Is Rahner Obsolete? What His Critics Get Wrong

By Bacik, James | Commonweal, January 28, 2005 | Go to article overview

Is Rahner Obsolete? What His Critics Get Wrong


Bacik, James, Commonweal


It was 1974. Karl Rahner, SJ, sat across from me in his small, book-lined room in the Jesuit residence near Munich. As part of a wide-ranging conversation, I asked the renowned Vatican II theologian what his most profound religious experience had been. "Immersion in the incomprehensibility of God and the death of Christ," he replied. Had this been a mystical experience that occurred during meditation? "No," he answered quickly, firmly. "In life, in the ordinary things."

Rahner (1904-84) was doubtless one of the most important Catholic theologians since Aquinas and Bonaventure in the thirteenth century. It would be tough to keep him off the list of the ten most influential theologians in church history. He played a crucial role in drafting the documents of Vatican II, and his creative reinterpretation of the Christian faith in dialogue with the modern world produced a new theological paradigm that made the faith more credible and inspiring for many, including me. And yet here he was, a man known for building complex theological systems, articulating a simple spiritual truth: the experience of God's grace in everyday life, in "ordinary things."

Ordinary is not the first word most readers of Rahner would use to describe his thinking--or his writing. In fact, his famously difficult theological tracts (it's said they're "easier in translation") have been the butt of jokes for decades by students and scholars alike. He was, as many have noted, a theologian's theologian. Does that mean his theology doesn't have legs, that it won't endure? Recently, some critics have said as much.

Neoconservative writer George Weigel, for example, has claimed that "the future of Catholic theology will not be Rahnerian." According to Weigel, Rahner's writings were too narrowly directed to German academics and fail to resonate with the broader Christian audience. Likewise, followers of the prolific Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, echoing their mentor, criticize Rahner for putting too much emphasis on the orientation of all human beings to the holy mystery rather than on the distinctive message of Christianity centered on the concrete historical figure Jesus of Nazareth.

Such criticisms are neither convincing nor accurate. Rahner's extensive writings on the spiritual life provide a strong response to the neoconservative and Balthasarian critiques, offering proof of Rahner's enduring role in theology. Yes, it's possible to read Rahner's academic articles in Theological Investigations and wonder if his thought can move a popular audience. Still, it's hard to read his prayers in Encounters with Silence and not be touched in the heart and the head. Clearly, his Foundations of Christian Faith can provide a raft of fodder for critics in search of limpid prose, and might lead some to conclude (mistakenly, I believe) that Rahner's transcendental philosophy overwhelmed the particularity of the gospel message. Yet any reader who has engaged Rahner's homilies in The Great Church Year cannot but be moved by his profoundly Christocentric piety. In fact, it is Rahner's spiritual writings that reveal the wellspring of his whole theology, not merely one aspect of it, and highlight the dynamic interplay between his philosophy of human existence and the particularity of Christianity. In this mutual exchange, the gospel remains norm and judge, as Rahner explicitly affirmed and consistently practiced.

Rahner's insistence on the organic unity between theology and spirituality constitutes, I believe, his lasting contribution to the spiritual quest in the twenty-first century. In his own time, Rahner recognized the great dangers of the "rift, all too common, even today, between lived piety and abstract theology." Such perils are intensified in our postmodern world, which celebrates multiple perspectives and fosters superficial, faddish approaches to spirituality. We have even witnessed the growth of a distinct academic discipline called "spirituality," which ought to engage systematic theology as its primary dialogue partner, but often fails to do so. …

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