The term “theological aesthetics” is not a term usually associated with the theology of Karl Rahner. Rather, as anyone even mildly acquainted with the discourses of recent Catholic theology will tell you, it is a term that was utilized by Rahner’s longtime friend—and occasionally bitter theological rival—Hans Urs von Balthasar to differentiate his approach to theology from Rahner’s so-called transcendental theological approach. That Peter Joseph Fritz would seek to reclaim Balthasar’s term as a designate for Rahner’s thought indicates the extent to which the ground has shifted within Catholic theology over the last several decades, and how this shift has impacted recent evaluations of Rahner’s thought. This shift reflects a mounting suspicion of one of Rahner’s best-known intellectual achievements: his critical theological appropriation of modern philosophy’s turn to the subject. While this accomplishment was once perceived as enacting liberation of Catholic theology from the antiquated strictures of neo-scholasticism, the ensuing decades following Vatican II have (not without reason) called into question modern philosophy’s elevation of transcendental subjectivity, idealized reason, and its fundamental confidence in human agency. Consequently, Rahner’s achievement itself is now perceived as something of an archaism, dependent upon currents of philosophical discourse that are both as restrictive and out of sync with contemporary life as the very neo-scholasticism that he had sought to displace.
If Rahner’s theology, as many now suppose, can be characterized as excessively anthropocentric, subjectivist, and overly accommodating to the institutions of late modernity, Balthasar’s approach, in contrast, has been increasingly hailed as better suited to the challenges posed by the intellectual climate of “postmodernity.” In contradistinction to Rahner’s densely post-Kantian and transcendental approach to theology, Balthasar’s “theological aesthetic” finds its point of departure not in the dynamism of human subjectivity, but rather in the interruptive, counter-subjective plentitude of God’s concrete self-revelation. Moreover, and again in supposed contrast to Rahner’s overestimation of human initiative, Balthasar’s affirmation of Christocentric aesthesis likewise implies what he calls a “theo-dramatics”: a self-sacrificial vocation to freely live out one’s faith in confrontation with the world.
Fritz has spent the better part of the last decade providing a (much-needed) rejoinder to the increasingly prevalent mischaracterizations of Rahner’s theology by “carving an apologetic path through Rahner’s works” (167). To reduce Fritz’s efforts to retrieve Rahner to a kind of defensive exercise, however, reduces the scope of his achievement. Fritz has not only offered a corrective to Rahner’s critics but (more importantly) demonstrated the necessity of a distinctively Rahnerian intervention within a host of contemporary theological conversations. The most recent installment of Fritz’s dazzling aggiornamento of Rahner’s thought, Freedom Made Manifest: Rahner’s Fundamental Option and Theological Aesthetics, represents the middle panel of a planned trilogy of thematically organized monographs. The first installment of this Rahnerian trilogy, Karl Rahner’s Theological Aesthetics, utilized the category of “theological aesthetics” to clarify how Rahner’s transcendental approach articulates a radically counter-subjective view of human apprehension (aesthesis), characterized by an anticipatory openness toward God’s ultimate self-disclosure in Christ. By retrieving Rahner’s transcendentalism in the mode of aesthetic perception, Fritz at once highlighted common resonances between Rahner’s theology and Balthasar’s, while also showing how Rahner’s approach might provide a corrective to more recent (Balthasar-inflected) currents of post-Heideggerian phenomenology.
If the previous volume of the trilogy represents Fritz’s explication of a Rahnerian “theological aesthetic,” Freedom Made Manifest can be understood as a complementary attempt to delineate the central features of a Rahnerian “theo-dramatics.” In this remarkable book, Fritz situates Rahner in conversation with contemporary trauma studies, postcolonial theology, and recent currents of political theology indebted to J. B. Metz. Here, Fritz poses the question of human agency’s ultimate significance amid its constant undoing by everyday trauma, as much as by systemic violence and ecological catastrophe. More, Fritz probes what it might mean to affirm freedom when the very word itself has deployed to justify everything from the overconsumption of resources to US military throughout the world. In addressing the challenges, Fritz looks to Rahner as a theologian who recovers a more authentic sense of freedom as an “option fundamental,’ rather than as a mere exercise of choice or self-assertion. In retrieving Rahner, Fritz’s aim is at once both corrective and constructive. For just as Rahner is often misread as a theologian enthralled by the self-constituting and self-positing modern subject, so too is he frequently identified with a certain naïve overconfidence in human freedom. Against these interpretations, Fritz shows that Rahner’s view of freedom is best understood in terms of radical exposure, “always overshadowed by an unresolvable remainder of vulnerability to being undone” (23), yet ever embraced by God’s own eternal, free decision, to self-communicate and redeem. In Fritz’s words, “[For Rahner,] freedom is made most luminously manifest in the despair of an abandoned man hanging on a Roman cross, a person who has been completely undone. This paradox, not a transcendental idealist theory of subjectivity, provides the grammar and the content for Rahner’s theological aesthetic of freedom . . . a theology of freedom attuned to freedom’s exposure” (235).
In the days to come, this symposium will further unfold the questions embedded in Fritz’s remarkably creative retrieval of Rahner, and his interpretation of the fundamental option as a vision of exposed freedom. Brandon Reed Peter further interrogates Fritz’s suggestive interfacing of Rahner and F. W. J. Schelling, questioning both the extent of German Idealism’s influence on Rahner’s theological development and the nature of Rahner’s ultimate divergences from Schelling and G. W. F. Hegel. Both Annie Selak and Susie Paulik Babka each attempt to push the boundaries of Fritz’s reading of Rahner’s aesthesis of freedom in confrontation with the systemic abuse of power embedded within the life of the church. Selak probes the inherent friction between Rahner’s affirmation of the church as the very locus of our human participation in our grounding freedom and the concrete reality of the church as an all-too-frequent locus of freedom’s traumatic undoing. Babka questions the aesthetic fault lines between Rahner’s affirmation of the universality of God’s free self-communication incarnated in the world and the dehumanizing practices of the church that both obscure the reality of this self-communication and often threaten to foreclose its very possibility. Finally, Ryan Duns probes how Fritz’s view of aesthetic mediation might help to further clarify Rahner’s account of the relationship between transcendental freedom and the ambiguities of concrete, historically situated life.
These rich questions, as much as Fritz’s illuminating responses to them, stand testament to the genuinely groundbreaking character of Fritz’s Rahnerian retrieval, suggesting that the prospects for a renewed engagement with Rahner’s theology may yet prove to be transformative for the future of theological thinking.