Archive for March, 2010

(Re)Interpreting Rahner

March 26, 2010 Leave a comment

In the last decade there have been a number of major reinterpretations of Karl Rahner’s work. Rahner has been reinterpreted through the lens of Ignatian spirituality (Philip Endean), through new readings of his philosophical foundations (Patrick Burke), and as a nonfoundationalist (Karen Kilby) – just to name a few. Of these re-readings, I think Kilby’s is the most daring. Endean’s work is important in integrating Rahner’s life and work as a Jesuit. Burke’s book is one of the most sophisticated critiques of Rahner’s work and but at the end of the day does not seem that far from the worries Balthasar expressed (Burke also has the maddening tendency to cite the German text when quoting the English and an apparent distaste for quotation marks). Kilby argues that we should “decouple” Rahner’s philosophy from his theology. Overall, I don’t think she does justice to the inseparability of philosophy and theology in much of Rahner’s work (especially the early Theological Investigations), but let me point to what I see as one of her successful arguments: her contention that the implicit understanding of revelation in Hearer of the Word  is not compatible with Rahner’s later notion of revelation found in the concept of the supernatural existential (see Kilby’s Karl Rahner: Theology and Philosophy, ch4; her argument hinges on a close reading of Hearer (Continuum, 1994), 134-136).

In Hearer, Rahner argues that revelation is a) the unexacted fulfillment of our openness as spirit, b) that it must come as a human word so that it is intelligible to us, c) and, since we are essentially finite and historical spirit, God’s free revelation must be a historical word.  This last point is crucial.  Since we are historical, Rahner argues God’s revelation must occupy “a certain point in the space and the time of human history.” Indeed, he argues that it would inadmissible to contend that our nature is always and everywhere raised above our natural existence by God’s revelation.  Given our structure as historical beings, were must again and again refer back to an exceptional point (or points) in history when God’s revelation has emerged.  Revelation takes place in human history in the sense that it cannot be thought of as permanently coexistent with all the single moments in history. I think Kilby successfully makes her case here.  The movement from Hearer to the notion of a supernatural existential (and especially the notion of transcendental revelation in Foundations) is not simply one of development or conceptual widening.  There is a reversal, a change in the way Rahner understands revelation.

Let me also take some space here to point to a few good Rahner’s resources: a pdf file of the complete Theological Investigations is available for $90 here.  Daniel T. Pekarske has written two volumes of abstracts of Rahner’s essays, one on the Theological Investigations and the other on Rahner’s unserialized essays. I haven’t looked at the latter yet, but the former has very nice synopses of every essay in the Theological Investigations and an incredibly helpful index for finding essays on every topic imaginable.

The corporeal one

March 21, 2010 1 comment

Again from Anderson, a quote from Narsai, a 5th-century Syriac theologian (p. 122). I’ve never read much out of that tradition, but every time I encounter it I’m more convinced that I should—the idiom is just so alien, and so provocative.

The Spiritual One was defeated by the Corporeal One through spiritual power.
The body that trampled down the passions overcome the Prince of the Air.
The body that was contemptible derided and mocked the Strong One,
And removed the weaponry lest he use it to wage war on mortals.

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The rivalry between angels and humans

Especially after seeing the funny critique of Christianity posted at AUFS last week, which had the angels trying to convince God to do something helpful for humanity, it was interesting to read this morning that early Rabbinic literature actually had the conversation going the other way. Apparently the rabbis often told stories where the angels played devil’s advocate with God, trying to convince God to bring the full force of just punishment down on the head of humanity, while God kept insisting on being unreasonably merciful. I’m getting this from Gary Anderson’s really interesting new book, Sin: A History. Anderson gives one especially funny example from the 9th-century Pesikta Rabbati in which, on the Day of Atonement, Satan is placing all Israel’s sins on one side of a scale while God places Israel’s merits on the other. Satan ends up having more, so, “what did the Holy One, blessed be He, do? While Satan was looking for sins, the Holy One, blessed be he, took the sins from the scale and hid them under his purple royal robe” (quoted on p. 107 in Anderson’s book).

There’s a whole book on this theme, apparently, by Peter Schäfer, called Rivalität zwischen Engeln und Menschen: Untersuchungen zur rabbinischen Engelvorstellung (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1975).

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Hauerwas on bishops

March 18, 2010 6 comments

I’m increasingly suspicious that Hauerwas’s “ambiguous ecclesial position,” which he obviously knows is a problem for him, means more theological trouble for him than he realizes. Take this quote, from his response to Stout’s Democracy & Tradition in Performing the Faith:

We betray the very gospel we are to serve if we have “positions” that become substitutes for what the church is about. Put in Catholic terms that Yoder would not have liked (though John often said his only problem with bishops is that they did and do not act like bishops), the bishop remains the theological heart of the church. That is why theologians are subordinate to the bishop and should be disciplined by the bishop if our work threatens the unity and holiness of the church. (233)

This amounts to a total reversal of what it means for a theologian to be accountable to the church—a matter of subordination to the community’s most powerful member, and not, as for Yoder, “subordination” to the weakest. Does he think it’s possible to make this kind of claim while leaving the bulk of his dependence on Yoder intact? Does he think that Yoder’s refusal of a clergy/laity distinction, or of any fixed hierarchy in the community, is finally unrelated to Yoder’s pacifism, his ecclesiology, his Christology?

O’Regan on Milbank and Žižek

To go along with this interview with John Milbank just posted at the Immanent Frame, be sure to check out Cyril O’Regan’s short review essay on The Monstrosity of Christ, “Žižek and Milbank and the Hegelian Death of God,” in the most recent issue of Modern Theology (April 2010, 26.2). Written in O’Regan’s typical kaleidoscoping style, and so not the easiest thing to read, it’s nonetheless a really interesting take on the issues at stake in that debate.

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Democracy is not neutral

March 16, 2010 4 comments

One of the standard critiques of Rawlsian liberalism is that its supposed neutrality with respect to comprehensive visions of the good, especially religious visions, masks a bias that rules out a priori certain religious ways of thinking about political questions. This critique usually goes hand in hand with the conviction that all forms of rationality are situated in a tradition and only “make sense” within that tradition, so pretending to a tradition-neutral form of rationality could only ever be a smokescreen.

Jeffrey Stout’s way of dealing with this critique–which I find extremely refreshing–is to bite the bullet: he grants the latter point, arguing that democracy is also a tradition, and as such, is not simply neutral with respect to other traditions. Democracy is not just empty space within which Christianity, Deism, and Emersonian perfectionism can equally flourish; it disciplines and shapes the other forms of life it circumscribes, even while it encourages them to remain true to themselves.

As one can imagine, this is not much consolation to the “radical Christian,” who still perceives this as an effort to subjugate Christian rationality to the rationality of the state. But it should be consoling; it should be something Christians embrace. For one thing, it’s not a matter of subjugation but rather of conversation. Stout’s democracy, which he takes to be expressive of an actual lived tradition with deep roots in American culture, is entirely open to being critiqued and developed by religious constituents for religious reasons, as its deep dependence on Christian concepts easily shows. Democracy and its constituent comprehensive traditions are mutually conditioning. And moreover, Stout’s democracy makes no claim to be comprehensive in the way religious traditions usually do. It dictates no all-determining master narrative. Its challenges to particular traditions are local and specific. To theologians: don’t imitate other discourses, be true to your own rationality; don’t encourage resentment toward the broader order, but critical constructive engagement and open cooperation; don’t set yourselves up as hierarchs or give others reason to do so; leave space for dissent. Encourage gratitude to one’s forebears but not absolute obedience, hope that political solutions to present problems can be found, love for even those around us who disagree with us at a fundamental level.

What’s here for Christians to oppose? Most of it, in fact, is partly derivable from things Christianity bequeathed democracy to begin with! Surely one can and must find serious questions to ask, both about Stout’s vision (how does this tradition deal with being yoked to coercive power?) and about its instantiation (has it not all been transformed by another logic, that of the market?)—but democracy encourages those questions, even, as part of its non-neutrality towards other traditions, demands them. And so democracy demands of “radical Christianity” the genuinely critical voice that it pretends to offer in calling democratic order the anti-Christ, which is actually far too easy, and far too closed off to further conversation.

Kathryn Tanner’s Christ the Key, Trinity and Politics

March 13, 2010 3 comments

My earlier posts on Tanner’s new book can be found here. This final post looks at the relationship between Trinity and Politics. What got me thinking about this was a statement by a friend. This person was asked how he is able to balance his commitment to the poor and his position as a professor (not at Notre Dame). He gave an example: he was asked to teach a course on the Trinity but said no since this did not fit with his focus on shaping his students towards serving the poor and their liberation. This answer raised two basic questions in my mind: 1) for someone who is principally focused on the liberation of the poor, is it contrary to this focus to take time and teach topics like the Trinity (if one is competent to do so)? 2) Is the Trinity really so apolitical?

The first question is particularly complex and personal. Clearly the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be sealed off from a concern for liberation without creating a schizophrenia in our faith as we confess that God is triune and makes an option for the poor (or that we relate to God as triune and to humanity with our option for the poor). As Tanner argues in the introduction to Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity, it is a task of systematic theology to show how different elements fit together coherently within a conception of the whole of the Christian life and faith. This leads directly to the second question. A common contemporary way of bringing together the Trinity and politics is to appeal to the Trinity as a model for communitarian life. I summarized Tanner’s critique of this in my second synopsis post (ch.5). Tanner insists that we image the 2nd person of the Trinity primarily and the whole Trinity only in that we image the Word’s relation to the other persons of the Trinity (Christ the Key, 141). Through the humanity of Jesus, our lives are remade into the image of the Trinity in that we are united to the Word by the presence of the Holy Spirit (235).

But what does this have to do with politics? Tanner’s primary answer is that our trinitarian form of life toward others is shown in the way Jesus treated others (in his trinitarian form of life as hypostatically united to the Word) (236-237). I find Tanner’s analysis compelling.  We enter the Trinity and image the Trinity through the second person of the Trinity and, properly understood, this cannot be cut off from political and concrete action. Yet I would push Tanner on two further points. First, she emphasizes that the Son and Spirit are sent and interdependently work to unite us to God. A different but equally valid image is that they are sent to bring about God’s Kingdom.  Thus I think we could connect our trinitarian form of life more explicitly to this Kingdom than Tanner tends to do. Second, certain formal principles can be gathered from the divine life and applied to human communion even if one rejects the overall appeal to the Trinity as a model for communitarian life. For example, the Trinity shows the positivity of otherness. Creaturely otherness (vis-a-vis each other and God) is grounded in the eternal otherness within God. The good of otherness, of course, needs to be complemented by more concrete principles (such as Tanner’s focus on the concrete life of Jesus) but it contributes something nonetheless.