Karl Rahner

Advent IV: ‘The process of Your coming’, by Karl Rahner

‘Every year we celebrate the holy season of Advent, O God. Every year we pray those beautiful prayers of longing and waiting, and sing those lovely songs of hope and promise. Every year we roll up all our needs and yearnings and faithful expectation into one word: “Come!”

And yet, what a strange prayer this is! After all, You have already come and pitched Your tent among us. You have already shared our life with its little joys, its long days of tedious routine, its bitter end. Could we invite You to anything more than this with our “Come”? Could You approach any nearer to us than You did when You became the “Son of Man,” when You adopted our ordinary little ways so thoroughly that it’s almost hard for us to distinguish You from the rest of our fellow men?

In spite of all this we still pray: “Come.” And this word issues as much from the depth of our hearts as it did long ago from the hearts of our forefathers, the kings and prophets who saw Your day still far off in the distance, and fervently blessed its coming. Is it true, then, that we only “celebrate” this season, or is it still really Advent?

Are You the eternal Advent? Are You He who is always still to come, but never arrives in such a way as to fulfill our expectations? Are You the infinitely distant One, who can never be reached?

Are You only the distant horizon surrounding the world of our deeds and sufferings, the horizon which, no matter where we roam, is always just as far away? Are You only the eternal Today, containing within itself all time and all change, equally near to everything, and thus also equally distant?

When our bleeding feet have apparently covered a part of the distance toY our eternity, don’t You always retreat twice as far away from us, into the immense reaches filled only by your infinite being? Has humanity drawn the least bit closer to You in the thousands and thousands of years that have elapsed since it boldly began its most exciting and fearsome adventure, the search for You?

Have I come any nearer to You in the course of my life, or doesn’t all the ground I have won only make my cup all the more bitter because the distance to You is still infinite? Must we remain ever far from You, O God of immensity, because You are ever near to us, and therefore have no need of “coming” to us? Is it because there is no place in our world to which You must first “find your way”?

You tell me that you have really already come, that Your name is Jesus, Son of Mary, and that I know in what place and at what time I can find You. That’s all true, of course, Lord – but forgive me if I say that this coming of Yours seems to me more like a going, more like a departure than an arrival.

You have clothed Yourself in the form of a slave. You, the hidden God, have been found as one of us. You have quietly and inconspicuously taken Your place in our ranks and marched along with us. You have walked with us, even though we are beings who are never coming, but rather always going, since any goal we reach has only one purpose: to point beyond itself and lead us to the last goal, our end.

And thus we still cry: “Come! Come to us, You who never pass away, You whose day has no evening, whose reality knows no end! Come to us, because our march is only a procession to the grave.” Despairing of ourselves, we call upon You – then most of all, when, in composure and quiet resignation, we bring ourselves to accept our finiteness.

You promised that You would come, and actually made good Your promise. But how, O Lord, how did You come? You did it by taking a human life as Your own. You became like us in everything: born of a woman, You suffered under Pontius Pilate, were crucified, died, and were buried. And thus You took up again the very thing we wanted to discard. You began what we thought would end with your coming: our poor human kind of life, which is sheer frailty, finiteness, and death.

Contrary to all our fond hopes, You seized upon precisely this kind of human life and made it Your own. And You did this not in order to change or abolish it, not so that You could visibly and tangibly transform it, not to divinize it. You didn’t even fill it to overflowing with the kind of goods that men are able to wrest from the small, rocky acre of their temporal life, and which they laboriously store away as their meager provision for eternity.

No,You took upon Yourself our kind of life, just as it is. You let it slip away from You, just as ours vanishes from us. You held on to it carefully, so that not a single drop of its torments would be spilled. You hoarded its every fleeting moment, so You could suffer through it all, right to the bitter end.

You too felt the inexorable wheel of blind, brute nature rolling over Your life, while the clear-seeing eye of human malice looked on in cruel satisfaction. And when Your humanity glanced upwards to the One who, in purest truth and deepest love, is called “Father,” it too caught sight of the God whose ways are unfathomable and whose judgments are incomprehensible, who hands us the chalice or lets it pass, all according to His own holy will. You too learned in the hard school of suffering that no “why” will ever ferret out the secret of that will, which could have done otherwise, and yet chose to do something we would never understand.

You were supposed to come to redeem us from ourselves, and yet You, who alone are absolutely free and unbounded, were “made,” even as we are. Of course, I know that You remained what You always were, but still, didn’t our mortality make You shudder, You the Immortal God? Didn’t You, the broad and limitless Being, shrink back in horror from our narrowness? Weren’t You, absolute Truth, revolted at our pretense?

Didn’t You nail yourself to the cross of creation, when You took as Your own life something which You had drawn out of nothing, when You assumed as Your very own the darkness that You had previously spread out in the eternal distance as the background to Your own inaccessible light? Isn’t the Cross of Golgotha only the visible form of the cross You have prepared for Yourself, which towers throughout the spaces of eternity?

Is that Your real coming? Is that what humanity has been waiting for? Is that why men have made the whole of human history a single great Advent-choir, in which even the blasphemers take part – a single chant crying out for You and Your coming? Is Your humble human existence from Bethlehem to Calvary really the coming that was to redeem wretched humanity from its misery?

Is our grief taken from us, simply because you wept too? Is our surrender to finiteness no longer a terrible act of despair, simply because You also capitulated? Does our road, which doesn’t want to end, have a happy ending despite itself, just because You are traveling it with us?

But how can this be? And why should it be? How can our life be the redemption of itself, simply because it has also become Your life? How can You buy us back from the law, simply by having fallen under the law Yourself (Gal. 4:5)?

Or is it this way: is my surrender to the crushing narrowness of earthly existence the beginning of my liberation from it, precisely because this surrender is my “Amen” to Your human life, my way of saying yes to Your human coming, which happens in a manner so contrary to my expectations?

But of what value is it to me that my destiny is now a participation in Yours, if You have merely made what is mine Your own? Or have You made my life only the beginning of Your coming, only the starting point of Your life?

Slowly a light is beginning to dawn. I’ve begun to understand something I have known for a long time: You are still in the process of Your coming. Your appearance in the form of a slave was only the beginning of Your coming, a beginning in which You chose to redeem men by embracing the very slavery from which You were freeing them. And You can really achieve Your purpose in this paradoxical way, because the paths that You tread have a real ending, the narrow passes which You enter soon open out into broad liberty, the cross that You carry inevitably becomes a brilliant banner of triumph.

It is said that You will come again, and this is true. But the word again is misleading. It won’t really be “another” coming, because You have never really gone away. In the human existence that You made Your own for all eternity, You have never left us.

But still You will come again, because the fact that You have already come must continue to be revealed ever more clearly. It will become progressively more manifest to the world that the heart of all things is already transformed, because You have taken them all to Your heart.

Behold, You come. And Your coming is neither past nor future, but the present, which has only to reach its fulfillment. Now it is still the one single hour of Your Advent, at the end of which we too shall have found out that You have really come.

O God who is to come, grant me the grace to live now, in the hour of Your Advent, in such a way that I may merit to live in You forever, in the blissful hour of Your eternity’.

– Karl Rahner, Encounters with Silence (Westminster: Newman Press, 1965), 80–87

Around: ‘Love seeketh not itself to please’

‘The Clod and the Pebble’

‘Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.’

So sung a little clod of clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

‘Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.’

John Webster’s Evangel articles

Rob Bradshaw has recently made available the following articles by John Webster:

Thanks Rob.

Towards a theology of the child: a series

childhoodHere’s my posts so far on a theology of the child in historical perspective. It’s a series that I’ve enjoyed doing and which I’d like to return to at some stage (but not for a wee while).

Around the traps …

  • Phil Baiden writes an appreciation of PT Forsyth.

  • The latest IJST (11/2) is out, and includes articles on:
    • ‘Development of Doctrine, or Denial? Balthasar’s Holy Saturday and Newman’s Essay’ (p 129-145), by Alyssa Pitstick
    • ‘The Descent into Hell as a Solution for the Problem of the Fate of Unevangelized Non-Christians: Balthasar’s Hell, the Limbo of the Fathers and Purgatory’ (p 146-171), by Gavin D’Costa
    • ‘One Commixture of Light’: Rethinking some Modern Uses and Critiques of Gregory of Nazianzus on the Unity and Equality of the Divine Persons’ (p 172-189), by Ben Fulford
    • ‘The Cruciality of the Cross’: P.T. Forsyth’s Understanding of the Atonement’ (p 190-207), by Theng-Huat Leow (Congratulations Theng-Huat!!)
    • ‘The Grammar of Pneumatology in Barth and Rahner: A Reconsideration’ (p 208-224), by Travis Ables

Karl Rahner on a theology of childhood

RahnerTragically, there remains a tendency in our own day to ‘instrumentalise’ childhood, and so to devalue childhood qua childhood. So Martha Stortz: We point children ‘too rapidly toward the adults they will become’. Childhood is not ‘something you do on the way to becoming an adult’.

One of the most valuable finds while preparing a course recently on a theology of the child has been Karl Rahner’s essay, ‘Ideas for a Theology of Childhood’ in which he was very critical of the cognitive developmental theory approach to assessing childrens’ ‘value’. In the essay Rahner is concerned about a number of things, which Martin Marty helpfully discusses under the following headings:

1. That we interpret the existence of children in a biblical matrix: that we first hear ‘what the divinely revealed word has to say about childhood. In the intention of the Creator and Redeemer of children what meaning does childhood have, and what task does it lay upon us for the perfecting and saving of humanity?’

2. That this beginning represents mystery unveiled. Consequently, those who care for/about children will delight in each act of unveiling and find meaning therein.

[C]hildhood is, in the last analysis, a mystery. It has the force of a beginning and a twofold beginning at that. It is a beginning in the sense of the absolute origin of the individual, and also the beginning which plunges its roots into a history over which the individual himself has no control. Childhood has the force of a beginning such that the future which corresponds to it is not simply the unfolding of some latent interior force, but something freely sent and something which actually comes to meet one. And it is not until this future is actually attained to that the beginning itself is unveiled in its significance, that it is actually given and comes to its own realisation, as a beginning which is open to the absolute beginning of God who is utter mystery, the ineffable and eternal, nameless and precisely as such accepted with love in his divine nature as he who presides over all things.

Put differently, it takes eschatology to make sense of human personhood. He goes on:

… we do not really know what childhood means at the beginning of our lives until we know what that childhood means which comes at the end of them; that childhood, namely, in which, by God-given repentance and conversion, we receive the kingdom of God and so become children. It is in this sense that we only recognise the child at the beginning of life from the child of the future.

sinead-13. That the child is open to God, who is the utter mystery.

4. The child is ‘effable’ but finds her origin in God’s ineffability (beyond words). This means, among other things, that those who care for and think about children – including theologians – will recognise in humility that we lack the words and concepts to penetrate the deep mystery of childhood (or human personhood full stop) which lies in God.

5. The child is to resist efforts by adults to control.

6. The child exists always at the threshold of the eternal.

7. The naming of the child is significant.

8. The child is accepted into divine love. On this Marty writes:

God in God’s divine nature always reaches out to accept creatures in love. The child may often deny, ignore, or even repudiate the love of God, also when it is reflected in the faces, arms, and acts of parents and others. Recovery of love, however, always can begin when that little child is allowed and encouraged to remain open to the eternal and thus is able to receive signs of divine love. Though the child is born into a world of accident, chance, contingency, and random happenings she will finally address it in openness to the One “who presides over all things.” Rahner expresses it tersely: “childhood is openness. Human childhood is infinite openness”.

9. The child is an independent and a dependent being.

10. Original childhood is preserved forever. This is a fascinating notion of Rahner’s:

[P]rovided we reverently and lovingly preserve this state of being delivered over to the mystery, life becomes for us a state in which our original childhood is preserved for ever; a state in which we are open to expect the unexpected, to commit ourselves to the incalculable, a state which endows us with the power still to be able to play, to recognise that the powers presiding over our existence are greater than our own designs, and to submit to their control as our deepest good.

Through this essay, Rahner rejects the notion that we progress through ‘stages’ or that we can talk about any life as a series of phases ‘each of which … is exhausted [and] leads on to the next, the very meaning of which is to disappear into the next, to be a preparation for it, to “exist” for the further stages beyond itself’. In such a scenario, he says, ‘childhood itself disappears’. Instead, he insists on the most profound sense of continuity of life. In Marty’s words, ‘For all that flows over the river bed, its base is not mud but rock: in this metaphor, the mystery of the child remains’. Or in Rahner’s:

We only become the children whom we were because we gather up time – and in this our childhood too – into our eternity … The special character of childhood may always be fading away so far as we are concerned, and may also disappear into that which comes afterwards in point of time, so that it seems only to derive its justification and its value from this, but this is not so. This morning does not derive its life simply from the afternoon which follows.

11. The child is open to expecting the unexpected.

12. Play has a special quality. Here we are reminded of Schleiermacher’s theology of the child, and of Barth’s venerating affair with Mozart.

sinead13. The child remains in an ambiguous relation to the concept and practice of control and controlling. Rahner speaks about the need for children to ‘recognise that the powers presiding over our existence are greater than our own designs, and to submit to their control as our deepest good’.

14. The child’s ending is revealed in the beginning.

15. The child is best revealed as a child of God. So Rahner:

… the childhood which belongs to the child in the biological sense is only the beginning, the prelude, the foretaste and the promise of this other childhood, which is the childhood proved and tested and at the same time assailed, which is present in the mature man. In other words we must take childhood in this latter sense as the true and proper childhood, the fulness of that former childhood, the childhood of immaturity.

But once we perceive the unity which exists between the childhood that comes at the beginning of our lives and the mature childhood, and once we realise the light which each throws upon the other, then it easily becomes clear that childhood in itself, and even at the human level, entails an orientation to God, that it achieves perfection in that relationship which we call being a child of God, that it is not merely a question of a metaphor, the transference of a word from one objective situation to another similar one, in which the comparison is merely secondary and incidental. Here it is rather the reality of childhood in the human sense that is ‘transferred’ into childhood in the divine sense. For if childhood (and this applies to childhood in the human sense as well) is openness, is trustful submission to control by another, the courage to allow fresh horizons, ever new and ever wider, to be opened up before one, a readiness to journey into the untried and the untested (and all this with that deep elemental and ultimate trust which seems inexhaustible in its endurance, the trust which the sceptics and those who have made shipwreck of their lives bitterly describe as ‘naïve’) then in all this that transcendence of faith, hope and love in which the ultimate essence of the basic act of religion precisely consists is already ipso facto an achieved and present fact …

Childhood is openness. Human childhood is infinite openness. The mature childhood of the adult is the attitude in which we bravely and trustfully maintain an infinite openness in all circumstances and despite the experiences of life which seem to invite us to close ourselves. Such openness, infinite and maintained in all circumstances, yet put into practice in the actual manner in which we live our lives, is the expression of man’s religious existence.

Rahner’s essay raises questions about the trinitarian shape of Christian anthropology – that human personhood can be ‘understood’ only insofar as we speak of the dynamic and perichoretic life of God – i.e. of Father, Son and Spirit in their giving and receiving, and in their perfect unity. And so Rahner talks not only about divine Fatherhood – that childhood takes its meaning and raison d’être from the Fatherhood of God, and that maturity means growing into fuller realisation of our being children of the Father – but also about the fact that human being is grounded in the sonship of the Son:

… all childhood in heaven and on earth derives its name and its origin from that one childhood in which the Logos itself receives its own nature in the act of eternal generation by the Father, in which we ourselves are admitted by grace to become participants in this self-bestowal of the Father upon the Logos and so have a share in the divine nature … Childhood is only truly understood, only realises the ultimate depths of its own nature, when it is seen as based upon the foundation of childhood of God. And when we really want to know what the real connection is between human childhood and childhood of God, then we need to commit ourselves to the infinite depths and power of that transcendental movement which is latent in human childhood itself, and allow ourselves to be projected from this into that which is enjoined upon us in the Christian teaching about the Father in heaven, and about men who have received the grace from the life of God himself to be children of God and brothers and sisters of one another.

william-adolphe-bouguereau-a-childhood-idyll-1900Rahner fails (in this essay) to go on and develop the pneumatalogical dimensions of childhood – and of human being – though this final sentence at least hints of the communality of personhood, that one’s identity is ontologically bound up with that of the other, a reality only truly possible in the Spirit.

One of Rahner’s most pastorally potent claims, however, is his insistence that we do not lose or leave behind our childhood; rather, our childhood goes with us into our eternity:

Childhood endures as that which is given and abiding, the time that has been accepted and lived through freely. Childhood does not constitute past time, time that has eroded away, but rather that which remains, that which is coming to meet us as an intrinsic element in the single and enduring completeness of the time of our existence considered as a unity, that which we call the eternity of man as saved and redeemed. We do not lose childhood as that which recedes ever further into our past, that which remains behind as we advance forward in time, but rather we go towards it as that which has been achieved in time and redeemed forever in time. We only become the children whom we were because we gather up time – and in this our childhood too – into our eternity.