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7 The Capable Human Being as a Penultimate Good In chapter 6 we saw that the cruciform self is not a punctual self. In this chapter I demonstrate the sense in which the cruciform self is a capable self, since capability is one of the central themes of philosophical anthropology. On Ricoeur’s definition, capability is a power or potentiality that the self is able to exercise— most basically, “the power to cause something to happen.”1 So our question is this: What place do human agency and the power to act have in the life of faith? What does the word of the cross mean for our understanding of the self as a capable human being, as an I can? In the first section I argue that a distinction between ultimate and penultimate possibilities is vital in order to avoid a religious radicalism that would deny human capability altogether. This is followed in the next section by a critical analysis of Michel Henry’s proposal for a Christian philosophy of action. In the third section, I examine the relation between the call and response of faith. This theme provides a focal point for our discussion of human capability, since it leads us to consider what sort of capability or agency is involved in the response of faith. After locating capability as a penultimate good and a vital component of being human (Menschsein), in chapter 8 I bring Ricoeur and Bonhoeffer into dialogue with Levinas in order to discuss conscience as a penultimate capacity for hearing and receiving the call of the other, in ethical responsibility as well as faith. Ultimate and Penultimate Possibilities From a certain perspective it might seem that a philosophical affirmation of l’homme capable is simply incommensurable with an anthropologia crucis . The word of the cross destroys the human presumption of being capable of the ultimate; this is why Bonhoeffer argues on several occasions that the concept of possibility has no place in theology or theological anthropology.2 One might also appeal to textual support against the capable human being—such as Galatians 2:20, which describes the I as having been crucified with Christ: if it is therefore no longer I that live, but Christ that lives in me, does this amount to a complete denial of human agency and the power to act? Can the cruciform self no longer designate itself with the words I can? A radical interpretation might take this in the direction of a metaphysical occasionalism, as a psychological transformation in which divine agency commandeers human agency, as The Capable Human Being as a Penultimate Good 123 though the crucifixion of the I means that the faithful self has no agency, efficacy , or proper sphere of action.3 Radicalism’s interpretation of the cross often tends toward a misanthropy that seems to confirm Nietzsche’s judgment regarding Christianity—namely that it heaps contempt on the human being, demanding “a sacrifice of all freedom , all pride, all self-confidence of the spirit,” along with an accompanying “enslavement and self-mockery, self-mutilation.”4 The word of the cross destroys and humiliates the self, making a significant contribution to the development of nihilism through its negation of everything human and this-worldly. This annihilation of the self also has serious ethical consequences. Numerous feminists have argued that a cross-centered anthropology (particularly one that employs the violent rhetoric of destructio) has too often valorized passivity, submission , suffering, and even victimhood. This rhetoric is a luxury that certain privileged people can afford, but it is not good news for those who are oppressed , powerless, disabled, or living in abusive relationships and other situations in which they need to be strengthened. Radicalism’s rejection of human capability also distorts the nature of faith, obscuring the fact that the cross calls us to an active response and responsibility for others. Kierkegaard observes that the wrong emphasis on passivity and incapability often serves to justify apathy and irresponsibility5 —a problem he saw as endemic to Lutheran Christendom. Although Luther was correct to stress justification by grace and faith alone, his “Reformation discovery” gave way to a travesty of the gospel in which people presumptuously took grace for granted and saw no need for works to follow.6 With these interpretations in view, it is clear that the hermeneutics of the cross is a subtle art and must be practiced with care, because not every interpretation of the cross is good news. If we insist on the...


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