The Whole Rahner on the Supernatural Existential

By Coffey, David | Theological Studies, March 2004 | Go to article overview

The Whole Rahner on the Supernatural Existential


Coffey, David, Theological Studies


IN ORDER TO DESIGNATE the orientation of human beings to a supernatural end, that is, to salvation in the Christian sense, Karl Rahner (1904-1984), in his intervention in the nouvelle theologie debate in 1950, coined the expression "supernatural existential." (1) As with so many of his original technical terms, he evidently presumed that its meaning would be instantly clear to his readers. Even in a work as late as Foundations of Christian Faith (German original 1976) he was still manifesting this presumption. There his first words of explanation are that the supernatural existential "is present in all human beings," but "as an existential [Existential] of their concrete existence [Dasein]." (2)

Fortunately, the meaning of the expression as it occurs in this text can be gleaned from Rahner's explanation as it unfolds. Thus, the first part of the quoted statement requires no elaboration beyond pointing out that the existential is a consequence of God's universal saving will; the second assertion means that it is an element of the existence rather than of the essence (nature) of human beings. The first part of the statement, Rahner affirms, conflicts in no way with the truth of the second. Because it is not part of human nature, and because it has to do with salvation, the existential must be gratuitous, that is, must pertain in some way to grace. It is clear that the term "existential" is used here as a noun. Rahner goes on to say that as an existential of human beings "it is present prior to their freedom, their self-understanding and their experience." (3) If it were offered to their freedom, that is, after its constitution, it would be something about whose acceptance a decision would need to be made, and would be existentiell rather than existential. In this sense the term is clearly adjectival. The expression "supernatural existential," while remaining a substantive, combines the two references: it is an element of human existence rather than of the human essence, and its a priori character is asserted and stressed. Since the existential does not of itself bring about justification, "supernatural" cannot at this point indicate sanctifying grace itself, but rather a relationship to this grace, the exact nature of which remains to be clarified.

Whenever I refer in what follows to the "later" Rahner, I mean Rahner's statements on the supernatural existential after his contribution of 1950. Never again did he address the subject with the rigor and depth of this first treatment, but he did return to it on a number of occasions, some of which, because they are recognizable from the titles of the dictionary or encyclopedia articles to which they belong, are readily found. Other treatments by Rahner occur in unexpected places and are discovered by only the most industrious or serendipitous of researchers. The few who embark on this task usually receive a shock since Rahner appears, at least in some places and at first sight, to contradict what he said in his first and most important statement. His hard won advantage over the nouvelle theologic seems now to be lightly cast aside. For at times, he refers to the existential as an "offer" of grace (which certainly sounds existentiell rather than existential) and sometimes, in an apparently even more compromising way, he speaks of it as "grace" or "the self-communication of God" (which seems to identify it already with the grace of justification).

Whatever the ultimate verdict on this state of affairs, it is incontestable that Rahner's advantage was not as great as it might have been and perhaps should have been, for it contained weaknesses that allowed, even facilitated, the emergence of the later difficulties. One weakness that he frankly admitted at the time (though not as a weakness) was that "it would be necessary to examine more closely how the supernatural existential is related to grace itself, and in what sense it is distinct from it." (4) In other words, when he wrote this, Rahner had no clear idea of the nature of the relationship of the existential to grace.

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