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
Basel, 16 March 1968
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,
It must always be borne in mind that for a really Christian doctrine of the relationship of the world to God, the autonomy of the creature does not grow in inverse but in direct proportion to the degree of the creature’s dependence on, and belonging to, God.
–Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations 5.1, p. 12
The intimacy of man with the divine grows with the gap that distinguishes them, far from diminishing it. The withdrawal of the divine would perhaps constitute its ultimate form of revelation.
–Jean-Luc Marion, The Idol and Distance, p. 80
Creaturely freedom increases with dependence on God. Communion grows with divine distance. Is this one thought or two? In both, the relation between God and creature comes to be characterized through an inversion of the term that is used to describe it. Moreover, the inverted result acquires a radical authenticity, which is attainable only through this inversion. If one depends entirely on God, what this actually means is freedom–and precisely freedom in the truest sense of the word, freedom which exposes all worldly alternatives, which seek independence from God, as shallow or derivative by comparison. Likewise, if one reveres the distance of God, what this actually allows is communion–and precisely communion of the loftiest sort, a mode of communion which outstrips every spiritual intimacy that has not paid the price of divine distance.
In addition to this formal likeness–which repeats the rhetorical strategy discernible in Saint Paul’s identification of true wisdom with the foolishness of the cross–one could also suggest that the freedom which Rahner associates with dependence on God is nothing other than the communion which Marion argues is available only in the midst of divine distance. These two theological statements would, then, not only exhibit a similar (Pauline) structure but would also say very similar things (and, moreover, things of a Pauline sort). For to depend on God is to rely on the God who withdraws, who is above or beyond all things, who–to use Marion’s language–is approachable only by way of distance, absence, danger. Likewise, the revelation, the intimacy, the communion with God that opens up within this distance seems to hold within itself the substance of the freedom of which Rahner speaks, insofar as this freedom is not merely the abstract ability to decide but the positive enjoyment of the divine life. “Dependence” and “distance” both indicate the sometimes extreme difficulty of an earthly existence which seeks to be open to God. Paul would call this the foolishness of the cross. “Freedom” and “communion” name the inestimable grace that awaits those who await it. To bear the cross in the hope of this grace–this, for Paul, is wisdom.
I have, of course, been overlooking many of the significant differences between these discourses. But at times it can be helpful to concentrate on some overlooked similarities.
We must simply try to realize clearly and soberly that a spiritual union with God cannot be regarded as something which grows in inverse proportion to the belonging to the material world…’separation from the body’ for the soul in death does not by a long way need to mean ipso facto a greater nearness to God. Remoteness-from-the-world and nearness-to-God are not interchangeable notions, however much we are accustomed to think in such a framework. The deceased remain therefore (despite the visio beatifica) united with the fate of the world…
The end of the world is… the perfection and total achievement of saving history which had already come into full operation and gained its decisive victory in Jesus Christ and in his resurrection. In this sense his coming takes place at this consummation in power and glory…his Second Coming takes place at the moment of the perfecting of the world into the reality which he already possesses now, in such a way that he, the Godman, will be revealed to all reality and, within it, to every one of its parts in its own way, as the innermost secret and centre of all the world and of all history. This is the context into which we must fit what we call the resurrection of the body in the strict sense. The history – which has remained within the framework of the world – of those who by their lives have already effected their personal finality, reaches its real completion and explicit expression together with the consummation of the world. These human beings now become achieved as totalities with soul and body, and their perfection, already begun in death, becomes itself perfected, tangible in the world, embodied. We cannot really imagine the ‘how’ of this bodily consummation. But we can say in our faith together with God’s revelation: I believe, that we will one day be the living, the complete and achieved ones, in the whole expanse and in all the dimensions of our existence; I believe that what we call the material in us and in the world surrounding us (without really being able to say what it is basically, what belongs to its essence and what only to its temporary form and appearance) is not simply identical with what is unreal and mere appearance, with what has been cast off once and for all and which passes away before the final state of man…
Anyone who disposes of the earthly world and dismisses the perfected man from this earth for good, spiritualistically or existentially or in whatever other way, directing him into a beatitude of (supposedly) pure spirits, stultifies and betrays the true reality of man, the child of this earth. Whoever lets man perish, ground to pieces in the cruel mill of Nature, does not know what spirit and person are, and does not know how much more real, in spite of all their apparent weakness, the spirit and the person are than all the matter and energy of physics. Whoever does not believe that both of them, once reconciled, can come to the one completion, denies in the last analysis that the one God has created spirit and matter in one act for one end. The Christian, however, is the man with the complete solution. This solution is the most difficult, the least synoptical. The belief for this solution and the courage for such a solution he draws from the Word of God alone. But God’s Word testifies to the resurrection of the body. For the Word himself became flesh. He did not assume something unreal but something created. But whatever is created by God is never something merely negative, is never the veil of maya. Whatever has been created by God, assumed by Christ and transfigured by his Death and Resurrection, is also destined to finality and consummation in us.
Karl Rahner, “The Resurrection of the Body,” Theological Investigations 2.211, 213-216
We cannot confess anything in regard to her assumption more glorious than what we confess as our hope for ourselves: eternal life, which God himself wants to be for us. For the hope we have for our whole person in the unity of our existence – that single existence which we explain to ourselves as a unity of body and soul – is the resurrection of the body and eternal life. In our liturgical praise of the assumption of the Blessed Virgin we seek only of the one act of God in regard to that one person, but it is something that we likewise expect for ourselves. Ultimately, nothing more is said of her than what God one day, we hope, will say to us…We profess our faith in the permanent validity of history as flesh and blood; we profess our hope and love for the earth, which is not merely the parade ground or theater for our spiritual life, to be abandoned as soon as finality supervenes, and which perhaps itself, even though radically transformed, enters equally with the person’s spirit into the glory of the eternal God.
We acknowledge the dignity of the body, which is not merely a tool to be used and thrown away, but the historical, concrete reality and revelation of the free person who is realized in it and works within it for the finality of its freedom…this feast tells us that those whom God loves are redeemed, are saved, are finally themselves; they are so with their concrete history, with their whole bodily nature in which alone a person is truly himself. He is not a ‘ghost,’ not a ‘soul,’ but a human being completely saved. Everything remains. We can’t imagine it. Of course not. All talk about the soul in bliss, the glorified body, the glory of heaven amounts to the unvarnished, blind statement of faith: this person is not lost. He is what he has become, raised up in the implacable obviousness and absoluteness of the living God, raised up in the transcendent, ineffable mystery we call God.
We can’t say more than this. We don’t try to paint a picture, we don’t imagine anything. Everything has gone through the harsh transformation we call death. What else could we say except that death is not the last word – or rather that it is our last word, but not God’s.
Karl Rahner, The Great Church Year: The Best of Karl Rahner’s Homilies, Sermons, and Meditations, 348-351
One last Rahner quote, this time from the chapter, “God of the Living”:
I should like to remember the dead to You, O Lord, all those who once belonged to me and have now left me…I see my life as a long highway filled by a column of marching men. Every moment someone breaks out of the line and goes off silently, without a word or wave of farewell, to be swiftly enwrapped in the darkness of the night stretching out on both sides of the road. The number of marchers gets steadily smaller and smaller, for the new men coming up to fill the ranks are really not marching in my column at all.
True, there are many others who travel the same road, but only a few are traveling with me…the others are mere companions of the road, who happen to be going the same way as I. Indeed there are many of them, and we all exchange greetings and help each other along. But the true procession of my life consists only of those bound together by real love, and this column grows ever shorter and more quiet, until one day I myself will have to break off from the line of march and leave without a word or wave of farewell, never more to return.
That’s why my heart is now with them, with my loved ones who have taken their leave of me. There is no substitute for them; there are not others who can fill the vacancy when one of those whom I have really loved suddenly and unexpectedly departs and is with me no more. In true love no one can replace another, for true love loves the other person in that depth where he is uniquely and irrreplaceably himself. And thus, as death has trodden roughly through my life, every one of the departed has taken a piece of my heart with him, and often enough my whole heart.
A strange thing happens to the man who really loves, for even before his own death his life becomes a life with the dead. Could a true lover ever forget his dead? When one has really loved, his forgetting is only apparent: he only seems to get over his grief. The quiet and composure he gradually regains are not a sign that things are as they were before, but a proof that his grief is ultimate and definitive. It shows that a piece of his own heart has really died and is not with the living dead.
Encounters with Silence, 53-55
From the chapter “God of Knowledge” in Rahner’s Encounters with Silence:
How can we approach the heart of all things, the true heart of reality? Not by knowledge alone, but by the full flower of knowledge, love. Only the experience of knowledge’s blooming into love has any power to work a transformation in me, in my very self. For it is only when I am fully present to an object that I am changed by meeting it. And it is only in love that I am fully present – not in bare knowing, but in the affection engendered by knowing. Only then is my knowledge anything more than a fleeting shadow, passing across the stage of consciousness. Then I have knowledge which is really myself, which abides as I myself abide.
Only knowledge gained through experience, the fruit of living and suffering, fills the heart with the wisdom of love, instead of crushing it with the disappointment of boredom and final oblivion. It is not the results of our own speculation, but the golden harvest of what we have lived through and suffered through, that has power to enrich the heart and nourish the spirit. And all the knowledge we have acquired through study can do no more than give us some little help in meeting the problems of life with an alert and ready mind.
Thanks to Your mercy, O Infinite God, I know something about You not only through concepts and words, but through experience. I have actually known You through living contact; I have met You in joy and suffering. For You are the first and last experience of my life. Yes, really You Yourself, not just a concept of You…
You have seized me; I have not ‘grasped’ You. You have transformed my being right down to its very last roots and made me a sharer in Your own Being and Life. You have given me Yourself, not just a distant, fuzzy report of Yourself in human words. And that’s why I can never forget You, because You have become the very center of my being.
Encounter’s with Silence, 29-31
Often readers of Rahner turn first to Foundations of Christian Faith, then maybe to Hearer of the Word and some of the Theological Investigations, and, if their really adventurous, to Spirit in the World. In my view, Hearer and various essays in TI are great places to start. Recently, however, I have been reading through Rahner’s short book Encounters with Silence and I am struck by how nicely it introduces Rahner’s thought. Published in 1938 (a year before Spirit in the World), it is a series of ten mediations on the Christian life written as prayers to God. The first is entitled “God of My Life” and it gives a great glimpse into the heart of Rahner’s early works:
Suppose I tried to be satisfied with what so many today profess to be the purpose of their lives. Suppose I defiantly determined to admit my finiteness, and glory in it alone. I could only begin to recognize this finiteness and accept it as my sole destiny, because I had previously so often stared out into the vast reaches of limitless space, to those hazy horizons where Your Endless Life is just beginning.
Without You, I should founder helplessly in my own dull and groping narrowness. I could never feel the pain of longing, not even deliberately resign myself to being content with this world, had not my mind again and again soared out over its own limitations into the hushed reaches which are filled by You alone, the Silent Infinite. Where should I flee before You, when all my yearning for the unbounded, even my bold trust in my littleness, is really confession of you?
What else is there that I can tell You about Yourself, except that You are the One without whom I cannot exist, the Eternal God from whom alone I, a creature of time, can draw strength to live, the Infinity who gives meaning to my finiteness. Ane when I tell You all this, then I have given myself my true name, the name I ever repeat when I pray in David’s Psalter, ‘Tuus sum ego.’ I am the one who belongs not to himself, but to You. I know no more than this about myself, nor about You, O God of my life, Infinity of my finiteness.
What a poor creature You have made me, O God! All I know about You and about myself is that You are the eternal mystery of my life. Lord, what a frightful puzzle man is! He belongs to You, and You are Incomprehensible – Incomprehensible in Your Being, and even more so in Your ways and judgments. For if all Your dealings with me are acts of Your freedom, quite unmerited gifts of Your grace which knows no ‘why,’ if my creation and my whole life hang absolutely on Your free decision, if all my paths are, after all, Your paths and, therefore, unsearchable, then, Lord, no amount of questioning will ever fathom Your depths – You will still be the Incomprehensible, even when I see You face to face…
But I am rambling on like a fool – excuse me, O God. You have told me through Your Son that You are the God of my love, and You have commanded me to love You. Your commands are often hard because they enjoin the opposite of what my own inclinations would lead me to do, but when You bid me love You, You are ordering something that my own inclinations would never even dare to suggest: to love You, to come intimately close to You, to love Your very life. You ask me to lose myself in You, knowing that You will take me to Your Heart, where I may speak on loving, familiar terms with You, the incomprehensible mystery of my life. And all this because You are Love Itself.
Encounters with Silence, 6-8