Karl Rahner, SJ (1904-1984), was one of the most important theologians of the 20th century. Of note, his meditations on mysticism rejected any world view which would suggest a dichotomy or hierarchy between the ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ forms of mystical experience. For him, divine grace is seen as a fundamental element of human existence.
Rahner was born in March 1904. He was the fourth of seven children, the son of a local college professor and a devout Christian mother. In 1922 Karl followed his older brother Hugo and entered the Jesuit community. As a Jesuit novice Rahner was formed in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola. This formation had a lasting influence on his spiritual and intellectual development.
“But I think that the spirituality of Ignatius himself, which one learned through the practice of prayer and religious formation, was more significant to me than all the learned philosophy and theology inside and outside of the Order.”
In his studies Rahner also became thoroughly conversant with the thinking of the Fathers of the Church, especially on topics such as grace, the sacraments, spirituality, and mysticism. In 1934 Rahner was sent to the University of Freiburg to study philosophy. In Freiburg Rahner studied with Martin Heidegger whose philosophical approach raised serious questions as to how the western philosophical tradition should be understood. Influenced by Heidegger, Rahner wrote his dissertation (later published as Spirit in the World), which taught that the human search for meaning was rooted in the unlimited horizon of God’s own being experienced within the world.
Rahner’s Catholic advisor, Martin Honecker, found his thesis unacceptable and refused to approve it. Rahner moved to the Jesuit University in Innsbruck where he completed a dissertation in theology in 1937. A number of years later Rahner was asked by one of his students how disappointed was he when he received Honecker’s rejection letter. Rahner replied, “I was not disappointed at all.” Had the dissertation been accepted he would have had to interrupt his theology studies, return to Freiburg, and spend months preparing for and taking his comprehensive examinations to finish the doctorate. “I was relieved to be delivered from that work,” he said with a smile.
Rahner taught at Innsbruck between 1937 and 1939—when the university was taken over by the Nazis. Rahner went to Vienna, Austria where he spent the war years teaching and as a pastor. After the war, Rahner returned to Innsbruck and later taught in Munich and Munster until his retirement in 1971. In his “retirement” years Rahner lectured, wrote, and did pastoral work in Innsbruck and Munich until his death in 1984.
In 1962 Rahner was appointed as a peritus (expert advisor) by Pope John XXIII for the Second Vatican Council. Cardinal Koenig in Vienna selected Rahner as his private adviser on the Council documents. During the Council, Rahner worked with Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) to prepare an alternate text on the issue of the relationship between Scripture and Tradition that was accepted by the German bishops. (Later Rahner and Ratzinger would disagree on the direction of some of Rahner’s writings.) Other topics discussed during Vatican II that showed Rahner’s influence included the divine inspiration of the Bible, the relationship of the Church to the modern world, and the possibility of salvation outside the Church even for nonbelievers.
In an interview later in life, Rahner said he did not think people would find his life that interesting as it was basically concerned with studying and writing. Rahner’s publications include: twenty-three volumes of Theological Investigations, acting as coeditor of Herder’s ten-volume Lexicon fur Theologie und Kirche; the six-volume Sacramentum Mundi:An Encyclopedia of Theology; Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi; and a 30-volume encyclopedia, Christian Faith in Modern Society. In all there are over 3,500 published works written or edited by Rahner.
Rahner’s academic interests were rooted in his pastoral concerns. Academic theology was never an end in itself, but always a way to serve the life and mission of the Church. Rahner’s pastoral concerns are also revealed in the many retreats he conducted and the many prayers he wrote, gathered in Prayers and Meditations: An Anthology of the Spiritual Writings by Karl Rahner.
Rahner’s students found him a simple and holy priest whose concern for them was expressed in many kind actions on their behalf. He was a close personal advisor and spiritual director. The students also speak of Rahner’s continuing concern for those in need. They would spend hours with him finding money, food, clothing, and shelter for the needy. His outreach included missionaries working with the poor in foreign lands. At the academic convocation celebrating his 80th birthday Rahner made a public appeal for money to provide a motorcycle for a priest in the African missions.
To the end of his life, Rahner was ever more convinced that the meaning of life was bound up in the experiences, history, and sacramental life that are God’s world of grace. Throughout his spiritual writings and with greater vehemence in the latter part of his life, Rahner portrays God as inspiriting the world to shape human destiny and to liberate people to see God in all things, in order to know in that freedom that their search for meaning can only end in God.
Rahner produced volumes and volumes of commentary on God, redemption, the life of grace. Scattered throughout the tomes of long and often convoluted sentences are short and clear statements recognized as seminal insights which continue to be much quoted. One of those statements bears a relationship to what the Christian must be today. “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all” (Theol. Invent. XX, 149). By mysticism, Rahner explains, he does not mean some esoteric phenomenon but “a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.” He goes on to comment that the source of spiritual conviction comes not from theology but from the personal experience of God. This statement, made late in Rahner’s career, is similar to the comment reported of Thomas Aquinas at the end of his life about his volumes of theology being so much straw.
Rahner was active in his last years until illness and exhaustion took their toll. He died peacefully on March 30, 1984, in the University Medical Clinic of Innsbruck.
The basis for Rahner’s theology is that all human beings have a latent (“unthematic”) experience of God in any perception of meaning or “transcendental experience.” It is only because of this proto-revelation that recognizing a distinctively special revelation (such as the Christian Gospel) is possible. His theology influenced the Second Vatican Council and was ground-breaking for the development of what is generally seen as the modern understanding of Catholicism.
Written near the end of his life, Rahner’s Foundations of Christian Faith (Grundkurs des Glaubens) is the most developed and systematic of his works, most of which were published in the form of essays. Among the most important of his essays was The Trinity, in which he argues that “the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity”. That is to say, God communicates Himself to humanity (“economic” Trinity) as He really is in the divine Life (“immanent” Trinity).
Rahner maintained that the fulfillment of human existence consists in receiving God’s self-communication, and that the human being is actually constituted by this divine self-communication. Because such experience is the “condition of possibility” for knowledge and freedom as such, Rahner borrows the language of Kant to describe this experience as “transcendental.” This transcendental experiential factor reveals his closeness to Maréchal’s Transcendental Thomism.
Such is the extent of Rahner’s idea of the “natural knowledge of God”—what can be known by reason prior to the advent of “special” revelation. God is only approached asymptotically, in the mode of what Rahner calls “absolute mystery.” While one may try to furnish proofs for God’s existence, these explicit proofs ultimately refer to the inescapable orientation towards Mystery which constitute—by transcendental necessity—the very nature of the human being.
Rahner often prefers the term “mystery” to that of “God.” He identifies the God of Absolute Being as Absolute Mystery. At best, philosophy approaches God only asymptotically, evoking the question whether attempts to know God are in vain. Can the line between the human asymptote and the Mystery asymptote connect? In Rahner’s theology, the Absolute Mystery reveals himself in self-communication. Revelation, however, does not resolve the Mystery; it increases cognizance of God’s incomprehensibility.” Experiences of the mystery of themselves point people to the Absolute Mystery, “an always-ever-greater Mystery.” Even in heaven, God will still be an incomprehensible mystery.
At the core and crux of Rahner’s meditations on mysticism is a fundamental emphasis of a world view which militates quite radically against any which seek to erect a dichotomy or hierarchy between the ‘ordinary’ and ‘extraordinary’ forms of mystical experience. Rahner’s notion that the particularly explicit mystical experience is on no higher level than the ‘ordinary’ experience of Christian being, will likely appear scandalous to the reader who doesn’t grasp fully and completely this fundamental distinction in Rahner’s world view.
Rahner examines evolution in his work, Homanisation (1958, rev. 1965). The title represents a term he coined, deriving it from “hominization”, the theory of man’s evolutionary origins. The book’s Preface describes the limits of Catholic theology with respect to evolution, further on giving a summary of official church teaching on the theory. The author then continues in the next sections to propound “fundamental theology” in order to elucidate the background or foundation of church teaching. In the third section Rahner raises some philosophical and theological questions relating to the concept of becoming, the concept of cause, the distinction between spirit and matter, the unity of spirit and matter, the concept of operation, and the creation of the spiritual soul. In his writing, Rahner does not simply deal with the origin of man, but with his existence and his future, issues that can be of some concern to the evolutionary theory. Central for Rahner is the theological doctrine of grace, which for Rahner is a constituent element of man’s existence, so that grace is a permanent modification of human nature in a supernatural “existential”, to use a Heidegger term. Accordingly, Rahner doubts the real possibility of a state of pure nature (natura pura), which is human existence without being involved with grace. In treating the present existence of man and his future as human, Rahner affirms that “the fulfillment of human existence occurs in receiving God’s gift of Himself, not only in the beatific vision at the end of time, but present now as seed in grace.”
Rahner has been open to the prospect of extraterrestrial intelligence, the idea that cosmic evolution has yielded sentient life forms in other galaxies. Logically, this raises for Rahner some important questions of philosophical, ethical and theological significance: he argues against any theological prohibition of the notion of extraterrestrial life, while separating the existential significance of such life forms from that of angels. Moreover, Rahner advances the possibility of multiple Incarnations, but does not delve into it: given the strong Christological orientation of his theology, it does not appear likely he would have propended for repetitions of the Incarnation of Christ.
For Rahner at the heart of Christian doctrine is the co-reality of Incarnation-grace. Incarnation and grace appear as technical terms to describe the central message of the Gospel: God has communicated Himself. The self-communication of God is crucial in Rahner’s view: grace is not something other than God, not some celestial ‘substance,’ but God Himself. The event of Jesus Christ is, according to Rahner, the center-point of the self-communication of God. God, insists Rahner, does not only communicate Himself from without; rather, grace is the constitutive element both of the objective reality of revelation (the incarnate Word) and the subjective principle of our hearing (the Holy Spirit). Thus grace lies at both sides—without and within.
Rahner’s particular interpretation of the mode in which grace makes itself present is that grace is a permanent modification of human nature in a supernatural existential (a phrase borrowed from Heidegger). Grace is perceived in light of Christianity as a constitutive element of human existence. For this reason, Rahner denies the possibility of a state of pure nature (natura pura, human existence without being-involved with grace), which according to him is a counterfactual.
Anonymous Christianity is the theological concept that declares that people who have never heard the Christian Gospel might be saved through Christ. Inspiration for this idea sometimes comes from the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen gentium, which teaches that those “who no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and moved by grace, try in their actions to do His will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience—those too may achieve eternal salvation”.
Rahner’s development of the idea preceded the Council, and became more insistent after it received its dogmatic formulation. Non-Christians could have “in [their] basic orientation and fundamental decision”, Rahner wrote, “accepted the salvific grace of God, through Christ, although [they] may never have heard of the Christian revelation.” His writings on the subject were somewhat related to his views about the mode of grace.
If one then examines Rahner’s transcendental Christology, it may be seen that it “presupposes an understanding of the relationship of mutual conditioning and mediation in human existence between what is transcendentally necessary and what is concretely and contingently historical”. It is a sort of relationship between the two elements in such a way that “the transcendental element is always an intrinsic condition of the historical element in the historical self” while “in spite of its being freely posited, the historical element co-determines existence in an absolute sense”. Transcendental Christology is “the experiences which man always and inescapably has”. Human beings were created to freely transcend themselves and the objects in the world, towards the incomprehensible Mystery called God; the limitations of human situation make a human being hope that the full meaning of humanity and the unity of everything in the world will be fulfilled by God’s self-giving. Furthermore, God’s self-communication and human hope for it should be “mediated historically” because of “the unity of transcendentality and historicity in human existence”: human hope looks in history for its salvation from God that “becomes final and irreversible, and is the end in an ‘eschatological’ sense”.
At this point Rahner proposes two possibilities of human salvation, i.e. either as “fulfillment in an absolute sense” which means the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth, or as “a historical event within history”. The event of human salvation by God’s self-giving love should be the event of a human person, because God’s salvific love can only be effective in history when a person freely accepts his love, surrenders everything to God in death and in death is accepted by God. Rahner significantly affirms that the character of the saviour is exemplary and absolute: given the unity of the world and of history from the view point of both God and the world, such an “individual” destiny has “exemplary” significance for the world as a whole. Such a man with this destiny is what is meant by an “absolute saviour”.
According to Rahner, human beings are created to be oriented towards the incomprehensible Mystery called God. However, this human orientation towards the Mystery can be fully grasped only if we as humans freely choose to be grasped by the incomprehensible One: if God assumes human nature as God’s own reality with God’s irrevocable offer of God’s self-communication, and a person freely accepts it, the person is united with God, reaching the very point towards which humanity is always moving by virtue of its essence, a God-Man which is fully fulfilled in the person of Jesus of Nazareth claimed by Christian faith. In this sense, Rahner sees the incarnation of God as “the unique and highest instance of the actualization of the essence of human reality”.
An appreciation of Karl Rahner’s “everyday mysticism” can be found here:
A PDF on Karl Rahner’s Mystical Theology by Rahner expert Harvey D. Egan can be read here:
Quotes by Karl Rahner:
“So You haven’t really sent me away from You, after all. When You assigned me the task of going out among men, You were only repeating to me Your one and only commandment: to find my way home to You in love. All care of souls is ultimately possible only in union with You, only in the love that binds me to You and thus makes me Your companion in finding a path to the hearts of men.”
“Thanks to Your mercy, O Infinite God, I know something about You not only through concepts and words, but through experience. I have actually known You through living contact; I have met You in joy and suffering. For You are the first and last experience of my life. Yes, really You Yourself, not just a concept of You, not just the name which we ourselves have given to You! You have descended upon me in water and the Spirit, in my baptism. And then there was no question of my convincing or excogitating anything about You. Then my reason with its extravagant cleverness was still silent. Then, without asking me, You made Yourself my poor heart’s destiny.”
“Transcendence grasped in its unlimited breadth is the a priori condition of objective and reflective knowledge and evaluation . . . It is also the precondition for the freedom which is historically expressed and objectified.”
“Man’s knowledge and liberty always reach out beyond the individual object of inner and outward experience . . . this anticipation is the condition that makes objective knowledge and the free act possible.”
“When man is with God in awe and love, then he is praying.”
“In the days ahead, you will either be a mystic (one who has experienced God for real) or nothing at all.”
“The number one cause of atheism is Christians. Those who proclaim Him with their mouths and deny Him with their actions is what an unbelieving world finds unbelievable.”
“Only in love can I find you, my God. In love the gates of my soul spring open, allowing me to breathe a new air of freedom and forget my own petty self. In love my whole being streams forth out of the rigid confines of narrowness and anxious self-assertion, which make me a prisoner of my own poverty emptiness. In love all the powers of my soul flow out toward you, wanting never more to return, but to lose themselves completely in you, since by your love you are the inmost center of my heart, closer to me than I am to myself.”
“For it is the bitter grief of theology and its blessed task, too, always to have to seek (because it does not clearly have present to it at the time)…always providing that one has the courage to ask questions, to be dissatisfied, to think with the mind and heart one ACTUALLY has, and not with the mind and heart one is SUPPOSED TO have.”
“Childhood is not a state which only applies to the first phase of our lives in the biological sense. Rather it is a basic condition which is always appropriate to a life that is lived aright.”
“In the midst of our lives, of our freedom and our struggles, we have to make a radical, absolute decision. And we never know when lightening will strike us out of the blue. It may be when we least expect to be asked whether we have the absolute faith and trust to say yes.”
“Meditating on the nature and dignity of prayer can cause saying at least one thing to God: Lord, teach us to pray!”
“The dead are silent because they live, just as we chatter so loudly to try to make ourselves forget that we are dying. Their silence is really their call to me, the assurance of their immortal love for me.”
“The task of the theologian is to explain everything through God, and to explain God as unexplainable.”
“If we have been given the vocation and grace to die with Christ then the everyday and banal occurrence which we call human death has been elevated to a place among God’s mysteries.”
“In the torment of the insufficiency of everything attainable we eventually learn that here, in this life, all symphonies remain unfinished.”
“What Christ gives us is quite explicit if his own words are interpreted according to their Aramaic meaning. The expression ‘This is my Body’ means this is myself.”
“Grace is everywhere as an active orientation of all created reality toward God.
“Emptiness is only a disguise for an intimacy of God’s, that God’s silence, the eerie stillness, is filled by the Word without words, by Him who is above all names, by Him who is all in all. And his silence is telling us that He is here.”