Kerr, Fergus. The Modern Philosophy of Self in Recent Theology."
The Modern Philosophy of
Self in Recent Theology by Fergus Kerr is reprinted here from Kerrs book, Theology after Wittgenstein (Fergus Kerr, Theology after Wittgenstein, 2nd ed.
(London: SPCK, 1997), chap. 1)) because it ably demonstrates the extent to
which Christian theology carries a metaphysical load - an account of the human
person derived from Cartesian philosophy. It is ironic that the modern
philosophical conception of the self sprang, as Kerr notes, from explicitly
theological concerns. In the process of demonstrating the existence of God and
the immortality of the soul, Descartes articulated a conception of human nature
according to which the self is essentially
a thinking thing, thus redefining what it is to be human in terms of
consciousness. Descartes, together with Immanuel Kant, bequeathed a picture of
the self- conscious and self-reliant, self-transparent and all-responsible
individual, which continues to permeate contemporary thought even where
Descartess substance dualism has been repudiated.
Kerr examines a number of
authors to show how this picture of the self shows up in recent theology, and
this despite the fact that some eminent theologians, such as Karl Barth and
Eberhard Jüngel, have argued that the Cartesian turn to the subject has nearly
ruined theology. Kerr considers the role of the Cartesian ego in the works of
Karl Rahner, Hans Küng, Don Cupitt, Schubert Ogden, Timothy OConnell, and
It is always as the
cognitive subject that people first appear in Rahners theology. Students
alerted to the bias of the Cartesian legacy would suggest that language or
action, conversation or collaboration, are more likely starting points.
Rahners theology depends heavily on the notion of self-transcendence: when
self-conscious subjects recognize their own finitude, they have already
transcended that finitude. This process of self-reflection produces a dynamic
movement of ceaseless self-transcendence towards the steadily receding horizon
which is the absolute: in effect, anonymously, the deity. While Kerr
recognizes the theological payoff of this move, making arguments for the
existence of God redundant, it is at the expense of an account of humans as
deficient angels - that is, as attempting to occupy a standpoint beyond immersion
in the bodily, the historical, and the institutional.
From his survey of Rahner
and other examples, Kerr concludes that in every case, though variously, and
sometimes very significantly so, the model of the self is central to some
important, sometimes radical and revisionary, theological proposal or program.
A certain philosophical psychology is put to work to sustain a theological
construction. Time and again, however, the paradigm of the self turns out to
have remarkably divine attributes. The philosophy of the self that possesses
so many modern theologians is a view which philosophers today are working hard
to destroy. Kerrs essay ends with a brief survey of the post-Wittgensteinian
philosophers who pursue this task - most notably, Bernard Williams and Charles
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