Karl Rahner (1904-1984)
Rahner's output of writing was huge. He spent all his
working life as a professional theologian - although he often spoke of himself
as "amateur", by which he apparently meant that he did not place high value on
being systematic in his approach.
Rahner was born in Germany and entered the Society of Jesus (the Roman
Catholic order known as the Jesuits) in 1922. From 1929 to 1933 he studied
theology in Holland. A dissertation for which he was failed in Freiburg was
eventually published in 1939 and earned him an honorary doctorate from the
Innsbruck University some thirty four years later.
But his adventurous thinking - much of it influenced by two years of study
under Heidegger - got him into trouble in 1962, when he was placed under
"pre-censorship". Under this banning order he was unable to either lecture or
publish without prior permission. However, the order was in effect negated in
the same year when the then Pope John XXIII appointed him an expert advisor to
the Second Vatican Council.
Rahner retired in 1971 after several years at the universities of Munich
His preferred way of writing theology was the essay, in many ways ideal
for the exploratory nature of his endeavour. His essays were published in the
23-volume Theological Investigations. Among his main works were a
Lexicon of Theology and the Church (ten volumes) and Sacramentum Mundi
However, Rahner's writing is regarded by many as difficult. The story is
told of an American theologian voicing pleasure that Rahner's work was at last
being translated from German into English. A German theologian retorted
bitterly, "We're still waiting for someone to translate him into German!"
English translations of his work give the impression that Rahner was a master
of theological code, and that he was writing for fellow code-masters rather
than intelligent laypeople.
The opacity of Rahner's writing is unfortunate, if only because it has
confined his thoughts to a relatively small circle, and has had the effect of
distorting his views as other amateur theologians try to make sense of him. In
particular, Rahner uses the device of inventing new terms as shorthand for
involved concepts (so-called neologisms). He perhaps failed to realise that any
thought incapable of expression in ordinary language may better be left
Hans Kung admired Rahner as a great systematic theologian .
He writes that Rahner
... by arguing in oppositions arrives at amazing "reconciliations" ...
Rahner's dialectical method does not meet with approval in the Roman
Sanctum Officium: It is felt to be dangerously subversive ... more than
any other theologian in Germany [he] is an acknowledged protagonist of freedom
in theology ...
One should not forget that Rahner was a Roman Catholic and a member of the
Society of Jesus, an order founded upon the aims of missionary work and
unwavering support of the Papacy. This to some extent explains Rahner's
contorted expression. He would have been unable to write freely for fear of
persecution by Church and university authorities.
For example, his book Hominisation: The Evolutionary Origin of Man as a
Theological Problem begins with a section entitled "The Official Teaching of
the Church on Man in Relation to the Scientific Theory of Evolution". In the
next section ("The Sources of Revelation"), Rahner continues:
Until now the aim has been to see clearly from the positive declarations of
the teaching Church what a Catholic scientist may or may not say as a Christian
in the matter of evolution.
He seems unaware that it is strictly speaking impossible to be both a
Catholic and a scientist since scientific truth is by definition neither
absolute nor final. Indeed, any claim to absolute truth can only exist in areas
of knowledge not covered either by science or its related analytical disciplines
such as history or archaeology.
If "Catholic" science were possible, the archaeologist who discovered the
bones of Jesus would be forced to deny the evidence. In doing so, he or she
would be regarded as a heretic. A historian who thought the evidence of the
Resurrection too slight to warrant a classification of the event as
historical, would be forced to affirm it regardless - with unfortunate
Similarly, Rahner is clear that the concept of the "spiritual" is an intense
problem for the modern mind. His solution is unsatisfactory. First, he neatly
classifies some humans as "materialist" (i.e. non-spiritual) - a pejorative
device which does the issue less than justice.
Second, he offers an equally neat definition of the concept:
What 'spiritual' means is an immediate non-empirical datum of human
knowledge ... a reality that only be understood by direct acquaintance,
having its own proper identity derived from no other.
Discussion over - for if so, anyone can define any datum as "spiritual" and
there can be no effective distinction of "spiritual" from non-spiritual.
Despite such limitations he is widely acknowledged as having attempted to
break the theological logjam of late 19th century Roman Catholicism,
bent as it was on preserving standard treatments of doctrine, apparently at all
He proposed that the usual Roman Catholic doctrine of "no salvation outside
the Church" be modified. He thought that non-Christian traditions are acted upon
by the "saving grace" of God in Jesus Christ. God's saving grace is denied, he
thought, if it can't apply to people who preceded the times in which Jesus
lived. Thus faithful members of non-Christian traditions are saved and can be
thought of as "anonymous Christians".
The sting is in the tail: this situation applies only until the Christian
gospel is preached to such people.
Christianity understands itself as the absolute religion, intended for all
people, which cannot recognise any other religion beside itself as of equal
he wrote. Rahner thought that religious traditions other than Christianity
will endure. They will continue as part of human society and will not be
displaced by the Church.
Somehow all people must be able to be members of the Church.
Given traditional Roman Catholic teaching, it's hard to understand this
position. Christianity is defined by the Church as the final, absolute truth for
all. If so, it should prevail over all other traditions in the end.
Newer approaches by a minority of Church people (but perhaps a majority of
Christians) suggest that an essential feature of being Christian is the
acceptance of others as acceptable to God. Not even Christian doctrines are
absolutely true. It's more important therefore to meet others on their own
ground in a mutual search, than to stand over them and proclaim superiority.
Thus Rahner's work stands strictly within the confines of traditional
theology, advancing the claims to absolute truth of the Roman Catholic Church in
general and the Papacy in particular. Received tradition as shaped by the Bible,
the kerygma and Church authorities is the setting for his enquiry and discourse.
His methodology seeks to restate Christian teachings in an intelligible and
unified manner (Thomas Aquinas was an important source and model for his
Rahner proposes a "transcendental" interpretation of reality. When we think
of "what is" we should recognise that the being (in other words "is-ness") we
experience, both in terms of our selves and of things, is always dependent upon
an Absolute Being greater than it and from which it derives. Absolute Being is
beyond us to the point that it eventually disappears into Absolute Mystery. In
this sense all knowledge and experience is transcendental.
He is clear that in this scheme of things, revelation is a necessary and, in
his terms, a viable concept. Perhaps aware of the gradually developing knowledge
of the universe as an unbounded system, Rahner sought ways of expressing
revelation in terms which would not violate the integrity of the system. He saw
the traditional teaching as
... the occurrence of an intervention of God "purely fro the outside",
speaking to men and conveying to them, through the prophets, truths in
human statements which they could not attain by themselves, and giving commands
which they must follow. 
By analogy, he thought, revelation can be perceived as events which (so to
speak) enter the system as a voice enters the air. That is, the system already
contains the "medium" or necessary conditions to convey revelation. Thus
revelation does not "invade" our reality as something alien but as something
natural. It is something which happens as part of the normal operation of the
universe. - though it is unclear how this can be true and still preserve the
traditional meaning of revelation as coming from a God who is by definition
other than the universe.
The realm of Absolute Mystery is the "supernatural" - usually conceived of as
a separate "dimension" or reality for which there can be no natural explanation,
which co-exists and parallels the natural order in an essentially dualistic way.
Rahner sought to soften this apparent dualism by stressing that there are not
two orders, but one.
In some sense, therefore, super-nature is actually a continuation and
perfection of nature, and human nature extends into super-nature inasmuch as it
is transformed by the actions of God through grace.
Rahner's theory doesn't propose, however, a way of discovering the
characteristics by which we recognise those aspects of our lives and of the
physical universe which are beyond or greater than nature. At any one time we
don't know, therefore, whether we are experiencing the natural or the
super-natural. To know the super-natural we must have some way of
distinguishing it from the natural. And if that is not possible, there is no
point in establishing any distinction.
Similarly, Rahner made a sophisticated set of proposals about the nature of
God in the Trinity without demonstrating exactly how he knows anything about God
who is, by his own admission, ultimately transcendent and unknowable.
Although famous in his day as a radical Roman Catholic theologian, his
approach now seems somewhat smothered by what has turned out to be a reactionary
post-Vatican II stance. In terms of radical Christian thought of today, Rahner's
position has been shifted inexorably towards the more conservative and
 My Struggle for Freedom, Continuum, 2003
 Revelation and Tradition, Burns & Oats, 1966