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My Theological Reflection with Karl Rahner: Rupture, Discontinuity . . . Incomprehensible Mystery

  • Jerry T. Farmer (a1)


In this essay, the author reflects on the personal experience of the loss of his spouse, a reflection inspired and informed by the faith and theology of Karl Rahner. With death, it is not that a “new” time has begun, but that time itself has ended. And yet that mutual love as spouses continues. Life following the death of a spouse presents itself as an empty nothingness. But God, incomprehensible mystery, is our beginning. Our lives are filled with rupture and discontinuity not as evidence of a missing or absent God, but that we are not God.



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1 Rahner, Karl, “What Do I Mean When I Say: Life after Death?,” trans. Donceel, Joseph SJ, in Karl Rahner in Dialogue: Conversations and Interviews, 1965–1982, ed. Imhof, Paul and Biallowons, Hubert (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 8592. For the wide range of Rahner's writings, see the introduction to Rahner, Karl, The Mystical Way in Everyday Life: Sermons, Prayers and Essays, trans. and ed. Kidder, Annemarie S. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), xi. See also Mannion, Gerard, “The End of the Beginning: Discerning Fundamental Themes in Rahner's Theology of Death,” Louvain Studies 29 (2004): 166–86, especially his note that, in reaction to Rahner while developing a university-level teaching module, he “was informed by many thoughts and reflections following the death of my mother,” (185 n. 90 [my emphasis]).

2 Rahner, Karl, “Reflections on the Experience of Grace,” in Theological Investigations [hereafter TI], vol. 3, The Theology of the Spiritual Life, trans. , Karl H. and Kruger, Boniface (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 8690, at 87. See also Tilley, Terrance W., “What Kind of Faith Is Possible in Our Contexts?,” Philosophy & Theology 17 (2005): 271: “I have summarized my own view in two mottoes: ‘All religion is popular. All theology is local.’” Tilley then goes on to say that “the theologian who tries to synthesize it all into a universal theology—that is, a local theology that can travel angelically anywhere and everywhere at any time—has a task doomed to failure by the varieties of time and place in which the Gospel is lived in and lived out. And no one gets it fully right, since we all, at our best, refract rather than reflect the Light.”

3 Rahner, “Reflections on the Experience of Grace,” 88–89. Leo O'Donovan points to the rich and expansive vocabulary that Rahner uses to speak of “this experience of self-donation. . . . He spoke of our giving ourselves over to God (sich übergeben), of surrendering ourselves (sich hingeben), of giving or risking ourselves away (sich weggeben, sich wegwagen), of denying ourselves (sich werleugnen), of no longer really disposing of ourselves (nicht mehr über sich selbst verfügen), of letting oneself go (sich loslassen), of no longer belonging to oneself (nicht mehr sich selbst gehören). And he spoke of the moment when ‘alles und wir selbst wie in eine unendliche Ferne von uns weg gerückt ist’ (‘when everything including our very selves is torn away from us as if into an infinite distance’).” O'Donovan, Leo, “Memories before the Mystery: In Tribute to Karl Rahner (1904–1984),” Philosophy & Theology 17 (2005): 300.

4 Rahner, Karl, “The Body in the Order of Salvation,” in TI, vol. 17, Jesus, Man, and the Church, trans. Kohl, Margaret (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 7189, at 84; translation modified.

5 Rahner, “The Body in the Order of Salvation,” 77.

6 Rahner, “The Intermediate State,” in TI, 114–24, at 119.

7 Rahner, “The Body in the Order of Salvation,” 85; translation modified.

8 Ibid., 86; translation modified. See also Rahner, Karl, “On the Theology of the Incarnation” (hereafter “Incarnation”), in TI, vol. 4, More Recent Writing, trans. Smyth, Kevin (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 105–20. In “Incarnation” Rahner forcefully notes that “the unbridgeable difference” between who Jesus is and who we are as human beings is that in God's case “the ‘what’ is uttered as his self-expression, which it is not in our case” (116). Regarding key aspects of Rahner's Christology, see my earlier work, Farmer, Jerry T., “Four Christological Themes of the Theology of Karl Rahner,” in The Myriad Christ: Plurality and the Quest for Unity in Contemporary Christology, ed. Merrigan, Terrance and Haers, Jacques (Leuven: University Press, 2000), 433–62.

9 Karl Rahner, “Old Age and Death,” an interview with Erika Ahlbrecht-Meditz, Radio Saarland Saarbrücken, October 21, 1980, trans. Joseph Donceel, SJ, in Imhof and Biallowons, Karl Rahner in Dialogue, 241–47, at 244. See also Boeve, Lieven, God Interrupts History: Theology in a Time of Upheaval (New York: Continuum, 2007). Boeve points to the fact that “‘interruption’ can be made productive not only as a contextual category but also, and in line with Metz, as a theological category. . . . God's interruption constitutes the theological foundation for a continuous and radical hermeneutic of the context and the tradition. . . . In this instance, a theology of interruption tends to develop a hermeneutic of contingency, which aims to maintain the radical historical and specific, particular character of the Christian tradition without, however, closing in on itself. Such a hermeneutics of contingency, when correctly understood, includes a hermeneutics of suspicion” (205–6 [my emphasis]).

10 Rahner, “Old Age and Death,” 245.

11 Rahner, “What Do I Mean When I Say: Life after Death?,” 87, 86.

12 Ibid., 89.

13 Rahner, “Old Age and Death,” 247.

14 See Boeve, God Interrupts History. Boeve indicates that Johann Baptist Metz “deserves credit for having reintroduced apocalypticism as a conceptual strategy in his fundamental-theological reflections on Christian faith. . . . For Metz, apocalypticism establishes a firm claim to the intrinsic relationship between God and time: God interrupts time. . . . Against cultural apocalypticism, Christian apocalypticism calls for a shift from catastrophe thinking to crisis thinking. It is not simply a matter of devastation, catastrophe and chaos, it is also one of perspective, revelation and disclosure (which immediately reminds us of the original significance of the Greek apokalypsis). In short, the apocalyptic conceptual strategy perceives the boundaries of time as determined and restricted by God. Within this limited time crisis (persecution, destruction, loss, suffering, and pain [which can accurately describe the experience of the death of a spouse; my supplement and emphasis]) is the precise location in which God reveals Godself as the boundary, as the one who interrupts time, the one who judges it. At the same time, revelation as interruption implies its own demands and calls for engagement. A neutral attitude at this juncture is no longer appropriate. Interruption, as the revelation of God, provokes us to assume a position; we can no longer maintain an indifferent stance to what is going on. What is called for is a critical praxis of hope. Etymologically speaking, the word ‘crisis’ also implies ‘judgment.’ A Christian perspective on time thus requires submission to God's judgment and God's promise for the world and for humanity as revealed in Jesus Christ” (195–96).

15 See Boeve, God Interrupts History, 197–98: “Apocalypticism calls for the radical temporalization of the world, with a radical awareness of the irreducible seriousness of what occurs in the here and now. . . . Time is seen as discontinuity, interruption, finality, the end. . . . The future becomes a real future, not to be identified with seamless continuation and endless infinity. Apocalyptic awareness runs counter to evolutionary awareness in which the here and now lacks uniqueness, individuality, and particularity, and is remorselessly integrated into a dynamic movement toward a projected goal. . . . A Christian apocalyptic awareness urges us to become conscious of the irreconcilability of history, to pay attention to the victims of suffering and injustice, to recognize the fear of God and the appeal for reconciliation and justice. It is at this point that catastrophic thinking becomes crisis thinking: submission to the interruptive judgment of God over history. . . . For Christians, the apocalyptic awareness of time underlines the fact that God is not only other than time, the other of time, but that God is also and simultaneously the boundary of time, the end of time and thus the guarantee of its possibility.”

16 Rahner, Karl, “God of Knowledge,” in Prayers for a Lifetime, ed. Raffelt, Albert (New York: Crossroad, 1995), 1719.

17 Karl Rahner, “Jesus' Resurrection,” in TI, 17: 16–17.

18 Rahner, “What Do I Mean When I Say: Life after Death?,” 89: “There is no need to separate hope and faith. Faith is hopeful faith, else it would not be faith. And hope is believing hope, else there would be no hope.”

19 See Leijssen, Lambert, With the Silent Glimmer of God's Spirit: A Postmodern Look at the Sacraments (New York: Paulist Press, 2006). In referring to marriage, Leijssen notes: “Marriage, as the sacrament that sanctifies a relationship, unites the couple as having been given to each other with the most profound divine bond: their yes to each other often is anchored in the promise of God's covenant with humanity. . . . They sanctify each other in their love because they accomplish their human love in the bosom and power of divine love. This commitment marks them for life as eternally bound to each other in God's love and fidelity” (22). Leijssen stresses that “given the existential uncertainty and ambivalences of postmodernity, a simple transparency is no longer recognizable. The sacred (divine) can only be discovered in the experience of incompleteness and the contingency of the human race. The space of emptiness and distance is the place to find God again. . . . Then it is possible to conceive of sacramentality reflexively-rationally as a ‘present absence’ of the divine, as a continuous glimpse (glimmer, not glitter), a soft, silent splendor, a mild illumination of the withdrawing Mystery” (25–26). And Leijssen further adds, “Marriage is an enduring task that requires the will to overcome a lack of belief in its own possibilities. The disposition to forgive and the realization that one is always growing are there when the ideal is not always attained. When the married couple dares continuously to let go of the image of the perfect partner and the ideal marriage, choosing with all their heart their actual partner in the changing circumstances of life, then each day is a new beginning in which Christians glimpse God's creative power and nearness with the silent glimmer of the gift of the Spirit” (103–4).

20 See Rahner, Karl and Metz, Johannes Baptist, The Courage to Pray, trans. Twohig, Sarah O'Brien (New York: Crossroads, 1981), 8485: “We cannot freely commemorate the dead if we are merely holding on to the past with combined compulsion and curiosity. True remembrance of the dead enables us to protect the deepest reality of our existence (which cannot be thought of in individualistic terms), and carry it into the future as our legacy and duty. . . . First, we should remember those who have been close to us, who have loved us, whom we loved ourselves, and towards whom we perhaps still feel terribly guilty (despite the fact that the dead can no longer enforce this guilt), so that we have to live with their silent, constantly reiterated forgiveness. . . . We should not see them as dead, but as living beings who have taken their relationship to us with them into eternity. . . . Second, we should remember all those who have faded into the oblivion of history.”

21 See Leijssen, With the Silent Glimmer of God's Spirit, 37–38: “The divine Other cannot simply absorb humans into itself. For that reason, participation in the divine must also maintain this distinction; but it must also confirm the connection via the mediation of language and symbols. . . . He or she lives on in this mystery as a ‘new person.’ The divine is simultaneously present yet also hidden, invisible in the human form of appearance. . . . This divinity can be seen only by the inner eye; it can be experienced only from this inner connection with reverence and thankfulness. For that reason, we speak of the silent glimmer of the Holy Spirit.”

22 Rahner, “The Intermediate State,” 114: “What is meant by the doctrine of the intermediate state is that between the death of any individual person, if it takes place before the general eschatological perfecting of all men, and the final consummation of all history (which we generally call ‘the resurrection of the flesh’ and ‘the Last Judgment’) there is an intermediate temporal state.” And Rahner further comments: “My intention here is not to deny the doctrine of the intermediate state. I should only like to point out that it is not a dogma, and can therefore remain open to the free discussion of theologians.”

23 Rahner, “The Intermediate State,” 118; translation modified.

24 Ibid., 119.

25 Ibid., 119 (my emphasis). Rahner adds: “Earlier, I myself tried to avoid this dilemma by postulating a cosmic relation between the finite human spirit and matter, that is to say, the one matter of the world. This relation would then still remain and would be preserved even when the precise way in which, during its earthly life, the body is formed through this relation between matter and spirit ceased to exist.” See also Phan, Peter C., Eternity in Time: A Study of Karl Rahner's Eschatology (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1988), 236 n. 102.

26 Rahner, “The Intermediate State,” 119–20.

27 Rahner, The Mystical Way in Everyday Life, 117–22; translation modified.

28 See the comment by Rahner regarding our call to solidarity with the dead and the African tradition of ancestor worship, in Rahner and Metz, The Courage to Pray, 45: “It is perhaps conceivable that Christian theology in Africa, if it wishes to become truly African, will introduce a new, independent form of ancestor worship, and that from there it might be imported into Christian theology in the rest of the world. It would be extremely regrettable and ominous for the future of Christian theology as a whole if this African contribution were to meet with nothing but indifference from the rest of the Christian world.”



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