Chapter 16. Anonymous Christianity

Recently I’ve been reading Karl Rahner, and an idea that stuck with me is the notion of the supernatural existential. By that he means, from what I understand, that there is some kind of natural trajectory to seek God, and to know God.  This it appears was developed in his Spirit in the World, where he engages Kant’s epistemology and, influenced also by Heidegger, makes what is called a “transcendental argument” towards the conclusion that our desire to know, and our ability to know, and to make sense or meaning of what we know, implicitly carries with it a nascent knowledge of the infinite, which is actually, when you think about it, God.

Kant and Heidegger are difficult enough, and Rahner’s Spirit in the World, which I have in my library, is on my reading list. And so I will be struggling with them in the weeks to come. But the general idea is clear enough: against neo-scholastics – and I suspect people like Cajetan is the target here – Rahner thinks human nature is not inert, esp with respect the supernatural and divine.  There is, for Rahner, no such thing as a self sufficient pure nature, with its own proper end and fulfillment.  Instead, un-circumscribed and open, nature has an existential tendency towards the supernatural; it’s very much part of our nature to be ordered towards, and to order ourselves towards God. This he calls the supernatural existential, which is a obediental potency towards the supernatural.

But the notion of obediental potency needs clarification.  It’s not a mere non-repugnance towards the divine or supernatural.  Afterall we do speak of all nature as having an obediental potency to God’s activity, which causes them to be responsive to miraculous intervention, i.e., intervention outside of their natural modes of being and acting. The obediental potency with respect the supernatural in human nature is more than that; it is indeed part of the logic of man’s nature, and hence the supernatural is indeed intimately part of our nature.  So the line between nature and grace is a little more blur, and a little finer than previously imagined.

If we have this supernatural existential, and if in our knowing and thinking, even prior to participation in some formal institutional church, we already think of and believe in (as categorical conditions of our meaning-making) an infinite God, then we are in a sense, closet Christians, or anonymous Christians.   Now in my own work I have been making a kind of “transcendental argument” for God’s existence, although my argument works out the categorical conditions for practical reasoning rather than for speculative reasoning.  I’ve argued that the putative normative validity of practical first principles implies that God’s existence needs to be affirmed. (see Jude Chua Soo Meng, ” The Reason of God: Practical Reason and Its Anti-Naturalistic Implications”. Angelicum, 83,(1), 21-42.)  If all that is correct, then one could say that, through our grasp of the natural law, there is already some anonymous participation in Christianity, precisely because, prior to talk of institutional affiliation with a Church, one already is implicitly committed to God’s existence.

In this regard, I’ve been wondering if photographers are anonymous Christians, in the sense above.  After all, the peep through the viewfinder invites that kind of evaluation which discerns what is worth putting into the frame and what is not. I mean, commercial photography aside, typical, standard photographic exercises invite us to peer at the phenomenon before us and ask ourselves, what is it that matters, or is significant, and is choice-worthy? That kind of thinking must in some way involve practical reasoning, and surfaces what the natural law would prescribe as good and bad, as worthy and not worthy, as important and trivial. (I’ve said much of this in Chapter 3. Signs of Good and Evil.)

In other words the logic of photographic operations may well be a kind of ongoing initiation into Christianity, just as its  unveils our grasp of the natural law, which is in turn the seed of that transcendental turn towards God, even while we face his creation.  In a sense then, photography could even be salvific, for those who have avoided institutional churches, having been scandalized by its failures.