The Jesuit priest Karl Rahner is widely regarded to have been one of the leading Catholic theologians of the twentieth century. Rahner's early writings on death were published at a time when academic theology gave little serious consideration to the topic. Less sophisticated believers generally assumed that they knew what death was, and quickly moved on to mythological conjectures about the afterlife. Rahner sought to illuminate death's religious and theological significance. These initial publications and later writings are typical of his pioneering investigations, which creatively appropriate diverse theological and philosophical sources (e.g., Ignatian spirituality, Thomas Aquinas, Catholic neoscholasticism, Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger). Notwithstanding their uncompromising rigor, most of his articles had a broadly pastoral concern to explore ways of recovering the meaning of Catholic doctrine in an intellectually plausible and contemporary idiom.
The density of Rahner's work is rooted in the subject matter itself. God, Rahner insisted, is not— and cannot—be an object for thought the way the things of our world are. But a person can know God by attending to the movement of knowing itself toward its objects, which reveals that human thinking always reaches beyond its immediate objects toward a further horizon. The movement of knowing, and the ultimate "goal" toward which it reaches, can be grasped only indirectly (or "transcendentally") as one's thinking turns back on itself reflexively. Rahner identified the elusive and final "term" of this dynamism of knowing with God, and argued that the same kind of movement toward God as "unobjectifiable" horizon is entailed in freedom and love.
By conceiving God, who always exceeds human reach, as the horizon of the movement of knowing, freedom, and love, Rahner emphasized that God is a mystery—a reality who is known and loved, but only reflexively and indirectly, as the ever-receding horizon of the human spirit. God remains a mystery in this sense even in self-communication to humanity through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. With this participation of God in an earthly history of human interconnectedness, something of God is anticipated—known reflexively and indirectly—at least implicitly whenever we know, choose, or love a specific being, particularly a neighbor in need. Conversely, God is implicitly rejected in every refusal of truth, freedom, and love.
Because it is often the good of a neighbor or the world, rather than God or Jesus which is directly affirmed or refused, it is quite possible that the one deciding will be unconscious or even deny that the act is a response to God. In either case, however, one turns toward or away from God and Jesus in turning one's mind and heart freely toward or away from the realities of the world.
Death is a universal and definitive manifestation of this free acceptance or rejection of God's self-communication ("grace"). In that sense, death is the culmination and fulfillment of a person's freedom, the final and definitive establishment of personal identity. It is not simply a transition to a new or continued temporal life. If there were no such culmination, no ability to make a permanent and final commitment of self, then freedom would be an illusion. Genuine self-determination would be denied because every choice could be reversed. If everything is reversible, no act or succession of acts could definitively express an individual's identity. The Christian conviction that this life is the arena in which human fate is worked out, requires the freedom for such definitive acceptance or rejection of God's self-communication. But any anthropology that takes seriously the human capacity for free self-determination would also be required to see death as a kind of culmination and definitive expression of personal identity. Hence death is not something that happens only to the physical body. Death involves and affects the person as a whole. It involves consciousness, freedom, and love. It is not endured passively.
Hence, death as a personal and spiritual phenomenon is not identical with the cessation of biological processes. For example, illness or medication can limit personal freedom well before the onset of clinically defined death. Moreover, insofar as all the engagements of one's life anticipate death, Rahner maintained that every moment of life participates in death. Hence he disputed the notion of death as a final decision if this is understood to be an occurrence only at the last moment.
The Christian tradition has emphasized the definitive and perduring character of personal existence by affirming the soul's survival after death. Rahner warned that this way of conceiving of death can be misleading if one imagines that the separation of soul and body, entails a denial of their intrinsic unity. The contemporary appreciation of the bodily constitution of human reality was anticipated by the scholastic doctrine of the soul as the "form" of the body and thus intrinsically, not merely accidentally, related to it. Personal identity is shaped by one's embodied and historical engagement with the material world. So the culmination of freedom in death must entail some sort of connection with that embodiment. Rahner's notion of God as mystery, beyond objectification in space and time, provides a framework for affirming a definitive unity with God that does not imagine the unity as a place or as a continuation of temporal existence. In the early essays, Rahner addressed the problem of conceiving the connection to embodiment, particularly in the "intermediate state" before the resurrection of the dead on judgment day, with the hypothesis that death initiates a deeper and more comprehensive "pancosmic" relationship to the material universe. In later essays, he recognized that it was not necessary to postulate an intermediate state with notions such as purgatory if one adopts Gisbert Greshake's conception of "resurrection in death," through which bodily reality is interiorized and transformed into an abiding perfection of the person's unity with God and with a transformed creation.
The Christian doctrine of death as the consequence and punishment of sin underscores its ambiguous duality and obscurity. If the integrity of human life were not wounded by sinfulness, perhaps death would be experienced as a peaceful culmination of each person's acceptance of God's self-communication in historical existence. But death can be a manifestation of a definitive "no" to truth and love, and so to God, the fullness of truth and love. Ironically, this results in a loss of self as well because it is unity with God's self-communication that makes definitive human fulfillment possible. In the "no," death becomes a manifestation of futile self-absorption and emptiness, and as such punishment of sin. Moreover, everyone experiences death as the manifestation of that possibility. As a consequence of sin, people experience death as a threat, loss, and limit, which impacts every moment of life. Because of this duality and ambiguity, even a "yes" to God involves surrender. Just as God's self-communication to humanity entailed fleshing out the divine in the humanity of Jesus, including surrender in death on the cross, so death-to-self is paradoxically intrinsic to each person's confrontation with biological death.
See also: Heidegger, Martin; Kierkegaard, SØren; Philosophy, Western
Phan, Peter C. Eternity in Time: A Study of Karl Rahner's Eschatology. Selinsgrove, PA: Susquehanna University Press, 1988.
Rahner, Karl. "The 'Intermediate State.'" Theological Investigations, translated by Margaret Kohl, Vol. 17. New York: Crossroad, 1981.
Rahner, Karl. "Ideas for a Theology of Death." Theological Investigations, translated by David Bourke, Vol. 13. New York: Crossroad, 1975.
Rahner, Karl, ed. "Death." Encyclopedia of Theology: The Concise Sacramentum Mundi. London: Burns and Cates, 1975 .
Rahner, Karl. On the Theology of Death, translated by Charles H. Henkey. New York: Herder and Herder, 1961.
"Rahner, Karl." Macmillan Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/rahner-karl
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The German theologian Karl Rahner (1904-1984) was a major influence on 20th-century Roman Catholic thought. His work is characterized by the attempt to reinterpret traditional Roman Catholic theology in the light of modern philosophical thought.
Karl Rahner was born on March 5, 1904, in Freiburg im Breisgau in what is now the German Federal Republic. He followed his older brother Hugo into the Society of Jesus in 1922 and pursued the Jesuits' traditional course of studies in philosophy and theology in Germany, Austria, and Holland. He was ordained a priest in 1932 and continued his studies at the University of Freiburg. After receiving his doctorate in philosophy in 1936, he taught at the universities of Innsbruck and Munich. In 1967 he was appointed professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Münster. He was a peritus (official theologian) at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), and in 1969 he was one of 30 appointed by Pope Paul VI to evaluate theological developments since the Council.
Thomism, Kantianism, and contemporary phenomenology and existentialism are the three sources of Rahner's thought. During his early years of seminary training, he studied the works of Immanuel Kant and Joseph Maréchal, along with the works of the great medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas. While at the University of Freiburg he came under the influence of Martin Heidegger. The overriding concern of all his work was the need to bring the best thought of the past into contact with the best thought of the present.
Often linked with Bernard Lonergan as a "transcendental Thomist," Rahner employed a method characterized by an attempt to discover the general principles underlying the various doctrines of the Roman Catholic faith. In his first work, Geist in Welt (1936; Spirit in the World), he presented his interpretation of Aquinas's doctrine of knowledge, indicating that man's capacity to know, although rooted in the data of the senses, is nonetheless a capacity open to the infinite or to being as such. This ability to transcend particular being allows man to think metaphysically—to analyze the general structure of being necessary for the actual condition of the world known through the senses. Spirit in the World, in conjunction with Rahner's second major work, Hörer des Wortes (1941; Hearers of the Word), established the epistemological and speculative foundation of his later thought.
Rahner's thought is best described as a theological anthropology. Beginning with the nature of man as a being open to the infinite, Rahner's thought sees a person's quest for fulfillment satisfied only in union with the God of Christian revelation, the God who became man in Jesus Christ. A proper understanding of humans cannot be divorced from an understanding of God and the context of relationships uniting humans and God. The fundamental fact underlying the existence of the world is that it stands in relation to God. Rahner calls this situation the supernatural existential and sees in this fundamental fact the root of all further explanations of sin, grace, and salvation. Rahner's vision of theology can also be understood through his work Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (1976). While most religious scholars see Rahner as one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century, he also encountered critics along the way. Some within the Catholic Church found his writings too radical—in the early 1960's, Rahner's writings could only be published after approval from the Jesuits in Rome.
In March of 1984, after a birthday celebration that also honored his scholarship, Rahner fell ill from exhaustion in Innsbruck, Austria. He did not recover and died on March 30. Rahner was buried at the Jesuit church of the Trinity in Innsbruck.
Rahner's own writings are difficult. His The Dynamic Element in the Church (trans. 1964) and Nature and Grace: Dilemmas in the Modern Church (trans. 1964) provide good starting points for the reader interested in sampling his work. Patrick Granfield, Theologians at Work (1967), has an interesting interview with Rahner. The best study of Rahner in English is Louis Roberts, The Achievement of Karl Rahner (1967). Rahner's ideas are presented in a simplified form in Donald Gelpi, Life and Light: A Guide to the Theology of Karl Rahner (1966). Jakob Laubach's chapter on Rahner in Leonard Reinisch, ed., Theologians of Our Time: Karl Barth and Others (trans. 1964), provides a brief introduction to his thought. Sylvester Paul Schilling, Contemporary Continental Theologians (1966), has a critique of Rahner's work.
(Dych, William) Karl Rahner Liturgical Press, 1992.
(Kelly, Geffrey, ed.) Karl Rahner: Theologian of the Graced Search for Meaning Fortress Press, 1992.
The Christian Century (April 11, 1984).
Commonweal (April 20, 1984). □
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In this way, Maréchal set the stage for neo-Thomism as the working out of its detail. Rahner set out to establish what he called ‘a transcendental Thomism’ and ‘theology taking a transcendental turn’. Rahner grasped that philosophy and theology must start with the human subject as the one who constitutes the world of possible knowledge. The human subject constantly seeks to transcend itself and its existing points of departure, aspiring to the infinite while rendering the world intelligible. The latter is only possible because humans have a prehension (Vorgriff) of the former—a genuine ‘pre-grasp’ of Infinite Being as the true horizon of the world as lived.
On this philosophical foundation, Rahner insisted that theology must begin ‘at the human end’, not with a priori dogmas handed out as though self-evidently true. This ‘theological anthropology’ investigates human being in so far as it is turned toward God—which is, at once, on the basis of his previous argument, transcendental anthropology. In this way, the otherwise largely remote doctrines of Christianity are firmly located in the actual conditions of human knowing and living. Life experienced as spiritual and full of grace leads to the proposition that the world is exactly that (notwithstanding the human experience of fallenness as well). In that case, all human beings are participants in the grace of God which seeks to redeem the fallen, and thus all are ‘Anonymous Christians’, and within the salvific purpose of God, whether they are baptized or not. At the centre of all Rahner's thought remains the unequivocal pastoral demand, how can we help each other to attain the unlimited horizon of God?
"Rahner, Karl." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. (October 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/rahner-karl
"Rahner, Karl." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Retrieved October 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/dictionaries-thesauruses-pictures-and-press-releases/rahner-karl