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Anonymous Faith: Karl Rahner

Karl Rahner’s place in theology

‘Karl Rahner [1904-1984] is universally recognized as important, but often lightly dismissed.’1 Indeed, the outstanding formal feature of Rahner’s thought is that it is difficult to follow. Dismissing it lightly often seems easier than doing the heavy reading it requires. Rahner’s thought is deeply rooted in German philosophy, the authors of which, such as Kant and Hegel, offered difficult readings from the outset. In particular, the transcendental approach which we find in Rahner’s writings belongs to a period in the history of Western thought when down-to-earth realism began its victorious world domination over the artistic, and often artificial, thinking about the conditions of possibility of such realism. To understand Rahner philosophically, we must know Kant and his followers. To understand Rahner theologically, we must see the development of modern theology in the work of such towering figures as Joseph Marechal (1878-1944), Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) and Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988).

In 1950 von Balthasar considered Rahner to be ‘our only hope’, one whom ‘we must support’.[1] [2] On the one hand, the main formal feature of von Balthasar’s thought is his overall reinterpretation of traditional dogmatic propositions in the context of the rich history of European culture: the graphic arts, music, literature and philosophy. In its contents, von Balthasar sought to demonstrate the truth of traditional doctrines based on the common elements of culture and theology embedded in the dynamism of a providential guidance of the loving God of history. In nature as well as in culture, the glory of God shines forth as the ultimate proof of the eternal renewal of the transcendent order. On the other hand, Rahner emphasized a conceptual approach to the tradition, especially Thomism, an approach methodologically congruous with the transcendental logic of German philosophy. Rahner’s important thoughts, such as ‘supernatural existential’, ‘transcendental revelation’ or ‘anonymous faith’, cannot be properly understood without mapping out this epistemological legacy which, especially in the thought of Martin Heidegger, became an overall and theologically resonant ontology. The soil which produced the systems of Marechal, von Balthasar and Rahner had been the same: ‘the modern philosophical revolution’.[3] In his own words, von Balthasar chose Goethe instead of choosing Kant. Indeed, we find in Goethe the awareness of history and culture and also, in a nutshell, later developments of German philosophy.[4]

Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange’s article of 1946 formulated some of the important objections of the old school against the Nouvelle theologie, which was, at least partially, the homeland of Rahner. In Garrigou-Lagrange’s view, substituting the Thomistic formula ‘truth is the adequation of things and intellect’ with the formula ‘truth is the real adequation of life and human mind’ by the new theologians leads to a subversion of traditional doctrine.[5] However, for the theologians in question the problem did not primarily concern the ‘things’ or the ‘intellect’ but rather the meaning of ‘adequation’. As Rahner points out in Hearers of the Word (1941), that which is known, according to St. Thomas, is the ontological reality of the mind and not a mere composition of a thing and a thing-like intellect. Thomas’ important notion of ‘the subject’s return into itself’ is the key to the understanding of reality. What we know is mind-like, because reality is mind-like, in a sense more real than anything given in the senses.[6] Rahner’s approach entails his emphasis on the subject, the overall nature of divine-human relationship, with special reference to his inversion of a legendary maxim: if theology is anthropology, as Feuerbach claimed, then anthropology is theology.[7]

  • [1] *Karen Kilby, Karl Rahner: Theology and Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 1.
  • [2] Quoted in Rudolf Voderholzer and Michael J. Miller, Meet Henri de Lubac (San Francisco: IgnatiusPress, 2007), p. 64.
  • [3] Cf. Walsh, The Modern Philosophical Revolution.
  • [4] Cf. Dulles, The Assurance of Things Hoped For, ch. 7.
  • [5] Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, ‘La nouvelle theologie ou va-t-elle?’, Angelicum 23 (1946), pp. 126-145(143).
  • [6] Karl Rahner, Hearers of the Word, trans. J. Doncell; (New York: Continuum, 1994), p. 33.
  • [7] Rahner, Hearers of the Word, p. 142. See also Karl Rahner, ‘On the Theology of the Incarnation’, intranslated with an introduction by Cornelius Ernst (eds), Theological Investigations IV (London: Darton,Longman & Todd, 1974), pp. 105-120 (116). The succinct formula is given by Steffen J. Duffy in‘Experience and Grace’, in Declan Marmion and Mary E. Hines (eds), The Cambridge Companion toKarl Rahner (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), pp. 43-62 (43).
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