Declan Marmion

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Austalian Ejournal of Theology.

Text of Declan Marmion

Australian eJournal of Theology 4 (February 2005)

Rahner and his Critics: Revisiting the DialogueDeclan Marmion SM

Abstract: It is not unusual to hear the comment today that Karl Rahners is rather outdated to postmodern sensibilities. Despite some truth in this, it would be unwise to dismiss Rahners theological style as pass. A spectrum of criticisms of Rahner will be discussed below, beginning with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Johann Baptist Metz, then those of the postliberal George Lindbeck. The vexed question of the role of experience in theology raised by Lindbeck will be explored in the third section. Penultimately, criticisms by Emmanuel Levinas of the ontological tradition of Western philosophy, which forms the basis of Rahners theology, will be noted. These thinkers help, either directly or indirectly, to illuminate a number of Rahners philosophical and theological presuppositions and (Levinas excepted) his vision of Christianity and Church. However, my approach is to ask whether Rahnerism has resources within itself to respond to these issues raised, despite its idiosyncrasies. Key Words: Karl Rahner reception; Hans Urs von Balthasar; Johann Baptist Metz; George Lindbeck; Emmanuel Levinas; postliberalism; German philosophy

I. EARLY CRITIQUES: VON BALTHASAR AND METZn his introduction to Karl Rahners life and thought, Herbert Vorgrimler concedes that Rahners theology, like any theology, has its weak points, and is not immune from criticism. He further notes how Rahners understanding of Christianity was variously attacked for being either too radical, or not radical enough.1 Thus, Catholic traditionalists complained that Rahner, especially since Vatican II, had relativised the radical demands of Christianity. A famous example of such adversarial reaction to Rahners understanding of Christianity is that of Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book Cordula oder der Ernstfall.2 This work seems to mark a significant shift in the relationship between Rahner and Balthasar.3

Herbert Vorgrimler, Understanding Karl Rahner: An Introduction to his Life and Thought, trans. John Bowden (London: SCM, 1986), 121-30.1

Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cordula oder der Ernstfall, Kriterien 2 (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1966). [ET: The Moment of Christian Witness, trans. Richard Beckley (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1969)]. A second edition (1967) contained an Afterword by von Balthasar as a response to the widespread criticism of his treatment of Rahner in the first edition.2

Despite his reservations about Rahners anthropological method, Von Balthasar recognised the theological courage of Rahner and spoke of him in 1964 as a brilliant theologian (einen genialen Theologen). Manfred Lochbrunner, Analogia Caritatis. Darstellung und Deutung der Theologie Hans Urs von Balthasars, Freiburger Theologische Studien 120 (Freiburg: Herder, 1981), 123. See also von Balthasars positive evaluation of the early volumes of Rahners Theological Investigations: Grsse und Last der Theologie Heute: Einige grundstzliche Gedanken zu zwei Aufsatzbnden Karl Rahners, Wort und Wahrheit 7 (1955): 531-33. For his part, Rahner composed a Laudatio for Von Balthasars sixtieth birthday in 1965. Karl Rahner, Hans Urs von Balthasar 60. Geburtstag,Civitas 20 (1965): 601-605.3


AEJT 4 (February 2005)

Marmion / Rahner and his Critics

Balthasars book is essentially a reaction to Rahners anthropologically-oriented theology, which, in his view, tended to reduce Christian living to a bland and shallow humanism.4 In particular, Balthasar claimed that Rahners concept of the anonymous Christian had little to do with the message of the Gospel. This concept, moreover, overlooked what he called the Ernstfall or decisive moment, which is the cross of Christ. Thus, Balthasar laid special emphasis on the readiness to suffer and on the value of martyrdom where the Ernstfall, or cross of Christ, becomes the permanent pattern or form of Christian discipleship.5 Moreover, he felt that most forms of modern theology, including Rahners, were incapable of providing the grounding or motivation for such a vision of Christian living. One specific criticism Balthasar makes of Rahners understanding of Christianity concerns Rahners identification of love of God with love of neighbour. Rahner is accused of undermining the absolute priority in Christianity of the love of God for us by identifying love of God with love of neighbour. Balthasars comments are a reaction to a Rahner article that emphasised, however, the unity of the love of neighbour and love of God.6 At the outset of the article it is clear that Rahners intention is to inquire into the nature of charity by reflecting on its unity with the love of God. In other words, he hoped to demonstrate that neither love of God nor love of neighbour can exist or be practised without reference to each other. Rather than subordinating the love of God to love of neighbour, Rahners aim is to elucidate how the whole truth of the Gospel is hidden and in germ in the love of ones neighbour. Just as the love of neighbour and the love of God can be distinguished but not completely separated the same holds true for the relation between the transcendental and the categorial dimensions of human love. Love of neighbour is the fulfilment of the transcendental nature of the human person: in the form of a decision or action it constitutes the way for the individual to actualise her openness to God. Here we see the incarnational seriousness of Rahners theology and anthropology. Selfless acts of love are not merely proofs of our love of God but are underpinned and supported by Gods divinising grace. Yet Balthasars fear is that Rahners transcendental method ultimately leads to a bland Christianity that is not worth its salt. The divergences between the two also need to be seen against their different backgrounds, temperament and training. Balthasar, the refined aristocrat, was more influenced by the figures of Goethe and Mozart, more at home with the arts than with politics, more phenomenological in his theological approach. While he always kept an eye on Rahners theological interests, Balthasar was convinced that Rahners theology was too limited by his philosophy with its focus on transcendental ideas and notions. In a later section we shall return to a similar criticism of the Western philosophical tradition from Kant to Heidegger via the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, namely, its preoccupation with an analysis of subjectivity (and the subjects mastery of self) to the neglect of intersubjectivity. Admittedly, Cordula was written at a dark period of

4 5

Von Balthasar, The Moment of Christian Witness, 126.

Cordula, who, according to legend, initially recoiled from the prospect of martyrdom, but subsequently changed her mind and willingly underwent death, exemplifies this readiness for death by martyrdom. Von Balthasar, The Moment of Christian Witness, 133. 6 Karl Rahner, Reflections on the Unity of the Love of Neighbour and the Love of God, Theological Investigations, vol. 6 (London: DLT, 1981), 231-49 [henceforth all references to the Investigations will be abbreviated to TI], a talk given by Rahner to social workers in Cologne in 1965. It seems that one of the reasons for Balthasars difficulty with Rahners thesis is that he (Balthasar) confuses the terms unity and identity. Although Rahner sometimes used the term identity, his underlying concern was to emphasise aperichoresis or mutual conditioning of the two elements: love of neighbour and love of God.


AEJT 4 (February 2005)

Marmion / Rahner and his Critics

Balthasars life, but it does reveal his concern at what he considered the growing anthropocentrism and secularisation of Christian self-understanding.7 Ultimately, their disagreement can be traced back to their respective starting points and is at the level of ontology. If Rahner understands God in terms of the striving of the human spirit, the preapprehension of being, Balthasars approach is more from above and stresses that God is first to be praised and served in obedient discipleship. Moreover, he is uncomfortable with a preoccupation with a subjectivity that neglects the intersubjective and in particular, the otherness of God.8 In place of polemic, however, it is preferable to tackle these issues with Rahner rather than against him, in other words, to draw from within Rahners own writings resources to respond to the various criticisms made of him. It is not that Rahners theology represents some kind of closed system he never thought of his work in such a way.9 Indeed, he acknowledged both the limitations of his theology as well as the need for other thinkers to develop his ideas in new directions. This is the approach taken by one of Rahners former students Johann Baptist Metz, who has been critical of Rahners transcendental approach to theology.10 With regard to Rahners theology, Metz argued that it did not give sufficient importance to the societal dimension of the Christian message. The message becomes privatized and the practice of faith is reduced to the timeless decision of the person. The categories most prominent in this theology are the categories of the intimate, the private, the apolitical sphere.11 Alongside this, Metz notes the transcendental attempt to undermine history. An out and out transcendental theology, he claimed, runs the risk of not having to enter the field of history since the human person is always already, whether he or she wants to be or not, with God.12 Since Metzs criticisms are already well documented, it would seem more constructive to look at how Rahner responded to and incorporated such criticisms into his own work. Shortly after Rahners death, Vorgrimler edited a series of interviews and articles by Rahner covering this political dimension.13 Vorgrimlers contention is that any inv