Rahner, Karl

views updated May 11 2018


RAHNER, KARL (19041984) was the most prolific and influential Catholic theologian of the twentieth century. Rahner's bibliography comprises more than four thousand entries. Writing primarily as a dogmatic theologian, he also addressed philosophical, historical, pastoral, and spiritual questions. His work as a whole may be summarized as theological anthropology, correlating human experience and God's self-communication. His method is most often described as transcendental, inasmuch as it seeks to discover the conditions of possibility for divine salvific action, but it also has an inseparable historical dimension, inasmuch as the humanity addressed by God's word and presence is understood as always situated in a temporal world. Indeed, it may be even more accurate to see Rahner as a Catholic dialectical theologian whose career was marked not only by personal response to the religious issues of his day but also by an enduring effort to conceive human history as destined for eternal communion with God, achieved through the course of time.

Born and raised in Freiburg im Breisgau, Rahner entered the Society of Jesus in 1922. During his education in the Jesuit order he developed an Ignatian spirituality of "seeking God in all things." His formal philosophical (19241927) and theological (19291933) studies were shaped largely by the neoscholastic revival; but through the writings of the Belgian Jesuit Joseph Maréchal he entered into philosophical conversation with Immanuel Kant and later with G. W. F. Hegel and German Idealism. To these general influences on his thought must be added his intensive reading in patristic sources and in medieval mysticism. Ordained a priest in 1932, Rahner concluded his basic theological program the following year and then pursued a further year of pastoral and ascetic studies (the Jesuit tertianship).

In 1934 Rahner began a doctoral program in philosophy at the University of Freiburg, where he attended Martin Heidegger's seminars. His doctoral dissertation, a modern retrieval of Thomas Aquinas's theory of knowledge, centered on the theme of conversio ad phantasma (conversion to the phantasm) as the ground of all human knowledge, and it conceived human existence fundamentally as "spirit in world." When his director rejected the thesis as insufficiently traditional (it was published in 1939 as Geist in Welt ), Rahner left for Innsbruck. After quickly completing a theological doctorate and habilitation, he began in 1937 to teach dogmatic theology. From those first years came an eloquent book of meditations, Worte ins Schweigen (1938), and also the publication of his Salzburg summer lectures on human history as the place where God's self-revelation must be sought, Hörer des Wortes (1941).

When the Nazis closed the Innsbruck faculty in 1938, Rahner moved to Vienna and served at the Pastoral Institute until 1944. From 1945 to 1948 he taught theology under straitened circumstances at Pullach bei München. Returning to Innsbruck in 1949, he was responsible for courses on grace and the sacrament of penance, topics that shaped his thought for the rest of his life. Rooted in the experience of grace as God's mysterious self-communication, Rahner's thought broke new ground in a whole range of areas: for example, the biblical understanding of God; current problems in Christology, nature, and grace; the human condition after original sin; human dignity and freedom; the meaning of church membership; existential ethics; and the pastoral situation of the church. His major essays were collected from this time on in a multivolume collection, Schriften zur Theologie (19541984).

Already in Hörer des Wortes it was clear that Rahner was developing a philosophy of religion on the assumption that Christian revelation had occurred, and in order to make plausible how that was possible. A theologian of grace and reconciliation, he engaged in extensive positive research, as is made abundantly clear in Schriften, vol. 11 (1973), with his historical essays on penance in the early church. But the special creativity of his writing showed itself in his efforts to correlate the circumstances of particular experience with the permanent "existentials" of the human condition. This interrelation of historical and transcendental moments was evident as well in the prodigious editorial labors that began in his early Innsbruck years and continued with the publication of four editions of Denzinger's Enchiridion Symbolorum (19521957) and seven editions of Der Glaube der Kirche in den Urkunden der Lehrverkündigung (19481965).

Building on the early Innsbruck period came a second phase of Rahner's thought, during which he was coeditor of the second edition of the Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (19571965) and a leading figure in the preparation and course of the Second Vatican Council (despite efforts to disqualify his participation). His retrieval and renewal of tradition in light of contemporary perspectives had previously been achieved largely through pressing particular questions against the background of School Theology. Now he drew out the consequences of these studies and began to speak more programmatically of a theological anthropology encompassing the history of a world whose call to union with God (the "supernatural existential") evokes transcendental reflection on the structural possibilities for such salvation. In powerful essays on mystery, incarnation, theology of symbol, and hermeneutics of eschatological assertions, collected in Schriften, vol. 4 (1960), Rahner developed his analogy of transcendence. Facing questions posed by evolutionary science, the great world religions, and utopian views of the future, other major essays in Schriften, vol. 5 (1962), present the scope of the divine salvific will in more comprehensive terms and argue for the coextension of salvation history and the history of the world. Corresponding to the council's ecclesiological focus, Schriften, vol. 6 (1966), collects papers that present a dialogue with secularized, pluralistic society and seek to express the Christian church's new self-understanding in it. Earlier, Rahner had published a large collection of essays in pastoral theology (Sendung und Gnade, 1959). He gathered a new collection of essays in spirituality (Schriften, vol. 7, 1967), and in 1962 he cooperated in drafting a plan for the Handbuch der Pastoraltheologie, which subsequently appeared in five volumes between 1964 and 1972, with Rahner as one of its editors.

In 1964 Rahner succeeded Romano Guardini in the chair of Christian Weltanschauung at the University of Munich. As it became apparent that he would not be allowed to direct doctoral students in theology, he accepted in 1967 a call to the University of Münster, where he taught until his retirement in 1971. In these first years of Vatican II's reception within Catholicism, criticism of Rahner's thought grew in various quarters. Concerned with fidelity to the tradition and to Christian symbolism, some writers, for example, Hans Urs von Balthasar, accused him of anthropological reductionism. Others, especially his former student J.-B. Metz, drew back from what they considered an individualistic, idealistic existentialism. Rahner took the second critique more seriously and gave new emphasis to the historical concreteness of Christianity and its social responsibility. Renewing the dialectic of unity in difference with which he had from the beginning sought to understand time in its openness to eternity, he addressed basic conciliar themes with a deepened sense of faith's constructive participation in its secular context. Schriften, vols. 8, 9, and 10 (1967, 1970, 1972), calls for a new understanding of Jesus of Nazareth as the human way to God ("Christology from below") and reform of the church in the direction of a declericalized, more democratic, and socially critical community of service. Meanwhile Rahner had undertaken additional editorial responsibilities for the four volumes of Sacramentum Mundi (19671969) and for Concilium (1965).

During the first years of Rahner's retirement in Munich, his major project was the preparation of his Grundkurs des Glaubens (1976), an introduction to the idea of Christianity. While not intended as a complete systematic theology, the book does present many of his basic positions on the central topics of Christian doctrine and has commonly been seen as a summation of his thought.

In the last years of his life Rahner continued to lecture and write vigorously. Four further volumes of the Schriften were published (vols. 1316: 1978, 1980, 1983, 1984), two while he was still living in Munich, two more after his final retirement to Innsbruck in 1981. They were accompanied by numerous smaller works and several anthologies, one of which, Praxis des Glaubens (1982), may also serve as a general introduction to its author's thought. These later years are again of a piece with the whole career and include familiar themes as well as considerable repetition. Nevertheless, some significant developments occur here too: in the consolidation of a historical Christology, in the proposal of a "universal pneumatology" that might precede Christology, in pleas for ecumenical seriousness, and in arguments for a truly world church.

In these last years of his life Rahner was newly concerned with addressing the mounting relativism and skepticism he saw about him. In addition, the writings of this last phase show how thoroughly dialectical his thought was, as it sought to mediate between opposed positions in either doctrine or morals, to speak of the fruitful tension between permanent polarities of historical existence, and, above all, to understand the relation between continuity and discontinuity through the passage of time.

Rahner's future influence will depend largely on how effectively his students and readers will be able to draw on his thinking for a continuing dialogue with scientific and technological culture, the social sciences, and narrative and symbolic modes of discourse. It remains to be seen how a more biblically imagined, historically diverse, and socially responsible theology will appropriate his legacy. Many who knew him would insist that the personal witness of his life will surely endure alongside the remarkably elastic architecture of his thought.


For a complete, chronological listing of Rahner's publications, see Bibliographie Karl Rahner: 19241969, edited by Roman Bleistein and Elmar Klinger (Freiburg, 1969); Bibliographie Karl Rahner: 19691974, edited by Roman Bleistein (Freiburg, 1974); "Bibliographie Karl Rahner: 19741979," compiled by P. Imhof and H. Treziak, in Wagnis Theologie, edited by Herbert Vorgrimler (Freiburg, 1979), pp. 57997; and "Bibliographie Karl Rahner: 19791984," compiled by P. Imhof and E. Meuser, in Glaube im Prozess, 2d ed., edited by Elmar Klinger and Klaus Wittelstadt (Freiburg, 1984), pp. 854871.

The core of Rahner's work is in his Schriften zur Theologie, 16 vols. (Einsiedeln and Zurich, 19541984), of which fourteen volumes have been published in English as Theological Investigations, 20 vols. to date (New York, 1961). Outstanding examples of his spiritual writing can be found in Worte ins Schweigen (Leipzig, 1938), translated as Encounters with Silence (Westminster, Md., 1960), and in Von der Not und dem Segen des Gebetes, 4th ed. (Innsbruck, 1949), translated as On Prayer (New York, 1958). Key essays on charismatic gifts and existential decision are in Das Dynamische in der Kirche (Freiburg, 1958), translated as The Dynamic Element in the Church (New York, 1964). The major late work is Grundkurs des Glaubens: Einführung in den Begriff des Christentums (Freiburg, 1976), translated as Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity (New York, 1978). Karl Lehmann and Albert Raffelt have edited a fine anthology of Rahner's spiritual writings in Praxis des Glaubens (Freiburg, 1982), translated as The Practice of Faith (New York, 1983).

For further biographical information and commentary, see Herbert Vorgrimler's Karl Rahner: His Life, Thought and Works (London, 1966) and my collection of studies entitled A World of Grace: An Introduction to the Themes and Foundations of Karl Rahner's Theology (New York, 1980).

Leo J. o'Donovan (1987)

Rahner, Karl

views updated May 18 2018


German theologian; b. Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, March 5, 1904; d. Innsbruck, Austria, March 30, 1984. One of seven children of Karl Rahner, gymnasium professor, and Luise Trescher. After concluding his secondary education he entered the Society of Jesus' novitiate at Feldkirch in Vorarlberg, Austria, on April 20, 1922, three years after his brother Hugo. During his philosophical studies from 1924 to 1927, first at Feldkirch, then at Pullach near Munich, he was influenced especially by Joseph marÉchal's Thomistic response to the thought of Immanuel Kant. After teaching Latin at the Feldkirch Novitiate, where Alfred Delp was one of his students, Rahner studied theology at Valkenburg in the Netherlands (192933). There his earlier reading of Christian spirituality was deepened through study of the Apostolic Fathers, the patristic period, and medieval thinkers such as bonaventure. He was ordained a priest on July 26, 1932, and pursued his Jesuit tertianship at Saint Andrea in Carinthia, Austria (193334).

Early Foundations. Intended by his Jesuit superiors to be a professor of the history of philosophy, Rahner was sent to the University of Freiburg im Breisgau to prepare a doctorate. He attended Martin Heidegger's seminars with other Catholic students such as Max Müller, Gustav Siewerth, Bernard Welte, and Johannes B. Lotz. When his doctoral director, Martin Honecker, rejected his interpretation of Saint Thomas' epistemology, Rahner returned to Innsbruck. In the course of the academic year 193637, he was able to satisfy the doctoral and postdoctoral requirements for teaching in the University's faculty of theology and began to lecture the following year. After the Nazis abolished the theology faculty (July 1938) and the Jesuit college (October 1939), Rahner moved to Vienna to work under Karl Rudolph at the Pastoral Institute. For five years he served as a consultant there, also offering courses and occasional lectures. In the final year of World War II he became a pastor at Mariakirchen in Lower Bavaria.

For three years after the war he taught dogmatic theology at Berchmanskolleg in Pullach and then, in August 1948, returned to Innsbruck's faculty of theology, which had just been reopened. Named an Ordinarius the following summer, he remained at Innsbruck through the winter semester of 1964, teaching a cycle of courses on the doctrines of creation and original sin; grace and justification; faith, hope and charity; and the Sacraments of Penance, Anointing of the Sick, and Orders. In the early 1950s his doctoral students included Adolf Darlap, Walter Kern, Herbert Vorgrimler, and Johann Baptist Metz.

In these foundational years of Rahner's theological career his interests ranged from the primary philosophical studies elaborated in his doctoral dissertation and his Salzburg lectures on the philosophy of religion, through classic early publications on prayer and the Christian life, to highly technical re-examinations of questions long considered settled by the neo-scholastic theology that dominated most of Catholic thought at the time, and certainly its major official pronouncements. His Freiburg thesis Geist in Welt (1939) sought a contemporary retrieval of the Thomistic insight into sense experience as the enduring ground for human knowledge. Heidegger's

question of Being also helped to guide his understanding of religion in its historical dependence on the transcendent self-disclosure of a personal God (Hörer des Wortes 1941). His first years in Innsbruck saw the publication of the meditations collected in Encounters with Silence (1938) and his Lenten sermons in postwar Munich appeared in an eloquent book On Prayer (1949).

But it was his probing analyses of human existence in a world permeated by divine grace that gave Rahner's early writings their explosive force. Emphasizing the dynamics of knowledge and freedom yet guided most deeply by the mystery of God's own gift of self, he reconceived the terms of the relationship between nature and grace, took the conciliar definitions as a starting point rather than an end for christological reflection, and renewed ecclesiology by examining the Church in its origin, its sacramental actualization, and its pastoral practice. When his early theological essays were gathered in the first three volumes of the Schriften zur Theologie in 1954, 1955, and 1956 (English translation, Theological Investigations ), it was clear that a wholly original dialectical mind had appeared on the Catholic scene. During this period his prodigious editorial labors began as well, and he was responsible for four editions of Denzinger's Enchiridion Symbolorum (195257) and seven editions of Der Glaube der Kirche in den Urkunden der Lehrverkündigung (194865).

Programmatic Years. A second, programmatic phase coincided roughly with Rahner's work as coeditor for the second edition of Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche (195765) and his contributions to the preparation and course of the Second Vatican Council. Continuing to teach at Innsbruck, he also lectured extensively, undertook new editorial responsibilities, and for a year (196263) was subject to a preliminary censorship regulation from Rome. When the University of Munich in 1963 invited him to become Romano Guardini's successor in the Chair of Christian World View and Philosophy of Religion, he received permission from his Order to accept the call and began teaching in Munich in the summer semester of 1964. In that year also, a monumental two-volume Festschrift, Gott in Welt, appeared in honor of his sixtieth birthday.

In view of urgent contemporary questions, Rahner had previously sought to re-appropriate Catholic tradition through a dialectical discussion with scholastic theology and the dogmatic tradition. He probed the implication of these studies and began to write more programmatically on the correlation between theology and anthropology within the historical process. In a world that is always and everywhere invited to union with God (the "supernatural existential,") he argued, responsible theology must conduct a continuing transcendental reflection on the structural conditions of possibility for salvation. In Schriften IV (1960) he published seminal essays on mystery, the Incarnation, the theology of symbol, and the hermeneutics of eschatological assertions. An analogy of transcendence unifies these essays materially, envisaging history as a response to the Holy Mystery that draws the world toward eternity through self-communication in Word and Spirit. In the essays of Schriften V (1962), the analogy was significantly broadened by his discussion of evolutionary science, world religions, and utopian views of the future. Schriften VI (1966) continued his effort to express the Church's new self-understanding in a secularized, pluralistic world.

In these same years Rahner published major essays in pastoral theology (Sendung und Gnade 1959; English translation, Mission and Grace 1963) and gathered a new collection of essays in spirituality (Schriften VII 1967). In 1962 he helped to draft a plan for the Handbuch der Pastoraltheologie, which subsequently appeared in five volumes (196472) with Rahner as one of its editors. With Heinrich Schlier he conceived the series of Questiones Disputatae (1958 ff.) in which appeared some of his own most original contributions on the inspiration of Scripture, the theology of death, the prophetic mission of the Church, the relation between episcopacy and papal primacy, and the renewal of the diaconate. Rahner was a founding member of the editorial committee that planned Concilium, chaired its section on pastoral theology, and with Edward Schillebeeckx edited its first issue in 1965. With Adolf Darlap he planned Sacramentum Mundi and then supervised its German edition (4 v. 196769).

Late Development. When it appeared that Rahner would be unable to direct doctoral students in theology at Munich and also that there were hopes for collaborating on serious reform of theological education elsewhere, he accepted the University of Münster's invitation to become Ordinary Professor of Dogmatics and the History of Dogma and moved to the Westphalian capital in the summer semester of 1967. His years at Münster were fruitful ones during which he continued to reflect on Roman Catholicism's efforts to appropriate Vatican II and developed his response to critics who found his own theological anthropology reductionistic (Hans Urs von Balthasar) or politically impractical (Johann Baptist Metz). Reflecting on the historical concreteness of Christianity and its social responsibility, three further volumes of the Schriften (1967, 1970, 1972) offer important insights on theology's place in the human search for meaning; careful situational analysis as a requirement for religious authenticity; the need for a contemporary introduction (mystagogy) to the experience of God; a new understanding of Jesus as humanity's way to God (Christology from below); and reform of the Church as a declericalized, more democratic and socially critical community of service to the world.

Retiring to Munich in 1971, Rahner first lived at the Jesuit writers' residence near Nymphenburg. His major project there was the preparation of his Grundkurs or "Introduction to the Idea of Christianity" (1976; English translation, Foundations of Christian Faith 1978). Though not an adequate synthesis of his thought, the book does present his typical approach to central topics of Christian doctrine. In the years immediately before it, he published several briefer works on Church reform (1972) and on an ecumenical understanding of Church office (1974), as well as Schriften XI (1973), which gathers his early studies on the practice and theology of penance, and Schriften XII (1975), which centers on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Having participated in the first planning of Mysterium Salutis (5 v. 196576), he continued to contribute major articles to that new, historically conceived dogmatic theology.

Final Dialectic. After moving to the Berchmanskolleg in Munich and living there for several years, Rahner returned again to Innsbruck and made it his final residence (198184). Between 1976 and 1984 he lectured and wrote vigorously, publishing four more volumes of the Schriften (v. XIIXVI: 1978, 1980, 1983, 1984); a new edition of his Dictionary of Theology (1976); moving essays on prayer (1977), love of neighbor and love of Jesus (1981, 1982); and a dialogical apology for contemporary faith, co-authored with Karl-Heinz Weger (1979). He was also represented by several anthologies, one of which, The Practice of Faith (1982), also serves well as a general introduction to his thought. He continued his editorial involvements and, fortunately, allowed himself a new candor in his autobiographical reflections.

Although his final years are remarkably consistent with his previous career, significant developments nevertheless do occur in his consolidation of a thoroughly historical Christology; in his proposal for a "universal pneumatology" that might precede Christology in the future; in his arguments for a truly world church and his pleas for ecumenical seriousness; in a series of moral essays on the virtues required of late twentieth-century Christians. Throughout the writings of this last phase, Rahner noted the deepening relativism and skepticism in European culture and attempted to address it. "The old schoolmaster," as he styled himself, also became disturbingly frank about the climate of the Catholic Church, which he had served all his life and would serve to the end.

Systematic theologian though he was, Rahner's thought may be better characterized as a lifelong meditation on the correlation between human experience and God's self-communication. Because of his insistence that theology analyze the conditions of possibility for divine salvific action, he is most often described as a transcendental theologian. Even from the beginning, however, his method required historical research and reflection, since the dynamics of grace always unfold in an unfinished, temporal world where servitude and suffering are all too obvious. In fact, it may be even more exact to see Rahner as a Catholic dialectical theologian. His career presents a personal response to the religious issues of his day and an enduring effort to conceive human history as destined for an eternal communion with God that can only be achieved through the course of time. Thus, a concrete dialectic of transcendence in history characterized his life as well as his thought and influence.

Bibliography: The Theology Department at the University of Innsbruck in Austria maintains the collection of Rahner's manuscripts and papers at the Karl Rahner Archive. For a complete, chronological listing of Rahner's publications see: r. bleistein, ed., Bibliographie Karl Rahner 19691974 (Freiburg 1974). r. bleistein and e. klinger, eds., Bibliographie Karl Rahner 19241969 (Freiburg 1969). a. e. carr, "Karl Rahner," in d. g. peerman and m. e. marty, eds., A Handbook of Christian Theologians (Nashville 1984): 519542. w. v. dych, Karl Rahner (Collegeville, Minn. 1992). h. d. egan, Karl Rahner: The Mystic of Everyday Life (New York 1998). p. imhof and e. meuser, "Bibliographie Karl Rahner 19791984," in e. klinger and k. wittstadt, eds., Glaube im Prozess (Freiburg 1984): 854871. p. imhof and h. treziak, "Bibliographie Karl Rahner 19741979," in h. vorgrimler, ed., Wagnis Theologie (Freiburg 1979): 579597. l. j. o'donovan, ed., A World of Grace: An Introduction to the Themes and Foundations of Karl Rahner's Theology (New York 1980). c. d. pedley, "An English Biographical Aid to Karl Rahner," Heythrop Journal 15 (1984): 319365. h. vorgrimler, Understanding Karl Rahner: An Introduction to His Life and Thought (New York 1986).

[l. j. o'donovan]

Rahner, Karl

views updated May 09 2018

Rahner, Karl

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 cannotbe 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 mysterya 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 anticipatedknown reflexively and indirectlyat 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.


Karl Rahner

views updated May 11 2018

Karl Rahner

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.

Rahner's Theology

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.

Further Reading

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). □

Rahner, Karl

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Rahner, Karl (1904–84). Christian philosopher and theologian. He was born in Freiburg im Breisgau and entered the N. German province of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1922. He studied philosophy and then theology, and was ordained priest in 1932. From 1934 he undertook research at Freiburg. His dissertation on Aquinas' metaphysic of judgement was rejected for its explorations away from traditional interpretation into the direction of transcendental Thomism. He moved to Innsbruck where his dissertation was accepted, later published as Geist im Welt (Spirit in the World). His work dominates 20th-cent. philosophical theology, made up of densely laid foundations and sparkling raids on many different problems (some gathered in the long series, Theological Investigations), dominated by his pastoral concern that Christian truth must not be divorced from human living. He was influenced early on by Joseph Maréchal, who laid the foundations of neo-Thomism. Maréchal drew out the implications of the Thomist epistemology: knowledge is based on sense-data; the mind directs itself to sensory images; the mind therefore penetrates reality in the sense that it enters into the ontological nature of other things in its movement toward them of comprehension. Maréchal argued that the unity of sense and intellect, in the act of a unitary human subject knowing, required necessary conditions for its possibility, namely, that the knower and the sensible objects of knowledge be composed of matter, form, and existence, since otherwise the act of knowing (as it is known) could not occur.

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?