Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thesis Thoughts 2 - Rahner's Philosophical Background

For my Master's thesis I will be researching and writing on the debate between Karl Rahner and Hans urs von Balthasar regarding their conceptions of Christology and the salvation of non-Christians. I shall attempt to post summaries of research, random quotes and the like on a somewhat regular basis. Please feel free to share your own thoughts, ideas, questions, sources, etc.

Before diving more directly into the thought of Karl Rahner or Hans Urs von Baltashar and their soteriologies, we would be imprudent to ignore the historical and philosophical situations to which they are responding and in which they are living. If Plato lived today the manner in which he communicated his genius would certainly be quite different that it actually was. The same could be said of Nietzsche have lived in pre-Christian times. Therefore we must consider Rahner’s philosophical sitz im leben before attempting to grasp his system.

For most of the middle ages and up until the 17th Century most people in the Western world saw Jesus Christ as the universal redeemer. In other words, their world view suggested that whatever could be said to be universally or generally meaningful or significant for humanity must in way relate to Christ (Marshall 2). However, Deistic thought countered that Christian presumption, reasoning that for something to universally valid and meaningful, it must also be universally and generally available to everyone. At this time the world was realizing that knowledge of Jesus was not, or had not been, readily available to all people, specifically those living in the Americas. (Marshall 3-4)

Many Christians embraced this Deistic critique while attempting to maintain the universal meaningfulness of the historical Jesus. John Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity is a prime example of such an attempt. German Christians made the most profound attempts at finding a middle ground between these two assumptions: that of Jesus’ universal significance, and that of the necessity of universally availability of that which is said to be significant. They attempted to reinterpret the heart of Christianity, which saw Jesus as the unique historical redeemer, in such a way as to maintain the concrete notion of the Christian understanding of redemption while dissolving the “indissoluble bond to Jesus” (Marshall 4). [It is because of this new understanding of redemption that Marx can posit a world in which man is redeemed on his own merits with a Christ figure.]

Thus, Kant enters the scene with his transcendental approach and states that “the unique redeemer is an ideal of perfection, a moral archetype for which we need no empirical example, since the archetype ‘is to be sought nowhere but in our own reason.’”(Marshall 5), leading to Schleiermacher, who offers the most profound and powerful statement of the coalescence of the new deistic assumptions with redemption as posited by Christianity.

Schleiermacher develops a general criterion for redemption – the relative domination of a universal God-consciousness (‘feeling of absolute dependence’) in all experience. All people can experience the need for God in their dependence. (Marshall 6). He argues that the Christian concept of redemption exemplifies the most clear coherence with this criterion. Ever since, transcendentalists, Rahner included, have adopted Schleiermacher’s general approach and method while modifying the criterion necessary for a meaningful understand of redemption which generally available to all of humanity.

At this point, before jumping into Rahner we must consider a couple other thinkers who are especially relevant to any discussion of Rahner and Balthasar and who critiqued and revised some the thought of those mentioned above.

Joseph Marechal, a Jesuit priest from Belgium, critiqued Kant for failing to account for the dynamism of the human intellect since objective knowledge can only be obtained from categorical judgment of speculative reason. (McCool xiv). Marechal attempted to remedy Kant’s transcendental approach to make it cohere with the foundations of St. Thomas Aquinas’ thought. “Marechal believed that the transcendental method could be extended beyond epistemology and could be used to ground a general metaphysics whose form and structure would resemble the metaphysics of St. Thomas” (McCool xvi). Rahner, following Marechal, becomes the most influential proponent of Transcendental Thomism. However, he attempts to improve upon Marechal’s approach by developing a self-grounding metaphysics rather relying on epistemology and by putting more emphasis on the conscious of the human person.

Around the same time, a Protestant theologian by the name of Karl Barth is heavily critiquing Schleiermacher and his method. “Barth saw Schleiermacher as adapting to modernity where he should have resisted it, and distorting theology by moving its center from God and God’s revelation to man” (Kilby 257). Barth was especially critical of the anthropological turn taken by Schleiermacher and others as well as of the notion of having a anthropological or transcendent system on which to rely. Barth countered, “I have no Christological principle and no Christological method. Rather in each individual theological question I seek to orientate myself afresh…not on a Christological dogma but on Jesus Christ himself)” (quoted in Marshall 116).

To a certain extent, Balthasar will take a quasi-Barthian approach. His critique of Rahner vaguely parallels Barth’s critique of Schleiermacher, and his Christology attempted to be Christocentric, like Barth, rather than anthropocentric, like Rahner and the other transcendental Thomists.

In our next post we shall look explicitly at Rahner’s philosophical system and transcendental method.


Kilby, Karen. “Balthasar and Karl Rahner.” Cambridge Companion to Hans urs von Balthasar. Oakes, Moss, ed., Cambridge UP: 2004

Marshall, Bruce. Christology in Conflict: the identity of a Savior in Rahner and Barth. NY: Basil Blackwell Inc., 1987.

Rahner, Karl. Rahner Reader. Ed. McCool, Gerald. London: Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd, 1975.

1 comment:

Kris said...

Does Barth distinguish Christological dogma from Jesus Christ by drawing upon the narrative of the historical Jesus? Is that what he means?