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Karl Rahner on Nature and Grace
(A Journey through his Early Articles)

Autor:Wandinger Nikolaus
Abstrakt:In the first half of the 20th century K. Rahner gave very important impulses for a new understanding of the relationship between nature and grace. By taking up different approaches and trying to bring them into harmony, Rahner advanced theology. Looking anew at these texts provides us with a better understanding of Rahner's thought, but also of ourselves as human persons and of God's way to relate to us. And it might even serve to guide us into a new understanding of the human person in view of the challenges of the 21st century.
Publiziert in:Guest-Lecture at Heythrop College, University of London, Feb. 2003


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1. Christological Preface

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Before I get into Karl Rahner's theology of grace and his adjustment of the relationship between nature and grace, I have to make a confession: Actually one cannot talk about Rahner's theology of grace without his christology. Rahner could not have talked about grace the way he did, hadn't he had his christology in the back of his head at the same time. But - there is not enough to fit all of it into one lecture, and thus we will have to do in somehow. Fortunately for me, Rahner did the same thing. Most of his articles that directly deal with grace do not emphasize how necessary christology is for them, so we can do it too. However, we have to keep in mind that, although Rahner doesn't say so every time, for him grace is always Christ's grace, meaning that 1) it is the grace that comes from Christ's cross and resurrection, so Christ is really the source and mediator of that grace;1 2) that Jesus Christ himself is the ideal incorporation of grace, he is the model of a completely graced human being2: Christ's humanity can be understood as "that which comes to be and is constituted in its essence and existence, if and insofar as the [divine] Logos empties Himself"3, while from the human perspective the incarnation can be seen as "the unique and highest instance of the actualization of the essence of human reality"4. 3) that the effect of that grace is to make us Christ-like guiding us to follow him.5 Christ as a human being therefore is the model for us and our relation to God in manifold ways. What is really most relevant for any theology of grace is, how Rahner conceives the co-operation between the divine and the human element, in other words grace and nature, using christology as a model. Christ's divinity and his humanity do not co-operate as opposites or as rivals, but on the contrary it was one of the results of the great christological controversies that they form a complete unity while at the same time upholding their distinctness.6 This model, Rahner insists, also applies to the unity of God and a human person in grace, actually even to the relationship between Creator and creatures. Rahner states: "Radical dependence on … [God] increases in direct, and not in inverse proportion with genuine self-coherence before him."7 This may be viewed as a fundamental axiom of Rahner's theology, without which it is inconceivable.
What Rahner takes from soteriology is the conviction that through Christ, his death and resurrection, we know that God's salvific will is universal and without bounds. That is the key to access Rahner's theology of grace.

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2. God's Universal Salvific Will

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So Rahner reads Christian revelation as saying that God wants all human beings to be saved and presupposes that in his theology of grace. For Rahner that means that God's salvific will is not dependent on any conditions that human persons would have to fulfill. This will has not even been shaken by humanity's fall into sin, it includes all human persons no matter where or when they live, and thus is independent of their religious affiliation as well. That does not mean that all humans are saved automatically, because they still can reject God's offer of salvation. It does mean that God offers salvation to each and any human person without any preconditions. If there are people in hell, it is only because they rejected God's grace and His offer of salvation, not because God chose to withhold grace and salvation from some, as Augustine had still taught.Rahner gives biblical and systematic reasons for this interpretations. I will skip these here and simply mention that the Second Vatican Council took up this understanding, when it officially taught that all human beings, independently of their religious affiliation could be saved by God's grace.8 That is exactly Rahner's position. So, let us now proceed to the way he understood that grace.

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3. Grace as God's Self-Communication

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Two elements will guide us here: One is Rahner's "re-discovery" of uncreated grace; the other his emphasis on the experience of grace. Both occasions a new conception of the relationship of grace and nature, which can be summarized as his theory of the supernatural existential.

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3.1 Uncreated Grace

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Rahner's staring point in each case is a particular historic situation in theology. He comes across a great tensions of two theological positions with respect to the theology of grace. One is found in patristic theology and is also very near to Pauline thinking, the other was scholastic and was the usual way theologians thought about grace in 1939, when Rahner for the first time published his article on uncreated grace.9 Rahner accepts that for St. Paul the inner sanctification of a human person "is first and foremost a communication of the personal Spirit of God, …; and he [Paul] sees every created grace, …, as a consequence and a manifestation of the possession of this uncreated grace."10 Church Fathers concurred with that theology. For them God communicated, or one could also say, donated Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit, and that self-gift is called uncreated grace: uncreated, because it is God Himself; grace because it is a free gift.Scholastic theology on the other hand focused on created grace, i. e. means, by which humans conform to God's will, e. g. certain virtues. They can be seen as gifts from God for human salvation, but they are not God Himself, therefore they are created. They are "an inner transformation of the justified person as such, hence an inner quality"11 of him or her.
From that Rahner sets himself the task as to "how the two ways of looking at things, …, may be brought into harmony".12
To get there Rahner takes what at first seems like a diversion and discusses St. Thomas Aquinas's theology of the visio beatifica, the way the redeemed in heaven view God. For Rahner this is not a diversion, for the visio beatifica is the end for which grace is given, thus it is the highest manifestation of grace; and all grace we receive during our lives - be it created or uncreated - is given in order to wake our desire for eternal life and make us able to experience that visio beatifica.
I will try a shortcut now and give you simply the result Rahner gains from these considerations. A very fundamental distinction for Rahner is that between two types of causality God exerts onto creatures: that of creation and what Rahner calls the really supernatural workings of God in the world. He does so in the language of Thomistic scholasticism. In creation God is the efficient cause, which brings forth something that is different from Himself. However, when God really acts supernaturally in the world (as in the hypostatic union, the visio beatifica and in bestowing grace on human persons), he exerts a different kind of causality, which Rahner calls quasi-formal.13
When you remember your philosophy - and I hope you do - you will know what a formal cause is: In Aristotelian thinking every material being consists of matter and form, one being the material cause, the other the formal cause. Aquinas generalized these ideas and taught that any being was, what it was, by its form, or its essence. So, e. g. the formal cause of the eye is the ability to see, the formal cause of a human person is the soul. Now when Rahner takes up that language, he says that in God's supernatural workings, He Himself becomes a formal cause in the human person. Put very simply that is the scholastic way of saying that the Holy Spirit dwells in us. Rahner emphasizes, however, that by expressing that with this philosophical vocabulary it becomes clear that this is not just metaphorical or figurative speech, it is real.
And Rahner accomplishes something else with that. As I said, the first version of this article appeared in 1939, scholastic and Thomistic terminology was a virtual must for Catholic theologians at the time. By using this terminology in order to show that the Holy Spirit really works in human beings, Rahner opens theology up for this new path of investigation. And he opens it up by way of evolution and not by way of revolution. My colleagues in Innsbruck who preside over the Karl-Rahner-Archive and are much better than I in historically situating Rahner's thinking emphasize that quite a lot: Rahner is not an innovator in the sense of leaving the material handed down through tradition behind, he became an innovator by working in the system and opening it up from within by showing that there were paths of inquiry not seen before or that when you applied the model in a very strict way, you had to move beyond what had become common-place into new ground. So the Rahner-scholar of today must be prepared to understand the tradition Rahner came out of and the terminology he used. Otherwise we will not be able to understand Rahner properly, or even worse, make him to say what we would like him to say.
Now let us return to the quasi-formal cause. We have stated so far that God as uncreated grace really becomes the formal cause of human supernatural acts. Rahner goes on now that we must ensure that in spite of God's becoming a formal cause in us, He still remains the completely transcendent and sovereign God and that His formal causality differs from all created formal causes we know. Therefore the prefix quasi-. Rahner stresses that from a systematic point of view this is nothing exceptional, because whenever we use a category formed from human experiences in the world and apply it to God, we have to modify it. We have to use it in an analogous way, or as Aquinas said, we have to transform it in the way of a triplex via. That means: What is said positively in it, has to be taken as really referring to God; but any finite concept has limitations: these have to be negáted with respect to God; that way the concept takes on a different, higher, meaning, which Thomas calls via eminentiae.
That has to be done with God's efficient causality in creation as well: God is efficient cause, but He differs from all other efficient causes in that He does not need a material cause for creation and He can create something that is at the same time ontologically dependent on Him and yet free and - in a certain sense - autonomous. The same now with God as a quasi-formal cause: God can become the inner principle of our supernatural acts, but can do that in such a way that His transcendence and infinity are not compromised in any way, while human supernatural acts still are our acts, and not God's. Therefore Rahner calls God a quasi-formal cause.
Now, what does that mean for the reformation discussions that had not been really solved: Catholics maintained that there was merit in good works; Protestants claimed that this was justification by works (Werkgerechtigkeit) that would make salvation a human accomplishment rather than a gift of God's grace. Seeing God as a quasi-formal cause for our supernatural acts in the way just mentioned, is nothing less but a solution to that problem by applying Rahner's axiom derived from Christology to it: dependence on God and autonomy in a certain sense are not mutually exclusive but rather mutually inclusive. Because God Himself is the quasi-formal cause of human supernatural acts, they are brought forth by grace, but they are nevertheless human acts; they are human accomplishments granted by God's grace. So merit from good works is not to be construed as excluding God's grace, while God's grace does not exclude human freedom. That is not to say that there was no thinking in terms of Werkgerechtigkeit in certain Catholic theologies; Luther's criticism did have a legitimate target. Yet, his criticism suffered from the same problematic presuppositions, namely that God's grace and human freedom are rivals. Rahner says they are not rivals, but sources of human salvation working in co-operation.
With all that in mind, Rahner also has a solution for the problem he started with: how do uncreated and created grace go together, how can biblical-patristic and scholastic thinking be brought into union. Rahner again uses the Aristotelian-Thomistic structure of formal cause and material cause: uncreated grace as quasi-formal cause of the supernatural acts of the graced human spirit and created graces as the material causes of these acts. Again philosophy teaches us that when we have a being composed of matter and form, neither of these principles can actually exist without the other; it is only the composite being that exists through the principles of form and matter. So form and matter presuppose one another or as Rahner says: "In this way the material and formal causes possess a reciprocal priority: … From this … there follows … the logical justification for inferring the presence of one reality from that of the other."14
Let us summarize, what we have so far: Rahner succeeds in construing a self-communication or self-giving of God in a scholastic terminology by revitalizing the patristic concept of uncreated grace and integrating that into a scholastic conceptual framework as a quasi-formal cause.
At the same time Rahner systematically distinguishes the order of creation and that of salvation, or we could say he distinguishes between nature and grace on a theoretical level. The differentia specifica is just the kind of causality God exerts in each case: "By His creative efficient causality (which is of course of a unique and divine nature) God constitutes the absolute other from Himself. By what we call incarnation, grace and glory, God does not create something other from Himself ex nihilo sui et subjecti, but He communicates Himself to the creature that already has been constituted."15 By the way, in defining the supernatural in this manner, Rahner also tells us that the theological concept of supernatural has nothing to do with any kind of superstition that seeks the supernatural in extraordinary, magical or esoteric powers. We will, however, see very soon that this distinction indeed is on a theoretical level only.

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3.2 The Experience of Grace

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3.2.1 The Significance of the Experience of Grace

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I will now turn to Rahner's essay Concerning the Relationship between Nature and Grace16, which was first published in 1950 and again stands at a very interesting junction of two threads of theological thinking. The first thread is the so called Nouvelle Théologie17 and its conception of that relationship; the other thread is the prevalent Jesuit tradition on the subject and the more cautious and traditional approach of Pope Pius XIIth encyclical Humani Generis, which appeared in the same year. Rahner sympathizes with Nouvelle Théologie and shares its main concern, while at the same time he distances himself from their proposed solution in an attempt to take the Pope's reservations seriously.The prevalent Jesuit theology of grace at the time ruled out that human persons could actually experience grace, because it supposed we could only experience what pertains to our nature. Since grace is superadded to nature, it cannot be experienced. Rahner shared the Nouvelle Théologie's concern that such an approach had terrible consequences for theology, spirituality and living the faith in general. For, in that case, supernatural grace does not complement human nature, but comes to it as something alien and disturbing, and people cannot know about it unless by verbal revelation. If that revelation, however, finds no corresponding ground in human experience, there is not much difference between verbal revelation and verbal indoctrination: You have to accept what is said without any supporting evidential experience.18 The same applies to the theology of original sin: We cannot see it as a problem anymore in our lives, when we have gotten used to the idea that we are nothing else but natural creatures, nothing supernatural, nothing divine really convening to us.19
Against that conception Rahner wants to emphasize with the Nouvelle Théologie and with Aquinas that grace in principle can be experienced - however Rahner develops a concept of experience that differs somewhat from that of our everyday language.
Once again reaching back to Aquinas, Rahner stipulates that supernatural grace constitutes a formal object or a horizon for the human intellect and will, a horizon that is the precondition for the cognition of any particular object of human insight.20 This formal object is an a priori that conditions all human knowledge and freedom. So, it conditions every conscious human experience and in doing so it is conscious itself, Rahner says. However, it is not directly conscious: if I ask a person, if they experience that graced horizon, they may well truthfully answer no. But, Rahner argues, they still make this experience indirectly or unthematically, when they experience the world. This horizon is not in itself an object of experience, but it is experienced in that it shapes the experience of all objects. You may notice that what Rahner calls here indirectly or unthematically conscious would be called unconscious in our everyday language, which has, I suppose, been influenced quite a lot by Freudian terminology. In order to understand Rahner ourselves and to be able to communicate his thoughts to others, we have to take that into account, otherwise Rahnerian theology becomes unintelligible to most people. Rahner's distinction is more subtle than Freudian or everyday distinction: there we have only conscious or unconscious; here we have directly conscious, indirectly conscious and unconscious. And Rahner insists on grace's being at least indirectly conscious.
 [I want to give a very simple example of what Rahner means by formal object and horizon:
The human eye is susceptible to electro-magnetic waves of a frequency between 0.38 m and 0.75 m. We call these light. There are waves with higher of lower frequencies and therefore we cannot see them, though for example bees can also see ultra-violet rays. Now in scholastic terminology we could say: The human eye's formal object is limited to the range between 0.38 and 0.75 m, while that of bees also includes the range between (0.28 and 0.39 m). Bees therefore can "see" more objects than us and they certainly see them in a different way from us, though we can hardly form an idea how that might be. The formal object therefore determines what entities can become direct or material objects.You can see from that example, what a formal object is, and you can also see that the formal object of the human eye is definitely finite. Aquinas and Rahner suppose that the formal object of the human spirit, of our intellect and will, is infinite. That means: Nothing exists that is principally outside the realm of human cognition.]Now Rahner goes a step further: It is supernatural grace that transforms the horizon of the human spirit, the infinite formal object of the human spirit really is shaped by grace. As a consequence, our intellect and will, the way we experience ourselves, the world and God, has been transformed by grace, and thus we can and do experience - though only indirectly - grace itself, or we could just as well say: God Himself. That way grace is the a priori horizon that shapes human experience, and can be experienced itself. It is, however experienced unthematically, and that is why someone might truthfully answer no, when asked about their experience of grace; why human persons may have an experience of God without reflexively knowing that they do; why the experience of God is not conditioned on any particular outward profession of faith; why, in the end, people may be saved by God independently of their religious affiliation, because they might be - as Rahner coined the term - "anonymous" Christians, that is: they nor only experience God's offer of grace unthematically, they also accepted it unthematically. Grace is therefore in the first place experienced unthematically and further effort has to be made to make that experience thematic. Rahner emphasizes "that the possibility of experiencing grace and the possibility of experiencing grace as grace are not the same thing"21. So, one might experience grace without realizing that it is grace.
I think this last point is very important. In the German-speaking countries a debate is currently going on, whether today's models of religious experience have not forgotten that God sometimes breaks into our world as alien and foreign and challenges humans to move out of our lazy and comfortable coziness. Many people who agree with that position criticize Rahner's theology of grace for bringing forth this unbiblical attitude. And it is true that Rahner wanted grace to be seen as something not alien to us. However, he distinguished very well between something being alien to us and something being perceived as alien by us. And Rahner challenges us that eventually anything that comes from the God, who created us, cannot be alien to us, but is complements our nature and that at a deeper, indirect, level of experience, we also perceive that. But on the direct and oftentimes superficial level of experience we might well have the impression that certain impulses are alien on us, while in fact they come from God in order to convert us, to turn us around. So, if the strangeness with which God's impulses sometimes enter our lives has been forgotten and suppressed in a lot of modern theology - be it as it may -, the blame for that should not be laid at Rahner's feet, but rather at too simplistic adaptations of his quite complicated and nuanced theology.

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3.2.2 Transcendental Experience of Grace

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If God offers grace to every human person because of His universal salvific will, and if grace forms an a priori horizon for the human spirit, this can also be called a transcendental horizon. Rahner uses the term "transcendental" very often and with a certain liberty, combining different meanings it has. Grace is a transcendental horizon because, 1) as a horizon, it transcends any particular realm of experience and permeates all of human experience; 2) as a finalization of the human spirit toward the divine, it transcends the world into the transcendent; and 3) as an a priori horizon, it can be analyzed by transcendental analysis, the philosophical method named by Immauel Kant, which Rahner uses in theology in the revised form of Joseph Maréchal, the Belgian Jesuit.Since such a horizon is indirectly experienced, and since it is transcendental, Rahner also says that it is perceived by a transcendental experience: this experience permeates all of human experience, it draws us toward the transcendent God, and, Rahner says, it can be analyzed and its existence proved by the transcendental method.

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3.3 Grace and Nature

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Unfortunately I do not have the time to explain transcendental method in detail. But you might know that it starts from a mental operation - like cognition or questioning - and looks for necessary preconditions in the human spirit for these operations. The preconditions it finds are proved to be real, because the operation whose necessary preconditions they are, was real. That way we can inquire into the nature of a human person: what has to belong to human nature, when humans are capable of mental acts like these? Now let us suppose a transcendental philosopher uses that method to analyze the human transcendental horizon, what will they get as a result?According to that theology which supposed that grace was beyond experience, our philosopher will gain insights into human nature and nothing else. Once we accept with Rahner that grace is indirectly experienced, this changes: The result will be, if the transcendental method has been adequately put to use, those properties of the human spirit that belong to it irrevocably, no matter whether their origin is pure human nature or the grace God offers irrevocably to humanity. The distinction between pure human nature and grace therefore cannot be drawn with certainty, because in concrete human nature, as we encounter it and analyze it transcendentally, they are already combined.22
So again Rahner proposes a more subtle distinction: not only between nature and grace, but between pure nature and concrete nature: the latter being human nature as it really exists as a consequence of God's acts of creating and gracing; the former being a theoretical concept that refers to what is minimally required for a creature to be human. But no human being exists that has only pure nature as its essence, because all human beings are already graced in their very essence.
So, what is the use of that new distinction? In accepting that concrete human persons are graced in their concrete nature, Rahner follows the Nouvelle Théologie. In holding fast to pure nature as a theoretical concept, Rahner tries to incorporate Humani Generis into his theology of grace. The encyclical had stated that in order to uphold the gratuity* of grace, in other words that God is free to give or withhold grace or that He does not owe23 us grace, we must accept that God could have created intelligent beings without calling them into communion with Him, i. e. without giving them any grace.24 In Rahner's terminology these would be creatures constituted by pure nature only, without any grace ordering them toward the visio beatifica. Rahner concurs with the pope that God could have created such intelligent creatures, but at the same time he stipulates that we know from revelation that He hasn't, because He has given grace to all people. Grace's gratuity does not entail its scarcity, Rahner insists.
However, compliance with church magisterium is not the only reason for Rahner's developing the concept of pure nature. It also ascertains that we whose concrete nature is co-constituted by grace can still experience this as a pure gift and should not fancy any obligation on God's side to grant it:25 "As a real partner of God's I must be capable of receiving His grace (unlike my existence) as the unexpected miracle of His love."26 Rahner thus stresses: Although a pious person will know that everything they are and have is God's gift, this is true about grace still on a second level. We could reasonably say: If and when God decides to create human beings, He by that act - though being His free choice - constitutes an obligation to Himself and a converse right of these creatures to everything necessary for them. This is a right granted by God, but still, once granted it constitutes a legitimate claim on God. Grace, however, is not some thing for Rahner, but - as we've seen - the communication of God Himself, a personal relationship with God, and for that reason there can be no claim or obligation for it. It is again - on a second level - God's free decision. Pure nature circumscribes exactly the boundaries of this human claim on God, concrete nature transcends them into the realm of free personal relationship. Grace, understood in that sense, exacts a two-fold characteristic in human persons: it kindles a longing for God's love in us and at the same time enables us to receive that love and love God in turn, and do that with the experience that it is "the ever astounding miracle, the unexpected gift, granted without any obligation"27.
From here one might speculate that this special kind of freedom from obligation derives from the nature of personal relationships as such: love is per se a free gift; one cannot owe love to anybody. Rahner relates that argument, but then says it is not valid with respect to God.28 It is certainly true for a fellow human being whom I give my love: I am not obligated to love them, because I have not produced their desire for my love. Yet with respect to God, the situation is different: If He has made us as longing for and dependent on His love, could He then withhold it from us without contravening the sense of his very creation? Rahner rejects that possibility. So, God would owe it to Himself to grant it and thus it would not be a pure gift anymore.29 For that reason Rahner argues, the concept of pure nature is necessary in order to ascertain grace's gratuity. It designates what remains as a remnant, when the most inner centerpiece of the human person, i. e. their orientation toward God is taken away from their concrete nature. "Nature" in the sense of being the opposite of grace therefore is a concept for a remnant not actually found in the world.30
In the further development of his theology of grace, Rahner speaks less and less about pure nature, in order to finally drop it in his later writings. I think, however, what Rahner dropped was the ontic way of distinguishing pure and concrete nature, it was not his insistence on the gift of grace being gratuitous in a second order sense, when compared to the gratuity of our being created. We might also say: Even though God has created us and through grace caused our desire for communion with Him, the fulfillment of this desire is still not owed to us (though He might owe it to Himself) , because God wants us to enter into a personal relationship with Him, which can best be modeled on human love, which is gratuitous and not obligated.
From a methodological point of view we can say that again Rahner comes to a conclusion which he could have gained much easier by a personalistic metaphysics than by scholastic ontology; Rahner reaches it, however, through opening up scholastic thinking from within and thus made it possible that his conclusion could take hold in a theology dominated by that thinking and strictly supervised by the magisterium of the church.

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3.4 The Supernatural Existential

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What we have described and discussed so far, grace as a transcendental horizon that shapes all of human experience, has been called a supernatural existential. An existential is nothing less than an a priori that shapes all of human experience. When grace forms such an existential, it may be called supernatural in the sense already explained. So, what we were basically talking about all the time, is the supernatural existential, a transcendental, a priori horizon constituted by God's formal causality being an element in the concrete nature of the human spirit. The supernatural existential thus is an aspect of grace itself, it is the way grace is offered to every human person prior to all religious of Christian instruction or reflection.

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4. For Further Thought

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Let me add two considerations on some further uses of Rahner's elaborations:1) I think Rahner's systematic conclusion that we cannot draw a clear distinction between the purely natural aspects, the effects of grace and - in the same vein - the results of original sin in our concrete nature, has far-reaching consequences in any theological anthropology. We can distinguish three main traits of the interpretation of the human person in the history of thought: one that thinks very highly of humanity, deems it intrinsically good and expects it to be saved by merely overcoming all super-additions to this good human nature; another one that holds the opposite position and sees humanity as basically rotten and evil and therefore expects salvation from a harsh judgment; and a third that denies any in-depth structure of human nature, seeing humanity as just one type of animal among others. Now from Rahner's analysis, we can see that each of these positions has something to it: the first acknowledges humanity's orientation toward the good, but overlooks its volatility; the second recognizes the consequences of original sin, but overlooks that original sin never weakened God's salvific will for us and that therefore judgment might look quite different from what the prophets of doom would have it; the third treats human persons as if they were creatures of pure nature, without any trace of God's grace or human sin incorporated into their very essence. A Christian anthropology in Karl Rahner's footsteps can acknowledge that each of them is right to a certain degree, but can bring them into an integrated unity by overcoming their one-sidedness, and thus can see human nature more clearly.
2) Has anyone here seen Steven Spielberg's movie AI: Artificial Intelligence? Do you have an idea, what that might have to do with Rahner's theology of grace?
Well, for those who don't know the movie, the plot is told rather quickly: A couple has a son, who has fallen into a coma and in all probability will not recover. After a time the couple decide to adopt an android-son, a robot with the looks and character-traits of an 11-year-old boy that starts to love his adoptive parents and desires their love, once he has been really adopted by entering a certain code. After that, he calls his adoptive mother Mommy. However, unexpectedly the natural son recovers and awakens from coma and the couple has now two sons, one their own flesh and blood, and one of steel and silicon but with the same longing for their love. Now naturally the couple decide in favor of their human son. As a consequence the android becomes very desperate and seeks ways to be exactly like his human brother (the robot is not able to eat and drink). He wants to become fully human. By fulfilling that prerequisite, he hopes to win the love of his adoptive parents.
You may now realize that Spielberg conducts a thought-experiment in his movie that corresponds to Rahner's question: If someone creates a being as longing for and dependent on it creator's love, could that creator then withhold that love from his creature without contravening the sense of his very creation? The humans in AI do just that and it is true that they contravene the sense of their very creation. Correspondingly the android boy attempts to obtain his parents' love by works, by changing who he is; he wants to merit that love. In that he is not very different from many human children who think that they must merit their parents' love, or for that matter from many faithful believers who ever again commit the pharisaical fallacy of thinking that they have to earn God's grace.
Rahner's theology of grace tells us that grace is purely gratuitous, that by our efforts to become better human persons and better Christians we cannot earn God's love, for He has already given that love to us gratuitously and irrevocably; our efforts to become better human persons can merely enable us to accept that love as a free and gratuitous gift. In the same vein we could say: Although the creator contravenes the sense of his own creation by his behavior, still the creature has no right to his love, simply because love cannot be obligated. And here is the limitation of Spielberg's thought-experiment: either we would have to accept that one day robots could be produced that are capable of giving and receiving real love (as the movie certainly suggests) - then they would eventually also be capable of understanding its gratuitous nature; or they would only simulate an ability to give and receive love, then withholding it from them would not be a problem at all.
Now if it is true that our concrete nature receives its orientation from God's grace, and if that is the reason why we are able to enter into a gratuitous relationship to God, one might ask, whether that is not the reason for the ability to enter into gratuitous relationships of any kind, also with humans. In that case, the hypothetical intelligent creatures that God could create without a supernatural calling, according to Humani Generis, would be unable to enter into free and gratuitous relationships to anyone. Maybe one day artificial intelligence will be so advanced that computers and robots can replace humans intellectually. Then this ability might become the distinguishing mark between human persons and intelligent creatures without personality.

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1 Cf. Rahner, K.: Nature and Grace. In: Theological Investigations 4 (= ThI 4), 165-188, esp. 176f.

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2 Cf. Rahner, K.: Foundations of Christian Faith. An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. Transl. by W. Dych. London: Darton, Longman & Todd 1978, 202.

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3 Ibid. 224.

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4 Ibid. 218.

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5 Cf. Rahner, K.: Current Problems in Christology. In: Theological Investigations 1 (= ThI 1), 149-200, esp. 199f.

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6 "In the incarnation … we can verify …, in the most radical and specifically unique way the axiom of all relationship between God and creature, namely that the closeness and the distance, the submissiveness and the independence of the creature do not grow in inverse but in like proportion. Thus Christ is most radically man, and his humanity is the freest and most independent, not in spite of, but because of its being taken up, by being constituted as the self-utterance of God." Rahner, K.: On the Theology of the Incarnation. In. ThI 4, 105-120, here 117.

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7 Rahner, K.: Current Problems in Christology. In: Theological Investigations 1 (= ThI 1), 149-200, here 162.

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8 Cf. AG 7; NA 1; LG 16; GS 22.

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9 Rahner, K.: Some Implications of the Scholastic Concept of Uncreated Grace. In ThI 1, 319-346.

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10 ThI 1, 322 = S 1, 349f.

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11 ThI 1, 321 = S 1, 349.

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12 ThI 1, 325 = S 1, 353.

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13 Cf. ThI 1, 329 = S 1, 357f.

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14 ThI 1, 341 = S 1, 369f.

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15 Rahner, K.: Über den Begriff des Geheimnisses in der katholischen Theologie. In: S 4, 51-99, hier 90, own translation. Cf.: The Concept of Mystery in Catholic Theology. In: ThI 4, 36-76, here 65f.

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16 In: ThI 1, 297-318.

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17 For references on that see Rahner's footnote 1 on in ThI 1, 297.

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18 Cf. ThI 1, 299.

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19 Cf. ThI 1, 299f.

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20 Cf. Siebenrock, Gnade als Herz der Welt. Der Beitrag Karl Rahners zu einer zeitgemäßen Gnadentheologie. In: Theologie aus Erfahrung der Gnade. Annäherungen an Karl Rahner. Hg.: M. Delgado u. M. Lutz-Bachmann. Hildesheim 1994, 34-71, here 36, quoting Rahner, K.: Zur Rezeption des Thomas von Aquin. In: Imhof, P. / Biallowons, H. (Hg.): Glaube in winterlicher Zeit. Gespräche mit Karl Rahner aus den letzten Lebensjahren. Düsseldorf 1986, 49-71, hier 58. Siebenrock points out that Rahner used this terminology already in his first lecture series on grace: "Sed objectum formale est quasi ‚horizon' ‚ambitus' et ‚medium', in et sub quo positum objectum adventicium est cognoscibile". Rahner: De gratia Christi. Summa praelectionum in usum privatum auditorum ordinata. Innsbruck 11937/38, 299, quoted according to Siebenrock, ibid. 62, footnote 34.

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21 ThI 1, 300 = S 1, 326.

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22 Cf. S 1, 327 = ThI 1, 301.

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23 I quite disagree with the translator of ThI 1, 1, C. Ernst, when he translates "ungeschuldet" as "unexacted", saying that this is "not quite so important in the present context" (ThI 1, 304, note 2). I think it is very important, if one wants to follow the chain of thought in Rahner's argument, and I think the verbal paraphrase is not as complicated as Ernst seems to think.

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24 Cf. Humani Generis 26: "Others destroy the gratuity of the supernatural order, since God, they say, cannot create intellectual beings without ordering and calling them to the beatific vision."

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25 Cf. ThI 1, 304.

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26 S 1, 331 my own translation, cf. ThI 1, 305.

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27 S 1, 337 my own translation; cf. ThI 1, 310f.

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28 Cf. ThI 1, 305f.

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29 Cf. ThI 1, 307.

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30 Cf. S 1, 340 = ThI 1, 313.

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