Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Internet as Commonplace Book

This is from a book review I've had bookmarked for some time.  At some point I need to read Rahner's work myself, but for the moment I'll take this as an accurate representation, rather like sleep is death's second self, or just a picture of death (and so the pleasures of sleep indicate the greater pleasures of death, as Donne put it):

One thing Rahner’s book did was to flush out and banish, once and for all, the closet Platonism that has haunted Christianity for two millennia: the separation of reality into two realms, the spiritual and the material, to which correspond the two “parts” of an equally divided self, soul and body. Platonic dualism is the presupposition that underlies a number of unfortunate formulations of Christian doctrine: the idea of death as the separation of the spirit from the body; the notion that man’s goal is immortality of the soul in an incorporeal heaven; and in general the belief that one’s salvation is in inverse proportion to one’s relation to the material world.

To be sure, Aquinas had long ago asserted the substantial unity of the human person against all Platonic readings of man as an angel imprisoned in an animal. But his followers too often took Aquinas to mean that man is a substantial unity of spirit and matter only in praesenti statu vitae—only in the current state of life before death and the liberation of the soul from matter. But what kind of substantial unity would it be, this pro tem gluing of soul to body, of the intellect to the senses? It took Rahner to argue emphatically that the so-called present state of life is the only state of life even if man be immortal, and to draw the startling conclusions following from this argument.

Heidegger’s notion of man as ineluctably “thrown” into the world unquestionably had great influence on Rahner here, but only insofar as it confirmed what the young scholar had already learned from Aquinas: that man, for all his spirituality, is inescapably material and related to matter, even in the so-called afterlife. So far as cognition is concerned, man’s inevitable materiality implies, as Rahner wrote, that “all thought exists only for sense intuition,” i.e., that man’s mind is always and exclusively focused on empirical data and cannot take a peek over its own shoulder at some higher spiritual realm.

This is roughly a conclusion I'd already come to, trying in fits and starts to abandon neo-Platonism (which is really what it is) in Christianity in favor of something closer to Paul's thinking, and that of the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth.  Platonism, strictly speaking, is foreign to the Scriptures, yet we read them through a Platonic lens, having learned from our first encounter to exegete through some sort of Platonism.  I remember a few years ago reading Plato (The Phaedo, I think) and realizing Plato was making the same point credited to Rahner here:  that humans are inescapably material, despite the parable of the Cave (which I think came later in Plato's thinking, when he was doing his own independent work and had moved entirely away from his historical teacher, Socrates).  That is, despite the idea of "recovering" information (v. learning it through the senses, the doctrine of empiricism, which I still think leaves too much out to be any more credible an epistemology than a purely Platonic one, IMHO), so much of who we are is bound up in the material world we live in and know, that the neo-Platonic ideal of emancipation from this world while remaining in this world is a false hope.  I think, contrary to what this review of Rahner assumes, that has always been understood in the more serious corners of Christianity, and the "Platonism for the masses" critique of Nietzsche is both simplistic and uninformed (although not entirely untrue for many Christians; and so what?).

That was, in fact, the starting point of Immanuel Kant’s critique of metaphysics as an illusory hope for “news from nowhere” gained by some spiritual glance into the beyond. But unlike generations of Catholic philosophers who had studied Kant the way anti-aircraft gunners study enemy planes, Rahner in large measure presumed Kant’s devastating critique of metaphysics and argued that what little we know of the divine we know by being irreversibly turned toward the world. Goodbye, then, to Christianity’s furtive Platonic fantasy that the soul, in anticipation of its full liberation from the flesh, can occasionally excuse itself from matter and slip out for a brief fling with Ultimate Reality before returning, refreshed and perhaps wiser, to the humdrum (but fortunately temporary) bonds of marriage to the world. In Rahner’s telling, man is, for better or worse, wed to the world and in fact literally one flesh with it. And not even death can them part.
I think the critique of metaphysics beginning, for this argument, with Kant, is actually a rejection of the concept of metaphysics as revealing a higher truth than the one we can know empirically (Neo-Platonism again, IOW).  Love is not "news from nowhere" (well, it might be for a bachelor German scholar in the 19th century), yet if it isn't metaphysics, what is it?  Sex misspelled, as Harlan Ellison claimed?  Mere neurochemistry?  A cultural illusion?  How do you prove any of those things and better establish a critique of metaphysics by doing so?  To the extent metaphysics was trying to establish absolute knowledge about the nature of God (theology), Christ (Christology), or the Holy Spirit (pneumatology), yeah, that's seeking news from nowhere.  Again, even in the scriptures the nature of God, or how Jesus of Nazareth can be God (divine) and not God (human) is never really explored, largely because the exploration itself is bootless.  God appears to Elijah after the earthquake and the fire and the whirlwind, because God is in none of those things.  God appears to Moses in a bush that burns but is not consumed, and again atop the mountain, but no description of God's presence before Moses is provided.  The closest we get is the "glory" of God that streams off the chariot/throne Ezekiel sees leave the Temple in Jerusalem, a vision that is so obviously a symbol no one tries to argue that's what God really looks like, or is like:  a creature that needs a throne to move about in God's creation.  How is it that Christ is God and Son of God and wholly human and wholly divine all at once and for all time, but also no longer wholly human because of the resurrection?  I dunno; and I don't know of any metaphysics that supplies a satisfactory answer.  Most likely my opinion is only possible because of Kant's argument, but I'm not sure how "live" an argument it is anymore.  And that may be due to Rahner, frankly; as part of how much the ground has shifted on these discussions in the last 100 years.

What, then, happens in the afterlife? For Rahner, precisely nothing—for there is no afterlife, no duration beyond experienced time. We may choose to speak of man’s salvation by talking of eternity, Rahner says, but that “does not mean that things continue on after death as though, as Feuerbach put it, we only change horses and then ride on.” Death is the end of man, but as a fulfillment, the “self-realization which embodies the result of what a man has made of himself during life” and which “comes to be through death, and not after it.” Moreover, if it is man’s nature never to be without a relatedness to matter, and if one maintains that man is immortal as a whole and not just as a spirit, then it follows for Rahner that in death one does not leave the material world but enters more deeply into it and becomes what he calls “all-cosmic,” somehow present to and in communication with all material reality, an “open system towards the world” and “a real ontological influence on the whole of the universe.” (On this hypothesis, he says, “certain parapsychological phenomena, now puzzling, might be more readily and more naturally explained.”)

I sort of like Donne here:  "One short sleep past, we wake eternally/And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die."  The presumption of shedding the skin and stepping into the "after life" is a fairly recent one.  It hasn't been around since the time of the scriptures because, if it were, the resurrection would be a little more incredible.  Yes, the dead were thought to go to Hades, but as shades, not necessarily as souls.

However one takes this strange notion of achieving an “all-cosmic body” in death, it is clear that Rahner’s attack on Platonic Christianity and its bloodless desire for the angelic is thorough and uncompromising, and that his position is in fact more consonant with the Judeo-Christian promise of resurrection of the body than is the Greek doctrine of immortality of the soul.

Yeah; exactly.

If you want immortality, he says in effect, don’t think you’ll get it by escaping from matter and history. In that sense Rahner’s philosophy of man is arguably closer to Marx than to Plato and has more in common with Nietzsche than with Plotinus. He sees man as bound to this world, with no possible escape to some spiritual heaven, and whatever man knows about God he knows by knowing the world. That may not be much, but for Rahner it’s all we have. As Eliot says, “The rest is not our business.”

The other side of man’s worldliness, Rahner argues, is his insatiable demand for meaning, which is evidenced by his ability to question everything that exists. Ever since Parmenides affirmed that reality and knowledge belong together (Fragment 5), the basic premise of Western philosophy has been that the world is entirely knowable, if not entirely known. But this infinite comprehensibility of the world is itself an incomprehensible fact, and for Rahner it is the basic mystery within which man stands but about which he can know virtually nothing. Man’s desire to know is infinite: his reach for the knowable always exceeds his grasp of the known and thus man is himself the ultimate question to which there is no answer. In this endless passion for knowledge—which is a passion for reality—Rahner sees man as driven toward the unlimited and the incomprehensible, which is usually called “God.”
Not sure about that, myself; sounds like warmed over Augustinianism, to me, with the "God-shaped hole" replaced by a scholars desire to know.  I know a lot of people not entirely eaten up with a "passion for reality", or even a "passion for knowledge."  I've preached to most of them, and taught the rest of them for nearly 20 years now.  Some people do seek more information about what they are interested in, are even fascinated (yours truly, if you hadn't guessed by now) with difficult issues of life and what it means to be human; but such people are the exception, not the rule, and God does not arise from such passions even all of humankind were as passionate and all were single-minded about the pursuit.  Just because there is an unlimited and incomprehensible nature to the universe (and is THAT a metaphysical discussion?  Asking for a friend.), doesn't mean there is a God creating it or created by it.  It is certainly not the nature of God I understand and worship (which are more theological and doxological questions than they are metaphysical ones.  You can have metaphysics, I'm done with it.  Well, almost....).

As for being mired in history, most modern theology emphasizes God being active in, and known through, history.  I know that's not the usual emphasis of commonly-understood Christianity, and Rahner may be responsible for this shift as much as anyone.  My point is, Rahner is not exactly radical here; not anymore, anyway.

In Rahner’s philosophy there are no proofs for the existence of God, only indications that man moves endlessly into mystery without ever abandoning the world.

Well, that would be because such proofs are not really interesting to anybody who takes the idea of God seriously enough to be a Jesuit priest and spend his life working in theology.  That's kind of like writing love songs all your life but someone pointing out you never created a proof for the existence of love.

This mystery “presents itself to us in the mode of withdrawal, of silence, of distance,” he writes, “so that speaking about it, if that is to make sense, always requires listening to its silence.” In fact, says Rahner, man knows about God not by trying to peer ahead into the mystery but rather by experiencing himself as the constant process of self-transcendence.

Or, as the woman put it to Alexander Carmichael:

“My mother was always at work, by day helping my father on the croft, and by night at wool and spinning, at night clothes and at day clothes for the family. My mother would be beseeching us to be careful in everything, to put value on time and to eschew idleness; that a night was coming in which no work could be done. She would be telling us about Mac Shiamain, and how he sought to be at work. If we were dilatory in putting on our clothes, and made an excuse for our prayers, my mother would say that God regarded heart and not speech, the mind and not the manner; and that we might clothe our souls with grace while clothing our bodies with raiment. My mother taught us what we should ask for in prayer, as she heard it from her own mother, and as she again heard it from the one who was before her.

“My mother would be asking us to sing our morning song to God down in the backhouse, as Mary’s lark was singing up in the clouds, and as Christ’s mavis was singing it yonder in the tree, giving glory to the God of the creatures for the repose of the night, for the light of the day, and for the joy of life. She would tell us that every creature on the earth here below and in the ocean beneath and in the air above was giving glory to the great God of the creatures and the worlds, of the virtues and the blessings, and would we be dumb!

“My dear mother reared her children in food and clothing, in love and charity. My heart loves the earth in which my beloved mother rests.”

Quoted from Carmina Gadelica: Hymns and Incantations collected in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Last Century, by Alexander Carmichael (Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press 1997), pp. 197, 621.

I would submit that is Rahner in a nutshell.  That is a woman aware only of her place in history and the material world ("My heart loves the earth in which my beloved mother rests") who nevertheless understands transcendence as well as any saint or theological scholar ("She would tell us that every creature on the earth here below and in the ocean beneath and in the air above was giving glory to the great God of the creatures and the worlds, of the virtues and the blessings, and would we be dumb!")  Not to take anything away from Rahner, again, but:  everything old is new again.

Rahner’s Copernican revolution in theology consists precisely in this turn toward the human. Dogmatic theology, he says, must be reformulated as theological anthropology. Thus Rahner carries out Feuerbach’s program of transforming theology into anthropology—but without reducing God to man, because to turn toward man is to discover the place where mystery is inscribed in the world. Just as for Heidegger man is the lieutenant (literally: the place-holder) of being, so for Rahner man is the stand-in for an ultimate unknown. As such he is a finite infinity, an “indefinability that is conscious of itself,” the very embodiment of the mystery we usually call God. “When God wants to be what is not God,” Rahner writes, “man comes to be.”
If it's a Copernican revolution, it is so in the same sense Copernicus just identified what was always and already there.  Rahner is not breaking the glasses through which we understand reality; he's simply adjusting them so that we see better.

When Rahner considers the specific content of Christian revelation, he begins with the radical principle that the entire world always was within the dispensation of supernatural grace even before the birth of Jesus, the founding of the Church, and the spreading of the Gospel message. In so doing, he cuts through one of the least felicitous formulations of Christian doctrine (traceable in large measure to St. Augustine), namely, that the world and history are divided into two orders: the natural and the supernatural, the fallen and the redeemed, the pagan and the Christian. Rahner points out, to the contrary, that unlike Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the Incarnation is an afterthought concocted to clean up the mess made by Adam’s sin, the New Testament sees all creation as embodying Christ from the very beginning (cf. Colossians 1:15). Grace is not added on to nature, as in Luther’s simile of snow falling on a dunghill, so much as nature is already embedded in grace. Thus all persons are “Christian”—that is, caught up in God’s universal saving grace—by the very fact that they exist, regardless of whether they are baptized.
Yup; and a conclusion it is hard not to come to, if you read the scriptures for what they say, rather than what you've been told they say (Luke 7:36-50 was the starting point for my revelation on this issue.  If Luther is right and God's grace is unmerited and unearned, then nothing I do can earn it:  period.  What, then, of grace?)

The consequences of this position, which Rahner calls “anonymous Christianity,” are far-reaching. For one thing, it’s harder to go to hell in the universe Rahner depicts than it was in the world of old-time religion, not because the rules are more lax but because grace is more available. “For Christianity,” he writes, “there is no separate and sacral realm where God is to be found.” Likewise, if the whole universe and all people are already caught up in God’s saving grace, then it becomes well-nigh impossible to distinguish a “merely human” act from a so-called “supernatural” and salvific act. In a deep sense Christianity is humanism and the Christian should be able to make his own the maxim Karl Marx personally adopted: nihil humanum alienum a me, “nothing human is foreign to me.”
Well, yes, it's far-reaching, but it's also liberating.  The holy mountain in the vision of Isaiah is not for "members only."  Peter wants to limit the gospel to Jews, but Acts tells us God rejects that, and Paul preaches almost exclusively to the Gentile (lucky us!).  At what point do we legitimately pull the ladder up and decide who is worthy and who isn't?  There's an interesting examination of this question going on in "The Good Place," where four souls are damned to hell for being:  well, human. What kind of justice, the central tenet of the teachings of the prophets, is that?)

It would seem, too, that the revelation brought by Jesus is not an absolutely new message dropped in from above but simply the definitive spelling out of what the world and mankind already are. This obviously changes the idea of missionary evangelization from “telling the natives what they don’t yet know” to “showing them what they already are,” and it goes a long way toward deprovincializing and simplifying the Christian message. (Consider, otherwise, the problems missionaries would have in evangelizing extraterrestrial intelligences. How much would these beings be obliged to accept—the Virgin Mary? the Pope? the seven sacraments and the rosary?)
Or, as the apocryphal Eskimo asked the missionary:  If I didn't know this (about Christianity), would I be damned?  No, the missionary replies.  Then why did you tell me?, is the only reasonable question.

In general, Rahner serves up a demythologized and slimmed down Christianity with none of the Rube Goldberg mechanisms that have kept theologians busy over the centuries. Yet in the last analysis it is a very orthodox and even conservative Christianity. For example, on the one hand Rahner takes the liberal path of asserting that the resurrection of Jesus is not at all a “historical” event entailing the “resuscitation of a physical, material body,” but rather is simply the “definitive salvation of [his] concrete human existence by God.” On the other hand Rahner adheres faithfully to the traditional Church doctrine of the divinity and Messianic consciousness of Jesus. “In the period before the resurrection Jesus Christ knew himself to be the ‘absolute mediator of salvation,’ the inauguration of God’s kingdom, and the eschatalogical climax of salvation history.”

Yes, but, contrary to popular opinion, you really don't need to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Again, on the one hand Rahner the liberal admits that the so-called “psychological” theory of the Trinity as three persons in one God is “almost unintelligible to people today” and in fact amounts to “gnostic speculation about what goes on in the inner life of God.” On the other hand Rahner the orthodox conservative preserves and rehabilitates the doctrine of the Trinity by relating it to man’s self-transcendence. Man knows the Father when he knows God as infinitely distant, he knows the Son when he knows God as absolutely close, and he knows the Holy Spirit when he knows God as penetrating existence and history.

Well, I think you can have Christianity without damnation and hell; I don't think you can have it without the Trinity and God active (as God, and through Jesus, and in the Holy Spirit) in history.  Maybe it's just because, like Ricky Bobby, I like the Baby Jesus.  I can live with that.


  1. Karl Rahner's older brother, Hugo, himself an eminent German theologian-philosopher was once asked what he thought of his more famous younger brother's writings, he said he didn't know as he was waiting for it to be translated into German.

    I've been trying out Rahner and Rahner is tough going in the original. I'm still reading some of what his students wrote about their teacher's work. That's not easy but it's easier. Here's the paper I'm working on right now.

    Right now and for the moment, I think we are put in the world, all sentient creatures, to learn something about the ultimate truth of love, the hardships of the universe might be there to teach us about that, breaking the bounds of self absorption. I think that for humans that will mean something different than it means for another species of mammal though, perhaps what they experience is closer to what we can, other animials in other species, even other apparently sentient creatures to the level of bacteria or other one-cell organisms experincing something that is very remote from our experience but not unrelated. The idea that we were placed in the world,created as part of the universe but were to only learn that what happens to us here is unimportant makes no sense. It would be about as stupid as thinking that ending up as a post-doc means you've left behind learning the alphabet or how to count - though I know lots of PhD's who like to make believe something like that.

    I'm working on Hans Jung right now, Does God Exist, which isn't easy - it's breathtakingly impressive how much that level of theologian knows about philosophy and other aspects of intellectual culture. Rahner is a tougher one altogether, though I have to admit I am entirely taken with his concept of Christianity in a wintry season, the basis in the Shema and Golden Rule. It's impossible to follow the Golden Rule while trying to escape the world and society, to drop that by avoiding to interact with others is to drop the Gospel and the Epistles.

  2. Thanks for the dissertation, Rmj. ;-) As for an afterlife, I don't know. Does anyone know? I think it's more likely than not that it's the end of me as me with cognition. We are dust, and to dust we shall return. Or more poetically, we came from the stars, and we return to the stars.

    I'm still working on God as active in the world. What does prayer do? Are prayers efficacious beyond the one who prays? Is sending loving thoughts to one we care about as efficacious as prayer? I lean to yes. God is love, or God is nothing to me, so God is in my loving thoughts even if I don't mention her name.

    Perhaps God started the whole thing of the universe and left us on our own. Look around this world, and that's easy to believe, but I don't think so. It seems to me there is something more.

    I like Baby Jesus, too, and I still pray, but not as much as I once did. Is God with me any less? I don't think so. I still try to live my life according to the Two Great Commandments and the Golden Rule, two very Jewish concepts.

  3. I just noticed I invented a new person, that should, of course be Hans Kung.

    I believe in an afterlife but what it's like I've got no idea. I pray more than ever, or mediate on the Shema and Golden Rule, or abreviated forms of them. I definitely need the remedial work, I've been downright bad.

  4. Ha ha. I was wondering. Karl Jung's brother, father?