|Photo: Window, St Aloysius in Somers Town, London.|
"To be a human being is to be open to infinitely more than simply being a human being."
Many of Rahner’s Marian writings seem to concern the development of dogma only; thus Mary appears to be a peripheral figure for him, whereas she appears central for Hans Urs von Balthasar. But a closer reading of Rahner’s Marian writings, when they are placed in the context of mid-twentieth century theological debates, particularly the controversy over the “fundamental principle” for Mariology, reveals that Mary, if she does not reside at the center of Rahner’s theology, allows us access to this center, from somewhere other than the periphery.
When Rahner thinks about Mary's Assumption, he asks first how her final end relates to the whole of salvation history. Pius, on the other hand, emphasizes the private significance of the Assumption for Mary. These varying approaches to the Assumption do not lead to a complete divergence between Rahner's and Pius's conclusion...but they do raise the question of how a Catholic theologian might best arrive at such conclusions.But what I think is so important here, and which Fritz spends a brief time elaborating at the conclusion of his essay, is this very question of ethos:
Is Catholicism's ethos properly deployed as a strict enforcement of "the sacred," a determinate sector occupied by the rosary, the Eucharist, and those who partake in them, or as the radical openness of human life toward future fulfillment, an openness that uses multiple paths -- some manifestly sacred and others not -- to advance toward enjoyment of God? In fact, it may be both, so long as the former does not cancel out the latter tout court. This last clause, of course, is the key.
As a rhetorical term, ethos names the character or guiding beliefs of a community or determinate social group. Its literal Greek meaning is "accustomed place," and its Latin equivalent is mores. We might think of ethos as something akin to Pierre Bourdieu's notion of habitus. To speak of ethos in relation to theology and Christian practice is therefore to ask not only what the operatively fundamental dispositions are but also to raise the question of what constitutes proper persuasion. That is, within any given ethos there operate certain rules and grammars by which certain speeches can and others not be heard. Ethos names the anterior field our of which the power of our theological language emerges and from which it derives its solicitation.
Let me turn now to Rahner's essay, "The Interpretation of the Dogma of the Assumption." To read Rahner is, I believe, to experience the pleasures of theological indirection. We must immediately note that Rahern's concern is with interpretation, or with "an exposition of the content of the new dogma" in order "to understand what is really meant by saying that someone is corporeally glorified in heaven" (pp. 215-16). Rahner outlines his approach:
Thus is we wish to know what is really involved in the substance of this defined proposition, our best plan is to ask first of all in what wider context of Christian truths it really belongs. The true meaning of any individual proposition of revealed truth does indeed contain an 'item' of new knowledge, which is added on to the other truths, enlarges and completes them; yet a proposition of this kind is itself only really intelligble in the totality of the one saving Truth. We may regard this totality as plainly set out for the first time in the Apostle's Creed. Our question then runs as follows: To which article of faith does the new dogma belong as its consequence and organic unfolding?In answer to his question, Rahner posits three creedal phrases to which the "new dogma" relates: (a) "born of the Virgin Mary"; (b) "descended into the Kingdom of the dead"; and (c) "the resurrection of the flesh." In relation to the first phrase, Rahner does discuss the (now still) controversial claim that, as theotokos, Mary is "co-redemptrix." For Rahner, Mary is co-redemtrix, not because she shares ontologically in Christ's redemption of the world but because she "co-operates" in Christ's saving act, "insofar as she does, for the salvation of the whole world and not only for her own, what a human being can and must do in the power of grace and for grace: receive it" (pp. 217-18).
But it is with respect to the third creedal phrase that Rahner locates the most decisive meaning of the this "new dogma." He writes:
She who by her faith received salvation in her body for herself for us all, has received it entire. And this entire salvation is a salvation of the entire human being, a salvation which has already begun even in its fullness. Mary in her entire being is already where perfect redemption exists, entirely in that region of being which came to be through Christ's Resurrection (p. 225).Rahner's position, in short, is that in the Virgin all creation finds an anticipation of a transfigured state. She already participates in that "perfect redemption" of which the gospel preaches. For him, Mary symbolizes in "the most perfect way possible" what a fully "redeemed person is and can be." Mary's fiat symbolizes the human person's truest act freedom. Her assumption (or dormition) is a prolepsis of all of creation's eschatological hope.
The salvation of the flesh too has already begun in its final form. The world is already in transition to God's eternity, not only in the 'spirit' of those who have gone to their everlasting home and not only in the body of the Son who came 'from above,' but also in the bodies of those who are simply 'from below.' Even now there belongs to the reality of the entire creation that new dimension which we call heaven and which we shall also be able to call new eather once it has subjected all earthly reality to itself and not just an initial part of it (p. 226).If mariology was for Barth a metastasized cancer, it is for Rahner a healing balm: the problem with protestantism, says Rahner, is that they only have a theology of the cross and not a theology of glory "as a formula for reality here and now" (p. 226). Certainly in her maternity, Mary symbolizes the generativity of creation. But where others would and still do posit maternity as a fundamental mariological principle, Rahner proposes what is always his basso continuo -- graced nature (cf. Johnson, p. 145; Fritz, p. 5). What makes Rahner's position so fruitful is how he ensures that a fundamental mariological principle, should such a principle exist, is actually fundamental: whatever else it might do, for a mariological principal to be truly fundamental it must touch on the very core of theological thought. Rahner concludes his essay with these words:
But for anyone who believes that counter to all appearances the forces of thee world to come have already seized hold of this world, and that these forces do no consist merely in a promise, remaining beyond every sort of creaturely existence, for a future still unreal; for such a one the 'new' dogma is really nothing more than a clarification, throwing light on a state of salvation already in existence....The 'new' dogma has significance not only for mariology but also for ecclesiology and general eschatology" (pp. 226-27).Rahner's mariology is part and parcel with his continual concern for the proper telos of human fulfillment. His work on the Marian doctrines (but especially the Assumption) mediates, as Fritz suggests, between theology and its ethos, thereby suggesting that if theology is to possess "vigor, cogency, and cognitive power" (to repurpose a phrase of R. R. Reno's) it must remain somehow connected to an ecclesially mediated pneumatic existence. Indeed, as Brian Daley, S.J. argues in a recent article, much of what constitutes the differences in approaches and understandings of Mary's role are related not solely to "the form in which that doctrine is expressed as part of the central faith and practice of the church" but "are really differences in ecclesiology: what one expects of the church, how the church communicates the gospel, where one looks for the church in its fullness" (pp. 860 and 862). But suggesting a connection between vision and virtue, Rahner is not in any way prescribing veneration of the Virgin as a litmus test for orthodoxy, not least because Rahner recognizes in such veneration the historicity of all Catholic devotional life.
To conclude this rather long post -- a length that I still find odd, given my lack of personal devotion to the Virgin -- I wonder if we might not think of doctrinal language as cognitive maps of available affects (with bows here to Sianne Ngai's wonderful text, Ugly Feelings). Doctrines, like texts, register (communicate?) certain modalities of experience and existence; in them affects are condensed (but hopefully not calcified). The now not-so-new dogmatic language of the Assumption places the experience of hoping at its core, and it is hope that moves us into a future. As a traditional Collect for the Assumption reads:
Almighty and everlasting God,
You have taken up body and soul
into the heavenly glory the Immaculate Virgin Mary, Mother of Your Son: Grant, we beseech You, that, ever intent upon heavenly things,
we may be worthy to be partakers of her glory.
Brian Daley, "Woman of Many Names: Mary in Orthodox and Catholic Theology," Theological Studies 71 (2010), 846-869.