by Father Robert Lauder
Ninth in a series
AS I RE-READ Father Michael Paul Gallagher’s Faith Maps: Ten Religious Explorers from Newman to Joseph Ratzinger (New York: Paulist Press, 2010, 158 pages, $16.95), I am surprised how much I am learning, especially about people whose thought I believed that I had previously understood. This is especially true of Karl Rahner’s theology.
As I mentioned in a previous column, I team taught a college course on Rahner several years ago and I have read Father Gallagher’s chapter on Rahner a number of times. My experience is that I can always go deeper into Rahner’s vision of grace and redemption and when I do, I learn something new.
Rahner’s emphasis is that God’s grace is everywhere and the drama of salvation and redemption is being worked out in each person’s life, not only in the life of a believing Christian.
Father Gallagher writes the following:
“For Rahner, everything we do is an expression of a yes or a no to love. It is here in this battleground of the heart that the Spirit draws us towards faith and towards losing our small ego in the vastness of God. To adapt one of Rahner’s metaphors, this orientation of human existence towards God is like a river seeking the ocean. Just as a river will wind its way through different landscapes, but always unconsciously is drawn towards the sea, so our self-transcendence carries us, often unaware, towards the ultimate horizon that is God. …
“The most profound way of looking at ourselves is in relation to God. Whether we are living in a way that is saying a yes or no to love depends on our relationship to God. “
“Rahner often comes back to a distinction between what he calls ‘transcendental’ and ‘categorical,’ which can be translated as what we live implicitly and what we express explicitly. We can live an option for generous love without putting it into words and without openly recognizing its source in God’s grace. We can also, tragically, live a closure to love without seeing that in this way we contradict the gift of God within us. More than other religious thinkers, and certainly more than in previous theology, Rahner gives priority to these silent, unconscious dimensions of existence. The hope of God is that we would come to know Christ explicitly, but since this is culturally impossible for many people, there has to be another road: a faith lived without knowing itself explicitly, without putting itself into words, and without living a conscious relationship with the Church.” (p. 42)
The idea that we should lose our small ego in the greatness and vastness of God speaks powerfully to me. It seems like an excellent way to describe the process of conversion, a process that for many of us takes many years. The most profound way of looking at ourselves is in relation to God. Whether we are living in a way that is saying a yes or no to love depends on our relationship to God. A theologian friend of mine once suggested that one of the basic steps in growing closer to God is to be able to say honestly, “There is a God and I am not He and that’s okay.”
In my own thinking Rahner’s distinction between the transcendental and the categorical is very important. The transcendental, by indicating that people can be moving closer to God, that they can be choosing a life of generous love without putting their choice into words about God’s presence in their lives or without ever connecting it in their minds with Christ, underlines for me the truth that God offers Himself to everyone, not just to Catholics. It also makes sense of an experience that I have had often in my life, the experience of encountering people who seem to be unselfish, good caring people but who are not, in the usual use of the word, religious. They may not identify with a religion but the drama of salvation is still working out in their lives.
Father Gallagher offers a good explanation of a statement made by Rahner that I have often wondered about but did not understand until I read Father Gallagher. Rahner claimed that future Christians would have to be mystics or they would not have any faith. Father Gallagher interprets Rahner’s statement to mean that in an increasingly secular atmosphere people’s faith will be grounded in a personal experience of faith, in an experience of the Spirit operative in their lives. Being mystical means having an immediate encounter with God. People just have to become aware of the in-depth dimension of their lives and realize what it means. Father Gallagher uses the expression “wired for God” to indicate God’s presence in every person’s life, even in the lives of those who have not yet come to realize that God is present.
Perhaps many of us are reluctant to think that we are being called to be mystics. It is amazing but so is God’s love for us. [hr] Father Robert Lauder, a priest of the Diocese of Brooklyn and philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica, writes a weekly column for the Catholic Press.