Karl Rahner
Karl Rahner; drawing by David Levine

The task of the modern era was the realization and humanization of God—the transformation…of theology into anthropology.

—Ludwig Feuerbach

Karl Rahner, who will be seventy-eight years old in March, is, I think, the most brilliant Catholic theologian since Thomas Aquinas. During the last forty years this German Jesuit priest has almost singlehandedly revolutionized the way the Church understands its message, and he has contributed the lion’s share to reshaping Catholic philosophy outside the narrow limits of official Neo-Thomism. The Second Vatican Council’s liberalization of dogma and ecclesiastical structure would have been almost unthinkable without him; that is why he is frequently the target of attacks by reactionary Catholics. Indeed, if the last two decades have witnessed a radical change in the articulation of Church teaching and if that revolution should survive, the credit must go in large measure to this brilliant, controversial, and immensely productive man.

Rahner’s published works run to over 3,500 titles in a dozen languages, including fourteen volumes of collected essays, a score of monographs, and a half-dozen or so dictionaries and encyclopedias. A former professor at Innsbruck, Munich, and Münster, he has written on virtually every topic in theology: Christology, the Trinity, atheism, death, evolution, gnosticism, ethics, to mention only a few topics on his list. And it is a list, because Karl Rahner is a most unsystematic systematic theologian. Not that he is sloppy—far from it. Rather, his preferred genre is the essay or encyclopedia article instead of the multi-volume summa of theology favored by Karl Barth or Paul Tillich. Now at last with Rahner’s masterful Foundations of Christian Faith we have, if not an exhaustive summary, at least a comprehensive view of his theology.

The book will not please everyone, least of all those increasingly vocal conservative Catholics who, confused by changes in the Church, hanker after the good old days when Catholicism was a stable rock in the swirling sea and who find in Pope John Paul II the hope of a return to terra firma. These range from those who understandably lament the loss of, say, Gregorian chant and its replacement by tacky guitar music, through the intellectual romantics who miss the hierarchical Church of Pius XII and G.K. Chesterton, up to the theological revanchists who only reluctantly accept the Second Vatican Council, and then merely as window dressing for the unchanging dogmatic theology that they memorized decades ago.

Even further to the right are the fundamentalist vigilantes who each week fill the pages of the National Catholic Register with field reports on what they call the “guerrilla warfare” that faithless liberal theologians are waging against the Pope—the fifth column theory. Then there are those who denounce the treacherous betrayal of the Church by none other than the Pope himself, Paul VI, who intentionally let communist moles into the Vatican—the Antichrist theory popularized by the former Jesuit Malachi Martin. These Catholic survivalists seem to believe they have no choice but to hole up in the Vatican armed with some Swiss Guard halberds to await the coming collapse of the modern world.1

What separates Karl Rahner from even the most intelligent of conservative Catholic theologians and what makes his thought so radically innovative lies not primarily in his theology but in his philosophy, the theory of knowledge and being that he forged in the Thirties while studying under Martin Heidegger. In the spring of 1934, just two years after becoming a Jesuit priest, Rahner registered for a doctorate in philosophy at the University of Freiburg, and over the next four semesters he attended virtually every lecture course and seminar that Heidegger gave. He was in the classroom when Heidegger echoed Nietzsche’s condemnation of Christianity as “Platonism for the masses” and when he asserted that “a faith that does not constantly expose itself to the possibility of unfaith is no faith at all but a mere convenience.” The effect of Heidegger’s teaching was overwhelming. Thirty years later Rahner would remark that “although I had many good professors in the classroom, there is only one whom I can revere as my teacher, and he is Martin Heidegger.”

The experience proved to be an academic disaster for Rahner. In the spring of 1936 he presented as his doctoral dissertation a radical new interpretation of Aquinas’s theory of knowledge from the viewpoint of Heidegger—and he was promptly flunked by the conservative Thomistic philosopher, Martin Honecker, who was his dissertation director. Rahner withdrew from philosophy and eventually took his PhD in theology. Nonetheless the would-be dissertation was published in 1939 as Geist in Welt (Spirit in the World) and was immediately and immensely successful. The book reshaped the foundations of the Thomistic theory of knowledge and being, and it provided the groundwork—as much Heideggerian as Thomistic—for the new theology that Rahner has continued to pour forth since the end of World War II. 2


One thing Rahner’s book did was to flush out and banish, once and for all, the closet Platonism that has haunted Christianity for two millennia: the separation of reality into two realms, the spiritual and the material, to which correspond the two “parts” of an equally divided self, soul and body. Platonic dualism is the presupposition that underlies a number of unfortunate formulations of Christian doctrine: the idea of death as the separation of the spirit from the body; the notion that man’s goal is immortality of the soul in an incorporeal heaven; and in general the belief that one’s salvation is in inverse proportion to one’s relation to the material world.

To be sure, Aquinas had long ago asserted the substantial unity of the human person against all Platonic readings of man as an angel imprisoned in an animal. But his followers too often took Aquinas to mean that man is a substantial unity of spirit and matter only in praesenti statu vitae—only in the current state of life before death and the liberation of the soul from matter. But what kind of substantial unity would it be, this pro tem gluing of soul to body, of the intellect to the senses? It took Rahner to argue emphatically that the so-called present state of life is the only state of life even if man be immortal, and to draw the startling conclusions following from this argument.

Heidegger’s notion of man as ineluctably “thrown” into the world unquestionably had great influence on Rahner here, but only insofar as it confirmed what the young scholar had already learned from Aquinas: that man, for all his spirituality, is inescapably material and related to matter, even in the so-called afterlife. So far as cognition is concerned, man’s inevitable materiality implies, as Rahner wrote, that “all thought exists only for sense intuition,” i.e., that man’s mind is always and exclusively focused on empirical data and cannot take a peek over its own shoulder at some higher spiritual realm.

That was, in fact, the starting point of Immanuel Kant’s critique of metaphysics as an illusory hope for “news from nowhere” gained by some spiritual glance into the beyond. But unlike generations of Catholic philosophers who had studied Kant the way anti-aircraft gunners study enemy planes, Rahner in large measure presumed Kant’s devastating critique of metaphysics and argued that what little we know of the divine we know by being irreversibly turned toward the world. Goodbye, then, to Christianity’s furtive Platonic fantasy that the soul, in anticipation of its full liberation from the flesh, can occasionally excuse itself from matter and slip out for a brief fling with Ultimate Reality before returning, refreshed and perhaps wiser, to the humdrum (but fortunately temporary) bonds of marriage to the world. In Rahner’s telling, man is, for better or worse, wed to the world and in fact literally one flesh with it. And not even death can them part.

What, then, happens in the afterlife? For Rahner, precisely nothing—for there is no afterlife, no duration beyond experienced time. We may choose to speak of man’s salvation by talking of eternity, Rahner says, but that “does not mean that things continue on after death as though, as Feuerbach put it, we only change horses and then ride on.” Death is the end of man, but as a fulfillment, the “self-realization which embodies the result of what a man has made of himself during life” and which “comes to be through death, and not after it.” Moreover, if it is man’s nature never to be without a relatedness to matter, and if one maintains that man is immortal as a whole and not just as a spirit, then it follows for Rahner that in death one does not leave the material world but enters more deeply into it and becomes what he calls “all-cosmic,” somehow present to and in communication with all material reality, an “open system towards the world” and “a real ontological influence on the whole of the universe.” (On this hypothesis, he says, “certain parapsychological phenomena, now puzzling, might be more readily and more naturally explained.”)

However one takes this strange notion of achieving an “all-cosmic body” in death, it is clear that Rahner’s attack on Platonic Christianity and its bloodless desire for the angelic is thorough and uncompromising, and that his position is in fact more consonant with the Judeo-Christian promise of resurrection of the body than is the Greek doctrine of immortality of the soul. If you want immortality, he says in effect, don’t think you’ll get it by escaping from matter and history. In that sense Rahner’s philosophy of man is arguably closer to Marx than to Plato and has more in common with Nietzsche than with Plotinus. He sees man as bound to this world, with no possible escape to some spiritual heaven, and whatever man knows about God he knows by knowing the world. That may not be much, but for Rahner it’s all we have. As Eliot says, “The rest is not our business.”


The other side of man’s worldliness, Rahner argues, is his insatiable demand for meaning, which is evidenced by his ability to question everything that exists. Ever since Parmenides affirmed that reality and knowledge belong together (Fragment 5), the basic premise of Western philosophy has been that the world is entirely knowable, if not entirely known. But this infinite comprehensibility of the world is itself an incomprehensible fact, and for Rahner it is the basic mystery within which man stands but about which he can know virtually nothing. Man’s desire to know is infinite: his reach for the knowable always exceeds his grasp of the known and thus man is himself the ultimate question to which there is no answer. In this endless passion for knowledge—which is a passion for reality—Rahner sees man as driven toward the unlimited and the incomprehensible, which is usually called “God.”

In Rahner’s philosophy there are no proofs for the existence of God, only indications that man moves endlessly into mystery without ever abandoning the world. This mystery “presents itself to us in the mode of withdrawal, of silence, of distance,” he writes, “so that speaking about it, if that is to make sense, always requires listening to its silence.” In fact, says Rahner, man knows about God not by trying to peer ahead into the mystery but rather by experiencing himself as the constant process of self-transcendence.

Rahner’s Copernican revolution in theology consists precisely in this turn toward the human. Dogmatic theology, he says, must be reformulated as theological anthropology. Thus Rahner carries out Feuerbach’s program of transforming theology into anthropology—but without reducing God to man, because to turn toward man is to discover the place where mystery is inscribed in the world. Just as for Heidegger man is the lieutenant (literally: the place-holder) of being, so for Rahner man is the stand-in for an ultimate unknown. As such he is a finite infinity, an “indefinability that is conscious of itself,” the very embodiment of the mystery we usually call God. “When God wants to be what is not God,” Rahner writes, “man comes to be.”

When Rahner considers the specific content of Christian revelation, he begins with the radical principle that the entire world always was within the dispensation of supernatural grace even before the birth of Jesus, the founding of the Church, and the spreading of the Gospel message. In so doing, he cuts through one of the least felicitous formulations of Christian doctrine (traceable in large measure to St. Augustine), namely, that the world and history are divided into two orders: the natural and the supernatural, the fallen and the redeemed, the pagan and the Christian. Rahner points out, to the contrary, that unlike Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the Incarnation is an afterthought concocted to clean up the mess made by Adam’s sin, the New Testament sees all creation as embodying Christ from the very beginning (cf. Colossians 1:15). Grace is not added on to nature, as in Luther’s simile of snow falling on a dunghill, so much as nature is already embedded in grace. Thus all persons are “Christian”—that is, caught up in God’s universal saving grace—by the very fact that they exist, regardless of whether they are baptized.

The consequences of this position, which Rahner calls “anonymous Christianity,” are far-reaching. For one thing, it’s harder to go to hell in the universe Rahner depicts than it was in the world of old-time religion, not because the rules are more lax but because grace is more available. “For Christianity,” he writes, “there is no separate and sacral realm where God is to be found.” Likewise, if the whole universe and all people are already caught up in God’s saving grace, then it becomes well-nigh impossible to distinguish a “merely human” act from a so-called “supernatural” and salvific act. In a deep sense Christianity is humanism and the Christian should be able to make his own the maxim Karl Marx personally adopted: nihil humanum alienum a me, “nothing human is foreign to me.”

It would seem, too, that the revelation brought by Jesus is not an absolutely new message dropped in from above but simply the definitive spelling out of what the world and mankind already are. This obviously changes the idea of missionary evangelization from “telling the natives what they don’t yet know” to “showing them what they already are,” and it goes a long way toward deprovincializing and simplifying the Christian message. (Consider, otherwise, the problems missionaries would have in evangelizing extraterrestrial intelligences. How much would these beings be obliged to accept—the Virgin Mary? the Pope? the seven sacraments and the rosary?)

In general, Rahner serves up a demythologized and slimmed down Christianity with none of the Rube Goldberg mechanisms that have kept theologians busy over the centuries. Yet in the last analysis it is a very orthodox and even conservative Christianity. For example, on the one hand Rahner takes the liberal path of asserting that the resurrection of Jesus is not at all a “historical” event entailing the “resuscitation of a physical, material body,” but rather is simply the “definitive salvation of [his] concrete human existence by God.” On the other hand Rahner adheres faithfully to the traditional Church doctrine of the divinity and Messianic consciousness of Jesus. “In the period before the resurrection Jesus Christ knew himself to be the ‘absolute mediator of salvation,’ the inauguration of God’s kingdom, and the eschatalogical climax of salvation history.”3

Again, on the one hand Rahner the liberal admits that the so-called “psychological” theory of the Trinity as three persons in one God is “almost unintelligible to people today” and in fact amounts to “gnostic speculation about what goes on in the inner life of God.” On the other hand Rahner the orthodox conservative preserves and rehabilitates the doctrine of the Trinity by relating it to man’s self-transcendence. Man knows the Father when he knows God as infinitely distant, he knows the Son when he knows God as absolutely close, and he knows the Holy Spirit when he knows God as penetrating existence and history.

I say this not to criticize Rahner but to point out his self-imposed limits. He has no other intention than to be an orthodox Roman Catholic theologian, and the reader who searches in his writings for the Protestantism of Luther or the agnosticism of Camus will be disappointed. However, Rahner firmly believes that orthodoxy does not mean fundamentalism and that the modern believer, in order to be faithful to the Church’s doctrine, does not have to commute intellectually between the mythical physics of the Bible, which tells him of miracles, and the scientific physics of Einstein, which lets him launch rockets. Rahner may be rigorously faithful to the magisterium (official teaching) of the Church, but he is clearly against confounding the inner truths of Christian doctrine with any particular formulations of it, especially those shaped by the categories of Neo-Thomistic philosophy, which he declares to be dead. Rahner even relativizes his own formulations of Church teaching and invites his readers to enter not into any particular doctrine but into the mystery that they themselves already experience, for “wherever a person allows himself to fall into the abyss of the mystery of his own existence with ultimate resolve and ultimate trust, he is accepting God.”

The kind of Church that might correspond to Rahner’s vision of man and faith is sketched out in his collection of essays, Concern for the Church, which is the twentieth and final volume of his Theological Investigations. The essays embody the last reflections of a wise old man who looks into the future as well as at the present of his Church with equal measures of criticism and hope. He is outspoken in his denunciation of the official “blunders” and the “narrow-minded procedures” that often typify the Vatican’s response to liberal theologians. He is just as critical about the poor quality of Catholic sermons and popular catechesis, but seems resigned to its inevitability. (“We cannot have a fatherland unless we are prepared to live with its philistines and slackers. It is the same with the Church.”)

When it comes to birth control and the ordination of women, he is quite emphatic: “I do not see either in the arguments used or in the formal teaching authority of the Church…a convincing or conclusive reason for assenting to the controversial teaching in Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae [encyclical against birth control] or to the Declaration of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith which seems to exclude the ordination of women in principle and for all time.”

In one of the essays he recounts a dream he had about an ecumenical gathering at the Vatican in 1985, at which the Pope discusses the question of his own infallibility with the leading representatives of the other Christian churches. A very congenial Pontiff calls the others “Gentlemen, dear brothers” and promises, for the sake of unification of the churches, to be extremely circumspect in any future exercise of infallibility, and one even gets the impression that he might not invoke it any more. The response on the part of the non-Catholic clergymen is positive, and they are on the brink of uniting with Rome when Rahner wakes up.

The dream, if it is true, does say a lot about Rahner, not least of all that he lives theology so deeply that he even dreams it. It speaks of his lifelong vision of a united and universal Church without the rigid dogmatisms that stifle the mystery of God and man. But when he recounted the dream to a friend, he got a response that applies not only to the reunification of the churches but, given the current climate of the Vatican, also to any concrete hopes for the theological reforms that Rahner has advocated for decades. It is a nice idea, his friend said, but unfortunately it does not seem likely at present. And Rahner’s response summed up, simply and clearly, the spirit that has kept him working for over forty years. Yes, he agreed, “but we may dream and hope.”

This Issue

February 4, 1982