Friday, January 11, 2013

What Are We To Make of Karl Rahner?

Karl Rahner is one of the biggest names in 20th-century Catholic theology, and his influence in the theological thought of the Church has been fairly widespread.  But his writings are not without controversy, and to be honest with you, I don't know what to make of it all.  What do you, the reader, think of this man?  Is he worth reading?  Why was he so influential?

I understand that Rahner's strictly theological work is about as dense as a fifty-foot thick wall of iron, and from what I've seen, it is.  His theology seems to me to be drier than stale bread left out for a few weeks on the kitchen counter, a taste more suited to those involved in strictly academic theology. 

But his spiritual writings I have found to be a much different ball of wax altogether - I have read bits of Encounters with Silence and Watch and Pray With Me, and they aren't bad at all from my brief perusals. 

Here, though, is what bothers me.  My litmus test for the orthodoxy of any theologian or spiritual writer is whether or not they hold to the Real Presence in the Eucharist - if they don't, a red flag instantly goes up for me. 

Rahner, from what I read, sought to redefine this central concept, calling it "transfinalization" instead of what we Catholics hold to be "transubstantiation".  Now, I have no idea why one earth someone would take the time to do this, to redefine and basically change such a core doctrine of the Church.  He held that the bread and wine remains, not simply the accidents as the Church has taught throughout the centuries (if you'd like an early account of this, check out St. Ambrose's work On the Mysteries).  He seems to hold to only a spiritual food kind of understanding of it all, and for any orthodox Catholic, this should be an upsetting position for a theologian to hold.  Shouldn't it?

Not only this, but like some other modern theologians, Rahner denies that the Resurrection was even a real historical event, citing that Jesus only appeared in spirit to the disciples afterwards, before descending into a bunch of verbiage that I think only the most trained theologian could ever make sense of. 

So what are to make of this man's thought?  Are not those two simple things above enough to make us raise our eyebrows, or no?  It is of great concern to me that Rahner is such an influential figure when he held such strange doctrinal positions about core Christian dogmas. 

What are your thoughts?

17 comments:

  1. For what it's worth, in his “Christ in Eastern Christian Thought” (1969) the Orthodox theologian Fr John Meyendorff writes very positively about the Trinitarian theology and Christology outlined in the first volume of Rahner's "Theological Investigations" (1965), which he regarded as much more in keeping with the mind of the Greek Fathers than was the Thomist and Augustinian teaching which had been dominant in Catholicism until the end of the 50s. Of course, what Rahner was saying in the early 1960s may have been a lot more orthodox than what he was writing in the 1970s. Reluctance to use the vocabulary of "transubstantiation" may simply indicate a belief that the mystery of the Real Presence should not be confined within the limits of a single Aristotelian model of substance and accidents. Many good Orthodox theologians would take the view that it is better not to enquire too closely as to how the change occurs, and perhaps Rahner was reacting against the kind of neo-scholasticism which sought to analyse and explain the mystery rather than simply to kneel in wonder before it. Is it true that he denies that the Resurrection was a historical event? He certainly says that the Resurrection wasn’t a historical event in the same way that the Crucifixion was, but then so does the theologian Joseph Ratzinger... I don’t believe that either of them is undermining belief in the Resurrection. Rather, they are saying that it is an event so mysterious and so unique that it defies our attempts to describe it in ordinary language or to depict it as an event on the same level as (or as the same kind as) other events. In other words, it is not less real but more real... I think that Rahner – like Balthasar, de Lubac, Bouyer, Ratzinger and others – was strongly opposed to the idea that Catholic truth is inextricably tied in with the neo-scholastic expression of that truth. One might feel that Rahner was less successful than the others in developing an alternative was of writing theology, but I am always nervous when people like Fr Z take side-swipes at Rahner, as my impression is that, unlike Kung (for example), he always intended to be orthodox, and, in line with the intentions of Pope John XXIII for Vatican 2, was genuinely keen to find fresh ways of expressing ancient and unchanging truths.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mark, thanks so much for all the info - this is indeed extremely helpful in shedding some light on the issue for me. Thanks so much!

      Jason

      Delete
  2. Any catholic who goes into great detail to deny the bodily reserection of our Lord demonstrates their true master. Not to mention those Catholics who radically try to deconstruct the missionary nature of the church by creating concepts like the anonymous Christian.

    ReplyDelete
  3. If by "transubstantiation," one means that the bread and wine truly become the Body and Blood of our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ--then Orthodoxy accepts this.

    If one means the Thomistic/Aristotelian distinction between substance and accidents, the Orthodox Church has never committed herself to this (though some individual Orthodox writers have used these). For that matter, she has never seen it necessary to define the manner of the change.

    In the Divine LIturgy of St. John Chrystostom (and St. Basil and Byzantine St. James), the Priest beseeches the Father to send the Holy Spirit upon the Gifts (oblata) to change them into the Body and Blood of Christ. The Eucharistic Liturgies of the non-Chalcedonian Eastern Churches and their Catholic counterparts have prayers to the same effect.

    ReplyDelete
  4. First, let me say that I won't even pretend that I'm any kind of expert on Rahner or his theology. And I say that after having spent the last 8 months reading, writing, and thinking about him and his theology for my undergraduate thesis. And yes, reading even his "Foundations" is like reading a cinder block. I think I agree with your overall impression; he comes to a lot of conclusions that I'm just not sure I'm comfortable with. That said, to answer your question, I think he's worth reading because some of his ideas are really fascinating. Moreover, his ideas were influential for a number of years, and are therefore worth being at least familiar with when reading other modern theologians. I think Karl Rahner was a genius, and that a big part of his project was trying to combat the attitude of some in his day that no more work needed to be done in theology and that new expressions were unnecessary. I also think he went a bit too far in many cases. Nonetheless, I found his ideas fruitful to grapple with.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm frankly a little uncomfortable with the application of rigorous philosophical concepts to the sacred mysteries, whether it's transubstantiation or transfinalization or transsignification or whatever.

    I also urge caution in reading back into patristic writings the philosophical paradigms of the scholastics. In fact, I think that many fathers would fail an orthodoxy test rooted in a strict understanding of transubstantiation. Some of Augustine's definitions of the eucharist sound much more Lutheran, or even Calvinistic, than Thomistic.

    It seems that many Catholcis, in reaction to Berengar of Tours and then the Reformers, over-emphasized the physicality of the eucharist, something which even St. Thomas explicitly denies (for instance, it is made clear in the Summa that Christ is not locally present in the eucharist). Christ is truly made present in the bread and wine -- body, blood, soul, and divinity -- but in a SACRAMENTAL mode. Not in a physical or material mode.

    Philip

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Location is an accident, not substance. St. Thomas clearly asserts Jesus's physical presence; Pope Gregory VII forced Berengarius to declare that it was not just sacramental. And Pope Paul VI, in Mysterium fidei, wrote "nothinbg remains of the bread and wine but the appearances, under which Christ, whole and entire, in His physical 'reality' is bodily present."

      Delete
    2. Yes, Christ's entire reality -- body, blood, soul, divinity -- is present ... but in a sacramental mode, yes. That qualification -- "sacramental mode" -- is essential. If the Lord is present as you or I are present, it would not be a sacrament at all.

      As I said, I do not think that the Aristotelian language is all that helpful. It simply muddies the simple evangelical beauty of the mystery with the abstract principles of profane Greek philosophy. It is good that Pope Benedict lay such emphasis on the pre-Scholastic fathers.

      Philip

      Delete
    3. I'm not sure what is in dispute here. If by "physical" is meant location and what can be seen and touched as what it is, then then that's not what we mean by the word. But the Church, and Pope Gregory VII, have used "flesh" and "blood". That, to me, is physical. And Pope Paul VI, as I quoted originally, used the word. Of course, Jesus is locally present only with the Father in heaven; to assert His local presence in the Eucharist would be absurd as it would make each host an individual body of Christ. But St. Bonaventure, quoted by Paul VI, said that He is "truly present in the Eucharist as He is in heaven." I should, perhaps, have been more accurate in my quote of the oath Berengarius was forced to take: "the efficacy of the sacrament." Certainly, His presence is sacramental. But a sacramental presence is real. I don't see that we have any difference in our beliefs there.
      The main dispute between us is the use of the word transubstantiation. In Mysterium Fidei, Pope Paul VI vigorously defends the traditional use of Trent's terminology and of the Magisterium's authority. When the words are agreed on, then the Church can step in and say yes or no to how they are interpreted. And remember, the Fathers also used profane Greek philosophy; only it was Plato instead of Aristotle.
      I always worry when I write in these necessarily brief formats that I come across as argumentative. If we were sitting down with a couple of glasses of Irish whiskey, it wouldn't seem so disputatious -- as long as we were moderate in the amount of whiskey.

      Delete
  6. His Holiness Pope Paul VI expressed concern with certain innovative ideas on the eucharist by some theologians in his encyclical Mysterium Fidei, which was issued just before the close of Vatican II. He identified the notion of "Transfinalization"; the concept of Karl Rahner SJ, as one of the problematic ideas. Accordingly I would think there is good reason to be highly skeptical of his works. And, as Jason points out, his views on the resurrection are highly problematic as well. The bodily resurrection of Christ is at the heart of the historical Christian faith. Why would any theology that denies it, or that defines it away, be worthy of being called Christian?

    ReplyDelete
  7. The Rahner brother who will be studied and remembered is perhaps not Karl, but his brother Hugo Rahner, SJ. Read his magnificent "Our Lady and the Church.". All the depth of theological thought, without the problems in K's works.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I have never understood the hostility of some to Fr.Karl Rahner. As a believing Catholic, I don't find "anonymous Christian" very meaningful, but, like Vatican II and the Catholic Catechism, I don't assert that only Christians can be saved. It is a truism that dogma defines the content but not the terminology of an insight into Revelation. At any time the words can be changed without implying the denial of the dogma. In his book on the Trinity, Fr. Rahner wrote, "...the regulation of language, which is necessary in a Church as a community of a shared social worship and confession, cannot be undertaken by the single theologian at will. ... The magisterium forbids him to suppress such concepts on his own authority, but also obliges him to work at their fuller explanation." That's all that he means to do. Remember also, when rewording the manner of change in the Eucharist, Fr. wrote in German and Pope Paul VI wrote in Latin. "Transfinalization" may not be a completely accurate rendering of what Fr. meant. Besides, I read once that his German was not exactly elegant and that his brother once asked one of Father's translators to translate the book back into German.
    Can the source of "transfinalization" be supplied?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi,
      Fair enough - it's neat to see all the views that people supplied on here. I'll look up a source...

      Jason

      Delete
  9. As my Catholic Sacramental Theology professor reminded me years ago, "We do not believe in transubstantiation, what we believe in is the real presence. Transubstantiation is just the model we use to explain the real presence."

    One does not have to subscribe to transubstantiation to believe in the real presence. An example would be Orthodox Christians, who believe in the real presence but do not have to subscribe to transubstantiation. As my Orthodox Christianity professor explained it, there is no way to fully explain the real presence in the Eucharist and there is really no need to fully explain it as long as you believe in the real presence. As for transubstantiation, they neither agree or disagree with it and as was already stated by another reader, you will find some Orthodox who subscribe to it and others who do not.

    If your litmus test is whether or not someone holds to the real presence in the Eucharist, then your question should not be about whether or not a person subscribed to transubstantiation, since the real presence and transubstantiation are not the same thing.

    As for transfinalization, Pope Paul VI did not outright anathematize those who subscribed to transfinalization. In Mysterium Fidei, it just warned that it is "not permissible...to discuss the mystery of transubstantiation without mentioning what the Council of Trent had to say about the marvelous conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body and the whole substance of the wine into the Blood of Christ, as if they involve nothing more than 'transignification,' or 'transfinalization.'" The statement "as if they involve nothing more" would seems to indicate that tranfinalization is okay as long as it is only a part of a greater explanation.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Karl Rahner was a spiritual master who began his theological labors on his knees in prayer.
    He wrote from a heart and mind open to the anguish of a war ravaged 20th century where the faith of many was shattered. Like John Paul II he sought to reach believer and skeptic alike with a contemporary and renewed vision of the Gospel of Christ as God`s decisive presence to the longings of our age.

    For a window into Rahner`s belief please read his brief but powerful meditations of the Seven Last Words of Christ,
    "Watch and Pray With me"

    There is no doubt of his ardent grasp on the faith the Church proclaims in our creeds and councils.
    He bows deeply before the Mystery of God in the centrality of Jesus Christ whose splendor can never be contained in the finitude of human words.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Rahners theology is summarized in his published prayers. It was in prayer that he began his craft as theologian.

    His magestic meditations on the seven last words of Christ,"Watch and Pray With Me",has brought me to adoration again and again for 40 years.Reading it,Rahner`s ardent devotion to the Christ of our creeds and councils is crystilline.

    He bows deeply before the Mystery of God in Jesus Christ which will always escape our limited grasp.But which Rahner,as a pastoral theologian affirms,draws each member of the human family to Union with Him .

    His generosity of outreach and vision is needed in our age as never before.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for reminding us about this all pervading aspect of Fr. Rahners Theology.A theologian really must be a man of prayer and Fr. Rahner certainly was that. I think you have hit the nail on the head.Cleirig

      Delete