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Theology Essay 2 – Karl Rahner

September 25, 2011

The second essay in my theology “portfolio” is on Karl Rahner. Again, typos left intact. No comments from the lecturer this time…


Karl Rahner’s Anthropology

Central to the theology of Karl Rahner is the notion that we experience God, through his “self-gift”, at all times and in all experiences. It is only through awareness of God that we are able to have these experiences at all.

Rahner starts by asking us what it is that makes us human. His answer is that it is the mystery, the infinite, the unlimited, of which we are always aware, consciously or unconsciously. When we are conscious of an object, a finite thing, we are only able to be aware of it as a distinct thing by an awareness of the infinite. ‘Rahner describes the mind as reaching out beyond any given object’ (Kilby 5). By being aware of a limit (the finiteness of the object), we are aware of something beyond that limit, the infinite. This infinite being is God.

Rahner talks more specifically about this awareness in terms of knowledge. We gain knowledge in a ‘basic intellectual act’ that leads to simple knowledge statements such as “This is a chair”. But such a basic act is only possible because of a tentative awareness of something more perfect, an ideal; God. Awareness of God is caused by, and itself causes, awareness of the finite, and as such is identical with what it is to be human.

The “awareness” above should not be taken to mean actual conscious awareness of God. This is not something we will experience until, presumably, the beatific vision. In our experiences we are aware of God only as a background awareness, a Vorgriff. God is the horizon to which we strive, but we never become truly aware of what is always just over the horizon. Awareness is a movement towards the horizon rather than arriving at the unseen. It is not knowledge of a particular object, or love in a particular form. It is the act of knowing, the act of loving.

Another metaphor that we could use here is of climbing a mountain. We are all familiar with the basic act of taking a single step up the mountain. It is an “every day” occurrence, not something that we can deny. The ultimate aim of this act is to get to the peak of the mountain. But what if the mountain is infinitely high? We will keep on taking the next step, but never reach the ultimate, the peak. We may or may not realise that this infinite peak exists, we may just be climbing because it is the natural thing to do, but nevertheless there is something towards which we are striving. We can just never reach it. Our vorgriff is the vague notion we have of the peak, despite not being close to knowing what the infinite peak would be like.

…the essence of knowledge lies in the mystery which is the object of primary experience and is alone self-evident. (Rahner, The Practise of Faith, 65)

These acts of knowing, of experiencing the infinite, are things that we all do at virtually every moment of our lives. Rahner claims that it is through appreciation of the connection between experience and God that we will gain knowledge of God. This is because these experiences are more than just things that happen to us; they are us. The relationship that I have with God is the fact of my existence.

Transcendence grasped in its unlimited breadth is the a priori condition of objective and reflective knowledge and evaluation. It is the very condition of its possibility, even though it is ordered to the inexpressible. (Rahner, The Practise of Faith, 66)

Donceel, in God and the Dynamism of the Mind, explains this by reference to our notion of is. By acknowledging, or realising, the existence of an object or concept, I ‘affirm that it is’. However, in individual instances of objects we are not dealing with something that merely is, just an instance of a particular thing. Our mind seeks to go beyond the objectification that we apply to life, to look for the “thing” that simply is, the “object” to which we can apply the word is without reservation and without requiring physical instantiation. Rahner, according to Donceel, tells us that this reality that we are looking for is God. God simply is.

Humans therefore experience God at all times and in all things. However it may not seem that way to many people. How may we become more aware of this experience? Rahner suggests that we must face situations that highlight our humanness; boredom, fear, imminent death, forgiveness with no reward, loneliness. The theme that runs through these is highlighted by the last, loneliness. They all heighten our awareness of what it is to be human, a small, seemingly insignificant being who will be alive for only a short amount of time. By contemplating this, by facing the truths that these situations bring to the fore, we experience the idea of there being more to us than this, and we touch on the awareness of the infinite that Rahner wants us to see. ‘The depth of the human  abyss,  which  in  a  thousand  ways  is  the  theme  of philosophy,  is  already  the  abyss  which  has  been  opened  by God’s  grace  and  which  stretches  into  the  depths  of  God himself’ (Rahner, Theological Investigations).

This theology does not have the effect of taking the central theme of religious life away from God and on to man. Instead it merges the two. By concentrating on an anthropocentric theology, we are at the same time studying the only things that we have access to that can tell us anything at all about God. We move towards God by contemplating what it is in us that is transcendent.

An important aspect of this is admitting that when we talk of God we are not able to say anything that is properly true. Talk of God is talk of the unlimited, something that we only have a pre-apprehension of. Our language deals with objects, with the finite, and talk of God relegates him to these categories. We can approximate using analogy and metaphor, but we cannot talk directly about God without admitting that we are on unsure ground.

Where does Rahner’s theology leave traditional aspects of Christianity? With the emphasis placed on God being experienced at all times and in all things, surely it moves away from being able to talk about Christ in a special sense, or about traditional religious observance?

Dealing with the first of these ideas first, Rahner says that religious acts are both a result of, and a sign of, God’s grace. An analogy is with a handshake. It is a gesture of respect to another, but it is only brought about by the respect that I already have. I do not shake hands to gain the respect. Similarly with, say, baptism. I do not get baptised to gain grace, it is a result of the grace I have and an expression of it.

God’s grace is in his self-gift, or self-communication, to us. This notion is central to Rahner’s discussion on Jesus. The incarnation of Christ is the peak of God’s graciousness towards humanity. The self-gift of God is experienced by humans as the quest for truth and love, the awareness of mystery. Christ fulfilled these “capacities” for truth and love and as such in him ‘God’s invitation and man’s loving response fully coincide’ (Donceel, 258). Christ therefore is himself God, he is the ultimate gift from God, a human that is able to be simultaneously divine, and to show us what it means to be so.

The history of revelation, then, consists in the growing awareness that we are involved with the permanent mystery and that our involvement becomes even more intense and exclusive. (Rahner, The Practise of Faith, 67)

The self-communication of God is ‘promised, offered, and guaranteed to us through him’ (Rahner, Experiences of a Catholic Theologian, 301). However, there is a danger, in Rahner’s view, that by concentrating on the incarnation as a source for knowledge of God we replace ‘God with self’. We mustn’t think that our awareness or knowledge of God is fixed through the incarnation and revelation, as this leads us into the trap of assigning the word “mystery” to something we could in fact know. We must of course be willing to listen to the message of God’s self-revelation that incarnation and revelation can bring us, but it is important to remember that God’s self-revelation is a constant event in our lives.

What are we to make of people who reject the notion of God? If God is present in our existence, what does it mean to make this rejection? There are of course people who reject the notion of God and act in a way that goes against the very core of “religious” sentiments. But Rahner tells us that there is a second kind of atheists

Who, in fact, pay allegiance to the true God. They affirm God’s existence transcendentally, as all human beings do; they deny it categorically, in their thinking, but they profess and admit it through their moral activity, by being “men of good will”. (Donceel, God and the Dynamism of the Mind: Karl Rahner, 258)

The difference between these people and atheists of the first kind is the life that they live. By being “men of good will”, they show that God is not absent from their lives. The rejection that they have is an intellectual one. The God that is rejected is God as they understand him. As we know society has many models of God – they can’t all be right, and it is often right to reject them. But atheism can be seen as

…a journey on which a man grows weary in the pursuit of knowledge, leaves what is still unknown to itself and gives the name of mystery to this unmastered realm of the intelligible. (Rahner, The Practise of Faith, 66)

The knowledge of the atheist isn’t true knowledge, which Rahner characterises as ‘the presence of the mystery itself’. It is “giving up” on the true object and source of knowledge – the infinite. It is to acknowledge only the existence of the finite, and this means that we ignore God.

In the words of Joseph Donceel, summarising Rahner:

Man will be totally himself only by becoming more than himself, which he does by letting God, who is his maker, become as it were his very life with sanctifying grace. (God and the Dynamism of the Mind: Karl Rahner, 258)

This is the central message of Rahner’s theology. We must allow ourselves to receive the grace of God, and make a loving response. We can do this by listening to the incarnation, or revelation, but most importantly by recognising God in all that we do and learn. God is how we comprehend the finiteness and contingency of our reality.

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