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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 Kerr’s 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 Descartes’s 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 O’Connell, and Gordon Kaufman.

It is always as the cognitive subject that people first appear in Rahner’s theology. “Students alerted to the bias of the Cartesian legacy would suggest that language or action, conversation or collaboration, are more likely starting points.” Rahner’s 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. Kerr’s essay ends with a brief survey of the post-Wittgensteinian philosophers who pursue this task - most notably, Bernard Williams and Charles Taylor.

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