Karl Rahner, S.J., (1904-84) and Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88), are in my estimation the two most influential Catholic theologians of the 20th century. Rahner, a German Jesuit priest profoundly influenced by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, spent his life primarily as a teacher and a writer. Holding teaching posts at the University of Innsbruck, from 1937 to 1964, and the Universities of Munich and Münster until his retirement in 1971—along with editing, lecturing and giving retreats—Rahner always worked with pastoral sensitivity and a deep concern for his impact on the life of the church. In addition to writing numerous books, including 23 volumes of collected essays titled Theological Investigations, Rahner also served as a theological consultant at the Second Vatican Council and was named to the Papal Theological Commission in 1969.
The Swiss von Balthasar, who was a Jesuit from 1929 to 1950 and, like Rahner, was heavily influenced by the Spiritual Exercises, left the order (but not the priesthood) to pursue the establishment of a religious community for lay men and women with a person who was one of the most important influences on his life, the medical doctor and mystic Adrienne von Speyr. Although his doctorate was in German literature and philosophy, not theology, Balthasar wrote numerous books in theology, from his writings on the Fathers of the church, Karl Barth and St. Thérèse of Lisieux to his great trilogy, The Glory of the Lord, Theo-Drama and Theo-Logic. He worked primarily as a writer, chaplain, retreat master and publisher. Though he had been under suspicion by Rome for some time, Balthasar was appointed to the Papal Theological Commission in 1967, certainly a sign of his ecclesiastical approval after the Second Vatican Council. He died shortly before he was due to be created a cardinal.
While both men shared theological differences from early on, represented by the Rahnerian-influenced journal Concilium and Balthasar’s founding of Communio: International Catholic Review, there was also mutual admiration and interest in each other’s work, as Werner Löser, S.J., has made clear in an article in America (10/16/99). What I would highlight is the impact of both towering thinkers on the renewal of Catholic theology in the 20th century that was initiated by Henri de Lubac, Yves Congar, Jean Daniélou and Romano Guardini, among others. While Rahner has sometimes been identified with the left-wing element of the church and Balthasar with the right, from a pastoral perspective both theologians go deeper than narrow political labels would imply and can offer helpful insights for mediating the faith in the context of the new evangelization of which Pope John Paul II speaks.
As a high school theology teacher, my own appropriation of Rahner and Balthasar has provided creative ways for attempting both to mediate the Catholic vision of reality to 16- and 17-year-old young men within the present cultural milieu and to locate the reality of grace in their lives. On the one hand, Rahner has provided a useful theological language for addressing the modern unbelief that I often encounter in the classroom. He has helped me locate transcendence, where at first glance I may see only forms of unbelief, atheism, nihilism or scientism. On the other hand, Balthasar has served as a powerful reminder that part of my task in the classroom and on retreats is to communicate the incommunicable—that is, the unique, overwhelming and stunning beauty revealed in the person of Christ.
Recently, after a semester spent introducing my students to the Catholic understanding of faith and reason and a semester of Christology, I asked the students to write an essay entitled, “Who Is Jesus?” One student, whom I will call Michael, wrote:
This year has been the most eye-opening year of my religious life. I was raised in a family who considered themselves Catholic but never really went to church. I went to a Catholic grade school, and all I saw there was meaningless ritual. By the eighth grade I considered myself an atheist. This year, through retreat and junior theology, I began to open my mind to the possibility of God having an active role in my life. Junior theology helped a lot, because it appealed to the logical side of me; it showed me how we can say that the existence of God is reasonable. The junior retreat helped me even more: I learned how to accept that Jesus is love. I see Jesus in my friends, family and nature, and sometimes I am amazed at the amount of love I experience in my life. I am extremely blessed, and without Jesus I would never have known this.
Karl Rahner was deeply concerned with getting “underneath” modern unbelief. Influenced by the Belgian Jesuit philosopher Joseph Maréchal (1878-1944) and the school of thought known as transcendental Thomism, Rahner pointed to God as the mystery within the transcendental experience of the human acts of knowing and loving. For Rahner, human beings are finite creatures structured for the infinite. Every finite act of knowledge and love anticipates the reality of the fullness of being and the fullness of love that is God. Thus, even though a person may not categorically express a belief in the reality of God, it is possible that one may be responding to the grace of God in one’s lived or, if you like, transcendental experience. For Rahner, God is constantly “gracing” the experience of every human being, whether or not one is explicitly aware of this reality.
There are many dangers to this system. Nevertheless, Rahner provides a theological language for thinking through a crucial dimension of Michael’s experience. As far back as his late grade-school years, Michael began to question the faith of his childhood, going so far as to say that he was a professed atheist. Michael also challenged me in class on issues ranging from the divinity of Christ to several of the church’s moral teachings. Are his struggles and questions mere aberrations in his faith journey, or are they springboards for a deeper appropriation of the faith? Maybe they are a little of both. But Rahner has provided a way for me to remain firm in my Christian convictions, while at the same time recognizing that what may at first glance appear to be unbelief among my students may in fact be moments of graced transcendence in their often messy journey of faith.
Balthasar criticized Rahner’s philosophical starting point as being too sympathetic to modernity’s obsession with subjectivity—that is, an emphasis on the subjective experience of individuals. Influenced by Goethe’s account of the objective manifestation of the form in human experience and Karl Barth’s insistence on Jesus Christ as the unique and objective revelation of God, Balthasar expressed discomfort with theological accounts of Jesus that tended to conceive of him as merely the fulfillment of the deepest yearnings of the human heart. Balthasar would certainly not deny that Jesus is the fulfillment of human yearnings. Rather, within this perspective lies the danger of downplaying the objective, unique and astonishing reality that God has sent his own Word to his creatures. Balthasar writes that in the face of the Incarnation the human person “feels not satisfied but awestruck by a love which he never could have hoped to experience.” What Balthasar locates is the aesthetic experience of being overwhelmed by the beauty of Christ.
Yet is that not Michael’s experience on retreat? Here he was not compelled by a rational demonstration of the existence of God. Rather, he experienced firsthand the liberating love of Christ. As he told me later, “I saw my friends and family in a new light and really started to see what love is all about.” Dare I say that Michael was prompted to see his family and friends in “the splendor of light invisible?” The Anglican theologian (and now archbishop of Canterbury) Rowan Williams, in an essay on Balthasar and Rahner, identified Balthasar’s Christ with the Jesus who in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov does not debate the Grand Inquisitor with rational proofs, but manifests his meaning with silence, climaxing in the beauty of a kiss. Michael was prompted to a deeper faith in Jesus by the aesthetic experience of realizing the depth of the love of Christ on a retreat that involved the communio of his peers and faculty members, in the ecclesial context of the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist.
It seems that in the end, Michael has come to a deeper faith through an appeal to both his intellectual and aesthetic patterns of experience. What Michael’s experience highlights is the need in contemporary Catholic catechesis for both the retreat setting and a space where young men and women are presented the teachings of the faith in a clear manner. They must be given room to wrestle critically with their own questions, which may lead to authentic moments of self-transcendence.
As a high school teacher, I am looking for helpful ways to make sense of the faith journey of young adults who are so busy sifting through the marketplace of ideas that is 21st- century American culture. Despite the theological differences between Rahner and Balthasar, both thinkers attempted to understand their faith more deeply and in turn to mediate this faith in a meaningful way to contemporary culture. As a result, they have provided teachers with helpful tools for recognizing the prompting of grace alive in the critical minds of young people and for communicating the power of Jesus Christ to a new generation.