Thursday, August 05, 2010

Perplexed but not in despair: Christian pessimism III

In two previous posts, I have been reflecting upon Karl Rahner's account of what he calls "Christian pessimism" through a reading of Paul's self-description in 2 Corinthians 4.8 as being "perplexed, but not in depair". The first post summarised Rahner's take on what it means to be perplexed and how this is a universal human condition, not dissolved by Christian belief. The second post highlighted his asking the question of whether such a condition is at all compatible with Christian hope that rejects despair. And in this post, we shall briefly examine Rahner's attempted resolution of this difficulty.

Rahner's response to the experience of perplexity is to push it back into the Christian experience of God, even into the content of eschatological hope, to make it the crux of the beatific vision:
"[Christians] experience their radical fall into the abyss of divinity as their deepest perplexity. They continue to experience this darkness, always more intensely and more bitterly, in a certain sense, until the dreadful absurdity of death. They see that this experience of darkness is confirmed by the fate of Jesus. At the same time, in a mysterious paradox, they feel that this very experience is sent to them by God and is the experience of the arrival of God near them. The perplexity and the fact that it is lifted by God's grace are not really two successive stages of human existence. God's grace does not totally remove the perplexity of existence. The lifting, the ouk exaporoumenoi, accepted and filled with grace, is the real truth of the perplexity itself.

"For if it is true that we shall one day see God as he is, immediately, face to face, and if he is seen there precisely as the ineffable, unfathomable mystery that can be accepted and endured only in love, that is, in a total yielding up of self, the fulfillment for Christians is the height of human perplexity. Compared to it, all our riddles, our ignorance, our disappointments are but forerunners and first installments of the perplexity that consists in losing ourselves entirely through love in the mystery that is God. In the bliss of accepting the infinite mystery, that is, in absolute perplexity, all our partial perplexities, bewilderments, and disappointments disappear. The reverse is also true. As we expect and accept this end of our existence, our present perplexities are not removed, but encompassed. We are liberated, because they no longer dominate us. They have become the occasion and the mediation of our welcoming of the unfathomable mystery that gives itself to us and causes to accept it in love.

“While we are thus freed from every enslaving power and domination, the world remains what it is: the task, the challenge, the battlefield, with its victories and its defeats, as they succeed and overlap each other. We are unable to control them completely; we must accept them with their own perplexities. Within the ultimate freedom and even serenity of those for whom night and day, defeat and victory, are encompassed by the reality of God who is for us, nothing seems to have changed. We remain the aporoumenoi. And even the fact that we are more than saved and liberated aporoumenoi remains mysteriously hidden from us (often or forever, I do not know). But even then the fact remains that our perplexity is redeemed.”

- Karl Rahner, "Christian Pessimism" in Theological Investigations XXII
(trans. Joseph Donceel; London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1991), 161-62.

Rahner's argument assumes that the human experience of God is not just similar to all the other perplexing aspects of human existence, but that it is the ground for them all. Life is perplexing because God himself is perplexing. The cross then becomes the revelation and confirmation of what we apparently already knew: that God's is dark and mysterious, his ways unfathomable and eternally strange.

And so the groaning of creation, which echoes the groaning of the Spirit, is no passing condition, but is itself the foretaste of what all communion with God is always like. We will never really know; we can just become content in and with our ignorance. We may never actually be liberated from the frustrations of existence; we will simply make our peace with them. Or even if we don't, there is some sense in which we are already redeemed because to be perplexed is itself to be redeemed.

I find this account initially tempting, as it seems to embrace a radical theologia crucis. The vanity and frustration of inexplicable injustice are brought into the very heart of God. Yet pushing the groaning of creation into the eschaton and into the being of God, Rahner has actually capitulated to despair. We are redeemed, but we might never know it. The mystery of the universe is that the universe is a mystery. And the same goes for God, but more so.

There is no room here for liberation in anything but our perspective. Liberation means coming to see that my trifling little puzzles are as nothing compared to the all-surpassing divine puzzle. It is a council of despair that builds not resistance but capitulation to the injustices of the world. It treats the incarnation and death of Christ as revealing something we more or less already knew (namely, that the mystery of God cannot be known, only experienced, accepted and endured). It largely overlooks the resurrection as a divine promise of transformation. It makes the unknowability of God more fundamental than his drawing near to us in Fatherly love, fraternal humility and Spiritual illumination.

Of course, this short piece can’t be expected to say everything that needs to be said even on the topic of Christian pessimism, but there is a worrying Gnostic flavour to his comments here. Taken on their own, they imply that salvation consists not in the world being changed, merely our gaining an insight into the secret truth lying at the heart of it, or rather into the fact that we shall never know and can’t know the central mystery. It is a redemption of our mind and eyes, or perhaps just a lowering of our hopes and aspirations, but the world stays largely as it is. The cross reveals but does not seem to atone.

Rahner's concept of Christian pessimism is an important one, but his account of how this pessimism is to be integrated with not giving way to despair is too neat. Paul can face his perplexity without despair, not because perplexity is already a taste of God, but "because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence." (2 Corinthians 4.14). This is what keeps him going on the difficult road of his apostolic mission. This is what makes Christian pessimism possible. Our life might look and feel like taking up a cross, denying ourselves, following Jesus into anguish, loss, difficulties, threats we cannot overcome and death. But God raises the dead.
Image by CAC.