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Philosophie, Religionsphilosophie


Reno, R. R.


The Ordinary Transformed. Karl Rahner and the Christian Vision of Transcendence.


Grand Rapids-Michigan-Cambridge: Eerdmans 1995. XV, 224 S. gr.8. Kart. £ 19,-. ISBN 0-8028-0784-4.


William V. Dych, S. J.

The thesis of this study is that the Christian vision of transcendence lies between the two perennial extremes of "radical" or "pure" transcendence and "radical" or "pure" immanence. The former is a total repudiation of our ordinary world in the search for the extraordinary and the "really real", while the latter is an equally total denial that there is any other reality beyond the ordinary reality that lies "at our fingertips." Christianity is nei-ther a total rejection nor a total embrace of the ordinary reality of our present world, but offers a "mixed" or "amphibious" view of transcendence, a view in which transcendence is the ordinary transformed. The author argues against other (unnamed) interpreters that Karl Rahner elaborates a view of transcendence that is true to this Christian vision.

To introduce the topic and show that it is a perennial human concern, chapter one presents the arguments in David Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion as an excellent illustration of all three positions: pure transcendence, pure immanence and the mixed or amphibious position. The dialogue-partner representing pure transcendence (Demea) maintains that God lies beyond human reason and is utterly unknowable, and the partner representing pure immanence (Philo the skeptic) also sees God from his point of view as doubtful at best, so that the upshot of both positions is that for both believer and unbeliever God can have nothing to do with ordinary human life. Through Cleanthes, the third partner representing the validity of natural religion, Hume seems to be opting for the mixed or amphibious (Christian) position as the one that perennially has the strongest human appeal.

Before presenting Rahner's view of transcendence, the author devotes chapter two to describing the Catholicism he inherited from the nineteenth century. Modern Catholicism begins with the French revolution whose excessive individualism and exaltation of the state explains the church's ultramontanist reaction of stressing the authority of the church over both the individual and the state. The appeal of the neo-scholastic revival at the end of the century lies not only in the philosophical power of Thomism, but also in the ability of neo-scholasticism to secure the supernatural status of the institutional church and legitimate its authority. But however necessary and valuable the institutional church was at the time as a counterweight to the state, just as it has been more recently in communist Poland, in the stress on its founding by Jesus and in the lack of any ontological foundation of the supernatural in the natural there lurked the danger of a separation of grace from nature and of the church from the world. This danger became a reality when the Modernist crisis forced the church to take up a position of extreme defensiveness: reason was suspect, the Spirit and the individual were stifled and the church became a closed fortress against the modern world. The strength of the church in the nineteenth century now became its weakness in the twentieth: it was thought that grace had to be separated from the realm of the ordinary (pure nature) in order to protect its gratuity. A good image of this separation is found in the monastery or the convent: they constituted "religious" life, a new mode of existence cut off from the world, while the lay Catholic met grace only at certain "circumscribed moments of authorized sacramental participation - grace at the edge of life."

Such was the situation when Karl Rahner arrived on the theological scene in mid-century. Before him Henri de Lubac and la nouvelle théologie in France tried to counter this "extrinsicism" by proposing a "natural desire" for grace, but such a desire threatened to collapse grace into nature and to replace extrinsicism with an equally inadequate intrinsicism. Rahner's strategy to overcome both was to begin not with nature and figure out how grace was related to it, but to begin with grace. God de-sired beings with whom to share divine life and for this reason created human nature. Human nature is created in the real order as a potentiality for grace, whereas "pure nature" devoid of grace is a "remainder concept," a hypothetical possibility that God could have created but did not. The potentiality for grace and the desire for God is an "existential" given with human nature, but it is a "supernatural existential," not part of human nature or the human essence as such because God could have created human beings differently. Thus the capacity to receive grace is itself grace. Rahner's achievement, then, is to have preserved both the utterly extraordinary character of grace and its presence in all the ordinary affairs of life. His vision of transcendence is the (Christian) mixed or amphibious position: transcendence is the transformation of the ordinary.

R. then tests Rahner's position against the critique of Fergus Kerr and his Theology after Wittgenstein. Kerr's attack on and total rejection of transcendence is based on his conviction that transcendence, however it is understood, inevitably becomes radical and a rejection or at least a demeaning of the ordinary. The consequence of all metaphysical thinking, says Kerr, is antipathy to the body and indifference to community. As he puts it, the value of Wittgenstein's philosophy is "to curb the reader's inclination to frame the familiar in an alienating picture and lose his place in the world." All that really and finally matters is already "at our fingertips." R. finds such a vision of radical immanence unconvincing as well as unchristian.

The last two chapters paint a fuller picture of Rahner's vision of transcendence as transformation of the ordinary. Just as there is no "pure nature", so too there is no pure philosophy or purely natural knowledge of God to which revelation would be added as a patina of revealed propositions. Rather, revelation penetrates and transforms our understanding of the whole of reality. Philosophy's real integrity lies in the Socratic knowing what it does not (and cannot) know, for the human depths which it plumbs have been opened by grace, and they stretch into the very depths of God. Reno then shows where there are parallels between Rahner's method and that of his contemporary Gadamer and where they are different, and defends Rahner against Kerr's charge of Cartesianism and foundationalism.

As Kerr defines it, foundationalism means that "abstract or universal principles, and not the texture of ordinary life, dictate the shape of rational assent." But Reno shows that Rahner uses the term "foundations" in his Foundations of Christian Faith in a different sense. It refers, first, to the imperative of intellectual honesty and the need for a reasonable basis in making one's assent of faith. Secondly, it refers to the need for interpreting and possibly reformulating the contents of faith in order to understand what it is that one is believing. These two together point to Rahner's insistence on the intrinsic unity of fundamental and dogmatic theology. This means that our commitment of faith is closely tied up with our interpretation of its meaning and plausibility. Finally, the third meaning of foundational refers to the attempt to see the unity and the intrinsic interconnectedness of all the doctrines of the faith. As is indicated in the subtitle, "An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity," Rahner's Foundations of Christian Faith tries to grasp the fundamental or basic logic of Christianity. It is in this sense that Rahner refers to the method of Foundations as an "indirect" method and as a "first level of reflection."

Finally, R. rightly emphasizes the importance of the concept of mystery in Rahner's theology, and that for him it is not a negative, but a positive concept. It is not based on the limitations of our intellect, but on the very nature of God: "We must understand that this reductio [in mysterium] constitutes not a regrettable imperfection in theology, but rather that which is most proper to it of its very nature." The silence of wonder before the mystery of divine love constitutes the goal and the very heart of theology. Although this reading of Rahner might not be as "new" as the author says, it is a clear and precise presentation of his thought in its depth and subtlety.