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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