As George Vass explains, “Karl Rahner is one of those who in recent years have tried to reformulate the basic truths of Christianity and suggest new creeds for the use of contemporary Christians” (Vass 1). The focal point is, for Rahner, contemporary Christians. He is writing for a new generation of believers (and unbelievers), and he is careful to formulate his ideas around them. He, however, still holds firm to the basic terms of Christian theology, especially with respect to faith and grace. Sometimes this gets Rahner into trouble, for he tries to square contemporary viewpoints with classical ones. Nevertheless, what is his legacy is this “ascending” Christology. Ultimately for Rahner, Christ is in humanity.
How Rahner begins his theology of Christ is unique. As William V. Dych (Rahner’s translator, student, and contemporary) puts it, Rahner does not ask “Is Jesus the Christ?”, rather he wonders, “Is my faith that Jesus is the Christ legitimate?” (Dych 49). So, with this in mind, Rahner begins in an ultra-contemporary vein; he chooses to look at Christ’s place in an evolutionary view of the world. He writes, “We are presupposing thereby the evolutionary view of the world as a given, and we are asking whether Christology is compatible or can be compatible with it, and not vice versa” (Rahner 178).
First of all, he looks at Christ with respect to what he calls the “hypostatic union”: “The God-Man is the initial beginning and the definitive triumph of the movement of the world’s self-transcendence into absolute closeness to the mystery of God” (181). Jesus is the ultimate way in which humanity transcends towards God. Rahner sees this transcendence as being perfectly compatible with evolution. Matter has developed towards man and, now, man is developing towards the spirit. Rahner writes, “If the temporal duration of the relationship between spirit and matter is kept in mind, then without hesitation we can say of the intrinsic relationship between the two that it is of the intrinsic nature of matter to develop towards spirit” (184). Humans naturally tend towards this movement. As Karen Kilby writes, “To be human is to transcend all things, to ‘go beyond’ all things towards God” (Kilby 19).
Rahner asserts that this destroys any evolutionary theory that man is an accidental occurrence. For Rahner, attainment of the spirit is the goal for man and the development of man was a necessary precedent for this realization. We cannot, however, understand the totality of our goal, but this salvation (total attainment of spirit) “must exist” for Rahner. It is a totally reasonable (the totally reasonable) cause and effect. One must wonder, however, why it “must exist?” Isn’t it also perfectly reasonable that nothing saves us, that there is no salvation? Not for Rahner - he does not sway on this position. For him, one cannot explain the corporeal and the finite without reference to the infinite; it just would not make any sense.
It is God who wants us all to be saved. Rahner writes, “This immediate self-communication of God to spiritual creatures takes place in what we call “grace” while this self-communication is still in its historical process, and “glory” when it reaches fulfillment” (190). He continues, “God’s self-communication, then, is a communication to the freedom and intercommunication of the many cosmic subjects. This self-communication is necessarily addressed to a free history of the human race. It can take place only in a free acceptance by free subjects, and indeed in a common history” (193).
The human being must accept God’s gift of grace freely; it is up to us to be saved. As Kilby writes, “Grace is not offered to some of us some of the time, but to all of us all of the time” (25). If, however, we do not accept God and his grace, it does not go away. We simply live against it. In doing so, we would be living against God’s ultimate self-communication and offering of grace, Jesus of Nazareth.
Jesus is the “absolute saviour” for Rahner and his Christology (like most) centers around the concept that God became flesh. In this Incarnation, God bestows his grace upon all spiritual creatures. However, he also emphasizes that the Incarnation has always been going on and always will be going on (John 1:1). Jesus is fully human and fully divine - this Rahner does not contest. This Incarnation, however, took place and takes place here. It is real and for humanity. Rahner writes:
If the Incarnation were to be regarded as an absolutely different and new level in the hierarchy of the world’s reality which simply and only surpasses what existed previously or is to exist, without it being necessary for this ‘lower’ level, then given this presupposition either the Incarnation would have to be able to be seen as a surpassing culmination of the ascending hierarchy of the realities of the world, so that it is incorporated positively to some extent in an evolutionary view of the world, or both notions would have to be abandoned. (199)
It is difficult to understand how one can maintain that Jesus was the Logos, the Messiah, the Saviour, and the Christ while still holding on to his humanity and our understanding of him. But, it is simple for Rahner, because the concept that “God became flesh” puts him into our history and level of understanding.
Jesus becomes significant in his relationship to us and to our faith. Rahner writes:
In describing this Christian relationship, in the first instance at least we do not have to distinguish between what Jesus is in the faith of a Christian “in himself,” and what he “means for us.” For in their unity these two aspects cannot be completely separated from each other. For, on the one hand, we neither could nor would be concerned about Jesus if he had no “meaning for us,” and on the other hand every assertion about his meaning for us implies an assertion about something “in itself” (204).
Rahner is emphasizing that without humanity, Christianity would not exist. Once the belief that Jesus is the absolute saviour ceases, so does Christianity and, with it, salvation.
Rahner looks at humanity with a historical, anthropological, and transcendental eye. He believes that to understand how we are transcendent beings open to God’s grace, a historical background is necessary. The self-communication of God appears historically (primarily in Scripture) and gives man his hope for “everything” (an eschatological hope for salvation). We find our history in Jesus and his acceptance of it. As Vass writes, “For in Jesus the Christ, God irrevocably accepted men and his whole history” (9). This includes the past, present, and future. Vass goes on to term this as Rahner’s “futurological” conception of the history to come, of our evolution. This seems like a lofty assumption on Rahner’s part, but he defends it by once again emphasizing that God becoming man was his acceptance of all of humanity.
Rahner, next, attempts to further understand the conception of this claim. What does it mean to say “God became man?” He has a hard time classifying either term. The “Word” of God he claims can just be left at the understanding of hypostasis and he writes that a concretization of what “man” means is also impossible. Definitions are not important for Rahner, human interpretation is. As Kilby writes, “At this point most Christians might be content to acknowledge that there is a paradox at the heart of the gospel. That Jesus is both human and divine is simply a truth of faith to be believed but not comprehended. They do not understand it, but then they do not expect to understand it, and do not need to understand it” (17). Herein lies the major strength and the major weakness of Rahner’s Christology. Because it comes from faith it is specifically human. But, because it comes from faith it is not rational or provable in the scientific sense.
Because God has become man (despite his immutability), man is “grounded in the greater” (223). God creates humanity by assuming it and he does so fully. The notion that Jesus is only the livery of God and that God only speaks through him is heretical. For Rahner, God is the beginning and the end of anthropology and everything else (alpha and omega) and there can be no disputation on this point. All of these claims, of course, are founded in Rahner’s own personal faith and, to that end, it would be difficult to dispute them.
Many, of course, wonder whether or not the events in Jesus’ life that were passed down really took place, whether they are historically valid. Rahner writes:
The ultimate and decisive question is rather whether this historical offer has already taken place, or whether it is only the asymptotic and still ambiguous point towards which our hope strives, and finally whether and why we can truly believe that this event of an absolute mediator of salvation and of the historical concreteness of God’s absolute self-communication to the world has taken place precisely and only in Jesus of Nazareth. (229)
He comes back to faith, writing, “We are posing the Christological question here about Jesus the Christ as a question about the accountability of each one’s own faith in Jesus as the Christ” (230). Once again, Rahner’s Christology comes down to personal faith.
Human beings have to opportunity to accept or reject grace, just as they have to opportunity to accept or reject the Biblical accounts of “the first witnesses.” These accounts make up what Rahner calls the “ground of faith” which justifies faith to the believer. Rahner believes that there are two fundamental theses which we must accept as our grounds of faith. He writes:
First, Jesus saw himself not merely as one among many prophets who in principle form an unfinished line which is always open towards the future, but understood himself rather as the eschatological prophet…[Secondly,] we [must] look in faith to that event which mediates the saviour in his total reality: the resurrection of Jesus. (246)
Rahner believes that through the exegesis of the texts we come to the full realization of the Kingdom of God as “already/not yet,” as an eschatology of the present.
Accepting the accounts does not mean a total rational belief in them, but rather an understanding of their importance to Christian life. Rahner understands that miracles can be seen as unbelievable, but he stresses their importance to our lives as signs. He sees them as tangible means of God’s self-communication, interruptions in the laws of nature, and significant for certain people at certain times. While his euphemistic phraseology may not “explain” if/how Jesus turned water into wine, Rahner makes it clear that it does not matter in the end if one believes these events to be indications of Jesus’ divinity. The resurrection, for Rahner, is the only miracle that really matters.
Rahner writes, “[The resurrection] means rather and precisely the permanent, redeemed final and definitive validity of the single and unique life of Jesus who achieved the permanent and final validity of his life precisely through his death in freedom and obedience” (266). Through a faith in and understanding of Jesus’ resurrection, one can move towards his/her own resurrection. Dych writes, “Since the union with God achieved by Jesus’ free and perfect response is the very end and goal for which God created the human race, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus can be seen as our common human destiny” (61). Rejection of the resurrection is “an act against one’s very own existence” (278).
Rahner understands that not all of his Christology is “classical,” nor does he aspire for it to be so. He believes that his theology has an advantage because it is “ascending.” It is grounded in faith, humanity, and the person of Jesus, and works upwards towards God and salvation. It is his “Christology from below” that allows for more personal interpretation and for theology to be lived, not just talked and written about.
Rahner also believes that he can include those who are not Christian in his theology. The “anonymous Christians” who have never come into contact with Christianity and even those who have but are of other faiths can still find salvation elsewhere and through contact with the Holy Spirit (316). Rahner addresses rejection of Jesus, but he does not give enough attention to those who are not Christian, do not want to be Christian or ascribe to its dogmas, and are, nevertheless, good people.
Karl Rahner and his other contemporaries (such as Schleiermacher and Bultmann) have come under fire from some who believe that they are being too subjective and too anti-classical. Kathryn Tanner, in her essay “Jesus Christ,” articulates just that. She does not blame modern theologians for being influenced by modernity, she is just wary that modernity is dictating the terms of Christological response. She believes that modernity must come under a scrutiny just like every prior theological period, and it would seem that she believes she is just the person to do it. So, she writes:
For instance, within the context of the logic of Christian belief what Christ does in and for us makes sense as a remedy for the Fall. Now, however, this story of what happens to the believer is interpreted independently of the logic of Christian belief, so that it becomes an account of what has to happen before one can hold any Christian beliefs at all. (Tanner 252)
She believes that Christianity is losing its facticity, its objectivity, and its reality. She believes that the focus on the human apprehension and response to Jesus is removing its truth value. She is a proponent of what George Vass calls a “self-conservative” theology, while Rahner and others are of the “self-creative” type. Vass writes that the “self-creative” creeds move towards “being open to development by subsequent generations in line with their own situation and mentality” (2). This what is radical about Rahner’s theology. While those like Tanner propose a more stagnant way of looking at God and Christ, Rahner proposes an evolutionary theology. It is always moving and renewing itself because it rests on the shoulder’s of the people that matter: average Christians.
Tanner wonders whether or not Christianity has lost its prima facie plausibility in these modern times. What Tanner tends to lose sight of is that the origin and truth of Christianity lies with the people that participate in it. Karl Rahner’s Christology is a step in the right direction. It gives some of the power back to the individual. It is a theology that literally is in the eye of the beholder. Because of this, Rahner’s Christology seems even more reasonable than those forged out of the classical conception of reason. It rests upon something that cannot be criticized or dissected. It rests upon personal faith.
Dych, William V. Karl Rahner. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1992.
Kilby, Karen, Karl Rahner. London: Fount, 1997.
Rahner, Karl. Foundations of Christian Faith. Trans. William V Dych. London: Darton, 1978.
Tanner, Kathryn. “Jesus Christ.” The Cambridge Companion to Christian Doctrine. ed. Colin Gunton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
Vass, George. A Theologian in Search of a Philosophy - Understanding Karl Rahner. London: Sheed and Ward, 1985.