Jesuit Karl Rahner was one of the most influential theologians of the 20th century. But he was first and foremost a priest.
Editor’s note: This article originally appeared under the title “Thursdays with Rahner” in the May 3, 2004 issue.
During the spring semester of 2000, I spent Thursdays with Karl Rahner. I was then a Jesuit seminarian, studying philosophy and theology at Fordham University. I took a tutorial with the late William Dych, S.J., who had devoted his life to studying the works of Rahner. I was Bill’s only student that semester. I would be his last student too. Bill was dying of cancer, as I later learned. Intensely private and exceedingly kind, Bill Dych honored his vocation as a teacher and loved his former mentor Rahner too much to let his disease get in the way of our lessons. For a couple of hours every week, Bill and I would work through the closest thing to a textbook that Rahner left us, his Foundations of Christian Faith, which Bill had translated into English.
March 2004 was the 100th anniversary of Rahner’s birth and the 20th of his death. On his 75th birthday, Rahner was asked to recount the major turning points of his life. “My life,” he responded, “was characterized rather by a certain monotony, a regularity, a homogeneity that comes from a person’s turning toward the final theme of theology, of religious life, and also of human life in general—which comes from the one, silent, absolute but always present reality of God.” Here we find, so simply stated, the crux of Rahner’s theology: that each of us is made to be in intimate relationship with our Creator, who is at once uniquely personal and ultimately mysterious to us. To find God, we need look no further than to our deepest, truest longings and the ordinary stuff of daily living.
Karl Rahner: “All I want to be, even in this work [of theology], is a human being, a Christian and, as well as I can, a priest of the church.”
Though he described himself as “not particularly industrious,” Rahner published 4,000 works and received 14 honorary degrees in the course of his 80 years. He was acclaimed as the pre-eminent Catholic theologian of the 20th century and was a driving force behind the Second Vatican Council, yet his ambitions were simple: “All I want to be, even in this work [of theology], is a human being, a Christian and, as well as I can, a priest of the church.” To know the life of Karl Rahner is to know something essential about his theology.
Karl Rahner was born in Freiburg, Germany, on March 5, 1904, and grew up as one of seven children in a middle-class family. His father was a professor at a local teachers’ college. When he was 18, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Austria, three years after his older brother, Hugo, who also became an acclaimed theologian. Rahner ascribed no grand theological or spiritual motivation to his decision to become a Jesuit. “I always wanted to become a priest; likewise, I always wanted to become a Jesuit.” Regardless of the reasons for his joining the Society of Jesus, the impact that Ignatian spirituality had on his theology cannot be understated. In Rahner’s own words, “The spirituality of Ignatius himself, which one learned through the practice of prayer and religious formation, was more significant for me than all learned philosophy and theology inside and outside the order.”
Sharing Ignatius’ positive view of humanity, Rahner describes the human person as “the event of a free, unmerited and forgiving, and absolute self-communication of God.” Each person is an “event”: not some static thing but a dynamic center of consciousness that is always striving for something more, for something or someone beyond ourselves. We are not satisfied with being finite and alone. We yearn for what is absolute and infinite. In other words, we long for God. These bold, holy desires are a response to an invitation from God, given at the moment of our creation and every second thereafter. To each person God freely reveals God’s very self. Yet God still remains a mystery to us, though not a mystery like a Sherlock Holmes novel, one to be figured out and pieced together. We do that with puzzles, not persons. Instead, God is a mystery in which we lose ourselves, one that we can never completely figure out.
Rahner ascribed no grand theological or spiritual motivation to his decision to become a Jesuit. “I always wanted to become a priest; likewise, I always wanted to become a Jesuit.”
Because we are so grounded in God, we too are a beautiful mystery. Our feet are firmly planted on the ground, yet at the same time our gaze lifts heavenward. We are creatures who question, and every answer about ourselves and God, Rahner writes, “is always just the beginning of a new question.” God greatly desires us to be in relationship with the divine, yet God loves us enough to give us the freedom to respond yes or no to God’s invitation. Our yes to God, if we so choose, establishes a mutuality between creature and Creator and makes dialogue in prayer possible.
With his keen mind, Rahner was singled out early by his superiors to be a teacher and scholar. He began his academic career as a philosopher and was inspired by his teacher, Martin Heidegger, who, in Rahner’s own estimation, instilled in him “the courage to question anew so much in the tradition that was considered self-evident.” With Heidegger’s inspiration, Rahner tried to combine the traditional philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas with modern transcendental philosophy. His dissertation was rejected, putting an end to his career as a philosopher.
Years later Rahner looked back on this rejection as a blessing, because he was able to concentrate fully on theology. He received his doctorate in theology in 1936 and joined the theological faculty of the University of Innsbruck the following year.
Rahner viewed theology as a process with more questions than answers, not a closed system. Because the object of theology is the God who is ultimate mystery, no words or concepts about God are adequate, he said, and no answer is complete.
Sharing Ignatius’ positive view of humanity, Rahner describes the human person as “the event of a free, unmerited and forgiving, and absolute self-communication of God.”
Relying on both philosophy and theology, Rahner tried to free us from a strict, dualistic mindset that saw everything as composed of two, often opposing, parts: grace and nature, divine and human, soul and body, church and world. Rahner saw connections, not separations; unity, not division. He contended, for example, that matter and spirit are one because they have their origin in God. Matter is always becoming, striving for spiritual existence. This striving reaches fulfillment in the human being, which is self-conscious matter able to know and love. But the human being is always striving for something more. In freedom and love, the person seeks to respond more fully to God’s desire for him or her. By growing in faith, hope and love, the person transcends self and moves toward fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In Christ, we find perfect unity of the human and divine and the unequivocal yes to God.
In 1938 the Germans annexed Austria, and within a year the theology faculty at Innsbruck was abolished. Rahner moved to Vienna and served the diocese there. He spent the last year of the war as a parish priest. Even while teaching, he was convinced that academic theology must serve the life of faith, and must be preached: “However abstract and schoolmasterly my theology may have been, it still has in the end a pastoral, ministerial inspiration. I mean, I have never, or at least very seldom, done theology for theology’s own sake.”
Though he was a distinguished professor, Rahner remained foremost a priest, preaching regularly, counseling students, talking with street people and shopping for food for the needy. Over his lifetime, Rahner directed and preached theSpiritual Exercises of St. Ignatiusmore than 50 times. His students were devoted to him. Harvey Egan, another Jesuit who studied under Rahner, recounted the measure of this devotion: “Students who understood very little of his lectures told me that they attended because they ‘felt better’ about themselves in his presence. ‘This is a professor to whom I can confess,’ one said.”
We are creatures who question, and every answer about ourselves and God, Rahner writes, “is always just the beginning of a new question.”
Just as he bridged academic and pastoral theology, Rahner integrated theology and spirituality. He believed that because theology is an encounter with mystery, ultimately all theology ends in silence. It is not surprising, then, that his first and last books were about prayer. Rahner articulates a practical mysticism of daily living, grounded again in theExercises, particularly in Ignatius’ call to find God in all things. God’s self-communication is a mystical experience that animates every part of our lives and is the ground of everything. Through the Incarnation, moreover, when God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ, God formed an irrevocable bond with the world, overcoming the abyss between God and world, the human and the divine. In Foundations Rahner wrote: “We have to say of the God whom we profess in Christ that he is exactly where we are, and only there is he to be found.... The finite itself has received infinite depths.”
In every part of daily life, we experience Christ’s own dying and rising, because the mystery of God continues to unfold in our world. According to Rahner, these joys and sorrows make up the “liturgy of the world,” which he insisted had to be connected to the liturgy or worship of the church. We must bring to the church our own dyings and risings and unite them with Christ’s own. In the midst of a broken though grace-filled world, we erect a landmark through our liturgy, which claims the world for God and proclaims the paschal mystery amid the comedy and tragedy of our lives.
After the war, Rahner returned to the theological faculty at Innsbruck and began his most productive period of writing. Primarily interested in responding to the pressing questions of his day, he helped found the journals Concilium and Disputed Questions to give theologians a forum to share new ideas. Among these contemporary issues were: the rise of atheism, the need for dialogue with other faiths and non-European cultures and the role of the church in the modern age. As Rahner reflected on how church doctrine could both be faithful to the tradition and develop in a changing world, he faced opposition. In 1962 the Vatican notified Rahner that his writings had to be submitted to Rome for review prior to publication. Rahner protested and threatened to stop writing. German-speaking cardinals and theologians rallied to his defense. The special censorship was lifted after a year.
“Students who understood very little of his lectures told me that they attended because they ‘felt better’ about themselves in his presence. ‘This is a professor to whom I can confess,’ one said.”
Ironically, at the same time he was appointed one of the official theologians of the Second Vatican Council, where he had a profound influence on the deliberations. Signs of his presence can be found in several of the decrees. By his own estimation, the most important achievement of Vatican II was the church’s more open-minded understanding of salvation. Here we find Rahner’s influence again, in his theory of the “anonymous Christian.” Even a person who does not know Christ conceptually can be saved through the power of the Holy Spirit, evidenced by a life lived, as Christ’s was, in faith, hope and love.
Rahner retired from full-time teaching in 1971, but he continued to write, lecture and travel extensively. Disappointed that the promises of Vatican II had not been fully realized, he characterized his last years as a “wintry season.” His closest friends describe a dark side to Rahner, a heaviness, gravity or pessimism. This may have stemmed from his experiences during the war, seeing the worst of which people are capable, or from his own theological battles before and after Vatican II. Realistic about people’s limitations, Rahner described the human person as “a being threatened radically by guilt,” and as one who can suffer “the estrangement of his own perilous and empty life.” Surveying human history, particularly in his homeland, Rahner knew that we can exercise our freedom to say no to God.
But Karl Rahner was also a man of great hope, for he recognized that we experience this guilt in the context of a life-giving relationship with God. In our Creator the person finds “a hidden closeness, a forgiving intimacy, his real home.” Echoing Ignatius’ realistic yet optimistic view, Rahner wrote in Foundations that the human person “is always a person who recognizes that he is encompassed by God’s love, and at the same time he is a sinner.... He is always moving beyond his refusals and pressing forward to what lies ahead.”
Just as he bridged academic and pastoral theology, Rahner integrated theology and spirituality.
Just days after the celebration of his 80th birthday, Rahner fell ill, but characteristically he worked on to the end. During his hospitalization, he managed to write a letter to the bishops of Peru supporting his fellow theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, whose liberation theology was under question. Rahner died on March 30, 1984, and was buried at the Jesuit’s Church of the Trinity in his beloved Innsbruck. The official announcement from his Jesuit superiors summarized succinctly what his life was all about: “Strengthened by the church’s sacraments and accompanied by the prayers of his Jesuit brothers, shortly after completing his 80th year, Father Karl Rahner has gone home to God.... He had loved the church and his religious order and spent himself in their service.”
On May 9, 2000, less than two weeks after my final meeting with Father Bill Dych, he went home to God, a month before he would have celebrated 50 years as a Jesuit. During our last session, the topic was eschatology: what happens after we die. On that day Bill was curiously less reserved and more personal than usual. Though he did not mention his illness, he did talk about death as a moment for which we prepare our whole lives. All of life’s losses and pains require small leaps of faith and acts of hope to go on living. So it is when we approach the end of our earthly lives, except that the leap of faith is greater. Death is not the end of life, but another transition on the continuing human journey.
The home that both Bill Dych and Karl Rahner envisioned was more a point of departure than a destination, more an encounter than a place. Their “real home” was loving union with their Creator. They expected, after their deaths, to enter fully into the Mystery who had summoned them their whole lives. This was the home where, to use Elie Wiesel’s image, after a life raising questions to God like prayers, the question and the answer would finally become one. And their lives would continue where they suspected all theology ended: in blissful silence.