Karl Rahner Theologian and Spiritual Writer



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Karl Rahner Theologian

and Spiritual Writer
Karl Rahner was a German Jesuit theologian. He was born in Freiburg, Germany in 1904 and died in 1984. Rahner is considered one of the greatest Christian theologians of the 20th century. He was one of the periti (theological experts) at the Second Vatican Council (1962 - 1965). His theology is profoundly rooted in the tradition of Ignatian spirituality.
Rahner’s goal was to make Christian faith intelligible to contemporary people, both believers and inquirers. Rahner saw the human person as radically (at the root) open to mystery. For Christian faith this mystery is disclosed as holy mystery, the mystery of God. God’s self-communication in Jesus Christ reveals the divine character as a mystery of gracious love.
In this course we will explore three central themes in Rahner’s theology and relate them to our own spiritual reflection/practice.
A. Starting with Human Experience
B. God as Holy Mystery
C. God’s Self-communication to Humanity in Grace

A. Starting with Human Experience
All of us are mysteries to ourselves. The question of the ultimate meaning of our lives persists through the varied experiences of our lives from childhood to death. This is the human question to which Rahner’s theology responds.
Rahner works with what is called a “transcendental” method. He develops a transcendental “anthropology” or understanding of the human person. This is an account of human experience which addresses the whole person, transcending the limited perspectives of the biological, psychological, or sociological sciences while by no means denying their validity within their own limits.
Rahner analyzes five basic dimensions of human experience:
1. Our experience of ourselves as “subjects” or “persons”
2. The transcendent character of our knowledge
3. Our experience of freedom and responsibility
4. Human existence as a question of salvation
5. Our experience of dependence
1. Our Experience of Ourselves as “Subjects” or “Persons”
For Rahner the most fundamental experience of ourselves, what he calls “original experience,” is our experience of ourselves as subjects or persons rather than as objects in the world. We become conscious of ourselves as “selves,” “persons,” or “subjects” through the experience of radical questioning. We know that we have been shaped by our heredity and our environment and we gain insight into ourselves through the various fields of human knowledge, but we realize that every answer and every explanation leads to new questions. To be a person, to be a self, is to go beyond (to transcend) every partial understanding of ourselves. We remain mysteries to ourselves in the midst of all our knowledge.
2. The Transcendent Character of our Knowledge
What Rahner means by transcendence as present in our ordinary experience is that everything can become a question for us. Each of our particular experiences occurs within a finite horizon of understanding. Our experience of constantly transcending this finite horizon through our questioning is the basic evidence for Rahner’s argument that we are transcendent or spiritual beings. What Rahner seeks to do in his theology is to open up the spiritual dimension of human existence in all its heights and depths
Transcendence means an openness to the mystery that we are as human persons and the mystery that encompasses us from birth to death. Through this experience of transcendence we know that we are not absolute subjects in perfect control of our lives, but that our lives from birth to death are surrounded by mystery. We know that we did not create ourselves, but that we are contingent, finite beings who have received our existence as a gift from beyond ourselves. Rahner believes that this experience of transcendence, which is dimly experienced as the horizon of mystery in the midst of our lives, is glimpsed in mystical experience and in the experience of our death.
3. Our Experience of Freedom and Responsibility
We not only experience transcendence by coming up against the limits of our finite knowledge, but also through our experience of freedom and responsibility. For Rahner, freedom is not something we have (like a psychological faculty) as a part of our makeup as human beings. Freedom belongs to who we are as human persons. Freedom and responsibility belong to our experience of ourselves as subjects rather than as objects. Freedom has to do with the disposition of ourselves as whole persons. Because freedom belongs to our experience of transcendence, it is not fully accessible to the methods of the empirical sciences.
This transcendent character of freedom occurs in the concrete circumstances of our lives and in the choices we make. We are formed not only by this transcendent freedom, but also by the various forces that determine our lives, many of which are beyond our control. Our parents and the events of our childhood, for example, shaped us long before we had the power to make conscious decisions. However, we can choose how we will respond to these various forces that have shaped and continue to shape our lives. We can shift responsibility for our actions and choices by blaming people or events beyond our control, or we can follow the path of transcendent freedom, the power we have, or rather are, to decide who we will become as human persons. Will we open our lives up more deeply to the mystery that surrounds us, or will we close ourselves off from the possibility of growth and true freedom.
To be free is to possess oneself in such a way that we can give ourselves to others in friendship and love. For Rahner, the ultimate ground of human freedom is our orientation towards and love for God, the transcendent ground of our existence as finite subjects and persons. It is this orientation, this kind of love, that makes human beings free, that allows us to give ourselves freely and to love others. Ultimately, this freedom is only possible through grace working in us and transforming our lives.
4. Human Existence as a Question of Salvation
It may appear surprising to find the question of salvation treated as a dimension of human experience apart from explicit Christian faith, but Rahner wants to affirm that all human beings are open to the offer of grace. Salvation, or grace, does not come from outside our human experience like a bolt from the blue. Salvation, or the experience of grace, means the transformation and fulfilment of our humanity. When responded to in freedom grace fulfils our human existence. For Rahner, therefore, there is an intrinsic connection between personal existence and salvation.
Salvation, for Rahner, is not an otherworldly reality, “pie in the sky when we die” as Karl Marx put it. While salvation has an eternal dimension, the work of grace is the transforming dimension of our concrete life in the world, in time, and in history. The experience of transcendence does not take us out of the world and out of history. On the contrary, the particular experiences and actions that form our history are the prism through which our transcendent natures are to be realized. The world and its history is the arena in which our spiritual lives are to be lived out. Rahner stresses, therefore, the intrinsic and reciprocal relationship between transcendence and history. Our historical existence is a permanent structure of our life in the world, a dimension of our very existence as persons. It is the context in which we realize our creativity and freedom. We can speak, therefore, of a history of salvation.
We are also social persons. Our lives are not only lived out in the context of history, but also in the context of society and community. By stressing the historical and social dimensions of human existence Rahner avoids a purely individualistic understanding of human experience in the world and an individualistic understanding of salvation. He emphasizes the universality of the offer of grace and salvation as a gift offered to all human beings. Since all of our lives as human persons are bound together in society and in history there is a fundamental unity between the history of humankind and the history of salvation. Because historical and social existence is intrinsic to our lives as human persons, Rahner believes that our spiritual lives are meant to be lived out in community rather than in isolation. This provides an implicit critique of purely individualistic forms of spirituality.

5. Our Experience of Dependence
Having stressed the transcendence and freedom of the human spirit, Rahner concludes his description of human experience with an emphasis on our radical dependence as persons. This is another way of saying that we are not in control of our lives. Our lives are in the hands of a mystery that transcends us. This is most evident in the experience of birth and in the experience of death. This understanding of dependence is Rahner’s way of describing the finite character of our human experience. We are not our own creators. We are not in ultimate control of our lives.
This is very different from the experience of dependence characteristic of a child in relation to adults, or of immaturity in relation to maturity, which is the way Freud, for example, understood the experience of God, as the experience of immature dependence on a father figure. There is no doubt that the experience of God in many people’s lives has been one of immature dependence, but this is very far from Rahner’s understanding of the meaning of dependence. For Rahner, dependence means a recognition of our finitude and the realization that our ultimate fulfilment as human beings is to be found in our free response to God’s unconditional love and grace towards us.
With this affirmation of the human person as dependent, Rahner has prepared the way for introducing the question of God in relation to human experience.

B. God as Holy Mystery
Rahner has already opened up the transcendent or spiritual dimension of human life in his analysis of the various dimensions of human experience in the world. For Rahner the question of God arises as we explore the meaning of the mystery that we are to ourselves, and the mystery that encompasses our lives. It is the constant questioning in human existence in our quest to discover the ultimate meaning of our lives in this world that leads to the question of God.
The question of God has become problematic in contemporary western secular culture. All ancient cultures recognized the mystery that surrounded the life of their societies and the cosmos. They called it by different names and expressed it in myth and ritual. The universe was a sacred place and the whole of life was permeated by the realm of the spirit. There was no division between sacred and secular.
From the 4th to the 18th century western society was also a religious society. We call this the period of Christendom when church and state were two sides of a predominantly Christian culture. The gradual secularization of western society began in the 18th century until today we live in a post-Christendom society where the church has become a minority in a predominantly secular culture. Rahner clearly recognized this historical change in western society and envisioned the church of the future in the west as a minority community in a predominantly secular culture.
This provides the context in which Rahner explores the question of God in human experience. Whereas in the Middle Ages theology was the queen of the sciences and all the other disciplines were understood in relation to it, now each of the disciplines has become autonomous, and the dominant world view in a secularizing age is the world of science and the triumph of the empirical method, so that for many in our culture science has become the model and the arbiter of genuine knowledge.
During this period atheism has also begun to flourish in various forms. Karl Marx portrayed religion as the opiate of the people. Freud characterized religion as the immature dependence on a father figure, and others, notably Albert Camus, have been unable to reconcile belief in God with the existence of suffering in the world. In our own time some writers, notably the biologist Richard Dawkins and the journalist Christopher Hitchens, champion an aggressive atheism.
While Dawkins and Hitchens do not figure in Rahner’s thought, since they are more recent figures, Rahner is very much alive to both the secular reality that prevails in the west and to the various forms of 19th and 20th century atheism. His discussion of the mystery of God is set against this whole background and his goal is to make Christian faith in God intelligible in this context.
The secularization of western society and the triumph of the scientific method as the arbiter of all knowledge has led to a repression or suppression of the sense of mystery that prevailed in earlier societies and hence a loss of the spiritual dimension in human experience. Rahner’s goal in speaking of God is to reclaim the sense of mystery and the spiritual dimension in human life. He remarked that the Christians of the future will be mystics or there will be no Christianity. By this he meant that if Christianity is to survive into the future there will need to be a rebirth of the spiritual dimension in the everyday lives of Christians.
In British Columbia we are aware both of the marginalization of Christianity and at the same time of a rebirth of spirit in a variety of different forms, more often than not outside the church. What is significant is not so much the various forms that spirituality takes in the contemporary context, but the fact many people are hungering for the spiritual dimension of life and often have no background or resources to help them discover what this could mean for their lives. Rahner’s aim is not only to make Christianity intelligible for contemporaries, but also to help people discover the dimension of mystery in their everyday lives.
There is a wonderful passage in his book Foundations of Christian Faith in which he puts the scientific paradigm in the context of the wider context of mystery and spirit which surround and give depth to our lives:
In the ultimate depths of our being we know nothing more surely than that our knowledge, that is, what is called knowledge in everyday parlance, is only a small island in a vast sea that has not been travelled. It is a floating island, and it might be more familiar to us than the sea, but ultimately it is borne by the sea and only because it is can we be borne by it. Hence the existential question for us is this: Which do we love more, the small island of our so-called knowledge or the sea of infinite mystery? Is the little light by which we illuminate this island - we call it science or scholarship - to be an eternal light which will shine forever for us? That would surely be hell.” (Foundations of Christian Faith, 22 alt.).
A purely secular ideology, or a view of the world in which the scientific method becomes the sole arbiter of knowledge offers an impoverished view of human life and of the heights and depths of the human spirit. From this perspective the secular/scientific vision of Dawkins and Hitchens represents a massive failure of imagination. It flies in the face of the mystery which scientists themselves discover the deeper they engage in research. Rahner seeks to open us up to the sea of infinite mystery which surrounds the island of the scientific paradigm.
For Rahner, our knowledge of God is not the kind of knowledge in which we grasp an object in our ordinary experience of the world. The knowledge of God is a transcendental experience. It goes beyond the world of finite beings. God cannot be grasped as an object in our ordinary experience of the world, because God is the transcendent context, horizon, ground, or source of everything else that exists. In the language of classical philosophy God is Being or Ultimate Reality. Rahner speaks of God primarily as Holy Mystery, since in human experience it is within the transcendence of knowledge and love that we primarily experience the meaning of the word God. When we experience this transcendence as the transcendence of love as well as of knowledge we experience the mystery as holy mystery.
To know God is to know the mystery that embraces our lives as the Holy Mystery, as the source of all life and all love. Rahner speaks of this Holy Mystery as “incomprehensible.” God’s mystery is inexhaustible. It is beyond all of our concepts and images. God cannot be enclosed in any human definition. In other words, we cannot put God in a box. God is experienced as the horizon within which everything else is experienced and known.
How then can we speak of this fathomless mystery which is the context, the horizon, and the ground of all our experience? If God is incomprehensible, beyond definition, how can we speak of God at all? Rahner argues that we can only speak of God in symbolic language, or by way of analogy. When we say. for example, that God is personal, loving, good, or just, we are stretching the language that we normally use to speak of finite human beings to speak of the infinite ground of all being. How can we do this? We can do this because we know that everything in the finite world exists in God as its source. When we say that God is personal, loving, good, or just we are saying that God is the One in whom these qualities are realized preeminently as in their source.
We can speak of God as loving because God is the source of our loving, but love exists in God in a way which far transcends our capacity to understand; otherwise God becomes an anthropomorphic God, a God created in our own image, which is an idol, or a human projection. When we say that God’s nature is personal, we are not saying that God is a person like a human person. We are saying that God is the ground of all personal reality and that this reality is realized in God as its transcendent source. We are saying that God is more than person as we know it. God knows and loves as is only possible for the source of all knowledge and love. What is this like in God? We do not know, because God is incomprehensible and beyond definition in human words and concepts.
The word God finds its meaning when the experience of transcendence takes us beyond the limited objects in our experience to the One “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). The real meaning of the word God is found in prayer and in the love through which we find depth and ultimate meaning in our lives. Rahner speaks of God as the Absolute Mystery. To truly find oneself is to find oneself in the presence of this Mystery. All our human questioning and longings, our quest for meaning and search for love, find their ultimate fulfilment in God.
It is one thing to assert that God is personal and loving on the basis of philosophical and theological argument. It is another thing, however, to experience God as personal and loving in our everyday lives, in prayer and worship, in those moments in our lives when we experience God’s challenge and nearness, and through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. This leads us directly into our next topic: “God’s self-communication to humanity in grace.”

BULLET POINTS
Ÿ Karl Rahner’s goal was to make Christian faith intelligible to contemporary people
He begins with human experience and sees the human person as radically (at the root) open to mystery

Ÿ This course will explore three central themes in Rahner’s theology and relate them to our own spiritual reflection/practice:
A. Starting with Human Experience
B. God as Holy Mystery
C. God’s Self-Communication to Humanity in Grace

Ÿ A. Starting with Human Experience
The question of the ultimate meaning of our lives is the human question to which Rahner’s theology responds.
Rahner approaches this question using a “transcendental” method
He develops a transcendental “anthropology” or understanding of the human person
This is an account of human experience which addresses the whole person, transcending the limited perspectives of the biological, psychological, and social sciences

Ÿ Rahner analyzes five basic dimensions of human experience:
1. Our experience of ourselves as “subjects” or “persons”
2. The transcendent character of our knowledge
3. Our experience of freedom and responsibility
4. Human existence as a question of salvation
5. Our experience of dependence

Ÿ Our Experience of Ourselves as “Subjects” or “Persons”
Human persons are subjects rather than objects
We become conscious of ourselves as “persons” or “subjects” through the experience of radical questioning
Through our questioning we transcend (go beyond) every partial understanding of ourselves

Ÿ 2. The Transcendent Character of our Knowledge
Each of our experiences occurs within a finite horizon of understanding
Through our questioning we constantly transcend this finite horizon
This is Rahner’s argument that we are transcendent or spiritual beings
Transcendence means an openness to the mystery that we are as human persons and the mystery that encompasses our lives in this world
Rahner seeks to open up the spiritual dimension of our lives in all its heights and depths

Ÿ 3. Our Experience of Freedom and Responsibility
We not only experience transcendence by coming up against the limits of our finite knowledge, but also through our experience of freedom and responsibility
Freedom is not something we have (like a psychological faculty). Freedom belongs to who we are as human persons.
This transcendent freedom is made concrete through the particular choices that we make
We can shift responsibility for our actions by blaming other people or events, or we can exercise our transcendent freedom by deciding who we will become as human persons
Human freedom is ultimately grounded in the love and grace of God which empowers us to give ourselves freely to others in friendship and love

Ÿ 4. Human Existence as a Question of Salvation
Rahner affirms that all human beings are open to the offer of grace
Salvation means the transformation and fulfilment of our humanity
Salvation is not “pie in the sky when we die”
It is the transforming dimension of our concrete life in the world, in time, and in history
Our spiritual lives are meant to be lived out in the context of history, society, and community
This calls in question purely individualistic forms of spirituality

Ÿ 5. Our Experience of Dependence
As finite beings we do not have ultimate control of our lives
This is what is meant by the experience of dependence
Our lives are in the hands of a mystery that transcends us
With this affirmation of our dependence Rahner has prepared the way for introducing the question of God

Ÿ God as Holy Mystery
It is the constant questioning in our search for the ultimate meaning of our lives that leads to the question of God
The question of God has become problematic in contemporary western secular culture
All ancient cultures experienced the mystery that encompassed the life of their societies, called it by different names, and expressed it in myth and ritual
The 4th to the 18th century in the west was the period of Christendom
Since the 18th century there has been a gradual secularization of western society
Today the church exists as a minority community in a predominantly secular culture
This is the context in which Rahner explores the question of God

Ÿ For many in our culture science has become the model and arbiter of genuine knowledge
Atheism in various forms has begun to flourish
The secularization of western society and the triumph of science has led to a repression of the sense of mystery and a loss of the spiritual dimension in human experience
A purely secular ideology offers an impoverished view of human life and of the heights and depths of the human spirit
Rahner’s goal is to reclaim the sense of mystery and the spiritual dimension in human life, to open us up to the sea of infinite mystery which surrounds the small island of the scientific paradigm

Ÿ God cannot be grasped as an object in our ordinary experience of the world, because God is the transcendent context, horizon, ground, or source of everything else that exists
Rahner speaks of God as Holy Mystery, since it is within the transcendence of knowledge and love that we encounter the mystery of God
God is “incomprehensible,” beyond all our concepts, images, and definitions
To use literal language of God is to create an anthropomorphic God, a God created in our own image, which is an idol or human projection
We can speak of God only in symbolic language or by analogy
We can say that God is loving by analogy from our finite experience of love because God is the source of our loving, but love exists in God in a way which far transcends our capacity to understand

Ÿ The real meaning of the word God is found in prayer and in the love through which we find depth and ultimate meaning in our lives
All our human questioning and longings, our quest for meaning and search for love, find their ultimate fulfilment in God




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