Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Re: Rahner

Since I've been on a bit of a Jesuit kick lately, let me go ahead and do a post that I've been meaning to do for a while now.

Let's talk about Fr. Karl Rahner, SJ.

If you've never heard of him, he's a German theologian who was the biggest thing in the whole science back in the 60s and 70s. How big of a deal was he? So big that he almost single-handedly reshaped Catholic theology So big that there are some who call him the greatest genius ever produced by the Catholic Church in Her entire history.

I've mentioned him a few times before in other posts, usually connected with Vatican II stuff. This is because he was the chief theological expert for the "Rhine group" bishops who hi-jacked the Council. Consider Fr. Wiltgen's description of him in The Rhine Flows Into the Tiber:

Since the position of the German-language bishops was regularly adopted by the European alliance, and since the alliance position was regularly adopted by the Council, a single theologian might have his views accepted by the whole Council if they had been accepted by the German-speaking bishops. There was such a theologian: Father Karl Rahner, SJ.

Technically, Father Rahner was Cardinal Konig's consultant theologian. In practice, he was consulted by many members of the German and Austrian hierarchy, and he might well be called the most influential mind at the Fulda conference. Cardinal Frings, in private conversation, called Father Rahner "the greatest theologian of the century."

This doesn't really begin to make the point, though. The book goes on to provide many examples of Rahner's sway over the conciliar proceedings. For example, he pretty much led the way in de-railing the proposed schema on Our Lady. Why was the schema so threatening? Because:

... unimaginable harm would result from an ecumenical point of view, in relation to both Orientals and Protestants...

And that

... all the success achieved in the field of ecumenism through the Council and in connection with the Council will be rendered worthless by the retention of the schema as it stands."

These are Wiltgen's quotes from Rahner, so please pardon the lack of context. Anyways, the point is that there was no separate schema. Its contents were heavily redacted and instead moved over to Lumen Gentium. On a side note, I have to wonder what all this "success" is that the Council had to this point. It was January of 1963. The first session had just closed. Was there some kind of mass conversion to the Faith or huge breakthrough that somehow nobody noticed except Rahner?

Like I said, he was a big deal. But back to the real point of this post.

For over a decade now, I've been reading Rahner's stuff. Off and on for years, I've constantly gone back to his writings to check his thoughts on things. I've come to a few conclusions.

First off, the man was frightfully smart, but he wasn't a genius. This might be a personal idiosyncrasy of mine, but the hallmark of genius is the ability to make the complex more understandable to the average joe. Geniuses are people who are lucid and coherent when talking about their chosen subject.

Some might think that my criticism here is a product of my own pride and frustration. After all, I'm not a theologian or even frightfully smart. Maybe I'm just mad that my inferior intellect can't grasp Rahner's awesomeness.

I don't think so. Rahner's lack of lucidity is a joke. Literally. His own brother, Fr. Hugo Rahner, SJ, once commented that someone should work on getting Karl's works translated into German. It's probably not all his fault. He takes a lot of his views, including epistemology, from Martin Heidegger, who was probably more incoherent than Rahner, if such a thing is possible.

This lack of clarity winds up throwing one's work open to interpretation, which no real genius would want to tolerate. If you're bright enough to come up with an idea, why would you allow somebody else to screw up what you were saying? Then you look like a jackass all because of someone else's mistake. This kind of ambiguity and poor rendering of thought (not to mention sometimes completely making words up) makes it easy for a lot of folks to label Rahner as a heretic.

But was he?

I resist the idea of flinging h-bombs at people. Really, I do. In charity, everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt. So when I read his writings on the Trinity and all this "the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, and the immanent Trinity is the economic Trinity" and try to figure out how he says such things without completely ditching the doctrine of appropriation (as very lucidly taught by Pope Leo XIII) and coming up with a bizarre tritheism (even though others say it's modalism), I shrugged and let it go. Hey, it's the Trinity. It's complicated stuff. It's easy to be wrong about, right?

Then I picked up something like the Theological Investigations and read, say, the passages about Christ's human knowledge, which essentially amount to a denial that Christ always held the Beatific Vision. Or bits like this about the Resurrection:

Secondly we should achieve for ourselves a clear understanding of what really can be meant in theological terms by resurrection. The moment we picture to ourselves a dead man returning once more into our temporal dimension, with the biological conditions belonging to it, we have conceived of something which has nothing whatever to do with the Resurrection of Jesus, and which cannot have any significance for our salvation either. In fact to say that any individual has risen from the dead must be precisely tantamount to saying: "This man in this fate of his which seems so absolutely negative, has in a true sense, as himself, and together with his history, really attained God." What it does not say, however, is this: "He has once more extricated himself from the process of death, and is once more there on the same plane as ourselves."

My first thought was "What the hell is that supposed to mean?" Then I progressed to trying to figure out how this isn't gnostic what with the apparent denial of a dead man coming back to life and all. Even then, I figured that maybe I'm missing something. He IS frightfully smart, after all. I'm not. Let's move on.

Anonymous Christianity. I'll be honest. I don't even come close to understanding this one. It seems to involve Rahner's very confused muddling of nature and grace, where sanctifying grace comes off as some sort of elemental force that just pops in and out with no real connection to the Church. The supernatural is brought down to the level of nature, which I always thought was weird for a guy whose thought is referred to as "Transcendental Thomism." It's neither of those things.

I continued to ramble through Fr. Rahner's stuff with absolutely no idea how the bulk of it fits in with Catholic dogma. Still, I never used the h-bomb in describing him.

Then I stumbled across a work called The Unity of the Churches: An Actual Possibility. He wrote this with a guy named Heinrish Fries. I'm making an appeal to all the Fr. Rahner fans out there. Can you please explain to me how this book isn't heretical? I've tried to come up with some impressive mental gymnastics to get around it. I'm done. Whatever comments you've got, I'll be happy to post. I won't even argue. I'm just looking for a defense that doesn't involve junking Catholicism to make it work.

Ultimately, I have realized that there's way better stuff out there to read than Fr. Rahner's work. Way better. Like actual Church documents or MAD Magazine or the back of a soup can or Green Eggs and Ham or . . .


Alexander said...

Now I am curious. What does he say in the Unity of Churches that is potentially heretical?

Alpha Male said...

You present as a searcher of truth which, by intellectualizing so much, negates the faith based reasoning of Rahner and others. Genius tends toward much higher intellectualization of thought and idea, using a much higher level vocabulary.
I praise your search, because working to clearly define one's beliefs is in itself, an act if faith.
I believe that, to survive in the early centuries, the church had to become political, which started its decline and corruption. Politics is the embodiment of corruption and self-preservation. Relligious scholars have fought to separate the faith from the politics, while Muslim extremeists work in the other direction.
Faith is faith. Assuming we can "know for certain" is a false assumptionl. Education, though, without throwing in the 'final solution' as a goal, is a continued act of faith.
I enjoy reading your blog. Please keep pressing forward.

Throwback said...


You can probably google it up. There are about 8 suggestions involved. Essentially, it means permitting doctrines defined as heretical because they are somehow less authentic than what is found in, say, the ancient Creeds. Then reduce the papacy to a figurehead.



Throwback said...


Thank you very much for your readership.

The issue with Rahner is that he purports to be writing within a framework that does claim to know certain things for sure.

As far as professions go, he never really claimed to be anything other than Catholic in the entire meaning of the word. Many of his supporters make this same claim even now. This is problematic, though, when his own writings seem to contradict these truths he allegedly agrees with.

Even in the Unity of the Churches, he holds the ancient creeds to be irreformable. So I'm left wondering what he thinks he's doing.

Politics and such is a different issue. It isn't the embodiment of corruption. It just seems that way these days. One can be a righteous politician and even establish a political environment along those lines. Louis IX, Alfred the Great, etc. We are fallen, not totally depraved. Religion in politics is the only way to avoid the corruptive elements, IMO.

Turgonian said...

What Rahner says about the Resurrection could have been written by Pope Benedict. He also has a tendency to emphasize that the Resurrection is not simply a dead man coming back to biological life, like Lazarus. The Man Jesus is still alive, yes, but He does not lead a regular human life; He leads a glorified life not totally discontinuous with our life, but still so much beyond it that we cannot imagine what it's like.

Throwback said...

But He does come back to life, right? Doesn't that make Rahner's bit that such an image has "nothing whatever to do with the Resurrection of Jesus" a bit excessive?

I get that he probably means what you said. I don't get that he has to speak in Babelese.