Charles W. James, "Karl Rahner's Baneful Impact on Theology" (New Oxford Review, September 1995). Charles James, a convert from Anglicanism, is an Associate Professor of Philosophy, Academic Dean, and Provost at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California.
Karl Rahner is, without debate, the most influential Catholic theologian of the 20th century. During the course of his spectacular career he wrote or spoke on almost every subject of the Christian faith. When I studied theology at the Jesuit-run University of Santa Clara, Rahner was quoted with more authority than St. Thomas Aquinas. As an Anglican, that gave me pause, so I decided to dig deeper into Rahner's thought. What struck me immediately was Rahner's insistence on interacting with modern European philosophy, especially that of Immanuel Kant. Rahner was unwilling to carry out his theological task in the vacuum of a biblical positivism. He engaged modern philosophy in theological debate, forcing philosophy and theology to speak to each other. Some found this conversation threatening while others found it refreshing. This ambiguous response toward Rahner was reflected in the way he was treated during the Second Vatican Council. At the start of the Council, Rahner was not allowed to act as a peritus -- a theological expert who consults with the Council Fathers. But this semi-ban was lifted from Rahner when Pope John XXIII intervened and gave him the status of theological consultant.
But Rahner's influence has grown even further in the postconciliar period. First, most of his substantive theological works have been translated from the German so that the sheer weight of his theological system is felt by many. The second reason Rahner is so influential today is that he fits our postmortem mentality. Rahner would rather describe God as "holy mystery" than as absolute being. In the developed theology of Rahner, God is not so much the esse absolutum as the mysterium absolutum. This shift from metaphysics to mystery is Rahner's central contribution to the theology of God, but also his greatest liability. To be sure, we sense a subtle attraction to this theology of mystery because the Church has always acknowledged the incomprehensibility of God. We realize that our finite minds can only speak of God analogously. We know that we can have no direct, clear, or full idea of our Creator. "We see through a glass, darkly," as St. Paul said. But Rahner's use of the notion of mystery goes further than merely a description of God. He wishes to use mystery as a criterion of theological truth. This mystery, which is God, becomes Rahner's theological touchstone. He sees mystery not only as a description of God, but as the nature of human consciousness as well. Following Martin Heidegger, Rahner says that the human being is the questioning being because the person himself is a question. And this questioning nature of the human person guarantees that mystery will remain an intrinsic part of human knowing. Rahner is thus able to argue that the mystery of God and the mystery of the human spirit are in continuity. Rahner says that the very way we come to verify and clarify our everyday knowledge is by illuminating our sensations with the mystery beyond us. We somehow already recognize this mystery, our minds move toward it by the universal grace of God, and we use it to give meaning to what confronts us in the world. Hence, for Rahner, mystery serves as a criterion of truth, a backdrop to all our finite thought. The mystery, which is God, answers the human quest for truth. Absolute mystery serves as a measure for the all-too-human striving of our intellect. In short, Rahner replaces the Thomistic analogy of being with an analogy of mystery (analogia mysterii).
This is all very postmodern because it agrees with the postmodern turn away from the metaphysical foundations of thought. The postmodern attitude eschews Plato's forms as well as Aristotle's teleology. It is even ill-at-ease with Darwin and Marx because both held to the 19th-century metaphysical idea of inevitable progress. Rahner fits well within this postmodern attitude because he does not attempt to ground his theology in a metaphysical constant, but rather in mystery. Mystery is his ground as well as his criterion of the validity of theological truth. One may wonder why any Christian would disagree with Rahner's description of God as "holy mystery," or with validating our thought by this mystery. At first look, it appears to provide the spiritual orientation that much of our contemporary theology needs.
But does Rahner's criterion of mystery serve to validate our beliefs or merely relativize them? Can mystery validate thought? Can it serve as a measure of clarity against which we may compare our very unclear ideas? By its very nature Rahner's notion of mystery cannot possibly serve this function. Permanent mystery can neither validate nor clarify our thought, it can only reveal its finitude. Granted, Rahner's stance has given us a needed pastoral warning against conceptual arrogance, but he has not given us a usable criterion of theological truth. What we need in order to validate our thought and our theological statements is not mystery, but a criterion that is substantial and specific enough to serve as a practical guide for our groping intellects. We need a portrait of truth and reality that shares in both the contingencies of history and the absoluteness of divinity. This criterion, marked by both radical contingency and radical divinity, is what the Church calls revelation. Should the Church attempt to go "behind" revelation -- try to validate her message by an appeal to mystery? The very opaqueness of mystery makes it difficult to see how we could ever connect revelation, much less our paltry thoughts, with the infinite otherness of this "holy mystery."
In fact, Rahner tells us that we cannot even conceive of this mystery; it must be experienced in its infinite silence. But if this is so, how can a nonconceptual (experiential) criterion serve to clarify, much less validate, our conceptual thought? It may be possible to find a home for our feelings in this "holy mystery," but what about our ideas? For all of Rahner's lip service to history and contingency, it seems that he has imprisoned truth in a heaven of mystery which can only be penetrated by the experiential and affective sides of human nature. But if we desire the clarification of our concepts or the validation of our theo-logy, we are left standing before the obscurity of this heaven, outside the gates.
We might ask Rahner just how he would go about clarifying or validating a theological statement with his criterion of mystery. In his essay "Reflections on Methodology in Theology," he argues that the propositions of theology must constantly be referred back to religious experience. The job of the theologian is reductio in mysterium -- i.e., a referring of the theological statement back to the theologian's (or the Church's) experience of absolute mystery. In his essay "What is a Dogmatic Statement?" Rahner says that a true theological statement "leads into the mysterium ." Rahner makes our experience of mystery the criterion of theological truth. Only those theological statements which reflect this experienced mystery are valid statements. Hence, the experience of mystery is the measure of theology.
But notice what Rahner is really saying. It is not even the "holy mystery" itself that functions as a criterion of theological truth for Rahner, but rather our experience of this mystery. Rahner has ironically allowed his criterion of mystery to become no more than an experience emanating from the subjectivity of religious feeling. We can only "know" mystery by experiencing it and this experience becomes the criterion of theological truth. Rahner has not successfully surpassed Kant's subjectivity which led straight to the Romantic piety of Schleiermacher. Rather than helping us integrate our thought and our religious experience, Rahner hopelessly dichotomizes them, leaving thought to fend for itself without any theological rationale.
Robert Coles has recently stated that we live in an age of "applauded subjectivity." The postmodern age emphasizes subjectivity out of its fear of objectivity. The postmodernist, whether theological or not, lazily prefers the wide open spaces of obscurity to the hard, narrow road of clarity. Rahner's criterion fits well with this attitude since his principle of mystery precludes conceptual clarity. The central problem is: Given that people have wildly differing religious experiences, how will we adjudicate between one theology and another? Also: How will we ever be able to develop a criterion of theological truth that is more than the mirror-image of ourselves? Human beings need a criterion that will give them a worldview that acknowledges both the real contingencies of their existence and the objective grace that pervades that existence.
The Church finds her criterion of truth in revelation, which means that there is a source of knowledge outside human consciousness. For anyone with commitments to postmodern humanism, this is anathema. To claim that knowledge could come from any source apart from human creativity is to contradict flatly the postmodern mentality. But the Church's acknowledgment of divine revelation makes just that claim. The belief in divine revelation serves as a warning against our self-congratulatory intellectual subjectivity. The idea that the "Word of God" is disturbingly and freely present within the world of contingent history makes our privatization of religion in modern Western culture a rather absurd attempt at domesticating the giant. What disturbs many postmodernists about revelation is not its divine nature, but its historical presence. If revelation were confined to the heaven of pure spirit, all would be well. But the Church insists that revelation is, by its nature, historical. It participates in the radical contingency which is part of human experience. It is not a purely formal and limitless category, nor is it conveniently obscured by the mysteriousness of its absoluteness. Revelation is incarnational, sharing in both the contingency of our history and absoluteness of divinity. In order to verify her thought, the Church does hot look up to absolute mystery; rather, she looks out to history, to "deeds and words." As the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation states, "This economy of revelation is realized by deeds and words, which are intrinsically bound up with each other." This Vatican II document goes on to state that the deeds of God in history reveal the doctrine in the words. But also, the words "bring to light the mystery they [the deeds] contain." Note the restricted use of mystery here. The locus of mystery is history, not, as in Rahner, the limitless mysterium absolutum.
If the Church wants to validate or clarify her theology, she cannot do so by piercing through the appearance of revelation toward some formless mystery. She must patiently pay attention to the events of history and the words of Scripture and Tradition in order to relate her experience to her inherited concepts. In the ongoing work of the mutual interpretation of deeds and words, the Church faces the mystery of God. This mystery, however, is not her criterion of truth, but the inspiration to continue her journey. To use a nautical metaphor, mystery fills the sails of the Church, but something else must serve as her compass. If we follow Rahner's use of mystery as a criterion of theological truth, we will be forcing the experiential and affective nature of our lives to play a conceptual role -- forcing our feelings to function as concepts. But even more confusing, if we appeal to absolute mystery as our theological criterion, we will be deliberately looking away from the place we are most likely to discover our proper criterion, revelatory history. Our compass cannot be found in the ahistorical realm of mystery, but in the contingency of existence into which God has chosen to enter. The incarnation of Christ proclaims that God has entered history and infused it with meaning. The Church is, then, well advised not to look away from this history, but to find the light of her guidance embedded within it. The Church finds this light in the reality of divine revelation. In revelation the Church sees the integration of historical contingency and conceptuality.
In revelation, we find the integration of experiential and conceptual knowledge, the two modes of human knowledge which Western philosophy has been trying to integrate since Plato. Modeled by this reality of revelation, the Church defines truth as both contingent and conceptual. Our understanding of truth is modeled after our understanding of revelation. The incarnation of Christ historicized God and impregnated our history with revelation. We must, therefore, look to this revelatory history if we are to find the recognizable face of holy mystery. We will find our criterion there, as Jesus did. But what kind of criterion may we hope to find?
First, it will not be a single criterion, but a multifaceted one. Second, our criterion will most likely not be apprehended in an instantaneous intuition. Rather, it will emerge as we patiently interpret event with word and word with event. It will be a criterion for pilgrims. But what we lack in singularity we will gain in well-roundedness. And what we lack in immediacy, we will gain in detailed familiarity.
Let us call our criterion the criterion of contingency, and let's replace Rahner's analogy of mystery with an analogy of history. Knowledge of God is made possible not by a continuity of mystery, but by the continuity of history that the incarnating God initiated between Himself and, His creation. Man can know God because both participate in history. But what are the specifics of our criterion? How can we use it, say, to validate a theological statement? Here are some guidelines.
(1) Does our theological statement adequately integrate the experience and the knowledge of the Church? If it is true that revelation is both historical (experiential) and conceptual (thought-like), then our theology ought to reflect this partnership and integrate the experience of grace and the conceptualization of grace. In brief, does our theology help to wed our experience with our doctrine, or divorce them? (It is not accidental that Rahner's experientialism has been deployed by certain Catholic leaders at the parish level to downplay or jettison Catholic doctrine.)
(2) Does our theological statement illuminate the revelatory truth found in the particularities of history? If history without revelation is dark, surely revelation without history is too bright for us to see.
(3) Does our theological statement encourage the growth of the Church's knowledge? By its nature, revelation allows history and word to interpret each other, thus providing for the possibility of understanding. Our theological statements, by reflecting this interaction, should themselves promote the growth of our understanding of that revelation. Theology is not merely the repetition of historical dogma, but the growing understanding of dogma through history.
Rahner's criterion of mystery lacks the specificity of history, and that is why it is not a usable criterion. Rahner consistently points us beyond history toward absolute mystery. In so doing, he doesn't even give us a meaningful criterion of mystery -- he just gives us obscurity.
The foregoing review article by Charles James, Karl Rahner's Baneful Impact on Theology," was originally published in the New Oxford Review (September 1995), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.
[Hat tip to JM]
- Robert C. McCarthy, A Critical Examination of the Theology of Karl Rahner(Carthay Ventures, 2001), an insightful primer among critiques of Rahner's theology.
- Atila Sinke Guimaraes, Destructio Dei (Destruction of God)(TIA, 2012), a detailed analysis of the novel theological systems of Rahner and von Balthasar on the Trinity.