Who is Karl Rahner, and why is he important?

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Karl Rahner portrait painting

Theologian Karl Rahner is often described as a 20th-century Thomas Aquinas. He fearlessly brought Christian faith and contemporary thought into fruitful conversation. Rahner (1904-1984) joined the Jesuits in a church era still haunted by the fear of "Modernism"—a flirtation with secular ideas deemed dangerous to faith. To combat Modernism, the institutional church of Rahner's generation presented itself as the sole possessor of truth and the singular dispenser of divine grace. It viewed with deep suspicion anything that arose from the secular world, especially ideas, values, and politics.

Rahner changed the starting point of the conversation. What if grace is not exterior to the world at all, but an intrinsic aspect of the universe as God created it? If grace is not added to nature but embodied within it, then all people have grace at their disposal, however improperly perceived or understood. Non-Christian religions, then, aren't automatically dismissible as false, but are potential mediators of grace. What's more, grace need not be viewed as restricted to religious contexts but might be sought in all human endeavors that move toward the blueprint of the Kingdom: social and economic justice, and other movements that seek to liberate God's people from corrupt or evil circumstances.

Approached this way, contemporary times and secular events lose their "enemy threat" status and become dialogue partners in the releasing of grace. While the initiative of grace remains with God, the forces of history are primarily human-driven. This insight leads to Rahner's work being described as a theological anthropology: what we say about divinity always includes a statement about our humanity, since the Christian God is revealed in relationship to us.

The Rahner approach to theological analysis begins with the idea that the human person is the place where divine revelation occurs. If we take Jesus seriously, as Rahner does, we can't overlook that humanity is where the self-communication of God is most perfectly expressed. If we accept this, then humanism is no threat to faith. Christians are actually the ultimate humanists, professing as we do that God assumes our humanity into divinity by deliberate intention.

Rahner's vision was influential at the Second Vatican Council, especially in the "Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World" (Gaudium et Spes). A church that perceives its mission in dialogue and friendship with the world can lift its truth higher and dispense its storehouse of grace farther.

Books: The Mystical Way in Everyday Life: Karl Rahneredited by Annemarie S. Kidder (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010)

A Brief Introduction to Karl Rahner by Karen Kilby (New York: Crossroads Publishing, 2007)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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