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Robert P. ImbelliFebruary 06, 2006

The Cambridge Companion to Karl Rahnerby Edited by Declan Marmion and Mary E. HinesCambridge Univ. Press 318p $25.99

Many consider Karl Rahner one of the greatest Catholic theologians of the past century. Indeed, he has been deemed a contemporary father of the church. Now Rahner has the honor of a volume in the prestigious Cambridge Companion series.

The Rahner volume has been edited most capably by Declan Marmion and Mary Hines. They have suggestively organized the volume in terms of Rahner’s spiritual, philosophical and theological roots; his treatment of the classic topics of systematic theology; his engagement with and influence upon present-day theological movements; and the future prospects for Rahner’s theology.

The editors have assembled first-rate scholars from North America, Europe and Australia to discuss these issues. The authors are discerning, appreciative and, when necessary, constructively critical. Each article is followed by helpful suggestions for further reading. This feature, along with the editors’ useful glossary of technical terms and an appendix on Reading Rahner: a Guide for Students, makes the volume suitable both for those well versed in Rahner and those encountering this theological Mount Everest for the first time.

A common theme of most of the contributors, well articulated in the opening essay by Harvey Egan, S.J., Theology and Spirituality, is the fundamental pastoral and apologetic intent of all Rahner’s work. The question of Christian belief today, the effort to show how the Christian message corresponds to the deepest aspirations of the human person, guided Rahner’s writings from the beginning. Thus the word mystagogic figures so prominently both in Rahner and in his commentators. His passion was to lead men and women toward the Holy Mystery in whom alone their hearts will find rest.

The matrix of Rahner’s theology, as of his own spiritual life, are the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius, the personal encounter with the God who is semper major, ever greater. It is for this reason that perhaps the finest introduction to Rahner’s thought is found in the daring essay he wrote, entitled Ignatius of Loyola Speaks to a Modern Jesuit. There the many themes of his theology converge upon the God-given center who is Jesus Christ.

One of the great merits of this Companion is the clear recognition of the Christocentric nature of Rahner’s theology. Rahner’s famed turn to the subject, his anthropological turn, receives its ultimate rationale and orientation from his conviction that in Jesus Christ, the truth of both God and humanity has been fully revealed. As Francis Schüssler Fiorenza, in his exemplary essay Method in Theology writes: Rahner’s method is such that he does not take a secular modern vision of humanity and project it back to Christology, but rather makes the concrete existence of Jesus the norm for understanding Christian existence.

This Christological norm governs Rahner’s strikingly original approach to eschatology. He took the tired and unimaginative neo-Scholastic treatise on the last things and transformed it into a profound exploration of the final destiny of humanity and the cosmos. Yet for all its speculative daring, Rahner’s reflection always remains rooted in the soil of Christ’s paschal mystery, which is God’s definitive grace and revelation. As Peter Phan puts it, in his excellent exposition of Rahner’s eschatological thought, for Rahner eschatology is anthropology conjugated in the future tense on the basis of what has occurred in Jesus.

The best-known critique of Rahner’s theology, the one he himself took most seriously, comes from his student and colleague, Johann Baptist Metz. The essay by Gaspar Martínez, Political and Liberation Theologies, well illustrates Metz’s dependence upon and development of Rahner. Metz appreciates the mystical thrust of Rahner’s vision, but seeks to complement it with more thematic attention to the political and historical contingencies of the human condition. In particular, Metz seeks to recover for theology the dangerous memory of the passion of Jesus and the disruptive memory of the myriad victims of history. Martínez concludes his careful presentation by bringing the movement full circle. He writes: Political and liberation theologies, after moving from Rahner’s transcendentality to history and societyretrieve the hiddenness and incomprehensibility of God, thus returning, in their own way, to the mystery of God in which Rahner likewise encapsulated his entire theological enterprise.

The one disharmonious note I found in this fine compilation was sounded by Thomas Sheehan, in his essay Rahner’s Transcendental Project. Despite Sheehan’s impressive philosophical acumen, he proceeds to offer a truncated reading of Rahner’s transcendental philosophy. Moreover, in the form of a concluding parable (centering on a family picnic!), he ventures a reductively secularist exegesis of Rahner’s rich, multi-dimensional project. Sheehan recapitulates his interpretation: Give up trying to transcend yourselfremember that you need no faith, no religion, no church or theology that would alienate you from your this-worldly selves. Here Rahner’s Ignatian-inspired surrender to the Blessed Mystery is therapeutically transposed into a California-style exhortation that sounds for all the world like follow your bliss.

With that lone reservation, I heartily recommend The Cambridge Companion to Karl Rahner as a valuable vade mecum on the mystagogical journey that is the theology of one of this century’s greatest thinkers.

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