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Rahner's Primordial Words and Bernstein's Metaphorical Leaps: The Affinity of Art with Religion and Theology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Robert Masson
Marquette University


Karl Rahner's notion of primordial words and Leonard Bernstein's conception of music as intrinsically metaphorical are engaged to suggest that there is a fundamental affinity between artistic and religious imagination. The affinity is grounded, in part at least, in metaphoric process—an elemental cognitive act in which the human spirit is stretched so that its expressions can address what lies beyond them.

Editorial Essays
Copyright © The College Theology Society 2006

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1 Rahner worked out his seminal notions of the “primordial word,” “primordial symbol,” and “realsymbol” (Urworte, Ursymbol, and Realsymbol) in essays published from 1953 to 1960 and included in his Theological Investigations, 23 vols. (various publishers of different volumes including Baltimore: Helicon Press; New York: Herder and Herder; Seabury; and Crossroad, 1961–92) [Schiften zur Theologie, 16 vols. (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1960–84)] cited respectively hereafter as TI and [ST].

1953 “‘Behold This Heart!’: Preliminaries to a Theology of Devotion to the Sacred Heart,” TI, 3: 321–30 [ST 3: 379–90]; cited hereafter as “Behold This Heart!”;

1956 “Some Theses for a Theology of Devotion to the Sacred Heart,” TI, 3: 331–52 [ST, 3: 391–415];

“Priest and Poet,” TI, 3: 294–317 [ST, 3: 349–75];

1958 “The Theological Meaning of the Veneration of the Sacred Heart,” TI, 8: 217–28 [ST, 8: 481–90];

1960 “The Theology of the Symbol,” TI, 4: 221–52 [ST, 4: 275–311];

“Poetry and the Christian,” TI, 4, 357–67 [ST, 4: 441–54].

In several places I have amended translations in deference to more inclusive language. The German is provided in cases where I have used significantly different translations.

2 Bernstein, Leonard, The Unanswered Question: Six Talks at Harvard (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1976).Google Scholar

3 See Gerhart, Mary and Russell, Allan Melvin, Metaphoric Process: The Creation of Scientific and Religious Understanding (Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 1984)Google Scholar; and New Maps for Old: Explorations in Science and Religion (New York: Continuum, 2001). I have published more detailed discussion of their account and its potential in a number of essays: “The Force of Analogy,” Anglican Theological Review 87/3 (2005): 471–86; “Saving God,” Horizons 31/2 (2004): 239–71; “Reframing the Fields,” Zygon 39/1 (March 2004): 49–62; “Metaphor As Apt for Conversation: The Inherently Conversational Character of Theological Discourse,” in Theology and Conversation. Developing a Relational Theology, ed. Haers, Jacques and Mey, Peter de (Leuven: Peeters Press, 2003), 145–61Google Scholar; “The Clash of Christological Symbols: A Case for Metaphoric Realism,” in Christology: Memory, Inquiry, Practice, ed. Clifford, Anne M. and Godzieba, Anthony J. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), 6286Google Scholar; and “Analogy and Metaphoric Process,” Theological Studies 62 (2001): 571–96.

4 Mass, A Theater Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers, orchestrated by Leonard Bernstein. Texts from the liturgy of the Roman Mass with additional texts by Stephen Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein, Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 1971.

5 “Bernstein Talks about His Work,” Time, 20 September 1971, p. 42.

6 Egan, See Harvey, Karl Rahner: Mystic of Everyday Life (New York: Crossroad, 1998).Google Scholar

7 See note 1 above.

8 “Priest and Poet,” TI, 3: 297–98 [353].

9 Ibid., TI, 3: 298 [353].

10 Ibid., TI, 3: 299 [354].

11 Ibid., TI, 3: 298 [353].

12 Ibid., TI, 3: 297 [352].

13 Ibid., TI, 3: 297 [352].

14 Ibid., TI, 3: 299 [354]; “Behold This Heart!” TI, 3: 327 [385].

15 “Behold This Heart!” TI, 3: 328–29 [387–88].

16 “Priest and Poet,” TI, 3: 299 [354].

17 Ibid., TI, 3: 299 [354–5].

18 Ibid., TI, 3: 299 [354–5].

19 Ibid., TI, 3: 300–301 [356].

20 “Behold This Heart!” TI, 3: 328 [386].

21 “The Theology of the Symbol,” TI, 4: 224–25 [278].

22 Ibid., TI, 4: 251 [311].

23 “Priest and Poet,” TI, 3: 297–98 [353].

24 “Behold this Heart!” TI, 3: 322 [380].

25 “Priest and Poet,” TI, 3: 299 [354].

26 Ibid., TI, 3: 300–301 [356].

27 Ibid., TI, 3: 301 [357].

28 Ibid., TI, 3: 301 [356].

29 Ibid., TI, 3: 316 [374].

30 Ibid., TI, 3: 316 [374].

31 In saying they do not, I am not denying revelation but merely observing that any putative claim for the symbolic status of Jesus, sacramental symbols, or other symbols in Christianity or other religions, is nevertheless mediated by everyday realities.

32 The parallels between Rahner's understanding of language and Tillich's are noteworthy, although it is not possible to present a detailed comparison here. Both base their interpretations on the symbolic character of being, although in quite different ways. Both see a real and very important correlation between religious language in the narrow sense and any language that evokes mystery, or as Tillich would say, expresses ultimate concern. There is a similarity in the distinctions that both draw between signs and symbols, although again the ontologies which underlie their distinctions are quite different. Both speak of richly symbolic words that point to the depth of reality and which reflect the unity of beings and their ground. Both insist that truly symbolic utterances cannot be constructed arbitrarily. Both stress the concreteness of symbols. Both maintain that there is a way in which a symbol, in Tillich's words, “opens up reality and … opens up the soul” (“The Nature of Religious Language,” in Theology of Culture, ed. Kimball, Robert C. [New York: Oxford University Press, 1959], p. 57Google Scholar). Both insist that there is a way in which the symbol presents the thing itself, or in Tillich's terminology “participates” in the reality to which it points. Both speak of the sacramental character of language (Ibid., pp. 64–65). Both point to the possibility of symbols dying, although for Rahner it does not appear that such a process ever leads to a death that is permanent, while for Tillich it can and often does. Despite these parallels, however, there are significant differences between their perspectives. Tillich's ontology posits an “absolute break” between beings or symbols and Being itself which they manifest (See his Systematic Theology, 1 [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1967], p. 237), while Rahner's ontology posits an intrinsic continuity between God and beings. This has significant implications and should caution against any easy identification of their notions of symbol, as I argued in “The Clash of Christological Symbols: A Case for Metaphoric Realism.”

33 “Priest and Poet,” TI, 3: 302 [358]: “Aber unter aller Aussage des Menschen in allen Künsten kommt dem Wort doch etwas allein zu, das es mit keinem anderen Gebilde des Menschen teilt: Es lebt in der Überschreitung.”

34 “Priest and Poet,” TI, 3: 301–2 [357].

35 “Priest and Poet,” TI, 3: 302 [357].

36 The Unanswered Question, 140.

37 Ibid., 15–16.

38 Ibid., 380.

39 Adorno, Theodor, The Philosophy of Modern Music (New York: Seabury, 1973).Google Scholar

40 See, e.g., Keiler, Allan, “Bernstein's The Unanswered Question and the Problem of Musical Competence,” The Musical Quarterly 64/2 (April, 1978), 195222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

41 The Unanswered Question, 72.

42 Ibid., 75.

43 Ibid., 77.

44 Ibid., 79.

46 Ibid., 122.

47 Ibid., 123.

48 Ibid., 124.

51 Ibid., 127.

52 Ibid., 131.

53 Ibid., 135.

54 Ibid., 130.

55 Ibid., 139.

56 Ibid., 380.

57 Ibid., 383.

59 Ibid., 384.

61 A particularly helpful overview is provided in Rikhof, Herwi's The Concept of Church: A Methodological Inquiry into the Use of Metaphors in Ecclesiology (Sheed and Ward: London, 1981), esp. 67122Google Scholar; related to this see my forthcoming article “Analogy as Higher-Order Metaphor in Aquinas,” in Divine Transcendence and Immanence in the Thought of Thomas Aquinas, ed. rikhof, H.W.M. et al. (Louvain: Peeters, in press).Google Scholar

62 See note 3 above.

63 Leonardo, Robert Dixon, “Two Conformal Mappings,” Visual Mathematics 25/314 (1992): 263–66.Google Scholar