David Tracey on Limit Situations

From chapter 5 ‘The Religious Dimension of Common Human Experience and Language in Blessed Rage for Order: The New Pluralism in Theology (Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1996. First edition 1975.)

Well, I’m finally getting around to blogging about stuff I read for my major essay on liminality.  10,000 words on living with Jesus when everything falls apart!  You can read the essay here or go to the reddress writing page.

David Tracy provided me with a key philosophical concept for reflecting theologically during those times when simple answers have been washed away.  Very simply, what is in view with ‘limit situations’ are those moments in human experience where we reach the limits of our human capacity for rational explanation or conscious knowing.  This is, by definition, the field of religious discourse.

Theology in this sense, needs to provide guidance for journeying beyond these natural limits.  That is, if we are to understand anything of God, or even of the world outside of our own Self-oriented perspective, we need to reach beyond our limits.  This is what ‘self-transcendent’ theologies (eg. Bernard Lonergan) and Mystical Theology is about.  It’s what transformative theology, bible teaching and spirituality should always be about – leading us into a deeper understanding of Self and God which grows and expands our capacity as human beings.

I can’t resist posting a long passage from David Tracy.  You might also like this summary article which explains how Tracy applies limit situations to scientific inquiry, moral argument and everyday life.

limit-situations in everyday lives

(p105)  “The concept of limit-situation is a familiar one in the existentialist philosophy and theology of the very recent past.  Fundamentally, the concept refers to those human situations wherein a human being ineluctably finds manifest a certain ultimate limit or horizon to his or her existence.  The concept itself is mediated by “showing” the implications of certain crucial positive and negative experiential limit-situations.  More exactly, limit-situations refer to two basic kinds of existential situation: either those ‘boundary’ situations of guilt, anxiety, sickness, and the recognition of death as one’s own destiny, or those situations called ‘ecstatic experiences’- intense joy, love, reassurance, creation.  All genuine limit-situations refer to those human limits (limit-to) as our own as well as recognize, however haltingly, some disclosure of a limit-of our experience.  The negative mode of limit-situations can best be described with Karl Jaspers as ‘boundary-situations.’ Such experiences (sickness, guilt, anxiety, recognition of death as one’s own destiny) allow and, when intense, seem to demand reflection upon the existential boundaries of our present everyday experience.  When an announcement of a serious illness –  whether our own or of someone we love – is made, we begin to experience the everyday, the ‘real’ world, as suddenly unreal:  petty, strange, foreign to the now real world.  That ‘limit’ world of final closure to our lives now faces us with a starkness we cannot shirk and manages to disclose to us our basic existential faith or unfaith in life’s very meaningfulness.

“The positive mode of limit-situations can be described, as they are by Abraham Maslow, as ‘peak-experiences’ or, as I prefer, as ‘ecstatic experiences’.  Undeniably, such experiences (love, joy, the creative act, profound reassurance) are authentically ‘self-transcending’ moments in our lives.  When in the grasp of such experiences, we all find, however momentarily, that we can and do transcend our usual lacklustre selves and our usual everyday worlds to touch upon a dimension of experience which cannot be stated adequately in the language of ordinary, everyday experience.  Authentic love, both erotic and agapic, puts us in touch with a reality whose  (p106)  power we cannot deny.  We do not work ourselves into a state of love, as we might into a habit of justice.  We ‘fall’, we ‘are’ in love.  While its power lasts, we experience the rest of our lives as somehow shadowy.  The ‘real world’ no longer seems real.  We find ourselves affirming the reality of ecstatic experience, but not as something merely decided upon by us.  In all such authentic moments of ecstasy, we experience a reality simply given, gifted, happened.  Such a reality, as religious mystics remind us, may be a taste of that self-transcending experience of a ‘being-in-love-without-qualification’ familiar to the authentically religious person.

“At the very least, such ecstatic experiences can sensitize one to the possibilities of an existential grounding for those everyday experiences of self-transcendence which disclose the most deeply held meanings of our lives.  To reassure a child crying in the night that all is well; to experience the self-and-other transcendence of loving sexual expression; to experience an ‘unattended moment’ with friends, music, or nature.  All such ec-static experiences may, by their ‘limit-disclosing’ character, serve as ‘signals of transcendence’ as ‘rumours of angels,’ or less metaphorically, as a ‘showing’ if not a ‘stating’ of a limit-dimension to our lives.  That limit-to the everyday also seems to disclose – in the same ec-statis – a limit-of whose graciousness bears a religious character.  For the moment, however, let us recall such experiences of ecstasy merely to remind ourselves of certain human experiences which most of us have had with greater and less frequency and which many of us can recognize as expressive of a ‘world of meaning’ beyond the everyday.  Such a ‘world’ by its strange ability to put us in touch with what we believe to be a final, a ‘trustworthy’, meaning to us in touch with what we believe to be a final, a ‘trustworthy,’ meaning to our lives may also disclose to us, however hesitantly, the character of that ultimate horizon of meaning which religious persons call ‘gracious,’ ‘eventful,’ ‘faith-ful,’ ‘revelatory.’ To be sure, such experiences need not be understood in explicitly religious terms as the mystic’s experience of an unrestricted religious love would be.  Rather, as we have insisted throughout this chapter, such experiences are more properly describes not as explicitly religious but as disclosive of a ‘limit,’ a ‘religious’ dimension or horizon to our lives.

“However intense an expression of our common experience both boundary-situations and ecstatic experiences may be, such experience are clearly common human experiences.  The temptation to exclude such considerations from an analysis of common human experience as neurotic symptoms (the way to avoid, for example, the truth of Kierkegaard’s analysis of Angst) is to miss their real significance.  An appeal to these phenomena is not an appeal to a neurotic guilt, an obsessive anxiety, an alienated sickness, a morbid preoccupation with death, a romantic infatuation with love, creativity, and ecstasy.  On the contrary, an appeal to such phenomena as disclosive of our actual situation is fundamentally an appeal to experiences such as responsible guilt, authentic anxiety, responsible recognition of death as one’s   (p107)   own most destiny, and authentic self-transcending human love.  Clearly, such experiences, however ambiguous, are not yet in principle merely ‘strange’ experiences.  Uncommon they are.  Yet they are uncommon mainly because we try to keep them from surfacing in our everyday lives by our strategies of inauthenticity: ‘divertissement,’ distraction, Gerede.  Beginning with Kierkegaard, the classical existentialist analyses of such experiences have provided a powerful way to clarify the human situation as intrinsically a limit-situation:  a situation wherein we find ourselves not the masters of our fate but radically contingent or limited (boundary-situations).  At the same time, we may also find ourselves radically out-of-everyday-selves as ecstatic, as gifted, even as ‘graced’… [T]he final dimension or horizon of our own situation is neither one of our own making nor one under our control.”

One thought on “David Tracey on Limit Situations

  1. Pingback: The Great Emergence: How Christianity is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle « reddresstheology

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