worldview’, especially among Reformed evangelicals in the USA. In this article I return to the 1890 lectures where Scottish theologian James Orr adapted the concept of Weltanschauung for Christian purposes. Although it was coined by Immanuel Kant in 1790, and primarily used in subsequent decades to theorise cultural difference and evaluate aesthetic expression, Orr nevertheless claims that the idea of a worldview is ‘as old as the dawn of reflection’ and thus appropriate to articulating Christianity. I examine Orr's engagement with the Kantian and emerging historicist context, paying particular attention to his epistemological and aesthetic citations and showing how Orr both adopts and departs from the characteristic features of the Kantian subject. I conclude by assessing the philosophical and theological costs of this project that, among other things, positions Christianity for perpetual culture war within secular societies similarly shaped by the post-Kantian subject.

Research Article
Copyright © The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press

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1 While the term worldview (sometimes ‘world and life view’) has taken on a life of its own in contemporary English usage, it is widely recognised as the most common translation for a related constellation of German terms including Weltanschauung, Weltbild, Weltansicht. I discuss the relation of these terms in greater depth below.

2 Before 1960 the term ‘Christian worldview’ was nearly non-existent in English language publishing. Since 1980, its rise resembles a hockey stick graph, with incidences appearing almost exclusively in conservative Reformed and Evangelical writing on pedagogy and apologetics. See (accessed September 2020).

3 For appeals to this kind of subject, see e.g. Sire, James, The Universe Next Door, 4th edn (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004)Google Scholar; Pearcey, Nancy, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008)Google Scholar; Greg L. Bahnsen's popular lectures, Defending the Christian Worldview Against All Opposition (Audio, American Vision, 2005).

4 Taylor, Charles, Hegel (Cambridge: CUP, 1977)Google Scholar; Berlin, Isaiah, The Roots of Romanticism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013)Google Scholar.

5 See Naugle, David Jr., Worldview: The History of a Concept (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2002)Google Scholar; Sire, James, Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept (Downer's Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004)Google Scholar. Naugle treats the appropriation as basically coherent in Christian use, with some caveats, arguing that it effectively captures the need for Christianity to present itself as a comprehensive system that addresses every area of life. James Sire, who with Francis Schaeffer was a major populariser of using the term to defend Christianity, has registered concern over what he admits was an uncritical adoption of a historically specific term. Yet he ultimately concurs with Naugle's defence of the term.

6 For more on Orr's and Kuyper's respective contexts, see Scorgie, Glen G., A Call for Continuity: The Theological Contribution of James Orr (Atlanta, GA: Mercer University Press, 1989)Google Scholar; Wood, John Halsey Jr., Going Dutch in the Modern Age: Abraham Kuyper's Struggle for a Free Church in the Netherlands (New York: OUP, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

See also Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007), pp. 21–5, 56–7); Heslam, Peter, Creating a Christian Worldview: Abraham Kuyper's Lectures on Calvinism (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman's, 1998)Google Scholar. Heslam notes the extent to which Kuyper embraces modern structures in order to represent Calvinism as a worldview (pp. 111–12).

7 Orr's Kerr Lectures were subsequently published as The Christian View of God and the World. For citational purposes, the published version of these lectures will be abbreviated CV.

8 Orr, James, Christian View of God and the World as Centered in the Incarnation (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1907), p. 12Google Scholar.

9 Plutarch, ‘Isis and Osiris’, section 9; Hadot, The Veil of Isis (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), pp. 237–8.

10 Hadot, Veil of Isis, p. 239.

11 Ibid., pp. 240–1. See also ch. 20.

12 Ibid., p. 257; Goethe, Maximen und Reflexionen, §752.

13 Kant, Critique of the Power of Judgment (hereafter CJ) (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), §49.

14 Kant, ‘Superior Tone’, in Peter Fevnes (ed.), Raising the Tone (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 69.

15 Ibid., p. 68.

16 Ibid., pp. 71–2.

17 Ibid., p. 71.

19 John Milton, ‘Areopagitica’ (Project Gutenberg Ebook #608), pp. 9–10.

20 Ibid., p. 27.

22 Budick, Sanford, Kant and Milton (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010)Google Scholar. Some critical readers of Budick have argued that he demonstrates resonance rather than influence. After all, as Budick himself notes, by Kant's writing “Miltonic” was already synonymous with “sublime.” For the purposes of this article, the resonance is what is important. For more, see reviews by Gordon Teskey and Daniel Shore.

23 Kant, ‘Superior Tone’, p. 71.

24 Kant, CJ, §26.

25 Ibid., §27.

26 Orr, CV, p. 5.

27 Orr, James, The Progress of Dogma (Sydney: Wentworth Press, 2019), pp. 22–6Google Scholar.

28 Ibid., p. 344.

29 Orr, CV, p. 20.

30 Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason (hereafter CPR) (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), §1.2.

31 Orr, CV, p. 133.

32 Ibid., p. 158.

33 Ibid., p. 11.

34 Ibid., p. 31.

35 There is debate over the relationship between the terms Weltanschauung (‘world intuition’) and Weltansicht (‘world view’), as well over the relationship between Weltanschauung as it appears in the Critique of Judgment and the first Critique's Ideas of Pure Reason as Weltbegriff (‘world concept’, CPR, A838/B866). For discussion of the former distinction, see Jürgen Trabant, Humboldt ou le sens du langage (Liège: Madarga, 1992); Trabant, Traditions de Humboldt (Paris: Maison des sciences de l'homme, 1990). See also James Underhill's discussion in Humboldt, Worldview, and Language (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009), chs 7 and 15 (particularly pp. 121–3, 134–43).

36 Makkreel, Rudolph, ‘Reflective Judgment and the Problem of Assessing Virtue in Kant’, Journal of Value Inquiry 36 (2002), p. 213CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

37 Makkreel, Rudolph, ‘The Role of Judgment and Orientation in Hermeneutics’, Philosophy and Social Criticism 34/1–2 (2008), p. 32CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

38 This was one of Hegel's characteristic criticisms of Kant's system.

39 See CPR, A832/B860.

40 In the second Critique, Kant allows reason to draw from the noumenal world in a negative way and only for the purposes of duty to the universal command of the moral law.

41 Taylor, Hegel, p. 18.

42 Kant, CJ, §26 (emphasis original).

43 Ibid. (emphasis original).

44 Kant seems to be positing a relation to noumena akin to the three postulates of pure practical reason from the Critique of Practical Reason.

45 Kant, CJ, §26.

46 A fuller analysis of this passage would relate it to the role of imagination across Kant's critical project.

47 For more on this, see Weir, Todd, ‘Hitler's Worldview and the Interwar Kulturkampf’, Journal of Contemporary History 53/3 (2018), pp. 597621CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

48 Though Orr focuses on Kant, a fuller treatment of these questions and the emergence of expressivism would give equal emphasis to Hegel, who in some ways took Kant's productive imagination as his positive point of departure. See, for example, Hegel's assessment of Kant's contributions in the early essay Glauben und Wissen. For more on the consequences of expressivism and the human sciences, see Vial, Theodore, Modern Religion, Modern Race (New York: OUP, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Vial traces how an expressivist theory of meaning informing both German idealism and theological liberalism is quietly implicated in an ultimately racist theory of the human that reinforces European superiority. In addition to his discussion of Kant, see especially his discussion of Herder and Schleiermacher in ch. 5.

49 Wilhelm Dilthey, Introduction to the Human Sciences, vol. 1 of Wilhelm Dilthey: Selected Works, ed. Rudolph Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), pp. 489–90.

50 Dilthey, Introduction to the Human Sciences, pp. 500–1. A more exhaustive account of the trajectory from Kant to Dilthey would move especially through Hegel and Herder.

51 Bulhof, Ilse, Wilhelm Dilthey: A Hermeneutic Approach to the Study of History and Culture (Leiden: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1980), p. 91CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

52 Dilthey, Introduction to the Human Sciences, p. 93.

53 Orr, CV, p. 113.

54 In the Critique of Practical Reason, Kant argues that a person must proceed as if God exists and will apportion virtue and happiness, thereby rendering the moral life coherent. See Kant, Practical Philosophy, trans. Mary Gregor (Cambridge: CUP, 2012), 5: 123.

55 Orr, CV, pp. 109–10.

56 Ibid., p. 120.

57 Ibid., p. 13.

58 See Kant, Critique of Practical Reason and Metaphysics of Morals in Practical Philosophy, 5: 129–30; 6: 439. I am grateful to Amy Hollywood for helping me clarify this point.

59 Orr, CV, pp. 241–2.

60 Orr discusses this claim in relation to Kant, ibid., p. 418.

61 To be clear, this claim is philosophically murky in general, and incoherent with respect to Kantian philosophy.

62 Orr, CV, p. 111.

63 Ibid., p. 112.

64 Ibid., p. 114.

65 Ibid., p. 115.

66 Ibid., pp. 110–11.

67 Ibid., p. 121.

68 Ibid., pp. 140–1.

69 Ibid., pp. 11–12. Though I have not explored this angle here, one must wonder whether Orr had the famous frontispiece to Hobbes’ Leviathan in mind when describing Christian sovereignty and the extent to which modern theories of state are also shaping Orr's rearticulation of Christian power. Hobbesian logic of state sovereignty is one in which the individual members of a collective cede certain of their individuating qualities in order to actively constitute and participate in the total governing and protecting power of the sovereign.

70 Ibid., p. 8.

71 Ibid., p. 9.

72 Ibid., p. 5.

73 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeill (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1966), 1.1.1.

74 Calvin, Institutes, 1.17.4; 2.6.1. For my own views on the interpretation of these passages, see Sanchez, Michelle C., The Resignification of the World (Cambridge: CUP, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

75 See, for example, Calvin, Institutes, 1.17.4, 2.13.2, and 2.14.3. Here, nature is ‘clothing’ for divine providence and Christ is veiled in flesh. Calvin refers to the ‘glory’ of God being unveiled, but never the deity of God. See also 3.6.5, where Calvin discusses the perpetuity of imperfection; and 3.2, where Calvin indexes the Holy Spirit's illumination to the heart's ability to grasp the promises of God (rather than worldly knowledge) through the light of scripture.

76 Many thanks to participants in a joint session of the Reformed Theology and Nineteenth Century Theology Units at the 2019 American Academy of Religion for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this article. I am also grateful to Amy Hollywood, Nicholas Low and David Newheiser for their close critical readings of this article.

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