The Ordinary Transformed:
An Inquiry into the Christian Vision of Transcendence
By R.R. Reno
Eerdmans, 222 pages, $19 paper
Professor Reno’s book can be taken, and could then be reviewed, in several ways. For a first possibility, it can be taken as a revisionist reading of the theology of Karl Rahner in certain of its more formal aspects, particularly as Rahner construes the relation between involvement in the ordinary world and the specific life of faith. A reviewer’s task would then be an assessment of the cogency and accuracy of Reno’s reading.
Taken this way, the book is surely of the first importance, since Catholic theology in America is dominated by Rahnerians who, if Reno is right, have at least in this matter misread their master. I, however, cannot assess the correctness of a particular reading of Rahner, having never disciplined myself to study some key aspects of his thought—I tend to prefer my Schleiermacher straight. I will therefore for the purposes of the following suspend any lurking disbelief that Rahner is as Reno presents him. And I am delighted to do so, since the maxims American Rahnerians have derived from Rahner seem to me sadly inadequate to American Catholicism’s actual situation, often amounting to a rerun of some of nineteenth-century Protestantism’s less happy thoughts. If Rahner is not as Rahnerians have presented him, that is a very good thing.
However that may be, Catholic theologians should certainly read the book. If Rahnerians do not find themselves corrected they will find much usefully to be refuted, and Catholics of other sorts may be heartened or further depressed. Protestants should, from this point of view, read it to be led into an otherwise often closed but nonetheless decisive discussion by a guide who is himself not Catholic but who knows the history and is sympathetic to the problems and proffered solutions.
But Reno’s volume can also be taken rather differently and more ecumenically: as a brief history of modernity’s destructive pendulum swing between a desperate secularism—here called “pure immanence”-and one or another version of otherworldliness-here lumped together as “radical transcendence.” Thus the work opens with a simply delightful exegesis of Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The dialogue is read as a founding display of the terms of modern travail; and is simultaneously used by Reno to introduce the goals and language of his own succeeding analyses.
In Hume’s fictive conversation, Philo, according to Reno, represents pure immanence, Demea represents radical transcendence, and Cleanthes represents longing for what Western modernity truly needs, “amphibious transcendence.” The latter, if ever exemplified, would be a way of responding to the call of transcendence precisely in and through the “ordinary” conditions and tasks of this world, of living simultaneously in the “extraordinary” and the quotidian. The natural religion Cleanthes pleads for is, as Reno interprets it, a way of being in the world that is genuinely both natural and religious (here Reno’s Cleanthes is surely not “the historical Cleanthes,” but never mind). And Cleanthes’ early departure from the scene marks the impossibility of achieving his dream within the standard terms of modern debate.
The story then continues from the French Revolution, which according to Reno “created modern Catholicism.” Reno’s account of modernity’s nineteenth-century spiritual path gives French Catholicism the paradigmatic place more conventional accounts give to German Protestantism. He describes neo-scholasticism’s tendency to a radical and empty transcendence, in this context appearing as “extrinsicism”; and follows with an account of the nouvelle theologie and its opposite temptation to collapse grace into nature, its “intrinsicism.”
Rahner then appears as the one who shows the way out of Catholic theology’s dilemma and so out of general modernity’s closed circuit between immanence and transcendence. The way out is to begin with “the fundamental proposition that God is love.” Then we will see that our actual existence is, from the viewpoint of the inherited ontology of nature and grace, “mixed” from its origin and at every step, “a pilgrimage in which the miracle of divine love . . . is the most ordinary of events.” “Nature” is always an abstraction from actual life, believing or pagan, and is an abstraction that only revelation can show us how to consider accurately; nature is the “remainder” left over when we have discovered “what in us is grace.”
According to Rahner and Reno, theology does need to make this abstraction in order to identify the condition of the possibility of divine love’s gratuity. Indeed, the whole philosophical enterprise is to be seen as an after-the-fact-of-grace abstraction that isolates theology’s conditions of possibility.
Finally, the book can be taken as a systematic proposal, with Rahner recruited as the closest approach thus far to what Reno advocates. And here I do have my doubts.
The proposal can be stated in the following steps. (1) A specifically Christian understanding of transcendence should be the conceptual stream bed of theology. (2) The controlling Christian proposition in this linguistic field should be that God in Christ transcends the difference between himself and creatures. (3) Nevertheless, systematically we should begin with our experience of transcendence, identifying in it “lines of stress and pressure” that we can then trace to their originating focus.
It is point (3) that awakens qualms. It sounds very much as though Reno shares with Rahner the famous distinction, in itself little adduced by Reno, between “transcendental” and “categorical” theology. In Rahner’s practice, one first establishes the general transcendental conditions for the saving import of any particular; then one is in position to affirm such import, categorically, of the particular Christ. My colleague Bruce Marshall has convincingly argued that starting with general possibilities Rahner never really gets to the particular as particular; and Reno at the very end of his book says as much himself. But it is Reno’s “intuition” that Rahner’s failure is not the fault of his “architecture”; and it is the architecture that Reno thinks can be exemplary.
I have an opposite intuition, though to be sure it is no more than that. And one cannot demand everything of one book. But it is noteworthy that Reno also, at least in this book, never gets to that originating Christological point toward which he set out. The proposition that Rahner and Reno in fact use to press our understanding of transcendence is that “God is love.” But this is decidedly not the same proposition as that God in Christ transcends himself toward us, not unless the former proposition is used merely as a slogan for an explicit trinitarian unpacking of the latter. It is thus probably not coincidental that “transcendence” is also of course a generality. Can any generality provide the appropriate structure of theology?
Robert W. Jenson is Professor of Religion at St. Olaf College.