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(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.

Two kinds of freedom

I wonder if it would be fair to divide all concepts of freedom into two basic kinds—call them, to use Hegel’s terms, abstract freedom and determinate freedom. The former defines freedom over against all conceivable restraints, while the latter defines freedom within those constraints taken as essential to the being whose freedom is at issue.

On Hegel’s estimation, Kant advocated an abstract idea of freedom: human freedom was understood as precisely the discontinuity between human choice and natural causality, as arbitrariness. Hegel granted that this was true abstractly, but insisted that freedom couldn’t be identified with its abstract side alone because as such it never exists—human freedom needed to be identified, instead, with concrete self-determination in given circumstances. This meant that human freedom included contingency and dependence as part of its own definition. This is determinate freedom.

I’ve been reading Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom lately (which I promise to review soon), which argues among other things that determinate bodies—and particularly bodies of enslaved black women—need to be taken as a condition for the thought of freedom. The effect of this condition is that freedom is seen as the historical realization of bodily, psychic, and social integrity among human beings, a decidedly determinate form of freedom, rather than the position of someone like Karl Rahner who identifies human freedom as our transcendental openness to being as such. Bodiliness and all the limitations that it entails are worked into the definition of freedom itself, without the sense that freedom is somehow “less free” on account of that determination. Or take as another example the difference between Hobbes and Rousseau. For Hobbes, freedom exists where law is absent, and so human beings are only truly free before they establish the social contract. For Rousseau, on the other hand, the law is conceptually included in a definition of human freedom, such that the achievement of real freedom necessarily involves the existence of a certain kind of law.

Is it true that this constitutes a kind of fundamental option in one’s thinking about freedom?