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Karl Rahner, 25 years after

After Mass today, a parishioner from Germany reminded me that March 30th of this year is the 25th anniversary of the death of Karl Rahner, one of the most important Catholic theologians of the twentieth century. I remember feeling orphaned when I heard of his death, and wondered where we could turn in the future for the insights into conditions and situations in the Church we so often gained from him.If one were to judge such things by the number of dissertations devoted to a thinkers ideas, one might conclude that the days of Rahners influence are over, and the torch has been passed to Hans Urs von Balthasar. In fact, the choice in general theological orientation is often put in terms of choosing between Rahners and Balthasars. Some years ago I attended a conference at Notre Dame on the two great theologians. A Balthasarian accused Rahner of compromising the divine transcendence by his anthropocentric approach. I thought this odd coming from a disciple of the man who claims to know an extraordinary amount of what passed between God the Father and God the Son on Holy Saturday!I dont know of any theologian who more than Rahner stressed the transcendence of the divine Mystery to all our feeble efforts to understand it. He embodied the Augustinian adage: "Si comprehendis, non est Deus" (If you can grasp it, its not God.) The incomprehensibility of God, even after his self-revelation in Jesus ChristMystery remaining Mystery, not because of a lack of intelligibility, but because of an excess of intelligibility, nowhere greater than in the mystery we will be celebrating next week, when the mystery that is excess of meaning encounters and overcomes the utter lack of meaning that is sin..Rahners chosen genre was the theological essay, and no one will pretend that his are easy. But one catches something also of the man through his brief works on prayer and in such a work as The Shape of the Church to Come, which still makes for profitable reading.A story: Johannes Quasten, great patrologist and professor at Catholic University, used to visit Mrs. Rahner, mother of Hugo and Karl, when hed return to Germany for a visit in the summer. (She lived to be over 100, I have heard.) On one occasion when she was well on in years, Fr. Quasten commented on something Karl had said about some Church-controversy in Germany. Mrs. Rahner replied: "Oh, Fr. Quasten, dont pay any attention to Karl. He always exaggerates!" Nice to know that Karl Rahner had a mother, too.

About the Author

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.



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Thanks for what you have written. My guess is that Rahner find great joy in realty's abundance and prodigality. On the America site there is a podcast by Leo J. O'Donovan, S.J. Fr. O'Donovan tells us if we are just getting started with Rahner, the book to start with is Rahner's "Encounters with Silence."

I really do not understand the recent surge in interest and dissertations on Balthasar, apart from the fact that he is a beloved of Benedict. Now there is a dissertation to be written. After all, in that wierd little book of his, Unser Auftrag, Balthasar admits to getting his best theological ideas from Adrianne von Speyer. Of course you will not find her name in his footnotes. In my opinion, Rahner wins hands down, but he does not help his cause and neither do his disciples who do not explain his thought clearly and have a penchant for turning nouns into verbs. I have observed a similar phenomenon among Lonerganians and Balthasarans. They use a privatizing language, that kind of in-house argot, that they seem to think adds to the intellectual profile of the person they write about, Rahner, Lonergan, or Balthasar. In the end they make them unintelligible and obscure.

Fr. Komonchak,My hesitation with Rahnerians I've met is that their God is too transcendent, even Schleiermachian (?) in His distance and inscrutability. Their tendency is to really equate God with the "horizon" of the Foundations.A too-inscrutable God implies an impermeable firmament, in which God cannot be known or tasted, in which God does not take direct action. And so we are left quite alone.In such a situation, faith in the Incarnate Son can easily settle into a complex of anthropological concerns. Obviously, anthropological concerns are central to any serious soteriology (pro nobis obediens), but without the sense of everlasting divine-human intimacy, the concerns of faith can become exclusively social.I would think that the restoration of the divine-human intimacy, God in se somehow touching human persons in Christ, is part of the appeal of Balthasar, despite his accuracy problems.For me, de Lubac.

I remember Fr Heinrich Dumoulin saying, 'I stick with Rahner -- the unfathomable mystery of God.' Surely Rahner had a deep sense of this, and of the divine presence in his life. To my mind he was perhaps the most wholesome theological personality of the last century.Many theologians are now beginning to understand that the cult of Von Balthasar -- the near monopoly indeed -- has had a deleterious effect on Catholic theological education. It has been a key component in the general tragedy of Catholicism since 1978. There is much of interest to be quarried from Balthasar's gigantic baroque constructions, and some of his early historical works are classics. But as a theological guide in the contemporary age he is totally inadequate.

By the way, Richard McBrien weaves together not only Rahner but Sr, Thea Bowman, who died this day, and John Climacus, the saint and author of Ladder to Paradise. It is also a nice remembrance.

Cathy: I won't try to defend Rahnerians, but I'm not sure what it can mean that God is "too transcendent," "too inscrutable" (Si scrutaris, non est Deus!) When the difference is infinite, I don't know how you can use the adverb "too". The wonder of the Incarnation is that the utterly transcendent, utterly inscrutable God has become one of us; the wonder of grace that He dwells in us and we in Him. I don't think that Rahner himself neglects these two great mysteries.Lateran IV: "Between creature and Creator no likeness could be so great that an even greater unlikeness must not be affirmed."Vatican I: "The divine mysteries of their nature so exceed the created intellect that even after a revelation has been given and received in faith, they remain shrouded in the veil of faith itself and wrapped in a kind of fog so long as 'we are away from the Lord in this mortal life, for we walk by faith and not by sight.'"

Fr. K,Fair enough: I spoke inaccurately. It is impossible to exaggerate the inscrutability of God.What I meant to say is that the transcendence can be conceived in such a way that, again, the firmament is impermeable. It's not that transcendence is exaggerated but it becomes exclusive of immanence: there is no possibility of God's ongoing immanent direct activity. God is beyond the beyond, and we are left to ourselves.I'm currently studying Thomas on the God-world relation. As you know, Thomas says that God is not really related (in the technical Aristotilean sense of that word) to the world, although the world is related to God. But it seems to me that for Thomas, the "beyondness" of God leaves room for God to be immediately present and immediately active in human souls.

Yes, that's true of Aquinas--and also of Rahner.

I don't doubt it. I am sure there is an enormous difference between Rahner and certain Rahnerianisms. I think that an exclusively transcendent God--one who is not simultaneously conceived as thoroughly immanent and directly active--is a dangerous construct and one that has led to all sorts of exaggerations of anthropology to the exclusion of God in se, in the missions, for example, and in liturgy.

Hi Kathy, I think that is a fair point, although in my experience, people tend towards the other extreme, where God becomes merely another object or representation of our creation, spoken about far too carelessly. It takes a discipline of sorts to keep Mystery in the forefront, which I believe Rahner's theology accomplishes. Anytime we speak of God, we should be careful and aware of our limitations--that is, of being utterly incapable of capturing the divine. In Foundations, a large percentage of the book is devoted to Jesus and the mystery of the Incarnation, as well.Thank you for the post Fr. Komonchak. If it wasn't for Rahner's theology, I do not know if I would have come back to Catholicism. It was in my senior year of college that I took a Christian Anthropology class that was really a front for studying Foundations of Christian Faith. To this day, I am thankful for that class and can only hope that Rahner's theology will become more influential as time moves on.

I believe stressing the transcendence of the divine Mystery to all our feeeble efforts to understand it helps us to not distort who Jesus is. We can easily assume we know what the divine is and apply false images to Jesus. The strongest way to safeguard the faith is not to start from doctrine but to return to Jesus who reveals what divinity means. Fr. Kevin Burke, S.J. wrote the following insightful words. "On the surface, starting from doctrine appears to be the strongest way to safeguard the faith. But throughout Christianitys history, it is the return to Jesus that consistently protects theology from the greatest danger of allthe temptation to use its own logic to misrepresent God. Concern for this danger lies behind the commandment forbidding false images of God: God cannot be described by analogy to what we think a god ought to be like. For his part, Sobrino (Latin American theologian) is wary of the assumption that we already know what divinity is when we apply the term to Jesus. Rather, Jesus reveals what divinity means. Starting with Jesus and moving from there to an interpretation of his being the eternal Word of God unmasks the temptation to manipulate his image (and thereby Gods image) for our own ends." I ordered Karl Rahner's book "Encounters with Silence" about a week ago. I am looking forward to learning from it. I do know that Rahner is a favorite theologian of many monks. I believe a too-avid grasp of "truth" can be poisonous. For most of us God comes as a silence which we must endure as well as enjoy. The injunction to evangelize is upon every believer but there is a hierarchy of methods. St. Francis told us, "Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words."

After all, in that weird little book of his, Unser Auftrag, Balthasar admits to getting his best theological ideas from Adrianne von Speyer. Of course you will not find her name in his footnotes.Actually, the entire fifth volume of Theo-drama is pretty much a pastiche of quotes and paraphrases of von Speyer's works, all amply footnoted.Having been a fervent Balthasarian in my youth, I find as I grow older that I have a greater appreciation for Rahner. Though Balthasar has a great reputation for orthodoxy, I find Rahner is actually more careful in dogmatic matters (none of this trinity-being-ripped-apart-on-holy-saturday business for him). Balthasar can be stirring, but the kind of plodding care that Rahner takes comforts me in my middle age.

I too want to note Leo Donovan's touching piece on Rahner in the current America.Apart from the discussion above, I'd also note that Donovan opoints up that Rahner felt his theological work was meant tobe primarily pastoral!That's somethingwe need more and more today.It's just my view, buit I think Rahner and Lonergan will be remembered somewhere down the road as the great catholic thinkers of the 20th century -steeped both in Aquinas and engaging modernit.

As NIcholas Lash has hinted, Rahner's emphasis on God's transcendence and nor-relation to creation can serve to make a solid case that there is nothing incompatible between believing in such a God and accepting what many present day scientists call a wholly naturalistic conception of the world and all its processes. In my view, this is extremely important. Nonetheless, I remain inclined that some experiences, e.g., experiences of moral evil, of extraordinary generosity, etc. offer intimations, to us Charles Taylor's term ihn his "The Secular Age," that our world is a gift given to us and sometimes abused. It is not merely a world that "just happens to be."I don't know enough about Balthasar to say anything about his work.

As grandma was wont to say, comparisons are odious.

F. C, Bauerschmidt:Thank you for the correction to my post. I am happy to learn that v B gave von Speyer the credit she deserved.

I remember vividly the time and place when I first read Rahner's "The Concept of Mystery in Catholic Theology" and the intellectual and spiritual excitement it generated. But my "aging" process has been the reverse of F.C.'s. I have grown closer to von Balthasar in the past twenty years since my coming to Boston College (post hoc/propter hoc?).I have taught seminars on Rahner and von Balthasar in recent years and find the graduate students who take them drawn more to the latter. At the risk of over-simplifying, I would suggest it is because they are attracted to Balthasar's robust Christocentrism and find themselves thereby moved to prayer.A new book, "How Balthasar Changed My Mind" (Crossroad) offers perspectives on his thinking via the influence he has had upon 15 scholars ranging from Robert Barron to Cyril O'Reagan to R.R. Reno. Not all agree with all Balthasar's theological positions, but all treasure his contribution. Though he is not among the writers, I've mentioned before Rowan Williams' appreciation of Balthasar.

"not because of a lack of intelligibility, but because of an excess of intelligibility"Fr. Komonchak: I was wondering if you would either offer a concise explanation of the above disctinction, or send me in the direction of something that I might read to help me understand the nature of the distinction.

Fr. K:I cant get on board on you with this one. SorryI think Rahners transcendental Thomism had a strong trajectory after the Council but it is ultimately not sustainable. (FWIW, I am not even sure Thomism in any form is operable for theology today).I like Rahners concept of world- Church that is a historical church embodied in specific cultures in different ways. As an ecclesial matter, I agree.But I do agree with Schillebeecxs criticism leveled against Rahners anonymous Christian. The concept of anonymous Christian is actually an insult to ones partner in dialogue. It is disrespectful and arrogant. Why wouldnt a Buddhist call a Christian an anonymous Buddhist or a Muslim call a Christian an anonymous Muslim. It interrupts the dialogue and tacitly sends a strong silent message that is inappropriate. It is not for us to define the other the :other should share their self understanding and we should not appropriate their identity in our own categories.

Mr. Pettit: There seem be things that can't be understood because there's nothing to understand, e.g., why one does not do the good one knows one ought to do. That is mystery because of a lack of intelligibility. We have difficulty in understanding our own beings, which, unlike stones, are not only intelligible but intelligent; so how much more inadequate are our minds to the supreme intelligibility that is infinite intelligence in act. We are not equal to it.Mr. D. Rahner, of course, was not the first to come up with the idea of a "global Church"; it was a commonplace in missionary circles before the Council. If I am not mistaken, Rahner said that he would have no objection if a Buddhist were to call him an anonymous Buddhist; in fact, he might regard it as a compliment. Besides there is much more to Rahner than these two points.

I was delighted to find a spot-on interpretation of St. Therese of Lisieux's theology of grace in a brief note of Rahner's (T.I. 5? 6?)

Perhaps if I, like Fr. Imbelli, had lived in a Rahner-centric theological universe, I too might find myself turning increasingly to Balthasar. I certainly do like the Christocentrism and the apocalyptic elements (something, as Metz noted long ago, rather lacking in Rahner). But the figure I find myself turning to most in the pre-dotage of my middle age is Aquinas. While I share George D's lack of enthusiasm for much "Thomism" (except, of course, Flannery O'Connor's "hillbilly Thomism"), I increasingly find in Thomas himself a rigorous and provocative conversation partner. sure, the physics is bogus, which casts something of a shadow over the metaphysics, but Thomas is not, at least in my reading, primarily a metaphysician. Rather, he is a Christian theologian who uses whatever conceptual tools are ready to hand to explore and explicate the mysteries of faith. Read in such a way, I think Thomas reamins quite relevant to theology today.

Fritz, a non-benevolent reading of your remarks might lead to the implication that I have already crossed the threshold of dotage :-) But I know that was not your intention!I have also come to share your increasing appreciation for the achievement of Aquinas and I find Nicholas Healy's, "Thomas Aquinas: Theologian of the Christian Life" a fine introduction to the Angelic Doctor. Of course, behind so much of the re-reading of Aquinas stands the magisterial work of Pre Torrell.

Still another good introduction to the theology of Aquinas is F.C.Bauerschmidts book Holy Teaching. It contains well chosen selections from the Summa Theologiae which are supplemented by extremely enlightening notes. Im in a study group using this book. I believe we are all in agreement that the fine balance between original text and commentary enables us to approach Aquinas with increased confidence.

In recent months, I have turned often to Rahner's essays on "Concern for the Church" for their clear-headed, realistic, pastoral wisdom. He saw how things were in the church and how they might be. The essays could have been written yesterday. Unflinching honesty, fidelity and sanity--a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Thanks for this reminder. I predict a Rahnerian resurgence. His deep engagement with philosophy, far deeper than Balthasar's, is an obstacle to accessibility but a strength as far as lasting relevance.

I thought this thread was about an appreciation of Rahner.As usual, Susan Gannon offers the most telling insight to my mind.

Since I've done most of my theological formation with Jesuits, it's not surprising that I've wolfed down large portions of Fr. Rahner. I've always been a great admirer.Other commentators have noted the features that I appreciate most about Rahner, which are his 1) deep spirituality; 2) robust Christocentrism; and 3) the deep respect with which he approaches the Church's dogmatic tradition. For me, his essay "Chalcedon: End or Beginning" continues to be a model of how we critically engage that tradition.When people speak of Rahner's "anthropocentrism" I think what they have in mind is Rahner's insistence on drawing out the anthropologial implications of Christian doctrine. It wouldn't be that hard to write a semi-parody of a Rahner essay which began "[Fill in the blank] is really a statement about human beings and our destiny as creatures formed to bear divine grace, etc." I think that, given his "seitz in leiben," it was very understandable why Rahner would take this approach. The danger, of course, is that theology is reduced to what Karl Barth called "speaking about man in a loud voice."I think there are a few reasons why Rahner has not worn as well as one might like in recent years. To some extent, these problems are more obvious in those who have followed Rahner than in the man himself, but I think it is true that they are picking up on recognizable strains in his thought.First of all, Rahner's anthropology is very optimistic, particularly for someone who lived in Germany during World War II. While I certainly undertand the desire to re-think the "filling station" model that saw the Church and the sacraments as the exclusive conduits of divine grace in an otherwise fallen world, Rahner's understanding of the universality of grace sometimes seems to render the Church and the sacraments almost unnecessary. Whether you are a liberation theologian trying to understand deep structures of social sin or just someone who believes that we need a greater appreciation of the power of personal sin in our lives, Rahner is not going to be a great resource for you.(BTW, since Fritz Bauerschmidt is present for the discussion, let me strongly recommend an article on this subject he wrote for Communio in 2004 entitled "Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic: Five Theses Related to Theological Anthropology." Fritz, I'd be curious whether your ideas on this have changed in the last few years).Secondly, I think that Rahner is a modern thinker who took anthropological constants for granted. To the extent that post-modernism has undermined our confidence about those constants, it's also undermined our faith in the kind of universal human religious experience that plays an important role in Rahner's theology. I think we particularly see this in Rahner's concept of "anonymous Christianity," which virtually no one on the theological left or right really likes. In a post-liberal/post-modern context, I think we are a lot more attentive to the way in which particular traditions shape our religious experiences. While it may be attractive to think that Christianity and Buddhism are just different ways of expressing an underlying common experience, I think this ultimately does violence to the particularity of those traditions.As a final aside, I'll say the theologian who I often find a good compliment to Rahner is Walter Kasper. In his "Jesus the Christ," Kasper (gently) criticizes Rahner's approach to Christology as realized anthropology. Rather than being the fulfillment of human longings for self-transcendence, Kasper argues that the Incarnation shatters the limits of human understanding of the nature of God. While Rahner appears to think that the incarnation is something that our human religious experience conditions us to expect, Kasper argues that this is not the case. To be fair, Rahner backpedaled a bit on this in "Foundations" by saying that this understanding of our religious experience is only possible because of the Incarnation, but I happen to think that Kasper has the better of the argument.

Id be curious whether your ideas on this have changed in the last few yearsThe main thing about that article I'd like to change is that fact that the subtitle is "Five Theses Concerning Theological Anthropology" when the article actually has six theses (I must have added one at the last minute and forgot to change the title). Who's going to listen to a theologian who can't count? But, alas, there are no do-overs in academic journals.Other than that, I pretty much stand by what I wrote. I like Rahner, but still think he has a weak eschatology. Indeed, it is probably in regard to his "hermeneutic of eschatological statements" that the charge of anthropocentrism has the best chance of sticking. Every eschatological statement is really just a statement about human hope. I sort of see his point, but think that this can make it seem as if what Christians say about the future is really just a statement about our current existential constitution, and not about God's promise. I'm sure Rahner would want to deny that this was his intent, but I still think he needs the corrective of a Metz or a Balthasar or a Danielou.

A hatchet job on Rahner from a thoroughly poisonous website:

A corrective for other issues might be St. John of the Cross. The darkness of the dark nights has in my view 3 causes:1. The glory of God, blinding to our eyes2. The contrast between God's purity and the human admixture of good and impurity. The soul's awareness of this contrast causes the distress of the nights3. God's direct activity of purification in the soul.John accounts for both transcendence and immanence in a way I find appealing: God is impossible to know, but intimately close and active.Incidentally except for some of the poetry, and for his famous drawing, John is noteably theocentric rathe than Christocentric.

The poet Christian Wiman has some insightful things to say about God's absence: "There are definitely times when we must suffer God's absence, when we are called to enter the dark night of the soul in order to pass into some new understanding of God, some deeper communion with him and with all of creation. But this is very rare, and for the most part our dark nights of the soul are, in a way that is more pathetic than tragic, wishful thinking. God is not absent. He is everywhere in the world we are too dispirited to love. To feel himto find himdoes not usually require that we renounce all worldly possessions and enter a monastery, or give our lives over to some cause of social justice, or create some sort of sacred art, or begin spontaneously speaking in tongues. All too often the task to which we are called is simply to show a kindness to the irritating person in the cubicle next to us, say, or touch the face of a spouse from whom we ourselves have been long absent, letting grace wake love from our intense, self-enclosed sleep."

to engage the philosophy of Balthasar, one must engage with the thinking of such as Przywara, Siewerth and Ulrich.  one must also engage with the volumes 4 and 5 of the Theological Aesthetics abd volume 1 of the Theological Logic.

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