Friday, January 09, 2009

Thesis Thoughts 3: Rahner's Theological Anthropology

more thesis thoughts which are still somewhat rough, especially the footnotes, but have at it.


The Supernatural Existential

Rahner’s first two works were primarily philosophical in nature. Spirit of the World, his doctoral dissertation, is a philosophical conversation with Heidegger coming from the perspective of Kant’s transcendentalism accompanied by the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Rahner’s other seminal philosophical work, Hearers of the Word, continues with groundwork he laid out in Spirit of the World and proposes new solutions to problems he perceived in the theological explanations and presentations of his time. This primarily had to do with his discomfort with the relationship between nature and grace as explicated by scholastic neo-Thomism.
All grace was seen as the grace of Christ, but was ontologically grounded in God’s redemptive will. In other words, there was no inherent relationship between the offer and reception of grace and the reception of God’s self-communication through the Incarnate Son.
1 McCool explains, “[Rahner’s] theological anthropology enabled him to see that, contrary to the manuals' purely entitative understanding of grace, grace must have a perceptible effect on human consciousness,”2 all human consciousness regardless of whether a person had been exposed to the Gospel or not.

In this regard, we must keep in mind Rahner’s appreciation of and affiliation with Transcendental Thomism. He feels impelled to offer an explanation of how Christ can be the universal savior. Rahner proceeds to develop a system which will identify in man the possibility of receiving salvation and present Jesus as the realization of that possibility. For something to be universally salvific for mankind, man must be a priori oriented to it; it must be capable of affecting mankind as a whole.3 As we have said above, following his Transcendental method, in order for Rahner to remain consistent with his system and hold that Christianity is true and that divine revelation has occurred, he must show that it is generally credible to believe in revelation; he must show that man has a capacity to receive revelation. Rahner explains,

If we start from ourselves, God’s revelation cannot be validated either in its actuality, or in its necessity, or in its inner nature. … It remains questionable (at least for the time being) whether and in what sense we can discover in ourselves something like a “power of hearing” for an eventual revelation of God, before we have in fact heard it, and have thus found out that we are capable of hearing it.

Nevertheless, Rahner argues that man is essentially a “hearer of the word” and develops a theological anthropology which views man ontologically and essentially as such. Ratzinger explains, “The paradox of the being man is that he can find the ‘universal’ in himself only in tension with the ‘particular’, with a history that comes from without, so that man can be described and postulated, as it were, a priori¸as the receiver of a revelation history, as a “hearer of the word.”5 6

Thus, Rahner sees in man an ontological dynamism and openness towards the Ultimate Horizon of Being, God.7 Knowing that God desires all men to be saved and therefore that He offers salvific grace to all men, Rahner reasons that God has created man with the capacity to receive grace and to perceive it precisely as grace.8 Rahner proposes that God creates a creature, man, that he could love, that could “receive this Love which is God himself” and receive it for what it is, “the unexpected unexacted gift.”9 This ability to receive God’s self-gift must be an intrinsic part of the makeup of man.

This 'potency' is what is inmost and most authentic in him, the centre and root of what he is absolutely. He must have it always: for even one of the damned, who has turned away from this Love and made himself incapable of receiving this Love, must still be really able to experience this Love (which being scorned now burns like fire) as that to which he is ordained in the ground of his concrete being; he must consequently always remain what he was created as: the burning longing for God himself in the immediacy of his own threefold life. The capacity for the God of self-bestowing personal Love is the central and abiding existential of man as he really is.10

Rahner refer to this as the “supernatural existential.” McCool explains, “God's real offer of his grace produces a "supernatural existential" in the human soul. This "existential" is a permanent modification of the human spirit which transforms its natural dynamism into an ontological drive to the God of grace and glory.”11 Rahner intended his supernatural existential to unify nature and grace which had become too distinct and separate in neo-scholasticism. Thus on top of man’s theoretical pure nature is added the supernatural existential, this transcendent potential or openness to receiving grace prior to the actual offer of divine grace and revelation.12 Klaus Riesenhuber further clarifies, “This is only a way of saying that man’s nature must be spirit, in the sense of unlimited transcendental openness to unrestricted being. What is called man’s “obediential potency” to receive revelation is not some competence coordinated with various others, but is his spiritual nature itself.”13 Riesenhuber explains that here Rahner follows Marechal by formulating in a new way Aquinas’ “natural desire of the beatific vision.”14

We can now begin to see, with a preliminary and still blurry vision, how Rahner’s theological anthropology will attempt to posit Christ’s universal significance for salvation, for, following the Christ event, the grace of which also extent in to past times prior to Christ, the supernatural existential places all men, not merely those who have had historical contact with Jesus or his followers, in a new and improved condition.

[The unbaptized man] exists in a different situation because of the ‘objective redemption,’ which is a real and basic moment in the ‘subjective’ salvation situation of every man…because of the ‘supernatural existential,’ because of God’s continual offer of the grace for supernatural salvific acts, his situation is other than it would be if it were determined only by his ‘nature’ and by original sin.15

But how is it that Jesus’ salvific grace is offered to and accepted by those who have had no contact with Christianity? What is the effect of this offer and acceptance? What of those who have had contact with Christianity? Can they accept the grace while rejecting the Christianity that has been offered to them?

Transcendental and Categorial

We shall explore Rahner’s answers to the above questions shortly, but before we do so, we must examine how his theological anthropology sets the stage for his response.

Having posited the supernatural existential in man, Rahner continues the development of his system by discussing his technical terms “transcendental” and “categorial.” Rahner explains what he means by “transcendental” fairly clearly. In “a ‘transcendental experience,’ that is an experience of the unlimited openness of the spirit to being as such, there is on the subjective side of all knowledge a knowledge of God that is real although implicit, that is, not necessarily objectified.”16 In other words, the transcendental aspect of man is a realization of the supernatural existential. God gives man this openness to receive his revelation as grace. A transcendental experience is one in which man receives this grace and responds to it positively, but without consciously identifying it as God’s offer of Christ’s salvific grace.

Unfortunately, Rahner never explicitly clarifies the ontological status or precise meaning of his “categorial,” however, we can surmise it’s approximate meaning from its juxtapositions with the “transcendental.” Marshall attempts to approximate Rahner’s meaning as follows:

‘Categorial’ simply means ‘what can be put into categories.’ … More precisely (since for Rahner the transcendental too can, at least indirectly, be evoked in language), the ‘categorial’ is circumscribed in space and time; in this sense human words, the sacraments, the church and Scripture can all be called ‘something categorial.’ Rahner is especially given to contrasting transcendental with ‘historical,’ where ‘historical’ has the broad meaning of ‘spatio-temporal,’ and so is equivalent to categorial.”

The problem of determining the precise meaning and ontological status of the “categorial,” is compounded by the reality that the debates and difficulties over understanding how God’s grace can work to save non-Christians take place specifically in the categorical and historical circumstances of each generation. Thus, a man can transcendentally be in a positive relationship to God regardless of whether or not he has received and accepted the Gospel as communicated categorically in the historical categories of the Christian faith. This begs of the questions of the importance of the categorical presentation of the faith. Is it not relativized by the emphasis of the transcendental revelation?

Even with this rather long-winded explanation, the precise status and import of the categorical remains vague and elusive. It should become somewhat more clear once we apply it practically using Rahner’s system and theory of “anonymous” or implicit Christians or Christianity, for which the “transcendental” and “categorical” are vital.

1 McCool, Rahner Reader 173.

2 McCool, 174.

3 Marshall, Christology Conflict, 33.

4 Rahner, Hearers of the Word, 5; Rahner’s emphasis.

5 Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology, 163.

6 Hearers of the Word is the title of one of Rahner’s earliest philosophical works and, according to Balthasar, Marshall, Oakes, McCool, etc. lays the foundation for the rest of his thought……fill in with more detail!!!!!

7 McCool, 174. [SeeRahner (Theological Investigations, vol. IV, p166-69, 174-84 for more quotes and info]

8 Rahner, Theological investigations, vol 1, 300-302…quoted in McCool 185.

9 Rahner, Karl, Theological Investigations, vol I, p300-02, 310-315. (McCool 186)

10 Rahner, Karl, Theological Investigations, vol I, p300-02, 310-315. (McCool 187)

11 McCool, 185.

12 McCool 188 = Rahner, Karl, Theological Investigations, vol I, p300-02, 310-315. (McCool 188)

13 Riesenhuber, 165.

14 Riesenhuber, 166.

15 Rahner, Implicit Christianity, 44.

16 Rahner, Karl. "Implicit Christianity." Theology Digest. Sesquicentennial Issue (1968), 49-50.

17 Marshall, 17-18.


Henry Karlson said...

Will you be doing any comparison between Rahner with Balthasar's theology of the senses (esp sight)? Sadly, I think it is a topic which, of itself, could be its own thesis...

JB said...


I think you are right, it could be it's own thesis. I hadn't planned on incorporating it into my thesis,
Both of them have written so much that its tough to get my mind around all of it.