Mystery and Method: The Other in Rahner and Levinas

Mystery and Method: The Other in Rahner and Levinas

Mystery and Method: The Other in Rahner and Levinas

Mystery and Method: The Other in Rahner and Levinas

Synopsis

This text argues that theology is primarily ethical in intent. The relationship between theology and ethics is examined in this book, with references to Karl Rahner and Emmanuel Levinas.

Excerpt

Rahner and Levinas need each other. There's too much self and not enough other in Rahner, and there's too much other and not enough self in Levinas. They complement and correct each other, together achieving a balance that escapes both of them taken alone. Michael Purcell has given us a comprehensive study of these twentieth-century masters of philosophical and theological reflection on our relation to the mystery of the other. For Rahner the other most mysterious is God, and a methodical rule of thumb might be to take what he says about the mystery who is God and apply it, mutatis mutandis, to the human other; then we could say every person is in an important way a non-objectifiable ground always greater than all the figures--which are knowable as objects--appearing upon it, against a horizon never fully able to be captured in thought. For Levinas the other most mysterious is the human other who is ethical mystery par excellence, a human whose infinity comes from God's.

But the other is a mystery in search of a method. Levinas's method uses hyperbole often so extreme as to need discounting; e.g., we cannot retain any useful meaning for the term "absolute" if persons become so absolute as to dissolve every relation between them in a sea of exaggeration. If we recognize the aim of Levinas's language and resist just repeating it without critique, then Levinas and Rahner can meet in a mutually helpful dialogue. Michael Purcell has made this happen. In a masterful way he has brought Rahner and Levinas to an honest, unforced harmonization of their thought by ranging over the full extent of their writings, something offered here for the first time. In the few pages of this Foreword I could not add to what this ample volume so well achieves; instead I take a different tack by pointing out and resolving one sharp contrast between Rahner and Levinas.

A method that begins with a self-reflecting and free subject travels in a direction opposite to one that begins with an other-centered (indeed, other-obsessed) subject, with a subject whose freedom is strictly secondary to radical responsibility for an almost implacable other, for an other met in a world marked by a total preoccupation, not to say mania, with the ethical. For Rahner, the mystical, the relation to the divine other, is much more all-consuming than is the ethical, the relation with the human other. With two so different starting points, how do Rahner and Levinas meet? Doesn't a subject so completely responsible for the other risk being totalized by that other, effectively reversing Levinas's goal? Might not Rahner offer . . .

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