Karl Rahner’s Transcendent Mystery

A few weeks ago I had the great pleasure of running across a book entitled:  Universalizing Particularity by the Jewish scholar and philosopher Jonathan Sacks.

Highly recommended for fellow absent minded philosophers.

I found pg. 86 particularly enlightening given another subject of mine, Karl Rahner. But first, Sacks’ excellent deconstruction:

It is fascinating to see how Christian Bibles translate this clause. The King James Version reads it as ‘I am that I am.’ Recent translations are variants of the same idea. Here are some examples:

I am who I am.
I am what I am.
I am–that is who I am.

These are all mistranslations, and the error is ancient. In Greek, Ehyeh asher ehyeh became ego eimi ho on, and in Latin, ego sum qui sum: ‘I am he who is.’ Augustine in the Confessions writes: ‘Because he is Is, that is to say, God is being itself, ipsum esse, in its most absolute and full sense.’ Centuries later, Aquinas explains that it means God is ‘true being, that is being that is eternal, immutable, simple, self-sufficient, and the cause and principle of every creature’. And so it continued in German philosophy. God became Hegel’s ‘concrete universal’, Schelling’s ‘transcendental ego’, Gilson’s ‘God-is-Being’ and Heidegger’s ‘onto-theology’.

The mistake of all these translations is obvious to the merest beginner in Hebrew. The phrase means, ‘I will be what I will be.’ The verb does not use the present tense. Elsewhere, the Bible does. In the Ten Commandments, for example, the first verse reads, ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’ Here the present tense (‘I am’) is used. But then, that verse does not speak of God’s name. It speaks of his deeds. Here, however, Moses asked God for his name. God might have replied, as did the angel who wrestled with Jacob, with a rhetorical question, ‘Why do you ask for my name?’, implying that the very question is out of order. There are things human beings cannot know, mysteries they cannot fathom, matters that transcend the reach of human understanding. But that is not what God says. He does answer Moses’ question, but enigmatically, in a phrase that needs decoding. God tells Moses to say to the Israelites, ‘”I will be” sent me to you.’ It is as if God had said, ‘My name is the future tense. If you seek to understand me, first you will have to understand the nature and significance of the future tense.’

‘I am that I am’ is a translation that owes everything to the philosophical tradition of ancient Greece and nothing to the thought of ancient Israel. The God of pure being, first cause, prime mover, necessary existence, is the god of the philosophers, not the God of the prophets.

What, then, is the meaning of ‘I will be what I will be’? The name itself never recurs in the Hebrew Bible, but there is a later echo, in the great scene in which God appears to Moses on the mountain after the sin of the Golden Calf, in which he says, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion’ (Exod. 33:19).

What this means is that God cannot be predicted or controlled. He cannot be confined to categories or known in advance. He is telling Moses, ‘You cannot know how I will appear until I appear; how I will act until I act. My mercy, my compassion, my strategic interventions into history, cannot be controlled or foretold. I will be what, when and how I choose to be. I am the God of the radically unknowable future, the God of surprises. You will know me when you see me, but not before.

To be sure, in one sense, the future is connected to the past. God keeps his promises. That is an essential element of Jewish faith. But this very fact reveals the difference between predictability on the one hand and faithfulness of the other. Objects fall, gas expands, particles combine: these things are predictable. But people freely honour obligations they have undertaken because they are faithful. That is the difference God never fails to teach Moses and the prophets.

God’s name tells us that he is not an entity knowable by philosophy or science, deducible from the past. God awaits us in the unknown and unknowable future. That is the first stage of the argument: the God of Israel is the God of the future tense.

In modern Catholicism, and to be clear I am no theologian, (just an agnostic absent minded philosopher in search of the answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and what of those irascible virtuous pagans?) Karl Rahner developed the philosophy of the annoymous Christian betwixt God’s self-communication and his Absolute Mystery.  Much like Sack’s God of the future tense, Rahner’s God is one of “Absolute Being as Absolute Mystery.”  The wiki summation:

At best, philosophy approaches God only asymptotically, evoking the question whether attempts to know God are in vain. Can the line between the human asymptote and the Mystery asymptote connect?[22]

In Rahner’s theology, the Absolute Mystery reveals himself in self-communication.[23] Revelation, however, does not resolve the Mystery; it increases cognizance of God’s incomprehensibility.”[24] Experiences of the mystery of themselves point people to the Absolute Mystery, “an always-ever-greater Mystery.”[25] Even in heaven, God will still be an incomprehensible mystery.[24]

With Sacks and Rahner we have two descriptions of a God beyond the ‘event horizon’ of time, beyond the present.  A God that cannot be understood in terms of past and present, cannot be bound by human understanding and perception. A God that even with personal revelation is no more defined in time and space than he was before, remaining indeed, behind a veil of total incomprehension.  God by these definitions, has more in common with black holes and gravity, than scripture.  The enigma of the ‘Great Mystery’ is like the concept of singularity: a future tense that echoes backwards through space time in ribbons and ripples.  We are all thus Dave Bowman, armed with crooked bows firing arrows at the Sun.  In vain perhaps, but as above so below, God’s self-communication as stimulus-response, over time becoming in turn self-aware.


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