Month: February 2015

Rahner at the Oscars: A Sacramentology of Film

by Stephanie Cherpak Clary
Moving pictures—shadows and light—like a magic trick, done in plain sight. Why do we love them? Why do we care when they’re just moving pictures that aren’t really there?” –Neil Patrick Harris
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Neil Patrick Harris hosted the 87th Academy Awards

Neil Patrick Harris opened the 2015 Academy Awards with an entertaining, musical number that begun by asking just why we all care so much about what was being celebrated that night—actors, actresses, directors, cinematographers, make-up and costume designers, editors, musicians, writers, artists, and more. The vast majority of us do not work in the production industry and will never attend the Oscars as either nominee or guest. Still, many of us care deeply for the work honored at this ceremony because it has entered our theaters, our family rooms, our minds, and our hearts. It has awakened our emotions. It has touched our lives. But, just why does an audio-visual story represented on a screen affect us so significantly? By using the framework of Karl Rahner’s sacramentology, one can see how a categorical expression of existential human experience sacramentalizes these experiences into something that can be meaningful for all who encounter it.

Rahner’s Sacramentology

Karl Rahner’s theology of sacrament begins with assertion of the church as the basic sacrament of Christianity:

As the ongoing presence of Jesus Christ in time and space, as the fruit of salvation which can no longer perish, and as the means of salvation by which God offers his salvation to an individual in a tangible way and in the historical and social dimension, the church is the basic sacrament.[1]

The church (as sacrament) does not cause Jesus to exist historically or cause Christ’s resurrection. These are events that have already taken place—historical realities to which the present existence of the church points and simultaneously pushes forward into a future reality by its very existence. Therefore, by saying that the sacrament of the church does not cause the initial existence of Jesus of Nazareth and the risen Christ, one is not saying that the church has no effect on the promulgation of these realities and their subsistence into the future, but is, instead, suggesting that the church is a categorical expression of an event (God’s revelation) that is already taking place and, aided by this categorical expression, will continue to take place in the future.[2]

By understanding the church as the basic sacrament, with past, present, and future dimensions[3] (i.e., the result and proof of the historical Jesus and risen Christ which already existed and exists; the present, tangible manifestation of Christ’s existence and message; the foundation for the continuation of Christ’s existence and message into the future), one

Karl Rahner

Karl Rahner

establishes a framework with which to view “the sacraments” as meant by the typical use of the term within Catholic doctrinal theology—the seven sacraments of the church (i.e., Baptism, Confirmation, Reconciliation, Eucharist, Orders, Matrimony, and Anointing). In the same way that the church does not cause the existence and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the sacraments are not magic rites causing miraculous events to occur. Rather, the sacraments are rituals categorically expressing “existentially fundamental moments of human life,”[4] moments filled with God’s grace regardless of whether they take place within or outside of the sacramental ritual. Rahner explains:

We are not people who have nothing to do with God, who do not receive grace and in whom the event of God’s self-communication does not take place until we receive the sacraments. Wherever a person accepts one’s life and opens oneself to God’s incomprehensibility and lets oneself fall into it, and hence wherever one appropriates one’s supernatural transcendentality in interpersonal communication, in love, in fidelity, and in a task which opens one even to the inner-worldly future of humanity and of the human race, there is taking place the history of the salvation and the revelation of the very God who communicates Godself to humanity, and whose communication is mediated by the whole length and breadth and depth of human life.[5]

What the sacraments do is express these experiences of God in a way that is tangible in time and space. Additionally, like the expression of the church as the sacrament of Christ’s presence, the sacraments not only celebrate the ongoing existence of transcendental experiences of God, but also promote future, similar experiences. After recognizing God’s action and presence in the seven sacraments of the church, one should be led to recognize God’s action and presence during other times “when a person believes, when one hopes, when one loves, when one turns to God, when one turns away from one’s sin, when one acquires an inner and positive relationship to one’s death, when one opens oneself in eternal love to another person in an ultimate way,”[6]as well as amidst any other number of existentiell[7] human experiences. It is the act of existentially and categorically expressing existentiell and transcendental experiences that sacramentalizes universal life events into the faith-based, faith-filled, and faith-promoting rituals commonly known as the seven sacraments.[8]

Film as Sacramentalizing Human Experience

Rahner’s strongly anthropological theology allows film to be sacramental because it reveals existential, human experiences. S. Brent Plate highlights this idea in his reflection on Man With A Movie Camera, saying,

by focusing on the profane, the everyday and taking the events to the editing room, the film gives insight into the extraordinary events of life: birth, death, love, community. . . . It is only through the world’s re-creation that the sacredness of such profane activities can occur.[9]

In the same way that a sacrament sacramentalizes an event of God’s grace, calling attention to, expressing, and affecting the reality of the event, film has the capacity to sacramentalize life events. The capturing of oft occurring events of human life onto a screen, within specific constraints of time and space, from particular distances, angles, and perspectives, sacramentalizes these events for no other reason than that they are purely human. Identifying with the events expressed in the film and recognizing the commonalities amongst humanity represented by the sacramentalized events allows one to observe and experience these events in a different way than when experienced in reality. It is because of this sacramentalizing of existential events of human life that a conversation between film and theology is possible.

By approaching study of film and theology in with this methodological framework, one avoids forcefully thrusting a reading of God’s presence into a film’s narrative or lying a theological theme over a film as a filter through which it should be viewed. Instead, the film is encountered on its own, often atheological, terms and theological connections are allowed to be raised by the film’s sacramentalizing of human life. This method of film as sacramentalizing requires one to first discuss the way that the film cinematically represents the existential life event(s) in question and then to discuss the suggestions and implications this representation has for theology.

Near the end of Neil Patrick Harris’s 2015 Oscars’ opening number, he aims to answer the question with which he opened the performance: why do we care so much about films when we know that their stories are carefully planned and presented representations of reality, but nonetheless, representations. His answer, “Moving pictures—millions of pixels on screens—moving pictures, they may not be real life, but they’ll show you what life really means,” proposes nothing advertently theological; but, because it speaks to the experience of being human, of finding meaning in life, and of seeking truth, it suggests that our films are so important to us because they are nothing short of sacramental.

—–

[1] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1978), 412.

[2] Lambert J. Leijssen, “Rahner’s Contribution to the Renewal of Sacramentology,” Philosophy & Theology 9, no. 1-2 (January 1, 1995): 210.

[3] Rahner, referring to Thomas Aquinas, explains how sacraments are simultaneously signa rememorativa, demonstrativa, and prognostica (Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith, 428-429).

[4] Ibid., 415.

[5] Ibid., 411; Quotations throughout this paper have been edited for inclusive language.

[6] Ibid., 429.

[7] “The two spellings, ‘existential’ and ‘existentiell,’ follow the German usage. ‘Existential,’ as in Rahner’s phrase ‘supernatural existential,’ refers to an element in humanity’s ontological constitution precisely as human being, an element which is constitutive of one’s existence as human prior to one’s exercise of freedom. It is an aspect of concrete human nature precisely as human. ‘Existentiell,’ as in Rahner’s phrase ‘existentiell Christology,’ refers to the free, personal and subjective appropriation and actualization of something which can also be spoken of in abstract theory or objective concepts without such a subjective and personal realization” (Ibid., 16, footnote).

[8] Leijssen, “Rahner’s Contribution to the Renewal of Sacramentology,” 206-207, 214-215

[9] Ibid., 52-53.

photoStephanie Cherpak Clary is an M.A. Student in Systematic Theology at CTU, focusing her studies at the intersection of film and theology.
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Now is an Acceptable Time: A Challenging Ash Wednesday Reflection

by John DeCostanza

Working together, then,
we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For he says:

In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.[1]

Now.  This is it.  The acceptable time, the day of salvation, the moment at hand, NOW Paul tells us.  These words from today’s second reading were written for me and they were written for you.  The call for a “clean heart” as the psalmist tells us is never more true than this moment at the beginning of this Lent.  As I write, NOW would be an acceptable time for many of us to become aware of the machinery at work around us and I ask you to consider this as your walk to the cross this Lent.

The machinery I refer to has brought the names and stories of men who lost their lives tragically, needlessly into our minds and hearts in these past few years – Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and countless others.  If there is a name you don’t recognize here, commit to understanding why.  It may just be that you do not live with the reality that ultimately claimed their lives.  Perhaps you, or your son, or your neighbor, or your friend has never been read as a threat before being understood as a person.  You have been privileged.  NOW is an acceptable time to begin to understand why that happens to African-Americans and Latinos at a staggering rate compared their white peers.  NOW is also an acceptable time to ask yourself why your life looks different than theirs.  I know many whites like me have been pained at succession of black lives lost to police violence. One friend envies my pain.  He has nothing left to lament.  He is an African-American male.  We are the same age.  “Oppression feels normal,” he said recently.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time.

Rend your hearts, not your garments,
and return to the LORD, your God.[2]

Many hearts have been shred anew by the recent punishing reminders of violence fueled by fear and hatred.  The news of this past week’s murder of three Muslim college students in Chapel Hill, NC should pain all of us.  The beheadings of 21 Coptic Christians should be a reminder that unbridled evil can emerge from the hearts of humans.  It is true that the intersection of race and religion is a complex crossroads, but we cannot move beyond atrocity without moving through it.  Rending hearts in this season means recognizing our common humanity even in the face of such pain.  As King wrote over fifty years ago from a jail cell in Birmingham to a group of white pastors who regarded the movement as too radical and his actions as being outside agitation:

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.[3]

Returning to the Lord means taking steps beyond the slacktivism of a Facebook post.  There are so many creative endeavors to bring restorative justice, God’s justice, to communities.  One of the marks of a good creative venture in restorative justice is that it highlights the true relational fabric of which King writes.  Soul Fire Farm in New York is a farm that “bring[s] diverse communities together on this healing land to share skills on sustainable agriculture, cooking, and natural building, and contribute to the movements for food sovereignty and community self-determination.”  This is multivalent right relationship with the earth, with others, and with self and God.  The farm sponsors various programs that promote solidarity with the marginalized.  This is just one example.  To be woven into a single garment of destiny means regarding ourselves as having a common future in full awareness of the blessed and broken character of our disparate pasts.  In that future, we cannot set ourselves apart as the “the hypocrites do” in today’s Gospel.  Their pious practice turns in on itself and what is meant to be the habits of focusing us outward on solidarity and justice – prayer, almsgiving, and fasting – becomes the stuff of egocentrism.  NOW is an acceptable time to make Lent more about others than it is about us.

A clean heart create for me, O God,

And a steadfast spirit renew within me.[4]

Too often, the Lenten imaginary privileges lament and does not move us toward compassion.  The traditional Lenten praxis of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving can be more bound up in sackcloth and ashes than in the relationships with God, self, and others which we contemplate.  ash wednesdayOn this day especially, the sacramental of ashes on the forehead readily fills pews, but I often wonder if there is as much desire to walk the long journey that comes after.  In a beautiful discussion of compassion’s role in more adequate Roman Catholic engagement in racial justice, Bryan Massingale uses stories of deep relationship between whites and blacks to call those of us in the dominant group to task on how we might imagine ourselves into our privilege.  Drawing on the work of social scientist Joe Feagin and personal narratives from whites in transracial families, Massingale unpacks how deep identification through love and friendship can disrupt socialized norms to foster a new identity.

Such loving and committed relationships give one the visceral outrage, courage, strength, and motivation to break free from the ‘rewards of conformity’ that keep most whites complacent with white privilege.  Transformative love, or compassion, empowers them for authentic solidarity… Without the cultivation of such solidarity – rooted in lament, compassion, and transformative love – truth-telling and affirmative redress result in superficial palliatives that leave the deep roots of injustice undisturbed.[5]

If Lent truly does move us outside of ourselves to constitute a world that is more fully as our God intends it to be, then we cannot sit idly by while our sisters and brothers suffer.  There are too many alternatives.  As King wrote so prophetically, “If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”  Those words cannot be more true and more relevant than they are today.  A clean heart and a steadfast spirit are needed to face the difficult and grinding reality of racial injustice in our society and hatred in our world.  More importantly, they are what is needed to be able to forge meaningful relationships across difference.  Friendship and love are our hope.  This Lent our practice has to go beyond lament for what is broken and reach toward compassion and transformative relationship.  If all my friends look like me, I have to ask myself, “Why?”  If I struggle to build bridges between different ideologies and belief systems, the question remains, “Why?”  If I struggle to value what is unique in “others” in my life and I tend to remake them in my own image and likeness, I should always question “Why?”  Today is the day.  In this first moment of Lent, feel the fierce urgency of now for justice delayed is justice denied.  After all, it’s not justice for me that matters anyway.  What begins in me must come to be realized in us.  Moving through lament we can arrive together at right relationship.

NOW is the day of salvation.  NOW is the time.

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This blog post’s author, John DeCostanza, is a D.Min student at CTU, a member of the Theophilus Editorial Board, and the Director of University Ministry at Dominican University

[1] 2 Corinthians 6:1-2

[2] Joel 2:13a

[3] King, Jr., Martin Luther. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Accessed February 17, 2015. http://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html.

[4] Psalm 51:12

[5] Massingale, Bryan N. Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2010. 120.

Preparing for Lent

Frater Mike Brennan, O. Praem., offers some helpful resources as we prepare our hearts for Lent. 

Needs some ideas for Lenten practices? Ash Wednesday is upon us this week. Here are some thoughts to get you started!

Thanks for sharing, Mike! What are others’ favorite Lenten practices? Share in the comments!