Is it possible for people, and even for a whole society, to lose faith in God? ... [If] it happens, [it is] not primarily because something they used to think existed does not after all exist, but because the available language about God has been allowed to become too narrow, stale and spiritually obsolete ... the work of creative religious personalities is continually to enrich, to enlarge and sometimes to purge the available stock of religious symbols and idioms ... (The Sea of Faith, 1984)



... people of different periods and cultures differ very widely; in some cases so widely that accounts of the nature and relations of God, men and the world put forward in one culture may be unacceptable, as they stand, in a different culture ... a situation of this sort has arisen ... at about the end of the eighteenth century a cultural revolution of such proportions broke out that it separates our age sharply from all ages that went before (The Use and Abuse of the Bible, 1976)

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Karl Rahner (1904-1984)
Rahner's output of writing was huge. He spent all his working life as a professional theologian - although he often spoke of himself as "amateur", by which he apparently meant that he did not place high value on being systematic in his approach. 

Rahner was born in Germany and entered the Society of Jesus (the Roman Catholic order known as the Jesuits) in 1922. From 1929 to 1933 he studied theology in Holland. A dissertation for which he was failed in Freiburg was eventually published in 1939 and earned him an honorary doctorate from the Innsbruck University some thirty four years later.

But his adventurous thinking - much of it influenced by two years of study under Heidegger - got him into trouble in 1962, when he was placed under "pre-censorship". Under this banning order he was unable to either lecture or publish without prior permission. However, the order was in effect negated in the same year when the then Pope John XXIII appointed him an expert advisor to the Second Vatican Council.

Rahner retired in 1971 after several years at the universities of Munich and Munster. 

His preferred way of writing theology was the essay, in many ways ideal for the exploratory nature of his endeavour. His essays were published in the 23-volume Theological Investigations. Among his main works were a Lexicon of Theology and the Church (ten volumes) and Sacramentum Mundi (six volumes).

However, Rahner's writing is regarded by many as difficult. The story is told of an American theologian voicing pleasure that Rahner's work was at last being translated from German into English. A German theologian retorted bitterly, "We're still waiting for someone to translate him into German!" English translations of his work give the impression that Rahner was a master of theological code, and that he was writing for fellow code-masters rather than intelligent laypeople.

The opacity of Rahner's writing is unfortunate, if only because it has confined his thoughts to a relatively small circle, and has had the effect of distorting his views as other amateur theologians try to make sense of him. In particular, Rahner uses the device of inventing new terms as shorthand for involved concepts (so-called neologisms). He perhaps failed to realise that any thought incapable of expression in ordinary language may better be left unvoiced.

Hans Kung admired Rahner as a great systematic theologian [1]. He writes that Rahner

... by arguing in oppositions arrives at amazing "reconciliations" ... Rahner's dialectical method does not meet with approval in the Roman Sanctum Officium: It is felt to be dangerously subversive ... more than any other theologian in Germany [he] is an acknowledged protagonist of freedom in theology ...

One should not forget that Rahner was a Roman Catholic and a member of the Society of Jesus, an order founded upon the aims of missionary work and unwavering support of the Papacy. This to some extent explains Rahner's contorted expression. He would have been unable to write freely for fear of persecution by Church and university authorities.

For example, his book Hominisation: The Evolutionary Origin of Man as a Theological Problem begins with a section entitled "The Official Teaching of the Church on Man in Relation to the Scientific Theory of Evolution". In the next section ("The Sources of Revelation"), Rahner continues: 

Until now the aim has been to see clearly from the positive declarations of the teaching Church what a Catholic scientist may or may not say as a Christian in the matter of evolution.

He seems unaware that it is strictly speaking impossible to be both a Catholic and a scientist since scientific truth is by definition neither absolute nor final. Indeed, any claim to absolute truth can only exist in areas of knowledge not covered either by science or its related analytical disciplines such as history or archaeology. 

If "Catholic" science were possible, the archaeologist who discovered the bones of Jesus would be forced to deny the evidence. In doing so, he or she would be regarded as a heretic. A historian who thought the evidence of the Resurrection too slight to warrant a classification of the event as historical, would be forced to affirm it regardless - with unfortunate potential consequences.

Similarly, Rahner is clear that the concept of the "spiritual" is an intense problem for the modern mind. His solution is unsatisfactory. First, he neatly classifies some humans as "materialist" (i.e. non-spiritual) - a pejorative device which does the issue less than justice. 

Second, he offers an equally neat definition of the concept: 

What 'spiritual' means is an immediate non-empirical datum of human knowledge ... a reality that only be understood by direct acquaintance, having its own proper identity derived from no other.

Discussion over - for if so, anyone can define any datum as "spiritual" and there can be no effective distinction of "spiritual" from non-spiritual.

Despite such limitations he is widely acknowledged as having attempted to break the theological logjam of late 19th century Roman Catholicism, bent as it was on preserving standard treatments of doctrine, apparently at all costs.

He proposed that the usual Roman Catholic doctrine of "no salvation outside the Church" be modified. He thought that non-Christian traditions are acted upon by the "saving grace" of God in Jesus Christ. God's saving grace is denied, he thought, if it can't apply to people who preceded the times in which Jesus lived. Thus faithful members of non-Christian traditions are saved and can be thought of as "anonymous Christians".

The sting is in the tail: this situation applies only until the Christian gospel is preached to such people. 

Christianity understands itself as the absolute religion, intended for all people, which cannot recognise any other religion beside itself as of equal right ...

he wrote. Rahner thought that religious traditions other than Christianity will endure. They will continue as part of human society and will not be displaced by the Church. 

Somehow all people must be able to be members of the Church.

Given traditional Roman Catholic teaching, it's hard to understand this position. Christianity is defined by the Church as the final, absolute truth for all. If so, it should prevail over all other traditions in the end.

Newer approaches by a minority of Church people (but perhaps a majority of Christians) suggest that an essential feature of being Christian is the acceptance of others as acceptable to God. Not even Christian doctrines are absolutely true. It's more important therefore to meet others on their own ground in a mutual search, than to stand over them and proclaim superiority.

Thus Rahner's work stands strictly within the confines of traditional theology, advancing the claims to absolute truth of the Roman Catholic Church in general and the Papacy in particular. Received tradition as shaped by the Bible, the kerygma and Church authorities is the setting for his enquiry and discourse. His methodology seeks to restate Christian teachings in an intelligible and unified manner (Thomas Aquinas was an important source and model for his thinking).

Rahner proposes a "transcendental" interpretation of reality. When we think of "what is" we should recognise that the being (in other words "is-ness") we experience, both in terms of our selves and of things, is always dependent upon an Absolute Being greater than it and from which it derives. Absolute Being is beyond us to the point that it eventually disappears into Absolute Mystery. In this sense all knowledge and experience is transcendental.

He is clear that in this scheme of things, revelation is a necessary and, in his terms, a viable concept. Perhaps aware of the gradually developing knowledge of the universe as an unbounded system, Rahner sought ways of expressing revelation in terms which would not violate the integrity of the system. He saw the traditional teaching as 

... the occurrence of an intervention of God "purely fro the outside", speaking to men and conveying to them, through the prophets, truths in  human statements which they could not attain by themselves, and giving commands which they must follow. [2]

By analogy, he thought, revelation can be perceived as events which (so to speak) enter the system as a voice enters the air. That is, the system already contains the "medium" or necessary conditions to convey revelation. Thus revelation does not "invade" our reality as something alien but as something natural. It is something which happens as part of the normal operation of the universe. - though it is unclear how this can be true and still preserve the traditional meaning of revelation as coming from a God who is by definition other than the universe.

The realm of Absolute Mystery is the "supernatural" - usually conceived of as a separate "dimension" or reality for which there can be no natural explanation, which co-exists and parallels the natural order in an essentially dualistic way. Rahner sought to soften this apparent dualism by stressing that there are not two orders, but one. 

In some sense, therefore, super-nature is actually a continuation and perfection of nature, and human nature extends into super-nature inasmuch as it is transformed by the actions of God through grace. 

Rahner's theory doesn't propose, however, a way of discovering the characteristics by which we recognise those aspects of our lives and of the physical universe which are beyond or greater than nature. At any one time we don't know, therefore, whether we are experiencing the natural or the super-natural. To know the super-natural we must have some way of distinguishing it from the natural. And if that is not possible, there is no point in establishing any distinction.

Similarly, Rahner made a sophisticated set of proposals about the nature of God in the Trinity without demonstrating exactly how he knows anything about God who is, by his own admission, ultimately transcendent and unknowable.

Although famous in his day as a radical Roman Catholic theologian, his approach now seems somewhat smothered by what has turned out to be a reactionary post-Vatican II stance. In terms of radical Christian thought of today, Rahner's position has been shifted inexorably towards the more conservative and traditional.
[1] My Struggle for Freedom, Continuum, 2003
[2] Revelation and Tradition, Burns & Oats, 1966

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