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Karl Rahner Society
An Interview with Karl Rahner
Rahner's Foundations of Christian Faith
Karl Rahner, German theologian, is regarded by many as the foremost Roman Catholic theologian of the 20th century. Born in Freiburg, Baden, on March 5, 1904, he attended the local Gymnasium ("academic high school"), and entered the Jesuit order in 1922. He studied for the priesthood at seminaries in Feldkirch, Austria (1922-25), Pullach, near Munich (1925-27), and Valkenburg, Netherlands (1929-33). He was ordained in 1932. At the University of Freiburg, Rahner attended the German existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger's seminar and was decisively influenced by him. Rahner's doctoral dissertation, a new interpretation on the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, was published in 1939 as Spirit in the World. Rahner took his doctorate in 1936 at the University of Innsbruck. He spent most of his career, lasting until 1971, teaching systematic theology at Innsbruck, Pullach, and the universities of Munich and Münster. During World War II he did pastoral work in Vienna and in a Bavarian country parish.
The principal philosophical influences on Rahner were the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, Heidegger, and the Belgian Jesuit Joseph Maréchal, founder of the school of transcendental Thomism, which affirms the insights of Aquinas but analyzes human understanding in light of Kantian critical philosophy. Rahner's influence grew after his service (1960-65) as an official papal theological expert before and during the Second Vatican Council. The range of his writings is wide, with more than 3500 works, but he is perhaps best known for the work he has done on the fundamental relationship between the order of nature and the order of grace, specifically on the possibility of self-transcendence. Characteristic of his theology is sensitivity to the modern philosophical concerns of evolution, existentialism, and personalism.
Rahner's intention was to place theological thought at the service of Christian faith and life by confronting problems posed by modern philosophy and science. His major works include Theological Investigations (14 vol.; trans. 1961-76), Hearers of the Word (1941; trans. 1969), dealing with when and how humans are positively open to a divine revelation, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (1978), and the posthumously published Words of Faith (1987). In 1965 he was a founder of the journal Concilium, and he served as chief editor of the sourcebook of church documents, Enchiridion Symbolorum, from its 28th to 31st editions. He also edited several important theological reference works. He stands out among modern Christian theologians not only for quantity of output but for the universally recognized depth of his thought.
Rahner's approach to theology is characteristic of the 1930's: a Christian response to the secular loss of the transcendence of God. Whereas earlier generations met this challenge through liberalism and modernism, Rahner and his circle argued that the recovery of the sense of the transcendent could only be achieved through a reappropriation of the classical sources of Christian theology, especially Augustine and Aquinas. His approach fused German idealism and existentialism with Thomism.
Rahner believed that the polarity between "transcendence" and "immanence" was false, being imposed upon Christianity by secular world views. Human experience is unintelligible unless it is interpreted in light of the transcendent mystery of God through "transcendental reflection." Humans transcend themselves in every act of questioning and thinking, by which they demonstrate themselves to be both part of the natural world and yet simultaneously oriented towards the mysterious horizon of being that Christians know as God, the infinite horizon of hope and love. The dilemma of immanence or transcendence of God must thus be overcome without sacrificing either. Due to the ability of humans to discern the transcendent element of their situation, there is an implicit knowledge of God latent within humanity, which it is the function of transcendental reflection to identify. The sense of relation to God, a natural knowledge of God, he terms "transcendental revelation," but is inadequate in itself and needs to be supplemented by a supernatural knowledge of God, or "categorical revelation." This revelation reaches its climax and fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
In Theological Investigations, Rahner explains his view of the relationship between Christianity and other religions. His approach to the problem rests on the difference between his ideas of transcendental revelation and categorical revelation, the natural knowledge of God and the specifically Christian knowledge of God. He develops four theses that view individual non-Christians as capable of being saved and non-Christian religions as having access to the saving grace of God in Christ: 1) Christianity is the absolute religion, founded on the unique event of the self-revelation of God in Christ. But those who lived before the revelation took place at a specific time in history, or who have yet to hear about the event, would thus seem to be excluded from salvation -- which is contrary to the saving will of God. 2) Non-Christian religious traditions are thus valid and capable of mediating the saving grace of God, until the gospel is made known to their members, after which they are no longer legitimate from the standpoint of Christian theology. 3) The faithful adherent of a non-Christian religious tradition is thus regarded as an "anonymous Christian." 4) Christianity will not displace other religions. Religious pluralism will continue to be a feature of human existence.
Rahner does not consider all religions to be equal, nor that they are particular instances of common encounter with God. Christianity has exclusive status, and the question is whether other religions give access to the same saving grace as Christianity. His approach allows him to suggest that the beliefs of non-Christian religious traditions are not necessarily true, while allowing that they may nevertheless mediate the grace of God by the lifestyles which they evoke -- such as a selfless love of one's neighbor.
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