VI. The Theological Paradigm: Karl Rahner: from anthropocentrity to theocentrity and back…

In former posts we have seen how our understanding of the human person as a relational being can be broadened and deepened with the help of certain paradigms operative in different disciplines. In the case of theology this kind of investigation proves particularly complicated and delicate for myriad reasons that we will simply signal here in the form of a series of perplexing questions…

In theology, is God a paradigm for understanding the human person or is the human person a paradigm for “understanding” God? Is Jesus Christ the paradigm of humanity, of personhood, of relations? of divinity? In what sense can we talk of God as a person and/or as the relations between three divine persons? Does the Bible talk of God as a person and/or a relation? How is the relation between a believer and God connected to the relations between that believer and other human beings? If extended indefinitely such a list would point us to the long and complex history of theology as a discipline.

It is therefore with considerable caution that we pose the question concerning any would-be theological paradigm for the human person as a relational being. In seems best in a brief blog to proceed by way of example, so let us consider Karl Rahner’s “Übernatürliches Existential” (Supernatural Existential) as a candidate for the role of theological paradigm. This term is placed in inverted commas in the Grundkurs, possibly indicating the author’s awareness that it is somewhat audacious as a linguistic construction. In Heidegger, the noun Existential, indicates an inherent, constitutive, universal feature of human existence. Rahner’s term is used here to suggest that the salvific self-communication of God in (on-going) creation is just such a feature.

This daring claim has provoked and is still provoking critical reaction in various theological circles, such as that of Radical Orthodoxy (à la John Millbank). It is not our purpose here to enter into this debate but simply to suggest just three (of many possible) reasons why this idea might be considered a theological paradigm of the human person as a relational being.

The first reason is that the term suggests that the person is a relational being not just with regard to other human beings but also with regard to God. Furthermore it insists that this relation is God’s initiative… the human relation to God is from the word go a response. “From the word go” means that God is already there offering this relation when the human being comes to consciousness of anything, for without God’s offer there would be nothing to relate to.

The second reason is that the idea includes a subtle prescriptive dimension, which, as we have seen, is necessary for a paradigm to be a paradigm. God’s self-communication is not a question of sharing information about God but of human salvation. But, as Augustine reminds us, God will not save us without our cooperation, and so we are obliged to respond in our way of life.

The third reason is that starting from anthropology means starting from where modern culture is rooted – in the self-conscious subject. In colloquial German they say “if you want to give somebody a lift pick him up where he is standing.” Rahner’s intentions are ultimately profoundly theological but he judged that the best point of entry into theology for the modern person is that person’s capacity for self-transcendence. In his own words:

«As soon as man is understood as the being who is absolutely transcendent in respect of God, “anthropocentricity” and “theocentricity” in theology are not opposites but strictly one and the same thing, seen from two sides» (Theological Investigations 9, p. 28).

p. Martin McKeever, CSsR

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