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A Letter from Karl Barth to Karl Rahner

I was using the Karl Barth Digital Archive this morning and decided to search for “Karl Rahner” out of curiosity. I came across this letter (I only wish I could listen to the sermon or see Rahner’s reply if he made one):

To Prof. Karl Rahner
Münster, Westphalia
Basel, 16 March 1968

Dear Colleague,
Last Sunday I heard you on radio Beromünster, at first with pleasure, expressing by lively gestures to those listening with me my approval of individual statements. In the end and on the whole, however, I was completely stunned. You spoke much and very well about the “little flock,” but I did not hear a single “Baa” which was in fact authentically and dominatingly the voice of one of the little sheep of this flock, let alone could I hear the voice of the shepherd of this flock. Instead, the basic note was that of religious sociology and the other favorite songs of what is supposed to be the world of modern culture. In the way you are speaking now, so some fifty years ago Troeltsch was speaking of the future of the church and theology. Get me right: I am not speaking a word against the seriousness of your personal faith and what I write is not even remotely meant to be an anathema. But take it from me, our Neo-Protestants were and are in their own way pious and even churchly people. To spend a few hundred years in eternity with their father Schleiermacher (whom I never think of as excluded from the communion of saints) would please me very much should I myself get to heaven—so long as I could have a few thousand years with Mozart first. But with such addresses as that you gave on Sunday, which lack spiritual salt—or “spirituality” as you like to say in Catholic terminology— you are not building up the church in time and on earth, as is our common task, nor building up “the church for the world.”
With sincere and fraternal greetings,

Karl Barth

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  1. Andrew
    February 18, 2011 at 1:43 pm

    It would be interesting to know what Rahner said, exactly, that led Barth to respond in this way. Sometimes I wonder how much spiritual “salt” is the right amount. Barth always seems to be generous with his seasonings. Rahner seems to prefer a more subtle sprinkling. I find that the loudest and most insistent proclamation of the gospel is not always the most moving; it can sometimes feel like an exertion of will on the part of the proclaimer, instead of the one proclaimed. And yet, if too much is left unsaid, if a genuine Christian pathos is merely implied, if the gospel is buried deep beneath the discourses of the age, then it seems Barth is right to fear that something crucial is being lost. Anyway, this is a tension I’ll have to keep pondering.

  2. Todd Walatka
    February 18, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Yeah, he only gives little hints of what Rahner may have said. Maybe there is an archive in Muenster or Munich with the original.

    I agree on the tension as well. Some of this, of course, is going to come down to methodological differences and not just a matter of how much “salt” there is in a talk – I think of comments Cathy Hilkert has made regarding theologies of preaching. I was just looking in some letters of Rahner and we basically find this point. Commenting on Barth, Rahner says, “whereas I think both of these, metaphysics and theology, could be brought to a more positive, more reconciled relationship in a strict, genuine sense.” The letter from Barth is more on culture than the role of metaphysics but perhaps the same issues would apply.

  3. exeter
    March 4, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    Yikes! Thanks for posting this. There’s no snark like theological snark.

    Re: Andrew–without knowing the other side of Rahner’s sermon, my suspicion is that it was some variety of Barth’s old nemesis, the analogia entis, under the guise of “sociology” which engendered such vitriol.

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