The book I am blogging about is The God of Israel and Christian Theology. Here R. Kendall Soulen sees in Karl Rahner’s concept of the “supernatural existential” a way forward toward a better way of telling the Christian story.
Because neither the word “supernatural” nor the word “existential” mean what I would first think, Rahner’s idea needs some explanation.
Supernatural has to do with a mostly intra-Roman Catholic discussion of nature and grace. As I understand it, the discussion is about how that which is natural can be open to supernatural grace.
The problem Rahner poses seems to be that humans are natural creatures, intelligent mammals, but believe they have a higher (supernatural) end.
Existential does not mean the opposite of essential. It seems to mean something like a tendency or orientation. Rahner studied with Martin Heidegger in the early 1930s. Heidegger had the idea of “being toward death”. Human existence is oriented toward death, since that is what is impending. Rahner seems to modify this concept by saying that the human orientation is the vision of God, since that is what we believe is impending.
If the goal of human life is the vision of God, then the potential for seeing God must be part of our existence from creation. Thus, the supernatural existential is our built-in potential for fulfillment in God. This may be aided by grace, but it had to be there from the beginning.
Soulen criticizes Rahner’s way of developing this idea. Rahner talked about this in terms of an individual’s spiritituality. He warned that one way of rejecting God’s grace was acting as though we are purely natural creatures with no inclination toward God. Soulen, however, suggests that the Bible shows that our path toward God involves the difference and mutual dependence of Jew and Gentile.
Maybe Soulen could have taken another angle. I am no expert in Rahner. But I have read him interpreting the incarnation as meaning that for us other people are always Jesus (Matthew 25:40 “as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”). Maybe Rahner did not directly talk about all Jews as being Jesus to us. But his gritty understanding of Christ in the flesh would seem more relevant than Soulen is taking into account.
Soulen expands Rahner’s warning: Gentiles may reject God’s grace by universalizing and individualizing our journey. We only know God and creation through our encounter with Israel. Therefore, pretending that our gospel is about individual self-actualization in Jesus apart from the Jewish people is also a way of closing ourselves off from God’s blessing. The way God actually offers his blessing is through interaction with the Jewish people and their heritage.
Humans can say no to their “supernatural” identities as Jews and as Gentiles, and in this way they can close themselves to God’s consummating work. In the extreme case, this can take shape as the effort to eradicate Israel’s body. But short of this, the fact of Jewish and Gentile identity cannot be effaced (p. 154).
It seems to me that Soulen is agreeing with Rahner that a tendency toward companionship and partnership with God is reality for all humans. But he thinks Rahner does not take into account enough the history of how that worked for Israel and the nations.
In his final chapter Soulen will spell out exactly how he wants to reformulate the Christian gospel.
What is the gospel? There is no more important question for Christians. What Soulen says is important. So I will deal with that later this week.