Homage to Karl Rahner
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Round numbers invite appropriate celebration. Karl Rahner was born 100 years ago, and it is now 20 years since he left us impoverished by his departure into the 'absolute future'. There are, and there will be more, numerous publications in our media remembering the life and work of a theologian who made such an individual and significant contribution to Christian thought throughout the second half of 20th century. A half-hour programme on the wireless, of course, or a three-column digest by a journalist are utterly inadequate both as a presentation of Rahner's genius and an interpretation of writings so complex in their originality that they often defy translation into terms intelligible to readers untrained in theological thinking.
Fortunately, and especially since his death in 1984, an increasing number of scholars are harvesting many perceptive insights from among his papers, most of which are dispersed throughout different articles; they add to the establishment of authentic Rahner studies. There are young theologians, too, who in writing and publishing their doctoral dissertations undertake thoroughgoing research into Rahner. On both sides of the Atlantic there are Rahner societies which meet at regular intervals to discuss the master's thought, and there is a Rahner Foundation distributing yearly a Rahner prize for selected publications (not necessarily on Rahner himself). Last but not least, the epicentre for present-day Rahnerian studies remains the Theological Faculty of the University of Innsbruck, itself the owner of the Rahner Archive under the management of resident professors mainly responsible for the current re-publishing of Rahner's oeuvres complètes. These anniversary celebrations might seem to an outsider to assume the character of a contemporary Rahner cult.
The author of these lines, one deeply involved in the study of Rahner for some 30 years, is not a member of this cult of 'Rahnerology'. Yet he has ventured the publication of a series of 5 volumes analysing and commenting on Rahner's systematic theology, and a sixth is in progress to complete his labour. This undertaking goes back to the early seventieths, when Prof. C. Lewis of Kings College (University of London) asked him to produce a book on Rahner in a then planned series on Modern Christian Thinkers. The project was abandoned with only two contributions made. Nevertheless, his preparatory work for such a book led him to the conviction that an entire analysis of Rahner's work was needed for those English-speaking readers who knew only some scraps of his work in translation. One single book would not suffice. He realised, too, that an English-speaking reader's philosophical and theological background is obviously considerably different from that of his or her Continental counterpart. A straightforward monograph of Rahner's oeuvres could never have been sufficient. A bridge had to be built between two mentalities: that of an English-speaking public delighted with a limited acquaintance with Rahner's thought; or one chary of writings so full of neologisms and new ideas. Instead, therefore, of some simple monograph, a form of dialogue seemed to be indicated in which a detailed exposition would be followed by reflective 'Comments and Questions'. The comprehensive title of the series was inevitably: 'Understanding Karl Rahner'.
Sheed and Ward, London published the five volumes of 'Understanding' between the years 1985 and 2001. The first two are concerned with Rahner's fundamental theology introducing the reader to his philosophical and theological presuppositions. 'A Theologian in Search of a Philosophy' is therefore the sub-title of volume one. The second in the series had a more difficult task. It had to explain Rahner's understanding of fundamental theology. In fact, Rahner's version of the same amounted to a theological anthropology (the famous 'anthropological turn') situated on the borderline between philosophical considerations and theological truths yet to be expounded. The sub-title of this volume tried to present this new perspective: 'The Mystery of Man and the Foundations of a Theological System'. (The first and second edition of this volume is no longer available: it is 'vergriffen'.) The next three books in the series imposed an altered form of presentation. They undertook the discussion of Rahner's doctrinal/dogmatic writings and were published under the title, 'A Pattern of Doctrines 1-3': the first was about God and Christ; the second about Atonement and Salvation; and the third about the Church under title 'Aman of the Church'). Of these three volumes, 'A Pattern of Doctrines', the first two required a full chapter of Comments and Questions which contained, not only incidental appreciative and critical remarks, but served rather as an extension of Rahner's own premises into ones that may or may not be preferred to Rahner's own approach in the presentation of contemporary Christian Theology. An unfortunate change of publishers has delayed the edition of the last and concluding volume containing the analysis of Rahner's teaching on the sacraments and on eschatology: 'The Sacrament of the Future'. Its publication is planned for this anniversary year.
This is therefore the background to the story of a work representing almost half a lifetime spent in the experience of a mixture of admiration and unease in trying to interpret the thought of a great theologian. The author of this work never sat at Rahner's feet, but he was well acquainted with his writings much earlier than many another. In his undergraduate days at Heythrop College, Oxfordshire, he devoured the already published first volumes of his Schriften. Those were the fifties when, despite Rahner's heavy Teutonic style, his writings provided a kind of liberation from the fetters of traditional Catholic Theology. Furthermore it was fortunate that the author of the above series had, during his studies at Louvain, been 'indoctrinated' into a philosophy inspired by J. Maréchal. Thus the philosophical sub-soil of Rahner's theology, so heavily dependent on the influence of his Belgian confrere, was no novelty. It was easy therefore to become 'Rahnerian' in one's thinking, and adopt therewith the transcendental approach to both philosophy and theology. Only later, as a senior lecturer at the University of London, did the discussion of Rahner's theology with non-Catholic colleagues, lent him some uneasiness about the method and, to a certain extent, the content of Karl Rahner's writings. It was this uneasiness that led him into a more critical assessment of Rahner's writings. His reflections on the expository parts of the series showed therefore greater and greater divergence from Rahner's own thinking. This divergence, however, does not entail any rejection of Rahner's cherished ideas; after all it is Rahner himself that has inspired the modification of them.
A short essay, offered in 'homage' to a great theologian, should not emphasise the problematic. Its task is rather the appreciative assessment of a theologian whose centenary is rightly celebrated all over the world. Of the different possible methods of laudatio, many of which had been generously employed on the occasion of Rahner's 60th, 70th and 80th birthdays, one approach seems especially apt today, to ask: what is the future of Rahner's theology, the quality of which made it worthy of years and years of hard labour?
It would not be feasible to rehearse here all the leading insights characteristic of his theology. There have been, and there will be, many studies of Rahner (particularly nowadays when theological students' lack of classical languages directs them to modern authors). Such studies address: his use of transcendental method (repeatedly proposed by him until it 'died the death of thousand qualifications'); the organic unity of spirit and matter (which, in any case, should now be revised on account of recent brain research); his 'discovery' of the 'supernatural existential' (a genial way of resolving the now forgotten crisis of the nouvelle theologie); his view of salvation as the experience of the communication of grace through God's self-bestowal (now perhaps replaced by a more fashionable 'dramatic theology'); his notion of a global church-membership buttressed by arguments for the existence of the 'anonymous Christian' (now nearly forgotten by the debate about a pluralistic theology of religions); the repeated interpretation of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council especially concerning the relationship between the Pope and world-episcopate, between the Roman Curia and international organs of consultation and government, like the International Theological Commission, or Bishops' conferences (structures which have now become little more than the aspiration of a Church in the grip of a 'winter time' already felt in Rahner's time). For a future Rahner-scholar there are still many other fields open for research; his writings are a storehouse of fundamental themes on which a doctorate in theology can be written. They include: a sacramental theology (based on a theory of symbolism and the Word of God); his references of the universal priesthood of the faithful and the meaning of 'priestly existence' today; his involvement in dialogue with Marxists which gave birth to the notion of the Absolute Future who is God; his early studies on penance and spirituality.
All this notwithstanding, the question still remains: will all these future works on Rahner, doubtless soon to appear, confer any permanent value on his theology? The best criterion for this is Rahner's own thoughts about the Future of Theology.
The first volume of Schriften (11954) contains an essay about 'The Prospect for Dogmatic Theology', followed by another entitled 'A Scheme of Dogmatic Theology. (Theological Investigations /TI/ volume 1, pp.1-37=Schriften /ST/ I, pp 9-49). They propose a plan, first worked out in conversation with his colleague H.U.von Balthasar in 1939 near Innsbruck, and later submitted to the Herder publishing house: a project for an extensive handbook of Dogmatics. The first essay is quite frankly an open declaration of war on the stagnation of theological activity, but there is too some adumbration of desirable future themes. The last 200 years of dogmatic theology had been nothing other than an empty repetition of the traditional teaching of the Church, largely relying on highly selective past decrees (cf. the oft reviled Denzinger-theology) as well as equally selective biblical and patristic sources. The object? -- to establish the immutable truths of divine revelation with regard for contemporary questions. His remarks on dogmatic (or, as we say now systematic) and historical theology could be summed up by the principle which became his leading intention throughout his theological activity:
For the past can only be preserved in its purity by someone who accepts responsibility for the future, who preserves in so far as he supercedes(ibid. TI p.7= ST p.16; a quote exemplifying a translation of dubious value: italics added)
In a short broadcast, part of a series about the end of medieval and Tridentine theology on Bavarian Radio (1968) Rahner speaks about the future; it was later published as 'Farewell to Trent' (Abschied von Trient , ed. Bielmeier, Regensburg 1969; now in TI 11, pp. 378ff=ST IX, pp.148ff). This broadcast does not address particularities, but rather describes the then current situation in terms of which it was possible to foresee future ways of theologising. Though it is obvious that theology will always reflect on the common faith as it is expressed in the creeds and protected by the authority of the church, yet it is an activity pursued within a permanent situation of pluralism, and impatient of being confined 'within a single homogeneous theology' (ibid. p. 139=150). To this, of course, the so-called theology of the magisterium is no exception. He adds that the Magisterium of the future will not just have the task of propounding further distinctions to already existing dogmas in order to produce new ones, but rather the duty of delving ever more deeply into the essence of revelation. Furthermore, theology will always need an underlying philosophy (the cause partly of its plurality), yet it can no longer be based on one single philosophical system. Here Rahner gives the impression that he could envisage any philosophy as the 'sub-soil' of future theology, unless that philosophy should contradict others employed by the same theological system (ibid. p.140=150f). It is a pity that he leaves this statement as an abstract one, since every reader of Rahner's work senses the importance of his own philosophical options.
The rest of his rather sketchy suggestions for the future of theology are resumed in more detail in 'Bilanz der Theologie im 20. Jahrhundert (ed. H. Vorgrimler - van der Gucht, Freiburg 1970 pp. 530ff) under the title 'Possible Courses for the Theology of the Future' (now in TI 13, pp 32ff=ST X, pp 41ff). Here Rahner introduces a new perspective, one which will dominate most of his further treatment of the future of theology. The second Vatican Council was a world assembly, and theologians should therefore transcend the limits of their own, predominantly European culture and mentality, an obligation providing even more justification for an inevitable pluralism of theologies. Of course, such a world-theology must base itself on the firm ground of the creeds; its expression, however, should be dependent on the work of theologians with a fine sense of the situation within their own secularised societies, and of the culture of their non-European audience. Rahner can suggest too that, within certain limits, a theologian will need the courage to be 'unscientific' in proposing a theology (ibid. p. 39=48). A theology of the future must of necessity be a missionary and mystagogical undertaking. The reason is simple enough: mystagogy proposes, not only what we believe (fides quae), but must presuppose as well, to a greater extent than in the past, how people do in fact or are enabled to believe (fides qua). A certain demythologizing', therefore, is supposed by our future circumstances which, in his view, signifies a concentration on the essential and primary statements of faith; the mere addition of some further explanations to traditional formulae is not enough (ibid. p.42=51f). This stipulation makes it inevitable that new concepts and new statements will emerge, ones hitherto unknown to classical theology. Although it will speak a different language, in fact it preaches the same faith as our predecessors: in the future it will assume a form radically different from that which it had formerly' (ibid. p.44 =53f).
The same essay characterises the main traits of the future by consecrating a longish paragraph, repeatedly recommending the use of transcendental theology. He affirms that it is not just one particular method of theology among others, but a necessary means of every approach to the understanding of faith. Twice he repeats, however, that this method does not necessarily depend on any particular kind of transcendental philosophy, but does depend on the insight of faith. Transcendental theologies for the future must be subject to a present orientation that anticipates the truth that 'the salvation of man consists in the perfect wholeness which man can achieve owing to the self-bestowal of God' (ibid. p. 46=55 partly own translation).
Although transcendental theology starts with human subjectivity, no particular individual (eine einzelne partikuläre Sache, neben anderen) is intended: the 'transcendental subject' has an a priori need 'to recognize the fundamental truths of faith' (ibid)..It is so constituted by its existential situation (supernatural existential!) that it 'achieves its most radical dimension through that which we call grace' (ibid). One wonders if this relatively new description of transcendental theology means that Rahner has abandoned his dependence on a 'certain kind' of transcendental philosophy (as proposed in his semi-philosophical works). He has certainly generalised the concept to make room for other philosophical presuppositions.
This article, however, does represent an advance in that its orientation is no longer towards the horizon of 'being', that is, the 'absolute being of God' (as in his earlier works), but rather towards the mystery of God. An increasing emphasis on mystery, on the incomprehensible cloud that surrounds the human search for a meaningful existence will lead the later Rahner to identify that mystery with God (Cf. 'The Question of Meaning as a Question of God' TI 21 pp 196ff=ST XV pp. 195ff). The metaphysical knowledge of God deduced by reason seems to become less relevant, since the Christian concept of God 'is one that must be derived from actual revelation' (Cf. 'The Specific Character of the Christian Concept of God' in TI 21, pp185ff here p.194 =ST XV pp.195ff; here 204). This revelation is not to be restricted solely to the Old and New Testament, and the quest for total and ultimate meaning is shrouded in incomprehensible mystery (ibid.). In Rahner's later years this approach to theology became dominant; one which he envisaged as the third aspect of his theological methodology (Cf., Reflections on Methodology in Theology TI 11,pp 68ff )
The five last years of Rahner's life are punctuated by a number of smaller publications about the state and future of current theology. His insistence on the achievements of Vatican II, notwithstanding the sluggish implementation thereof, motivates him to assert its significance and to offer continual interpretation of its theology (See 'The Abiding Significance of the Second Vatican Council', TI 20 pp.90ff=ST XIV, pp. 287ff and 'Basic Theological Interpretation of the second Vatican Council', TI 20, pp 90ff=ST XIV pp 303ff). In the first of these we already discern the cold of 'winter-time' gradually affecting his treatment of the relationship of the Church to the modern world (See his hard remarks concerning the fascist nature of clerical power politics within the Church, p 93= 307.); whereas the second spells out the inevitable implications of the world-Church envisaged by the Council. They include some 'revolutionary' (?) suggestions, for instance, theology itself must become more and more centrifugal by emigrating from Europe, and learning to talk Christianity in the language of other cultures; even, too, that revelation and salvific faith is not to be restricted to the Catholic Church, or even to present Christianity, since the failure to emphasise this truth must inevitably handicap the missionary nature of the Church.
Rahner even ventures to compare the present situation with the change inaugurated by Paul in taking his mission to the Gentiles. He altered the future of a short-lived Judeo-Christianity by amalgamating it with a Hellenistic Mediterranean culture. It was an interruption of continuity, and the transition 'really involved a caesura, a new beginning'. If Paul's situation is truly parallel with our own then
…today we are for the first time living again in a period of caesura like that involved in the transition from Judeo-Christianity to Gentile Christianity (Theological Interpretation… p 85=296f)…
Just as the Church was weaned from her Judaic background through Paul's mission to the Gentiles, she now faces a radically new period of her existence, the third one according to Rahner. The abolition of circumcision and the greater part of Judaic ritual signalled an entry into an unknown future, and we too face imponderables; we cannot foresee the way in which the life of Christianity and of the Church will develop. Any change, of course, must not affect the core of the gospel, but it will certainly affect the theology without which the message of Jesus would remain a closed book for most of humankind. Unless one believes that the inculturation of Christendom within a European frame of thought renders that thought a necessary part of revelation itself, we are in the process of accepting a new kind of inculturation the consequences of which are unforeseeable.
Four years before his death Rahner tackled this problem in a form which was specific to Central European theology. Owing to Concordats between (mainly German-speaking) countries and the Holy See, theological faculties of the main confessions exist within secular universities run and maintained by the state. Theology is presently categorised as one of the 'sciences' (Wissenschaften); it can belong to the Universitas Scientiarum. Its existence within this academic faculty, however, is now more and more exposed to the question: is theology really a 'science'? Should the taxpayer finance it? Can theologians contribute anything to the advance of learning as pursued by colleagues engaged in physical, medical, and similar research? Can faith and religious belief contribute anything to the humanities apart from their past and present cultural value? Rahner's essay, 'Theology Today' (TI 21,pp 56ff=ST XV 63ff) is an attempt at answering these questions and at the same time a pointer towards the shape of a still unknown future theology.
The min argument against the 'scientific' nature of theology is not so much that its teachers depend on non-scientific authorities for their material, but the question: has this so-called 'science' any proper subject-matter? The consequent timidity of theologians within a secular university is understandable. Rahner has not much time for unsatisfactory compromises such as: changing the subject of theology to a neutral science of comparative religion; or the reduction of theology to historical, philological, or merely philosophical exercises; or even to practical purposes in service of secular society. One wonders, indeed, if Rahner would welcome the involvement of theology in the problems of day-to-day politics (as herein exemplified by Prof. Schwager of happy memory). He returns, instead, to the very fundamentals of Christian belief: the subject matter of theology is quite simply God, the incomprehensible mystery. It is a daring thesis within the context of modern universities, but wise advice, not only for those who find themselves in that situation, but also for the future of theology itself.
Interestingly enough, Rahner develops his thesis by using the words 'mystery', 'incomprehensibility' or a combination of both no less than twenty times in this short essay. Can such terms have any meaning for a scientist or any student of secular humanities? Should not the theologian dealing with an incomprehensible subject opt rather for Wittgenstein's silence? Tentatively, Rahner offers a short sketch of an answer.
First, without any attempt at the evaluation of fashionable trends in modern theology, he characterizes their very diversity as the significant phenomenon subsequent to the end of neo-scholasticism. These trends are ready to employ various philosophical methods in terms of which theologians try to explain Christian faith 'as the index of that milieu in which a Christian must also live and critically discern how to be a Christian' (ibid p. 72=78). Even the Anglo-Saxon philosophy of language and scientific theory is included: terra incognita for Rahner and adversary to neo-scholastic tradition. In this period of transition, however, some of these attempts tend 'to reduce the Christian faith to a few accessible teachings and attitudes, reductions which would ultimately transform Christianity into a vague humanism' (ibid). On the one hand, though neo-scholasticism is not yet defeated, it can remain a critical instance of deficient modern trends yet, on the other, its past dominance cannot be revived, since the newly developing regional theologies in the USA, in India, and in Africa are concerned with diverse questions hitherto unknown to European theology. This latter is now old and failing, but its past expertise can help mediate between various new initiatives, and help to avoid possible dangers in their proposals (See in more detail 'Aspects of European theology' TI 21, pp78ff=84ff). In other words, theology in transition is finding its new shape.
Secondly, even theology in transition can be a true science (Wissenschaft) in so far it breaks
…through the borders which are imposed upon an individual science by its very nature. [In so far as its] interest extends to everything, [however] it is required to consider the unfathomable primordial ground of all reality. The object of its interest can be nothing but God (ibid p 60f=67)
The new theology will need certainly to consider Jesus Christ, but only in so far as he is the one 'who has passed into this mystery through death' (ibid.). From this perspective, theology has the capacity to enter into dialogue with the various branches of higher learning in universities.
Rahner proposes as well some general principles within the framework of which this dialogue could be carried on. When speaking about the mystery of God to fellow scientists, the theologian is not just a chaplain with the cure of his colleague's soul; he should not, therefore, only address the human person who may or may not be a believer, but all those whose research does not recognise the existence of God. An interest in and some general knowledge about the branch of science cultivated by his fellow scientist is presupposed. Interdisciplinary dialogue can be a plus for the theologian as well as a warning to fellow scientists not to regard their findings as absolute and ultimate, for they are both relative to, and subject to the truths of another discipline. To transgress the boundaries of one particular subject matter leads to what Rahner calls, a 'holy relativism', equally beneficial to both sides of the dialogue: the theologian discovers new aspects of his discipline and other scholars, perhaps, gain entry into subjects proper to theology. Scientists
…remain creatures with an openness which always reaches out beyond any administrative manipulation toward that incomprehensibility which we call God (ibid p. 67=73)
If we accept this presentation of Rahner's own thinking about the future of theology, we must certainly afford him an honourable and permanent place among modern theologians. The merits of his life work are to be assessed, not so much on his past achievements, but on the character of his way of thinking. It was this latter that broke the boundaries of neo-scholasticism, even though he himself was one of the last great neo-scholastic theologians. It is not so much what he said and wrote, but how he led the way towards the emergence of a new theology in a period of transition. He is by no means a Church-Father of the twentieth Century whose every word and throw-away sentence must be studied in a new critical edition of his works. The permanent value of Rahner's theology is its capacity for further development, extension, and, in some sense, replacement by the answers to the new questions which the post-Rahner theologian now has continually to face. Future Rahnerian scholars will have to apply that same 'holy relativity' to the work of Rahner himself, a theologian who has passed through death, like his Master, into the incomprehensible mystery of God. For 'God's incomprehensibility is something which does not belong to human beings, but rather human beings belong to it.' (ibid p. 63 =69f). Not here on earth, but only there, that we can experience God's saving grace.
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