Karl Rahner, SJ (1904-1984) is still frequently invoked in discussion of religious pluralism and the theology of religions, as can be seen even from some of the essays in this issue of JMJ. Rahner's name stands for the inclusivistic vision of Vatican II, which recognizes elements of truth and grace in other religions and sees them as reflecting the light of the divine Word and the power of the Spirit moving in all hearts. Despite the vast amount of ink spilled on Rahner's notion of anonymous Christianity, discussion of the topic does not seem to advance very much. The same points are made again and again, and the idea does not reveal much capacity for fertile development.
Truth to tell, the idea of the anonymous Christian has always been rather irritating. Hans Küng declared: ‘It would be impossible to find anywhere in the world a sincere Jew, Muslim or atheist who would not regard the assertion that he is an “anonymous Christian” as presumptuous’ (On Being a Christian, 1974). A world peopled with ‘anonymous Christians’ is a surrealistic world in which no one is what they appear to be. Even the self-declared apostate will be hailed as really a Christian in disguise.
Rahner’s theory is grounded in an elaborate philosophical anthropology and comes clad in a stupendous armor of metaphysical jargon. He strives to give phenomenological body to his theory, but he has trouble getting beyond very general evocations of the situation of the human being before the divine mystery: ‘the experience of infinite nostalgia, of radical optimism, of unquenchable dissatisfaction; the torment arising from the insufficiency of all tangible things; the deeply felt protest against death; the experience of encountering an absolute love even where it appears in utter incomprehensibility and seems to shroud itself in silence; the sense of a radical guilt paired, nevertheless, with a firm hope, and so on.’. This is a very selective list of experiences, centered on the consciousness of the isolated individual, and immediately translatable into the terms of a metaphysics of finite and infinite.
Rahner does not go on to deal with the broad range of human experience, with specific social and political situations, or with the actual contents of the Old and New Testaments in their complexity, or with the detailed texture of the arts or of particular religions. His metaphysical or dogmatic framework encumbers his effort to encounter the phenomena. Thus the work of art, even though Rahner recognizes it as a locus theologicus, is depleted when placed within a schema of divine revelation: ‘A painting or a symphony, he argues, may be so inspired by divine revelation and by God’s gracious self-communication that it conveys something about the human being in the light of the divine.’ The problem here is that the phenomenon is explained before the labor of interpretation has been undertaken.
Rahner does develop a phenomenological or existential grasp of the question of God in a meditation on modern secular experience of the absence of God from the natural world, with its unbroken chains of causal reason. But here again he seems to move too quickly from this experience to a theological explanation: ‘This experience is incorrectly interpreted if one thinks that only this worldly, a-theistic experience is given to the human being. It must rather be shown how the human being always already transcends this experience, so that this experience of troubled atheism basically only indicates the growth of God in the mind of humanity.’ Noting the inbuilt limits of science, Rahner denies that the scientific world-picture can be what is first and fundamental in human existence: ‘Prior to it lies the truth of religion, the knowledge of God and faith in God’s historical revelation’ (p. 218). Religion in its concrete Christian form raises its head rather suddenly here. This sudden leap thwarts the possibility of teasing out more fully what the world of science might have to teach us about the presence and absence of the divine.
His metaphysical picture of God seems to have made Rahner incurious about the witness to the divine in other sources, and may even have blunted his sensitivity to the riches of the Bible. Scripture is depleted by theological schemas that anticipate and forestall its meaning. The conservative suspicion that Rahner lost the concrete figure of Jesus is not without some truth. I found a curious symptom of Rahner’s desire to reach out to the concrete witness of the other religions, and of his failure to follow through on it. In the essay just quoted there is a subheading, ‘Christianity and Religions’ (p. 219), yet the ensuing text makes no mention of the religions at all! Instead Rahner falls back on a resigned reflection on the limits of all possible religious language.
In general Rahner has a rather simplistic view of the role of language. He optimistically thinks that the demythologization of Scripture has little effect on its meaning: ‘For one thing “mythological” utterances retain their meaning perfectly even when the world-picture that once provided the frame for their development has fallen away. And second, that meaning is precisely that which was intended at that time’ (p. 221). The mode of the utterance changes but its content remains. A hermeneutically sophisticated theology would have to take the historical and linguistic embeddedness of religious ideas much more seriously than this. Jean Greisch asks whether the transcendental approach needs to be enlarged or to be overcome, and answers, following Richard Schaeffler, that it needs to be transformed into a transcendental dialogical hermeneutics, attentive to the variety and mobility of phenomena and aware of the historicity of reason itself. Transcendental thinking lays bare the conditions of possibility of all experience, but ‘the question takes a radically new shape if one agrees to define experience as that which is unforeseen and astonishing.’ The possessor of a true metaphysical system, such as transcendental Thomism or Hegelianism, is in danger of thinking that all the deliveries of experience have been foreseen in principle so that there is no need to explore them too diligently. This produces short-circuits that undercut dialogue. It is perhaps the main reason for lethargy about dialogue and intercultural exploration in theological circles.
Rahner’s inclusivism is at the service of building a comprehensive metaphysical vision, but its effect is to deplete the phenomena subject to its embrace. Underestimating the thick texture of religious language and the irreducible riches of religious pluralism, he locates the religions schematically in an abstract metaphysical framework. Much theology of religions since Rahner’s time has continued to theorize about the religions with little effort to become directly acquainted with them, as if the religions posed a threat to the neatness and completeness of the theologian’s metaphysical system.
As long ago as 1963, Anita Röper wrote a book-length development of Rahner’s suggestions, translated into English in 1966 with an epilogue by Klaus Riesenhuber, SJ., added at Rahner’s request. Riesenhuber, having read all Rahner’s utterances on the subject, poses the question in terms not only of salvation but also of human community: ‘How can the person who does not profess Christianity… stand in brotherly unity with us?’ (p. 145). The question is sharpened provocatively as follows: ‘How is it possible that human beings who have never heard of salvation in Christ and of his Church may nevertheless believe in Christ and be visibly oriented toward his Church?’ (p. 151; my italics). If people have opened up to divine grace, this must be visible in their lives. ‘The desire of a human being for the Church has, with ontological necessity, a visible expression… This does not mean, however, that it can without further ado be gathered from the outward appearance of such a person’ (p. 170). If this visible connection is entailed by the idea of an anonymous Christian, it is very difficult to imagine exactly what form it should take. Does it not sound as if we are inventing religious identities for non-Christians of which they themselves have no inking? Is not the very idea of an anonymous Christian just such an invention?
‘If we have good reasons for supposing that the grace of Christ is already at work everywhere, Christianity no longer looks like one religion among many others, but like their perfection, their secret entelechy, and also their judge’ (p. 171). Yet Riesenhuber goes on to hint at an incompleteness of Christianity when he says that the visible mission of the Church remains urgent, for the following reasons: ‘It is only by incorporating the pagans that she reaches her fullness. And the grace imparted to the pagans yearns for its fulfillment in the Church. Thus the apostolate is the endeavor to bring the Christianity which is already prefigured in every human being, and often actualized, to its full development and reflexive self-awareness’ (p. 171). Would it not be better to see the Christian community as striving, along with all other communities, toward the goal designated by Jesus as ‘the Kingdom of God’? One might then say: ‘The grace imparted to the pagans – and to the Christians – yearns for its fulfillment in the Kingdom.’ Or one could adopt a position of ‘Logos inclusivism,’ which is content to say that all truth and wisdom reflects the eternal wisdom of God. The specific mission and presence of Christ could be seen then as a particular incarnate inbreaking of the Logos into the world and human history. All creatures are enlightened by the divine Logos, but this does not determine their relationship to the concrete figure of Jesus Christ. Paul Knitter has sponsored a ‘theocentric’ and ‘regnocentric’ broadening of the interreligious debate; it should be possible to open up these horizons without sacrificing the essence of biblical and conciliar Christology.
The following passage from Dominus Iesus (2000) ascribes to other religions a more crucial salvific role than Vatican II had done, and avoids the aura of pseudo-legitimacy suggested by the idea of anonymous Christianity:
Nevertheless, God, who desires to call all peoples to himself in Christ and to communicate to them the fullness of his revelation and love, ‘does not fail to make himself present in many ways, not only to individuals, but also to entire peoples through their spiritual riches, of which their religions are the main and essential expression even when they contain “gaps, insufficiencies and errors”’ [quoting John Paul II, Redemptoris Missio, 55]. Therefore, the sacred books of other religions, which in actual fact direct and nourish the existence of their followers, receive from the mystery of Christ the elements of goodness and grace which they contain. (I, 8)
Here it is not only in the depths of their spirit that people are open to the mystery of Christ. Rather, it is above all their religious traditions that foster this openness. Perhaps this connects with Fr Riesenhuber’s desiderated ‘visible expression’ of a link of humanity to Christ and the Church. The religions themselves are that link, in that the Christian sees them as converging on Christ or at least as oriented to the Kingdom Jesus preached. There is then no need to imagine that, in addition to their deepest religious wisdom, non-Christians also have some arcane connection with Christ of which they are unaware or which must be sought in the twilight region of their unconscious.
Despite the advances made by Paul VI and John Paul II toward a richer, more phenomenological and pluralistic awareness of the religions and their cultures, their inclusivist insistence that the religions receive their goodness and grace from the mystery of Christ is often met with a hostility similar to that which Küng showed to Rahner’s idea. A certain theological logic obliges us to see Christ at work in the backgrounds of the other religions, and yet it is felt that this solution is more a puzzle for further reflection than a fully satisfying vision. Mulling over the puzzle quickly becomes a futile speculation.
We should know when to put such questions and theories on the back burner, when they have ceased to be a help, and in fact are becoming a hindrance, to the really fruitful pursuit of interreligious thought and engagement. Suffice it to recognize the blessings abundant in the world’s religions and cultures and to bring the values of the Gospel into dialogue with them. The need for a lofty theoretical framework for this activity is perhaps a need that should be unlearnt. By all means let us hold to the Christocentric, theocentric and regnocentric pictures of how the religions relate to our faith. But these paradigms should not become dogmatic straitjackets. Rather they are rather vague ways of thinking that should be brought into play only where they are useful and illuminating.
Moreover, we should beware of words ending in ‘centric,’ since they suggest a narrowing of perspective. The discovery of the New World in 1492 produced a new kind of human being, the explorer, celebrating the human in all the glory of its diversity, at the very moment when new techniques of art allowed Raphael, Leonardo and Michelangelo to present the glory of humanity with a light, depth and presence never matched before or since. That Renaissance vision was lost in the bitter, narrow feuds of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. In literature, a humanism nourished by world cultures found supreme expression in the work of Goethe (1749-1832). In 1835, the French historian Michelet, who along with Jacob Burckhardt created our modern appreciation of the civilization of the Renaissance, was stirred by the work of his friend Eugène Burnouf, translator of the Lotus Sutra, and declared that an Oriental Renaissance was at hand. At the same time, Arthur Schopenhauer was devouring everything he could find on the Upanishads, Vedantism and Buddhism, finding in them the key to a total transformation of the philosophical and religious landscape. But the grip of Eurocentrism and of narrow nationalisms was too powerful to allow such a vision to flourish. Instead the human race devoted its best energies to the internationalization of war in 1914 and 1939.
Today’s globalized world gives new opportunities for an integral humanism based on respect and appreciation for cultures and religions beyond the Eurocentric enclave. Rahner could be seen as a forerunner of this culture, insofar as he gave Catholic theology a new coherence and depth, rooting it in the transcendental openness of the human spirit toward the infinite and the gracious divine response to this openness, and insofar as he could see these realities as operating in all religions and cultures; Jacques Dupuis builds on this. But Rahner had no Goethean interest in religious and cultural diversity in practice, and very little of the vast scholarly production on Rahner develops his ideas in that direction. Henri de Lubac took a bold step outside the European ghetto in his three books on Buddhism, yet this did not produce any radical decentering of his theological outlook. Perhaps the most Goethean figure in the world of Catholic theology was Ernesto Buonaiuti (1881-1946), author of 3000 texts on the history of Christianity, set in the wider setting of the Mediterranean conflux of eastern and western cultures. Far from being recognized as a godsend, this great scholarly explorer was the victim of a singular persecution by the Holy Office from the age of 25 until his death.
Now theology has a new chance to redeem its honor, by placing its efforts in the context of a wider human quest of spiritual wisdom, treating the spiritual explorers in other religions and cultures not as ‘anonymous Christians’ but as godsends, as priceless ‘resource persons’ from whom we have everything to learn. It is as the religions stand toward one another in this posture of dialogal openness that they best fulfill their mission and realize their identity. This edifying possibility, so important for world peace, has been on the cards since the World Parliament of Religions more than a century ago. To rediscover the explosive impact of Rahner’s vision of the human being as a Vorgriff (fore-grasp) toward divine mystery we must allow it to cleanse us of morose parochial obsessions and to redirect us to the divine revelation at work in all the cultures and religions of humanity.
 Klaus Riesenhuber, summarizing various texts of Rahner, in his afterword to Anita Röper, The Anonymous Christian (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1966), pp. 163-4.
 Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, ‘Karl Rahner: toward a theological aesthetics,’ in D. Marmion and M. E. Hines, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Karl Rahner (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 225-34; p. 228.
 Schriften zur Theologie XII (Zurich: Benzinger, 1975), p. 216.
 ‘Karl Rahner et la décision de la philosophie moderne,’ in H.-J. Gagey and V. Hölzer, ed. Balthasar, Rahner: Deux pensées en contraste (Paris: Bayard, 2005), pp. 71-95; p. 87.
From The Japan Mission Journal 64 (2010):60-65.