Friday, March 17, 2017

Karl Rahner

Karl Rahner 2017





I am reflecting upon the ways in which Roman Catholic Jesuit priest and theologian Karl Rahner (1904-84) has influenced the way I have come to engage in the theological enterprise. I have found him quite insightful. I have not found him as helpful in working through a view of the church. He is too Roman Catholic for me. I respect his view that the church is a sign or provisional representation of the rule of God. Thus, it should never confuse its historical presence with that rule.[1] However, in important junctures of theological reflection, he has offered much that I have found agreeable.

Pannenberg notes that the term “transcendental” by Rahner refers structural relation of anthropology, theology, and Christology that transcends detailed historical findings, the basis of which one is seek in anthropology.

The matter of history is important in Christian theology. Rahner appears to be similar to Cullmann in isolating salvation history from the course of historical events.[2]

Philosophical Anthropology

            I begin with his insights into philosophical anthropology.

            Aquinas advanced the thesis that the soul is the essential form of the body. The soul is is that which makes us human in our bodily reality. Conversely, the body is the concrete form in which the soul finds appropriate expression.[3]

            Pannenberg will take seriously the social setting of human sin and misery or its original sin. Rahner would criticize this view as opening the door to sin by imitation of others, which he thinks the dogmatic conclusion of Trent would disallow.[4] Rahner wants it clear that we own our sin, and so does Pannenberg, although they approach the notion differently.

Among the many difficulties that religion faces in a secular culture is that the divine seems to have a blank face.[5] In fact, we are largely suspicious, like Feuerbach, that any talk of the divine is only talk about ourselves. The divine may simply represent to us our highest hopes and dreams for self and humanity, and maybe even our highest fears. We are not sure of the talk of the divine as a realm that transcends us and addresses us. Our suspicion is that even if true, we could never verify it was true. Yet, it may well be that if we have a culture in which the divine has a blank face, we may also have created a culture that lacks an ability to express meaning and significance. The dangers of such a situation for a secular culture are immense.

Humanity is a questioning being, involving constant enquiry, in which the divine is the answer to the question. In this sense, human existence is a witness to the truth of the divine.[6] Karl Rahner will point out that a finite system would not have the ability to question itself as a whole. Yet, human beings do raise such questions, suggesting an orientation toward the divine. Experiencing the other persons of our lives in love and freedom is to continue the questioning with others. The divine draws our attention indirectly through this experience. Such an experience is not an explicit theme of our thought. It remains implicit, even while a theologian might refer to the experience as a holy mystery. This means that we can think of divine grace as available to all. Such grace is present everywhere.[7] Our questioning has a close relation to our brokenness. Now, the questionable quality of human existence is negative in the sense that humanity has a question and the universe responds with silence. It has a positive meaning in the openness of humanity to the world in that our questions invite others to engage us in the journey of a human life. It suggests perpetual openness to the future. Our questioning is an important part of our sociality. Certain authors express this nature of this openness well, such as like Max Scheler, Adolf Portmann, Arnold Gehlen, Michael Landmann, Helmut Plessner, Ernst Bloch, and Jean-Paul Sartre. Openness to the world means humanity is able to make an inquiry and that life is a process of inquiry. The phenomenon of inquiry is an example of the structure of human existence. Such human inquiry does not come out of its lack. Rather, the lack reveals the possibility of totality.[8] The questionable character of human life also reveals its freedom. In this way, as philosophy may focus on the questionable character of human life it has a hidden connection with the divine. The question relates to our quest for our true or authentic self. We can know the divine only as we know self and we can know the self only as we know the divine. We can see the hidden nature of the relation between the divine and the self. We gain self-knowledge through participation in the world that science describes.[9] Yet, for religion, the answer to the question of human existence is through revelation. Humanity has knowledge of the divine in the uncanny and enigmatic quality of human existence. Our question about the divine arises from the mystery that is human life. We too often close off the questioning in order to secure too quickly a foundation secured by us.[10] The point here is that theology has a point of contact with philosophy when philosophy exposes the questionable character of human life.[11] The questionable character of human existence is the reason personal identity is so difficult. We do not achieve our identity, our true or authentic self, easily.

Schleiermacher attempted to show how the concept of God is an essential part of a proper human self-understanding, whether in relation to human reason or other basic fulfillments of human existence. Kant offers some philosophical support for this, whose notion of practical reason includes the moral proof for the existence of God. Fichte’s later writings support this notion in that he said the awareness of finding one grounded in the absolute is the freedom that exists through absolute being. Schleiermacher referred to the feeling of absolute dependence. Kierkegaard had the idea of a constitutive relation of the self-consciousness to the Infinite and the Eternal. Karl Rahner proposed that in our self-transcendence, we already affirm the existence of the transcendent.

The hint humanity may be more important than some science suggests lies in the openness of humanity to its world.[12] As important as the genetic structure may be to us, it does not determine human behavior. The way human beings interact with the world, especially in terms of language and remembered history, is far more determinative of human behavior than is biology. The ontological priority of humanity rests on the fact that humanity is the one species to whom its existence is a question to which, in the course of life, each individual must answer. Humanity is so open in fact, that we do not know the “end” for which it is here. In contrast, other animals have reached their evolutionary end. Such openness means that human beings do not “have” their human nature, but are on their way toward it. For this reason, as helpful as science is in helping us understanding the “selfish gene,” as Richard Dawkins put it, science will never define the nature and essence of humanity. With all the insights of socio-biology, it will not be sufficient for defining human life. The scientific description of the evolutionary and genetic nature of humanity will always be an abstraction, cut off as it is from the way in which interpersonal and cultural relations shape the individual. We will always need the engagement of psychology, sociology, philosophy, and religion in order to resolve issues related to our life together. Humanity has not reached its evolutionary end. Further, we can only imagine what such an end would be. We gain our identity over the course of our lives. Our openness to the world is our dignity and closing ourselves from the world is our misery.

The study of religion presupposes a general anthropology that would provide a frame of reference for all discussions about the status of religious concepts. This statement also rejects the idea that adherents are simply vain and self-seeking individuals who project their finitude onto the divine (Feuerbach). It means religion is not just a protest of or compensation for social alienation (Marx). It means religion is not just a matter of guilt (Nietzsche) or neurosis (Freud). Such views assume that religion is secondary to human nature, an aberration from an immature form of the human understanding of reality. If, in contrast, religion is constitutive to the human quest, then one cannot lead a fully rounded and complete human life without it. The presence of religion from the earliest forms in the evolution of humanity is a sign of its significance. Religion has often provided legitimacy for the social order, something secular culture is seeking to re-think. Religion has for its object the unity of the world in relation to its divine source and its possible fulfillment from that same source. It provides a theme as human beings discover the meaning of human life and the meaningful order of social life. Schleiermacher said the universal or Infinite embraces the particular or finite. Religion provides the ultimate frame of reference for the order of human life in society. The reason is that only the religions apprehend the universe as a meaningful order in which the order of life in society is also meaningful. Religion provides such legitimacy in a secondary way. If this were its primary function, it would become corrupt as a tool of those in authority. It must maintain its independence and prophetic function as well as perform its legitimizing role. At the same time, a culture set loose from its religious foundation will trend toward a presumptuous misuse of power by individuals or groups in government.

We have here a hint of the difference between religion and ideology. Ideology is a fundamental closure in face of the wholeness of reality. It converts a partial aspect of reality into an absolute space that calls people to practical and usually political action. It seeks to determine the norm for the whole life of a society. It offers the appearance of a scientific interpretation of reality in the service of a practical and social orientation that it intends to legitimate. Religions need to guard themselves from becoming a tool of an ideology, for genuine religion serves a higher purpose. It cannot become the official bearer of specific imperatives contained in particular ideologies. A religion will tolerate, therefore, various political approaches to governance precisely because it refuses to turn a finite interpretation of reality into the infinite.[13]

Political ideology is replacing religion as performing this legitimizing function. We need to remember that political rule always has an element of compulsion. How will a secular culture built upon political ideology define its limit? Further, a political ideology does not have capacity to provide the content of that to which one ultimately commits one’s life. The political order cannot provide an adequate vision of human destiny. Both philosophy and science, as helpful as both have been, have been unable to provide the basis for political rule. If the West is declining, avoiding the religious ideas that undergird its civilization will not help.  Another way to think of the difference here is that religion can exist without a connection to the political order. Religion can provide some grounding or legitimacy of the political order because it transcends them. If individuals try to achieve their identity through their social life, they will overtax the capacities of social institutions. Of course, the misuse of religion, such as turning into an ideology, can lead to idolatry, superstition, and enigmatic practices. Yet, it can also display devout and reverential behavior and holiness of life. As Tillich put it, the depth of reason refers to the theonomous, in contrast to the autonomous (“thin” notion of self), nature of humanity. Humanity has a depth out of which arises the quest of rationality for that which ultimately concerns us, that to which we can offer ourselves in ultimate commitment, and that to which expresses our sense of the totality of commitment (our sense of reality). Out of the ontological structure of our rationality emerges philosophical insight, a sense of beauty, love, goodness, and justice. None of these expressions of our rationality will have the precision or certainty of we can expect and need in science and math.[14]

An ideology might have a largely negative interpretation. It becomes a false system of interpretation of reality. Such a system in one to which we voluntarily commit. The system, while finite, proposes itself as a total system of interpretation of reality. It offers a partial aspect of reality an absolute place with a view to action, usually political action. It will seek to be the norm for the while life of a society. It may present itself as scientific interpretation of reality in the service of a political agenda. The falsely scientific appearance gives it legitimacy in the modern society. In this sense, Christianity is not an ideology. The church does become the direct bearer of specific imperatives that carries with it political and economic implications. At the same time, Christians and the churches bear some responsibility for the cultural order. If Christianity is not an ideology, then it must, out of regard for the uniqueness of its role in directing people to what concerns them ultimately and thereby the relativity of all political agendas, refuse commitment to a particular ideology.[15]


            Rahner takes the insight that the immanent divine Logos is strictly the same as the economic Logos, which is the historical person of Jesus Christ. He worked this notion up into the thesis that the immanent Trinity is the same as the economic Trinity. One can posit the immanent Trinity in the experience of Jesus and the Spirit. For this reason, Rahner asks for a revision of the traditional subordination of the economic sendings to the intratriniarian processions. The sending is the starting point for the discussion of the Trinity. This means the concrete relation of Jesus to the Father must begin our reflections on the Trinity. Yet, Rahner actually begins with the key concept of the self-communication of the Father by the Son. Rahner rejects the idea of three subjectivities in God in favor of a single divine Subject that communicates itself. He does not think the Trinity can have an opposing Thou. Rahner infers too hastily from the unity of the divine consciousness that there cannot be three centers of consciousness and centers of action in God. He thinks one consciousness exists in three modes. Thus, God has one real consciousness which the Father, Son, and Spirit has in their own way each of the divine persons is conscious of the other. The issue is whether Rahner does justice to the mutual self-distinction of the three persons if one follows Rahner in providing no distinction between subject and object in God.[16]

            In another profound insight, Rahner says that when God wills to be not God, human beings come into existence. He regards the assumption of human nature by the Logos in the incarnation as the creation of humanity by the Logos. He links this thought of the self-emptying of the Logos in the incarnation to it by assuming human nature. The assumption of human nature has a direct link to the self-emptying of the Logos. Such self-emptying is the self-actualization of the Logos in the other, in the act of the creation of humanity. This act corresponds to the action of the Father in the sending of the Son. However, the Son is the primary subject, even though he acts in fellowship with the Father through the Spirit.[17] With the self-distinction of the Son from the Father, we have the positing of the creation of the world.

            However, Rahner seems close to Barth in the way he discusses the Trinity. He clearly seems motivated by the dangers he sees in vulgar tritheism, which he views as greater than the danger of Sabellian or Idealistic idealism. He resists the notion of three conscious centers of action. The problem with Rahner here is that we can understand the I only in the light of Thou. Subjectivity or consciousness is a concept of relation. Personality arises out of social relation. Rahner, however, seems to want to use the phrase “mode of subsistence” as without subject, consciousness, or will. To put this in traditional language, the Son is the “self-utterance” of the Father; the Son does not ‘utter.” This means Rahner has no Thou within the Trinity. In reality, Rahner has an absolute subject that reflects itself in the Trinity. The self-communication of the absolute has that differentiated structure that seems so similar to the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. He has made the Trinity superfluous. One can associate the self-communication of the Absolute in a Trinitarian way, but one does not have to. The process of self-communication is the very essence of God. The divine essence consists of the Trinitarian process of self-communication. Rahner seems to develop Idealistic modalism.[18]

            Rahner is willing to explore the nature of God philosophically. Barth and Bultmann would not go this direction. The ontological question of the relation between God and Being arises. Rahner will say that God is “the being that has being absolutely,” and therefore is being or the event or power of being. He will also refer to God as pure and absolute being, but this is short-hand for the phrase used. Being (Sein) is the being of some actual society of beings, the power of being is the pure possibility of being. One cannot think of it apart from that which it enables to be. The power of being is a potency, and is therefore non-being and being, emptiness and fullness. The power of being is at the disposal of God, who has it absolutely. To have the power of being absolutely is to have the ability to release it, to let it go into the world. God is Absolute in the sense that God relational, releasing the divine power, giving rise to what is other than God. God has and gives being by releasing it and letting it go.[19]


            Rahner has taken the lead in saying that the one creative act of God embraces temporal being as a whole, giving creation unity in its division and also gives creation meaning. He does this by his contributions to the theological connection between the doctrine of creation and evolution. Emphasis falls on the rise of what is new in evolution.


            In Christology, Rahner has offered some insights that I consider important.

Christians believe that in Jesus of Nazareth we find God becoming a human being. This means that for Christians, God does not remain a distant and silent mystery. God has come close to humanity in a specific revelation.[20] This revelation will have the character of an event or moment.[21] We needed to spend some time discussing both the divine and the human, rather than just assume we know what we mean in using such terms. Thus, it has taken me a few pages, but I am ready to write about Jesus now. I hope you as a reader are ready to make this journey with me. We are at the center of Christian teaching. To fail here is to fail everywhere. To be on the right track here makes it impossible to be completely mistaken in the whole.[22] The coherence and validity of Christian thought depends upon the uniqueness of the Savior, a uniqueness that is qualitative and not merely quantitative. If one situates the uniqueness of Jesus Christ only within some aspect of his human life, such as some have suggested as either in his piety or his obedience to God (Gunther Bornkamm), then it becomes difficult to affirm his unique dignity in any unique and universal sense. John Hick has suggested Jesus is a paradigmatic example of a spiritual experience that is available to any person at any time. Schubert Ogden understands Christ as a decisive representation of authentic human existence. You may legitimately ponder the reason Jesus should have this unique and universal place. If so, you may also ponder whether the human situation is as dire as doctrines like the Incarnation and atonement suppose. Perhaps what Jesus does is to lead us into some form of completeness or perfection already latent without our humanity as such, albeit in a defective or stunted form. Such pondering reminds us of the way Christology has intimate connections with our anthropology and our soteriology.

In the Christian view, the man Jesus of Nazareth is the preexistent Son of God come to earth. However, Christology begins with the early Christian interpretation of the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth as the Messiah of the Jewish people. This means that a form of “Christology from below” (Pannenberg) or “ascending Christology” (Rahner) is important to our task. In either case, the difficulty with these assertions in our secular age is great. At the same time, any religious view of reality will suggest that secular ideologies are reductionist and open to argument. The continuing presence of the church, the community of those who believe in Jesus, as well as the continuing presence of other religions, stands as resistance to any purely secular approach to human life and culture.  Great nations, political ideologies, and economies, have risen and fallen. Religious communities seem to keep offering people help in understand why they are, what kind of life they ought to lead, and what kind of world humanity ought to create. Religion is no more violent than secular political ideologies. When religion turns away from providing culture a political and economic plan, it becomes peaceful and compassionate. Therefore, religious communities deserve a place at the table as humanity considers a world worth creating. In the Christian context, believing individuals and communities remain witnesses that there once was a man, Jesus, who lived among us. However, since the Enlightenment, the historical picture of Jesus has removed itself from the theological tradition. The result is that the confessional statements become strange or impossible without sinking into the subjectivity of the perceptions of faith. Theology must take up the task of bringing its Christological statements into connection with Jesus. The connection is important because, for example, if we study only the historical dimension, we will likely make hasty and superficial decisions regarding Jesus. The nearest context of the preaching of Jesus and the early church is Jewish apocalyptic, a fact that makes Jesus even stranger to the modern secular consciousness.

Jesus claimed unheard of authority for his own person. He knew he was in agreement with God and was the mediator of the inbreaking of the rule and forgiving love of God. He opposed freely the tradition embodied in the Torah, trusting that he was in harmony with the will of God. For these reasons, it ought not to surprise us that he caused offense to devout Jews. Rahner could say that Jesus may have hoped for conversion at the beginning of his public ministry. However, he soon accepted that his mission would lead to mortal conflict with religious and political authorities.[23] Thus, the message of Jesus was in conflict with the Jewish tradition as it developed in the post-exilic period. In this, Jesus is like the prophets of the Old Testament. He faced opposition, especially from powerful people and often from religious leaders. The conflict was inevitable for the Jew who was loyal to the Torah. What undid Jesus with Jewish leaders was the Torah.[24] We can see this in the prophetic threat against the temple, based upon Jeremiah 7:11-14 and 26:6, the intimation of its destruction in Mark 13:2, along with the accompanying symbolic action in overturning the tables of the moneychangers.  All of this was likely the immediate occasion of his arrest, as the Mark account suggests. The trial involved both Jewish and Roman appearances, a matter of some debate among scholars. The denial of Peter is evidence of this, although whether a formal hearing occurred is not so clear historically. Jewish leaders acted in good faith regarding Jesus, whom they believed was a deceiver, seducing the people into apostasy from the God of Israel. Deuteronomy 13:5-6 urges the death of the prophet when he urges disloyalty to the Lord. At the same time, Jesus looked forward to the rule of God and salvation, and therefore the restoration of Israel. The resurrection of Jesus expresses the faithfulness of God to the election of Israel. The cross means the end of the Torah, but not the end of the election of Israel.

Jesus was a part of the religious and historical circumstances in which he lived. He practiced the Jewish religious life of the time, including going to temple and synagogue, and reading the Jewish scripture. His public life would not be that of a revolutionary. However, it would be that of a reformer.[25]

The re-thinking of Judaism and its Law in light of the nearness of the rule of God begins with Jesus. Jesus was a reformer. He opposed the dominance of the Torah. He knew himself to be close to God. He seemed to have heightened sensitivity to those whom the Law marginalized in Jewish and Roman society.[26] The universal relevance of the Law occurs through revision of the significance of the historically conditioned elements of the Jewish faith. Paul would teach that the cross of Christ ends the Mosaic Law in the sense of the way it separated Jews and Gentiles. Yet, Paul would also maintain that the Law testified to the righteousness of God, which, of course, does not end. In historical reality, of course, the Law is a sign of difference between Israel and the Gentiles. The central content of the witness of Israel among the nations is fellowship with God and human fellowship. The exposition of the Law provided by Jesus broke the Law free of its Jewish history and made it applicable to all. We will now explore how Jesus made this application possible.

The unity of Jesus with the Father was a major point of contention in the course of his life. It seems likely that Jesus accepted death as a likely outcome of his mission. His nearness to the Father was a result of Jesus experiencing the coming of the rule of God in his person and proclamation.[27] Jesus treated with caution any attempt to identify him with the concepts of Jewish eschatological expectation. He did not view himself as the Messiah. He thought of the Son of Man as the future heavenly judge.  The work of Jesus aimed at future verification of his claim to authority and confirmation of his message.[28] His message of the immanence of divine rule unavoidably brought his person into play. If he was the mediator of divine rule, the suspicion of his arrogance naturally arose. The ambivalence that surrounds his coming helps us understand the rejection and offense he encountered. The charge of blasphemy in Mark 2:7 and a blessing upon those who did not take offense in him in Luke 7:23 are evidence of this rejection. Jesus, aware of the ambivalence of his message, tried to stop people from magnifying his person. The appearance of Jesus needed divine confirmation in light of the controversy. His claim for the coming of divine rule made divine confirmation more pressing. He did not have that divine confirmation during the course of his earthly ministry. This means his message is not self-authenticating. In fact, any claim to authority in his earthly ministry led to rejection as a deceiver and finally to his crucifixion. The passion of Jesus is an expression of the faithfulness of Jesus to his Father.

I am going to explore the meaning of the cross. Theologians will often focus upon imagery in the New Testament that can be forensic (judge, guilt, innocent), financial (debt humanity owed to God), military (victory over sin, death, devil), and cultic (the sacrifice for us). In what way does the death of Jesus of Nazareth open the possibility of reconciliation with God? The forensic approach will focus on the objective condemnation that every human being “deserves,” emphasizing the plight of humanity from which Christ saves humanity. This would be the extrinsic dimension of atonement. Such an act in the cross is effective, so to speak, regardless of human response and or knowledge. At the other end is a focus on the intrinsic nature of the atonement, in which the human situation is not quite as dire. Yes, humanity is in bondage to sin and needs liberation; humanity experiences estrangement from God and needs reconciliation. Atonement means bringing to fruition a process already begun in the basic working of prevenient grace. Human life has intrinsic self-transcendence and therefore openness to grace and therefore to receive divine communication. Such a view suggests an Infinite horizon and source of existence as the matrix within which we actual human life. Theologically, this horizon is God, the ground and horizon of our human existence. One might even want to relate this view as concurring with a modern evolutionary view of human history. Such a view would be consistent with Karl Rahner and Wolfhart Pannenberg.

The world needed reconciliation to God, but God did not need reconciliation to the world. The death of Jesus did not change the mind of God or turn away the anger God desperately wanted to pour out upon humanity.[29] The cross becomes the way God shows humanity that humanity does not need to appease an angry god. The cross shows humanity that humanity is not in the hands of an angry god. Rather, humanity is in the hands of the loving, gracious Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. The reconciliation took place in the passion of Christ, not only as a past event but also in the apostolic ministry of reconciliation. A merit of the liberal Protestant era of the 1800s was its focus on II Corinthians 5:19, where the reconciliation of the world by Christ is an outworking of the love of God in the face of the opposition of humans who are hostile to God. The death of Jesus on the cross expresses God. This death is a statement of God about God. This means that God has a destiny, through the Incarnation, in what is other than God. This death expresses God as God and as God willed to be in. The divine-human Son died, and thus, we can legitimately reflect upon the death of God in the cross. The cross is an expression of God, giving the divine self in love and as love. The death of Jesus is the self-utterance of God.[30]


Christian Life

Maybe the real question is not so much whether you believe God exists, but whether it makes a difference in your life. Theologian Karl Rahner cites Bertolt Brecht who tells this story in his Stories of Mr. Keuner:

“Someone asked Mr. Keuner whether God existed. Mr. Keuner said: ‘I suggest that you consider whether your behavior would change depending on the answer to this question. If it would not change then we can forget the question. If it would change then I can help you at least to the point of saying that you have already decided: You need a God.’” 


Let us pause for a moment and reflect upon conversion. Surely, Karl Rahner is right when he says that everyone has an inherent (innate or natural) relation to God. We are transcendent beings in the sense that we reach beyond ourselves in order to discover meaning and significance. This move outward is invitation to encounter the Infinite and Eternal. Once we experience our finitude and limits, we have already had an experience of transcendence and entered the experience of the Infinite horizon of our lives. We experience the Infinite in daily life as the embracing silence that is the background of our lives. Some persons may close themselves from this natural orientation of their lives. The presence of so much evil caused by human beings should leave us open to this possibility. Some persons may say No to their natural inclination toward positive fulfillment of their lives in the Other, especially as that might lead us toward the Infinite and Eternal. Our orientation toward the divine becomes explicit in the act of faith, conversion, and awakening. Could it be that some persons, maybe even many persons, may not affirm this faith explicitly and yet accept Christ implicitly? I have wrestled with this question at both intellectual and personal levels. If God is love, if love of God and neighbor are like each other, then we might say that anyone who loves is near to the rule and will of God, as Christians pray in the Lord’s Prayer. As we have discussed, humanity is the question to which God is the answer.[31] I am not wedded to his term “anonymous Christian.” Yet, many persons have an implicit relationship to Jesus. We see this implicit relationship in their faith, hope, and love.[32] Maybe the church simply needs to admit that the boundaries between explicit and implicit faith are fuzzy. People in the church operate under the spiritual delusion that is “nominal Christianity.” They may claim baptism, faith, and creed while never taking discipleship seriously. At the same time, the experience of others may lead them away from explicit faith and the church even while they have embraced love. None of these reflections should lead us away from the importance of a unique, personal relationship with Christ. Without people who have that relationship, Christianity will die. We can say that discipleship is participation in Jesus and his mission. Discipleship is an individual call of God that a loving relationship with Jesus mediates.[33]

Like most pastors, I have developed quite an extensive commentary upon the important saying of Jesus regarding the greatest commandment. Along with the Jews of his day, Jesus undoubtedly recited the Shema. According to the Mishnah, every Israelite male should recite this verse twice daily.[34] It ought not to surprise anyone that he would affirm the teaching of Rabbi Hillel the Elder. In reciting the shema, we learn that the God of Jesus is none other than the God of Jewish faith, in according to the witness of the Old Testament, the God whom Israel confesses in the shema.[35] Directing us to the shema rather than the Ten Commandments to respond to the question of the greatest commandments reminds us that while the law seeks permanence from an historical past, freedom characterizes the work of love. Love orients us away from past and toward the creativity of future possibility. While rules can offer some guidance and help, love allows us to become open to the inventive powers that are present in a new situation.[36] The shema as recorded in Deuteronomy 6:4 provides a basis for the command to love God upon the uniqueness of Yahweh, which suggests total commitment to this God. Such commitments exclude competing concerns.[37]       Our relationship with Jesus Christ reaches fullness in the love of neighbor. When we love the neighbor, God is our partner. Such love is spiritual life put into action. It brings us into an experience of eternal life. Love of one person for another is a spiritual value. Such love mediates the love of God. To say Yes to Jesus is to say yes to your deepest self.[38] Devotional authors have long pointed out the test of genuinely Christian prayer is that the greater love one has for God the greater love one will have for the neighbor. Such growth in love is the heart of Christian perfection in the mystical tradition. Accountability to one is meaningless without accountability to the other. The creative nature of this love moves us beyond the legalism of the Pharisee. One loves the neighbor by caring and thoughtful action rather than warm inner sentiments, which Jesus showed the parable of the Good Samaritan, which in Luke immediately follows his version of the saying on loving God and neighbor, as if to expand upon what Jesus meant. I should finally note that Karl Barth has a rather extensive discussion of the life of the children of God, which is primarily being one who loves God and neighbor.[39]


In philosophy, the notion of where to begin is a puzzling question, one raised in specific ways by Descartes and Husserl. As Paul Ricoeur noted, the notion of a closing to a philosophy, the notion of the horizon of philosophical reflection, is just as puzzling. Something pushes the discourse forward, he says. The same push is present in any story, of course.[40] Immanuel Kant referred to it as the archetectonic interests of pure reason. Yet, any notion of the “end” would fall under the dialectic of Kant, the “transcendental illusion” that befalls all speculation.[41] Hegel sought to overcome this illusion with his notion of “absolute knowledge.” Most philosophers, I think, consider his attempt a failure. Notably, his various discussions of absolute knowledge are always brief, and somewhat disappointing. He found it difficult to conclude, witness his continuing lectures and writing. As Karl Rahner would put it, the future is an open possibility that even biblical notions of “end times” do not close.[42]

Karl Rahner will say that eschatology cannot simply be about the end. No one witnesses the end. The future remains an open possibility. Since the future grows out of the present, eschatology must tell us something about our present experience of salvation. God makes eternity available to us within time. Our decisions have eternal significance for this reason. Eschatology is not a matter of time extending and projecting into a future of fixed and predetermined events. The future remains hidden and mysterious. We understand ourselves as having history (anamnesis) and a future (prognosis). The future would become interesting to us if we knew it in detail. Of the future, we know only its redemptive nature. We live in temporal reality that moves towards a real future that is open and still coming.[43]

            The promise contained in the resurrection of Jesus is human life in the presence of God. This will require us to explore the relation between time and eternity. Pannenberg states quite clearly that “the themes of eschatology call for anthropological demonstration.” [44] Such a statement is consistent with his apologetic approach to the development of Christian theology. For him, it will not be sufficient to be a theologian of the Word. He will want to discern the contours of life today, making sure that what theology says has a way of addressing the concerns, anxieties, hopes, and dreams, of people today. If we as modern persons are to hear that which Christianity promises, it will have to be credible. It can be credible only as a fulfillment of an understanding of who we are as human beings. A mark of our modern situation is that it regards human nature as the basis of all that is culturally universal. The truths of religion and metaphysics must prove themselves in the field of philosophical anthropology. Interestingly, secular hopes for salvation, especially in political arrangements (Marxism is a good example) always fall short, due to the finite knowledge of political leaders. To bring Karl Rahner into the conversation, if our present is a fragment of reality, we can do so only in the light of presumed future and ultimate wholeness. To him, then, what we say about the consummation of reality is a repetition of a philosophical anthropology.[45] The point is that the knowledge of future wholeness or salvation is the basis of Christian hope.

The promise contained in the resurrection of Jesus is that we need to re-think the death of the individual. The insights of Rahner are profound here. He has pondered deeply from Heidegger. As Karl Rahner put it, we are dying all our lives. Every moment of life is a stage on the way to this final goal. Life is a process of dying, where we experience it through loss, illness, or moving from one phase of life to the next. Going through death is the only way to get to that condition where there is no longer any death. Dying takes place throughout life. Death is the completion of this process. This death in life or living death can have two outcomes in the way we live our lives. We can accept this fact, renouncing claims on the things of this life and freeing ourselves for the hand of God, who has the power and grace to dispose of us as God wills. We can also protest against this destiny by clinging to finite things for happiness.[46] Death brings final validity to our lives. One affirms life by its faith, hope, and love. Death is a definite end. As many theologians would point out, eternity not does consist in the continuation of this life. Such continuation could only be a form of hell. Eternity must be liberation from the limits of temporality and finitude.[47] Pannenberg refers to the pan-cosmic status of the soul after death, a view that opens itself to the possibility if dissolving finitude in the presence of Eternity.[48] The human self becomes pan-cosmic in the sense that the world as a whole becomes its body. This notion preserves self-idenitty after death by participation in a community or a spiritual realm of being in which God takes the self into a higher unity or structure. The self finds an identity that is outside itself. Such a communal or world embodiment is spiritual in the sense that that it consists of ethical relations and actions . every human community is a spiritual community. In this way, the human self opens towards the universe and co-determines the universe. This makes all human beings co-responsible fo the world and add something unique to it, in death as in life.[49] Death gives our lives meaning precisely because our lives have the finality that we take with us into eternity. Our decisions have eternal meaning because they have the urgency and seriousness that death gives them. Eternal life is the simple validation of these decisions we have made toward faith, hope, and love. Our task here is to engage in meaningful life and accept its hard realities. Thus, we ought not to think of the pleasant things to come after death as compensation for the decisions we make here. The Roman Catholic view of purgatory may actually be the purgatory we experience now as we experience the various losses and deaths of this life. The yes we offer to God in the decisions of our lives receives validation in eternity. The resurrection of the body refers to the resurrection of the whole person, along with our love and hope.[50] We live our lives under the shadow of death. To fail to take this seriously is a despairing approach to life because it already ceases to take this life seriously. Sin promises a richer and fuller life. The command of God had a view to life. The desire oriented to the forbidden thinks it has better knowledge that will promote life. Romans 7, even after 2000 years, needs no commentary as an example to a greediness for life that in all cases ends in death. The link of sin and death arises from the presupposition that all life comes from God. The consequence of turning from the source of life, God, is death. For some, death, far from being a punishment for sin, is a result of our finitude. Yet, such psychologizing led to the loss of the sense that our relation to God is a life-and-death matter. The theological argument against the notion of linking finitude and death is that Christian eschatology looks to finite life without death. Such participation in Eternity will lead to the preservation of fellowship with God for finite life. Thus, only participation in time means finite life will die. Eschatology points to the wholeness of finite life that cannot exist in time. Our self-affirmation of life is an antithesis to our end in death. Fear of death pierces deep into life. It motivates us to unrestricted self-affirmation. It robs us of the power to accept life. Fear of death pushes us deeply into sin. Acceptance of our finitude is hard for us because of the self-affirmation of our lives and projects. Our end, and with it our wholeness, is still ahead of us. Our unrestricted self-affirmation (we might call it idolatry) is the origin of apostasy from God and implies death as the end of our existence. His exploration of an anthropological understanding of death should help the reader understand the Christian hope of resurrection. A distinctive feature of human life, in contrast to other living beings, is our awareness of our impending death. The promise of resurrection connects body and soul in ways that other approaches, such as the immortality of the soul and reincarnation, will not do. Death is not the consummation of human existence that Heidegger proposed. The fulfillment of our finite life requires participation in the Eternal, and therefore, in life with God. Awareness of our finitude includes awareness that death is ahead of us. Facing this end, we still have a feeling for life as we pursue the course of a human life to its end. Heidegger describes this process quite well. Our sin separates us from God, even as death separates us from God. Death seems to be a natural consequence of our finitude. When we live our lives independently of God, we know our finitude only as we know that death is ahead of us. Sinners deny the finitude of their existence in trying to be as God. The refusal to accept finitude delivers us to death. The typical human hope of life of eternal death, from the standpoint of apologetics, is a hint of our divine destiny. We can see the links of finitude, sin, and death when we see the proper relation between finitude and time. Life lived in in time did have to be broken by the separation of past, present, and future. We have our self and identity only in anticipation of the totality of our lives. The self forms in relation to that which is other than itself. Yet, its self-seeking is such that remains with itself. Our now goes with us through the changes of time. Our sense of time is participation in eternity and awareness of the division and opposition of the moments of time. The end of this tension in a human life is death. Our finitude becomes death for us. It did not have to be this way. To put it a little differently, we could live out of a self fully aware of the totality of our existence. However, the ego lives with the illusion of its infinity and divine likeness. The hope of resurrection involves the transformation of present life in way that means triumph over the wrongs, hurts, and failures of this life. This pitiable life will share in eternal salvation and therefore redeem it. The risen Jesus is the first one to rise from the dead. He is the captain of our salvation. His individual destiny anticipates the universal resurrection of the dead.[51]

I found this quote from Karl Rahner worth our consideration.

Slowly a light is beginning to dawn. I've begun to understand something I have known for a long time: You are still in the process of your coming. Your appearance in the form of a slave was only the beginning of your coming, a beginning in which you chose to redeem humans by embracing the very slavery from which you were freeing them. But still you will come again, because the fact that you have already come must continue to be revealed ever more clearly. It will become progressively more manifest to the world that the heart of all things is already transformed, because you have taken them all to your heart.--Karl Rahner, Encounters With Silence (St. Augustine's Press, 1999).





[1] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations VI, 295ff. Pannenberg, Systematic Theology III, 35-7.
[2] Pannenberg, Systematic Theology I, 499-01.
[3] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations IV, 245-6.
[4] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations I, 229ff, 246, 270-1.
[5] Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith (New York, 1978), 46.
[6] (Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit: A Conribution to Messianic Ecclesiology 1975, 1977), 154-5.
[7] Karl Rahner (Buller n.d.), Kindle Edition, 149-285.
[8] (Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology (2 Volumes) 1967, 1971), Volume 2, “The Question of God,” 201-224).
[9] (Moltmann, Theology of Hope 1965, 1967), 273-6; (Moltmann, The Crucified God 1973, 1974), 87-91; (Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God 1980, 1981), 15.
[10] An insight from Bultmann (Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology (2 Volumes) 1967, 1971), Volume II, 210-2. He refers to Faith and Understanding and Essays Philosophical and Theological. (Moltmann, Theology of Hope 1965, 1967), 59-65, who also refers to Kerygma and Myth.
[11] (Pannenberg, Basic Questions in Theology (2 Volumes) 1967, 1971), Volume II, 212-3.
[12] Writers in this field include Arnold Hehlen, Max Scheler, Johannan Herder, Helmth Plessner, Maurice Merleau Ponty, and Karl Rahner.
[13] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations Volume VI, 43-45, 52-57.
[14] (Tillich, Systematic Theology 1951), Volume 1, Part One, “Reason and Revelation.”
[15] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations Volume VI, p. 43-4, 52-57.
[16] Karl Rahner, Mysterium Salutis, II; Theological Investigations IV, 94, 98, as discussed by Pannenberg, Systematic Theology Volume I, 307-8, 319-20.
[17] Karl Rahner, “Theology of the Incarnation,” Theological Investigations IV and Foundations of Christian Faith, 225, 236. See the discussion by Pannenberg, Systematic Theology II, 22-23.
[18] Karl Rahner, “Remarks on the Dogmatic Treatise de Trinitate,Theological Investigations IV, 1966, 77-102; Mysterium Salutis, p. 342-3. J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Trinity and the Kingdom of God 144-8.
[19] Karl Rahner, Hearers of the Word; Peter Hodgson, Winds of the Spirit 147.
[20] Karl Rahner in (Buller n.d.), Kindle edition 571.
[21] Karl Rahner in (Buller n.d.), Kindle edition 578.
[22] (Barth, Church Dogmatics 2004, 1932-67), IV.1, forward.
[23] Karl Rahner, (Buller n.d.) Kindle edition 1077.
[24] (Pannenberg, Jesus -- God and Man 1964, 1968), 251-4.
[25] Karl Rahner in (Buller n.d.) Kindle edition 1077
[26] Karl Rahner, (Buller n.d.) Kindle edition 1077.
[27] Karl Rahner, (Buller n.d.) Kindle edition, 1077.
[28] (Pannenberg, Jesus -- God and Man 1964, 1968), 58-66.
[29] Karl Rahner, (Buller n.d.) Kindle edition 1244.
[30] Karl Rahner, Sacramentum Mundi II, Burns and Oates 1969, 207.
[31] Karl Rahner (Buller n.d.) Kindle edition, 958.
[32] Karl Rahner, (Buller n.d.) Kindle edition, 1355.
[33] Karl Rahner, (Buller n.d.) Kindle edition 1395.
[34] (Adela Yarboro Collins, Mark: A Commentary, Hermeneia, [Fortress Press, 2007], 573).
[35] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991), Volume 1, 260.
[36] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991), Volume 3, 76-7.
[37] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991), Volume 2, 330.
[38] Karl Rahner, (Buller n.d.) Kindle edition 1386.
[39] (Barth, Church Dogmatics 2004, 1932-67), I.2 [18.2] 371-401], [18.3] 401-457.
[40] (“Hope and the Structure of Philosophical Systems,” (1970) in Figuring the Sacred: Religion, Narrative, and Imagination, 1995)
[41] Critique of Pure Reason (Book II, Chapter 2, section 3)
[42] Karl Rahner (Buller n.d.), Kindle edition 357.
[43] Karl Rahner, “The Hermeneutics of Eschatological Assertions,” Theological Investigations IV, 323-46, as summarized in (Buller n.d.), Kindle edition 1695ff.
[44] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991), Volume 3, 541)
[45] (Theological Investigations, IV, 323ff)
[46] Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations VII, p. 287-91.
[47] Karl Rahner, (Buller n.d.), Kindle edition 1171, 1196, 1202.
[48] Pannenberg, Systematic Theology III, 629.
[49] Karl Rahner, Theology of Death, 1965, Chapter 1; Peter Hodgson, Winds of the Spirit, 273.
[50] Karl Rahner, (Buller n.d.) Kindle edition 1851ff.
[51] (Pannenberg, Systematic Theology 1998, 1991) Volume II, 8.4 and Volume III, Chapter 15.