Karl Rahner’s Hearer of the Word: The Problem

In his book Hearer of the Word, Karl Rahner presents a philosophy of religion that will propose answers to problems found in Catholic fundamental theology, in the concept of philosophy as Christian, and the different kinds of Protestant philosophy of religion. Rahner takes an explicitly transcendental approach to his anthropology as a foundation of his arguments. Some of his basic concerns are the criticisms of anti-humanistic dualisms: reason and faith, obedience and freedom, eternal salvation and life in this world, clergy and laity, time and eternity, God and the world, reason and revelation, etc. As Rahner sees it, such dualisms and dichotomies are inimical to human beings, since they assume merely extrinsic relationships.

This is a problem that other philosophers and theologians have addressed. Hegel immanentizes God. Schleiermacher posits God as our feeling of absolute dependence. When human feelings and knowledge become the criterion of God, then Feuerbach can state that theology is anthropology, the projection of the highest human ideals. As a response to some of these ideas, Rahner also wants to overcome two Protestant approaches that make God either entirely immanent or entirely extrinsic (the one who can only say No and judge, i.e., Barth).

Whenever one talks about God’s revelation, one has to ask: what is there about human beings which makes it possible and necessary to ask about God and to hear the word of God in history? What is the a priori condition in human nature? This is a transcendental approach – a priori – and it is also the turn to the subject. Relation to God is not something alien to the human being, but intrinsic (even if not constitutive, as though God has to accommodate himself to human beings). It is intrinsic, so it overcomes extrinsicism; it is not constitutive, because God cannot be immanentized.

How is free revelation possible? It has to be shown that God is not just an absolute unknown but also that he is free will. When we stand before him, we either hear his silence or his Word. Also, we are free beings, and so we have to freely order our lives in a certain way, while recognizing that human beings necessarily affirm the existence of God by our very being. Our relationship to God is not like that between us and electricity, or the government, which are particular relationships. In the totality of our life – even when we are not conscious of it – we are already affirming God. How is then atheism, despair, nihilism, and suicide possible? We must distinguish between God as the horizon and as the object. Human beings are free to reject the object, and they do when their love is not properly oriented.

What is meant by spirit? Human beings are “always already” on the way to God. This is Augustine’s idea that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. As spirits, we have an unlimited open horizon. To our fundamental makeup belongs the a priori absolute transcendence toward being pure and simple, and that is why a human person is called a spirit. This is the condition of the possibility of the revelation.

If human beings are open to the totality of being, have we not in the same stroke made revelation impossible? Would things just be revealed in creation? In order to make genuine revelation possible, we have to say that there is a dimension in God that is not known right now, and in principle not reachable by even by the totality of horizon to which human beings as spirits are open. Otherwise, with Hegel, religion would be merely the prior state of philosophy.  Rahner’s arguments intentionally avoid and deny immanentism, psychologism and mysticism.

The Problem

Rahner starts by posing the question, what do we mean by philosophy of religion? How does it compare with theology and what is the foundation of these sciences? There is only one philosophical foundation for all sciences, as Aristotle demonstrated in the fourth book of his Metaphysics. Metaphysics is the first science, and every problem of the philosophy of science is a problem of the one first science, metaphysics. The problem of the relation between the two sciences – philosophy of religion and theology – is a problem of metaphysics. Both grow out of the same metaphysical ground and epistemological foundation.

Epistemological questions are always an inquiry into the nature of science as a human activity. It is not purely abstract, a peculiar mode of being. It is concrete and existential, for it concerns our existence as human beings; it is an existential inquiry into our very human nature. In sum, the problem of the relation between theology and the philosophy of religion is the metaphysical problem of the common ground from which both spring; hence it is also an inquiry into human nature, as the nature of the being who necessarily cultivates these sciences. The validation of philosophy of religion coincides ultimately with the self-validation of metaphysics. Original theology is not a human work, but a listening to the freely proffered self-revelation of God through God’s own Word. There is a need not only of the power to hear such message, but also of an inner elevation produced by divine grace before the perceived message may turn into theology. There is thus a need not only for the supernatural light of grace for faith, but also for a theology based upon faith.

If both philosophy of religion and theology grow out of metaphysics, and if metaphysics, as general ontology, when studying the way in which we can know God, establishes the great lines of a philosophy of religion and sets down how we ought to behave with regard to God, must we not conclude that every theology comes too late? If theology is supposed to tell us about our right relation to our Creator, has the philosophy of religion not told us already about that relation? Revelation is essentially a historical process, whereas the philosophy of religion on the other hand is essentially “supratemporal,” “transhistorical,” like the metaphysics which is supposed to coincide. Hence philosophy of religion establishes a religion that is independent of any historical event and equally valid to everyone at all times. The human spirit can always and everywhere reach the “eternal ideas” of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

But if the philosophy of religion is to respect the autonomy and historicity of theology, it cannot primarily consist in setting up a natural religion. Philosophy of religion has to refer us to an eventual revelation of God, which, if occurring at all, occurs in history. It must not and cannot establish a religion of its own, to be completed or superseded later by a revealed religion. Metaphysics must acknowledge God as the one who is free and unknown, and understand human beings as those who live and history – and it must bid us listen to an eventual revelation of this God. Philosophy of religion will not decide what religion is to be, but insofar as metaphysics views human persons as essentially historical beings, who have to listen to a possible revelation of God, philosophy of religion becomes the sole possible natural foundation for theology. This is the relationship between philosophy of religion and theology.

A metaphysical anthropology has to view human nature in two different ways: first, it sees the human person is spirit; it belongs to our nature to stand before the unknown God. Second, as spirit, the human person is a historical being; it belongs to our nature to be oriented toward the historical event of a revelation, in case such a revelation should occur.

There are three main problems related to philosophy of religion that Rahner wants to address:

  1. Catholic Fundamental Theology

Catholic fundamental theology tries to establish scientifically the fact that God has spoken in Jesus Christ. It seeks to provide a justification of faith, first by showing the possibility of revelation through special metaphysics (natural theology or theodicy) and demonstrating the existence of a personal, transcendent God. It establishes the possibility of revelation coming from God and demonstrates that there are mysteries only known through revelation. It shows that it is physically and morally possible for God to reveal such mysteries, that it agrees with our human nature, and explains that God can convey the knowledge of such mysteries through messengers (prophetic revelations, miracles, etc.). Finally, it posits the occurrence of revelation in Jesus Christ, revelation which continues to be announced and faithfully preserved by the Magisterium of the Catholic Church

As Rahner sees it, the problem is that fundamental theology does not adequately explain the relation between the knowledge which metaphysics give us about God and the possible content of revelation. It looks as if the revealed mysteries were added to our natural knowledge as some kind of new knowledge. It does not explain very well how, on account of our spiritual nature, we stand open for such “widening” of our knowledge, how there is room for it in our natural makeup. It does not adequately explain how we are oriented to such fulfillment of our knowledge through and only through a free revelation.

It tries to explain this orientation by showing that revelation has in fact occurred and that we have the duty to obey God, and thus to accept the revelation with faith. But we must show that when we appeal to our duty to obedience, such a duty may belong essentially and a priori to the necessary forms of human obedience to God, and that we can discover this by ourselves, and not merely through promulgation in the natural law. Only if it belongs to our very nature to listen in this way to a command of God, to a command that goes beyond those which, in the natural law, derive from creation itself, can the obedience to an actual command constitute for us a concrete possibility and duty. This is also Rahner’s way of rejecting Protestant approaches that make God’s revelation a judgment that comes merely extrinsically.

Only after having shown in a metaphysical anthropology that it belongs to our very nature (Rahner’s approach is existential), hence also to our undeniable duties, to establish our spiritual existence on historical events (his approach is also concrete), and to inquire about such events, shall we have to do with a subject who is willing to accept the proof of a specific historical fact. This is also the way to overcome rationalistic Enlightenment philosophy (e.g. Lessing) which argues that is it impossible for historical facts to be necessary truths. We must be able to show that, by our very nature, we must turn toward history for the acquisition of metaphysical and moral concepts, which will be concrete enough to serve as a basis for our existence. Human nature is unavoidably founded upon history.

It is one of the tasks of a complete fundamental theology to establish that we are fundamentally referred to history as to the domain within which we can come into our true nature. This is a metaphysical anthropology of the human person as the being who, in history, listens to a possible revelation of God. We are capable of listening to God’s message (a potency), who may invite us to obey his call (obedientia). We have an obediential potency for listening to an eventual word of God.

  1. Christian Philosophy

The “Christian” character of a philosophy consists in that it refers beyond itself and invites us to assume the attitude of listening to an eventual revelation. Thus it turns into praeparatio Evangelii. A philosophy is Christian when it naturally reaches a stated of readiness for being sublated (in the Hegelian 3-fold sense):

  1. Negation: it does away with itself, finishes its job, exhausts itself
  2. Sublation: it lifts itself to a higher level, finding fulfillment in revelation
  3. Preservation: in the actual hearing in theology, the possibility of hearing is preserved and has ever again to be actualized

Thus it is especially when we understand philosophy as the ontology of an obediential potency for revelation that we understand its Christian character, i.e., both its true autonomy and its congenial relationship with theology

  1. Protestant Philosophy of Religion

There are two main types of Protestant philosophy of religion: In the Schleiermacher/Ritschl tradition the content of religion is merely the objectivation of the religious conditions of the human subject, as an experience of value, a feeling of ultimate dependence, an awareness of justification, and so on. God is the inner meaning of the world and of humanity and nothing more. In the Barth/Brunner tradition, the content of religion is the word of the living God as it sovereignly judges all that is finite and human, and God is the one who utterly contradicts us and our world.

Rahner seeks to show that God’s self-revelation is possible in such a way that this revelation is more than the mere objectivation of humanity’s subjective state, and also that we possess an inner openness for such a revelation. Revelation is not the dialectical correlate of humanity as we remain caught in our finitude. It belongs to our essential makeup a positive openness for an eventual revelation from God. Also, revelation may really be heard without being only the Yes or No to humanity.

3 comments on “Karl Rahner’s Hearer of the Word: The Problem

  1. p. handley says:

    Pretty good. 1) revelation is on going, from the creation of the world as an example of revelation and including the procession of the Son from the Father through the power of the Holy Spirit as an eternal example of revelation. 2) The institutional products of theology will not be adequate for the philosophy of religion, each must find or develop heir own. P.H.

    • Well, technically, the Son does not proceed (the Spirit does); he is eternally generated, or “begotten of the Father before all ages . . . begotten, not created.” And his eternal generation, which is an intrinsic aspect of the immanent Trinity, is not a mode of revelation precisely because it is an aspect of the immanent, not economic Trinity.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “institutional products of theology” not being adequate for philosophy of religion.

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