Thoughts of a Catholic convert

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Monday, February 13, 2012

Too easy to be an anonymous Christian?

Latest library book - Karl Rahner: Theology and Philosophy by Karen Kilby, a professor at Nottingham University. I'd previously read Fr. Philip Endean's Karl Rahner and Ignatian Spirituality (posted about here) and also Fr. Endean's Karl Rahner: Spiritual Writings (posted about it here), and found them so interesting, they made me want to read more about Rahner.

One of the ideas Rahner is most well known for is the anonymous Christian. The theory that ...

people who have never heard the Christian Gospel or even rejected it might be saved through Christ. Non-Christians could have "in [their] basic orientation and fundamental decision," Rahner wrote, "accepted the salvific grace of God, through Christ, although [they] may never have heard of the Christian revelation."

And one of his harshest critics on that theory was Hans Urs von Balthasar. Both Fr. Endean and Professor Kilby discuss this. Fr. Endean's article, Von Balthasar, Rahner, and The Commissar can be found at his website under 'publications'. Here's just a bit of it ....

Von Balthasar's attacks on Rahner are scattered over several works. Sometimes their expression is very technical, and complex personal factors also play a part. But von Balthasar expresses his concerns vividly and concisely in a bitterly satirical dialogue near the end of a polemical text which he published just after Vatican II: The Moment of Christian Witness. A 'well-disposed commissar', a figure symbolising the culture of modernity both in its easy secularism and its nightmare terrors, arraigns a Rahnerian Christian. In less than three full pages, Rahner's theology is made to look ridiculous. For Rahner, God always transcends objects in space and time: we know God only in and through them, as their permanently mysterious, elusive ground. But the commissar refuses to distinguish such talk from secularist atheism .....

In The Moment of Christian Witness, the issue appears as one about the kind of security we can expect religion to give us. The uncertainties and vagueness of what, in the 1960s, was called 'progressive' theology cannot sustain the faith of a martyr. The original German title refers to Cordula, an apocryphal young girl saint. When the martyring Hun attacked, she managed to hide. Then, however, she realised that it is only through death that we find life, and thus emerged from hiding, submitted herself to death, the Ernstfall. Thus she became a credible witness. Von Balthasar is inviting a Roman Catholicism infatuated with Vatican II to see itself as Cordula in hiding, and challenging it once again to embrace the call to martyrdom. Contemporary theology, he implies, is too impressed by the uncertainties which a historical critical method generates; respect for legitimate Christian diversity has keeled over into excessive tentativeness, even destructive scepticism, about Christian obligation. The so-called Conciliar renewal misses the whole point about laying down one's life. One might summarize his whole message as a plea to the Church to read John's Gospel straightforwardly, and take it seriously. We must ignore the evidence in the text of neuroses and persecution-complexes; we must stop feeling anxious about the gross disrespect for Judaism this strand of Christianity encourages. Just see it as witness to God's absolute, unconditional, and unquestionable presence among us, a God in creaturely form, a God you can die for .....

And here is a little from Karen Kilby's book (pp. 116-117) on the same subject .....

The most well known and also the most biting attack on what we might call the Christian adequacy of the theory of anonymous Christianity comes in Hans Urs von Balthasar's highly polemical The Moment of Christian Witness. The notion of anonymous Christianity, Balthasar suggests, leads to a loss of the distinctiveness of Christianity, and also a loss of commitment; "Karl Rahner frees us from a nightmare with his theory of the anonymous Christian, who is dispensed, at any rate, from the criterion of martyrdom." If one can be a Christian anonymously, why then bother with the costly business of actually professing Christianity? Rahner is making things too easy, dissolving Christianity, evacuating it of its content, so that what we will be left with, if we go down his route, is a church full of anonymous atheists.

Before taking up the question of how far this is a caricature, and how far it points to a real difference of view between the two theologians, it is worth saying something about the larger context within which Balthasar sets out the criticism. A consistent theme in his discussions of Rahner is the degree to which Rahner's thought is (as Balthasar sees it) formed and controlled by philosophical allegiances, and in particular by an appropriation of German idealism. Balthasar reviewed Spirit in the World in 1939, and he appears to be among those who think that this is of decisive importance for all that followed. Thus, for instance, Balthasar was able to describe Rahner as someone who had fundamentally taken the path of Kant, as opposed to his own following of Goethe. Or again, nearly 40 years after the publication of Spirit in the World, Balthasar's depiction of Rahner as "the best-known representative of the transcendental approach" still begins with the fact that he is a follower of Joseph Maréchal in his concern to reconcile Aquinas with German idealism -- i.e. it begins with a description of Rahner as essentially the Rahner of Spirit in the World. The criticisms of anonymous Christianity which we have just described in The Moment of Christian Witness are also implicitly linked to the notion that Rahner subscribes in some way to German idealism. The context of these criticisms, that is to say, is a larger discussion of Christian witness (martyrdom) on the one hand and "the System" (the system of German idealism) on the other ........

I'm not sure I really understand what Karl Rahner meant by anonymous Christian but I do like his take on the subject more than that of Hans Urs von Balthasar ... there are those who mention the cost of Christianity (Bonhoeffer) but though of course many have bravely perished as martyrs for their faith, I'm not sold on the idea that sanguine martyrdom is the ultimate proof of discipleship, nor with the belief that that which is worthwhile must always be difficult to achieve.


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