Rahner’s Basic Stencil
W. H. Marshner
0.0 The following text is a hypothesis as to how the late Karl Rahner, S.J., applied in his theology a certain fixed pattern in construing the mysteries of the Faith. I call this pattern his stencil. Under my hypothesis, certain conceptual moves distinctive of his theology were made so as to put him in a position to apply the stencil. By its repeated applications he was able to impose upon the mysteries both a far-reaching isomorphism and a transcendental meaning. The first and basic application was as follows.
1.0 God gives grace to man and does so on the occasion of s (Sacramental sign). So He has instituted s with the free covenant commitment that, when man poses s, man receives grace. In God’s design, the intended gift (grace) is the cause (reason for) the Sacrament. The gift is the cause of the Sacrament. Call this covenant Cs. As God gathers the Church, s is done by man within Cs as a deed which (a) carries grace in its meaning and so (b) calls for grace to appear; so God infuses grace. The Sacrament is the cause of the gift (and reveals it).
1.1 The bulk of 1.0 is just the standard Jesuit theory of sacramental causality (the theory of “moral causality”). It asks how a Sacrament causes grace in the soul of the recipient. It rejects instrumental causality and answers instead that the Sacrament does not cause grace directly; it only triggers God’s covenant commitment. God’s keeping the covenant is the cause of grace. The “covenant” is thus a device through which the causality of the Sacrament can be reduced to the sign-value of the Sacrament (coram Deo).
1.2 To this alleged truth about what happens in time (in the order of execution), Rahner just prefixed a converse truth about what happens in eternity (in the order of intention). There God intends the end in logical priority over choosing the means. So in eternity, God first willed that grace should exist (and should be communicated on the occasion of a sign) and therefore willed to commit Himself to the covenant of Sacraments. Thus, in eternity, grace is the cause of the Sacraments. I have put all references to the order of intention and the order of execution in parentheses, because Rahner replaced the distinction between these two orders with a distinction between perspectives — God’s perspective coming out of eternity vs. man’s perspective arising in time. With that move in place, the “covenant” became a device for saying that which causes which (does the Sacrament cause grace or vice-versa?) is a matter of perspective.
1.3 Now, to this sacramental theology, Rahner added the Vazquez/Ripalda thesis that, in the actual order of providence, God sees to it that every morally good act of man is accompanied by sufficient grace to make that act a salvific act. The stencil was thus able to be applied again, as follows:
2.0 God gives grace to man and does so on the occasion of m (morally good human act/choice). So God has commanded m with the commitment that, when man poses m, man receives grace. The gift is the cause of the moral act. Call this commitment Cm. So as God sustains man operating, m is posed by man within Cm as a deed which (a) carries grace in its meaning and so (b) calls for grace to appear. So God infuses (and reveals) grace. The moral act is the cause of the gift (and of its revelation in Cs).
2.1 This commanding of m by God is not the revealed law but the natural law, “promulgated” in God’s will that man exist with his nature. This is the standard Suarezian theory of natural law. But with Ripalda’s thesis in place, there is now an isomorphism between m and s, between moral action and Sacrament, as they relate to grace. Each is a “moral cause,” and the involvement of grace in m is revealed in s. Now Rahner added the further thesis that the basic sacrament was the Church herself, whose essential acts were the Seven Sacraments. It followed that the involvement of grace (in mankind’s good activities always and everywhere) is revealed in the Church. The Church is a kind of super-sign, s, which is the sign of mankind’s goodness. But the Church is no more the cause of that graced goodness than the Sacramental sign is the cause of grace: both become “moral causes” and no more, and the direction of the causality remains a matter of perspective.
2.2 From one perspective, God intended to communicate His grace, established Cs to that end, and established Cm for the sake of Cs. In that way Rahner could say that all human goodness was ordered to the Church. But with equal justice he could say the opposite. The cuius gratia ordering of Cm to Cs is matched by an opposite ordering cui, in which Cs is for Cm and the Church is for man (just as the Sabbath was for man, and not man for the Sabbath).
2.3 If the sign-value of human action could be undergirded with a sign-value in man himself, the issue dealt with so far could be made isomorphic with the issue of nature and grace, so as to allow a third application of the stencil.
3.0 God gives grace to man and does so on the occasion of c (man’s having a capacity for it). So in the actual plan, God has created man with c. The gift is the cause of the capacity. Call this plan Cc. As God creates, man exists under Cc with a capacity which (a) carries grace in its meaning and so (b) calls for grace to appear. So God infuses (and reveals) grace. The capacity is the cause of the gift (and of its revelation).
3.1 Rahner construed the actual world or world-plan as the primordial “covenant.” He was thereby able to give his basic stencil, with its ambiguity of causal direction and its tendency to absorb causality into signification, a vastly broader scope of application.
3.2 The capacity to receive grace is called man’s “obediential potency” to grace. So long as this potency is thought of as something over and above man’s sheer nature (like a further, non-natural openness, or a pre-grace, as in the later Blondel) and as something conceptually independent of man’s mere existence (so that man could have existed without it), little harm is done. But Rahner identified this potency either with man’s nature itself (so that obediential potency to grace is what man is) or with his nature’s instantiation in the actual world (so that man qua man is in potency to grace by the very fact that he is “here”). Either way, it followed at once that man in first act (man qua man) stands to grace as a potency stands to its act; but the act to which man-in-first-act is in potency is properly human operation — free human action; hence free human action is grace (and so, of course, man could not be “man alive” without it). The revealed dis-tinction between the natural and the supernatural reduces to the metaphysical distinction between first act (essence actuated as nature) and second act (operation) in a rational creature. Kant had contrasted nature and freedom, and Rahner was christianizing that contrast: God intends man to be free; as God creates, man exists with a nature which (a) carries free action in its meaning and so (b) calls for free action to appear; so God infuses (and reveals) free action.
3.3 In scholastic terms, Rahner’s move amounted to identifying the creation of grace with the divine concursus whereby God supplies the esse reducing a created potency to act. To those who objected that the supernatural order (to which grace belongs) was being confused with the natural order (to which the concursus belongs), Rahner replied that the talk of two such orders appeared only with Cajetan, and that in Thomas himself the opposite of natural action was free action. Hence the free is the supernatural. [In fact, this interpretation of the supernatural was from Scotus, not Thomas.]
3.4 This third application of the stencil clarified the meaning of the second application of it: the “grace” which God always and everywhere provides to every man on the occasion of his positing a morally good action is just exactly the free occurrence of that action. Morally speaking, a “sin” is a betrayal of rational nature by a surrender to drives (necessities) and hence is not an exercise of freedom (but a “free” choice to fail in freedom); only when action breaks away from the automatism of nature (concupiscence) is it morally good, authentically human, and free. Metaphysically speaking, a “sin” is a lack, a falling short of human Existenz, and so does not require (beyond the actuality of man-in-first-act) any surplus actuation (which would be grace and freedom). Now, too, the clarified meaning of the stencil’s first application comes out: the entire sacramental economy is just a sign or symbol of human moral goodness, expressing nothing more startling than the fact that our moral action occurs freely through being. To be sure, it could be said that God freely intended to communicate His grace (divine freedom) to man and established the whole of the present world-plan to that end. The whole world is ordered to grace. But with equal justice (order cui) the opposite can be said, as above. Divine freedom is for the world.
3.5 Thus far, a radical reduction of explicit Christianity — to a symbol-system whose objective reference is to certain transcendental features of human life — has required just three basic moves: the Jesuit “moral causality” of the Sacraments, whereby their causality is absorbed into their signification, the Vazquez-Ripalda thesis about grace, whereby `morally good’ and `salvific’ become materially equivalent predicates of actions, and the Scotist account of the natural as the necessary and the supernatural as the free, whereby `salvific’ and `free’ become equivalent. But what about Christ? Does not the concrete Incarnation in the historical Jesus block any further interpretation of Christianity as signifying merely transcendental states of affairs? Rahner’s Christology turned upon a fourth application of the stencil.
4.0 God communicates Himself to man and does so on the occasion of i (man’s self-transcendence towards God). So in the actual plan God has created a man with i. The gift (divine self-communication) is the cause of the man’s transcendence. Call this plan Ci. As God creates Jesus, a man exists under Ci with a self-transcendence which (a) carries God Himself in its meaning and so (b) calls for God Himself to appear. So God becomes incarnate (and reveals Himself) in Jesus. The man’s transcendence is the cause of the gift (and of its revelation).
4.1 Here Rahner was taking a particular Christological theory (to be explained in a moment) and giving it a dialectical structure, in which God and man were squared off as each other’s “other.” Roughly, they were Infinite Spirit vs. finite spirit. God became His “other” by releasing Himself as the other (the finite), and man became his “other” by opening himself to receive the negation of his finitude. In a moment of synthesis, these two movements (the self-releasing of the Infinite and the self-opening of the finite) were identified.
4.2 The underlying theory upon which this dialectial structure was being imposed was that of Fr. Maurice de la Taille, S.J. La Taille had assimilated the mysteries of grace and the Incarnation, seeing in both a similar metaphysical structure which he called created actuation by Uncreated Act. In the case of grace, the Holy Spirit is the Uncreated Act who, by quasi-formal causality, introduces into the soul a created actuation which is sanctifying grace. In the case of the Incarnation, the Logos is the Uncreated Act who, by quasi-formal causality, introduces into the human nature a created actuation which is esse hominis (the esse of the created nature). The Thomists never accepted La Taille’s theory because they strongly denied that there was any creaturely esse in Christ. But Rahner liked it because it allowed him to make the particularistic mystery of the Incarnation isomorphic with the universalistic mystery of grace; both could be explained by quasi-formal causality, so that one could be just a deeper impression of it than the other. Grace could be to the accidental level (inesse) what incarnation was to the substantial level (esse hominis). Rahner renamed La Taille’s Act and actuation as Form and ultimate disposition to Form.
4.3 Because the human nature of Christ is a created nature, Rahner said that the relation of God-to-man in Christ was a special case of the Creator-to-creature relationship. It represented a unique and unsurpassable degree of this relationship. This move would allow God’s communication of being, of grace, and of Himself to be just three “degrees” of the same thing: divine self-communication. And the three communications could all be transcendental; they could be three “degrees” of esse: common esse, the esse of a free act, and the esse of a man. Thus the stage was set for a fifth application of the stencil, in which incarnation would become isomorphic with creation.
5.0 God communicates Himself (Being) to creatures and does so on the occasion of e (the creature’s self-transcendence towards Being). So in the actual plan, God has let creatures be with e. The gift (divine self-communication) is the cause of the creature’s self-transcendence. Call this plan Ce. As God lets them be, creatures exist under Ce with a self-transcendence which (a) carries God (Being) in its meaning and so (b) calls for God (Being) to appear. So Being appears (and reveals Itself) in creation. The creature’s self-transcendence is the cause of the gift (and of its revelation).
5.1 Once again, Rahner was taking an underlying theory and giving it a dialectical layer. But this time the underlying theory was ontological and already had a dialectical structure of its own; it will be explained in a moment. The dialectical layer added by Rahner contraposed God and the creatable as each other’s “other.” This time they were Being vs. limit. Rahner took essence as such to be a limit; it meant “this much” being and “no more.” Now, what made any being finite was a limit. So what made any being finite was its essence. A limit in itself was nothing; it could have no “being” apart from “limiting” what was other than itself, namely, being. Hence essence as such was other than existence and did not include existence. Thus essence and existence “negated” each other and were each other’s “other.” The Thomistic real distinction had been dialecticized by Rahner, with the following result: God became His “other” by releasing Himself as the other (the limited being), and the creatable (in itself a mere limit, a not-being) became its “other” by opening itself to receive the negation of its negativity (the negation of not-being, being). This dialectic would have been static if finitude had had only one degree. But finitude admitted of many degrees, and so creatures of lower degree could open out to receive “more being” and so ascend to higher degree. From one perspective (eternity), the ascent of the creature was always and everywhere a deeper self-emission from God; but from the other perspective (time), the deeper self-communication of God was always a free action of the creature. In creatures below man, each evolutionary leap forward was a moment of free action (grace) between long periods of fixity (nature). Thus creation and evolution were reconciled in a progressive dialectic culminating in man, the being whose very nature is to go beyond fixity into free action (grace) and in whom each moment of fixity is a fall below his nature (sin). At a metaphysical level, pre-human evolution and human history became isomorphic, so that the latter could be a continuation of the former.
5.2 The underlying ontological theory upon which Rahner imposed this layer was that of Martin Heidegger, which already had a dialectical structure involving “disclosure” (cf. sign-value) and “concealment.” Heidegger had distinguished Being itself (das Sein) from the beings (die Seiende). Each given being was some-thing, while Being itself was nothing. There was thus an “ontological difference” between Being and the beings. As a non-theist, Heidegger had presented Sein as the ground of the Seiende but not as the creator of them. Heidegger’s ontological difference was thus not bridged by any efficient causality ad extra (productive action) but by a more interior and dialectical relationship in which Being “let be” the beings, and the beings brought Being out of concealment (disclosure, truth) even while they also concealed it. Heidegger had insisted that there was, however, a being in which this disclosure of Being became complete. This being was man. By grasping his own being and affirming the truth of the being of beings, man was the being-there of Being (Dasein). Heidegger had also insisted that the world and man were intrinsically historical (Geschichtlich). Being let be and was disclosed in stages, each of which was an emission (Geschick).
5.3 When Rahner took the Incarnation to be (a) a case of quasi-formal causality and (b) a special case of the Creator-to-creature relationship, he opened the way to take creation always and everywhere as a case of quasi-formal causality. Efficiency ad extra would disappear, and the Creator-to-creature relationship would assume the more interior character of Heidegger’s conception, subject to the dialectical structure described above. God/Sein would “let be” creatures/Seiende by releasing Itself as its other, and creatables would come to be (become creatures) by opening themselves to receive the negation of their not-being. The self-release of God and the receiving of the creatable would coincide in the esse of the creature. Every creature’s auto-transcendence would be its being “free” to be (and to be more). As creatures received more esse the world would evolve until a being was reached whose auto-transcendence was towards limitless being. At that point creation would yield its special case: esse hominis (hominization). For man is open (free!) to become anything limitlessly through becoming the other as other (knowledge, as Aristotle had defined it). Thus man is the being in whom Being Itself, which limitlessly becomes the other as other (God creating, as Rahner defined Him), is there. Thus man is in the world as the very presence of Being (as Dasein). So there is nothing left for Christ to be, really, except the one in whom man is “revealed” to himself — the sign of Dasein. Christ just “means” that man consciously transcends himself in freedom.
5.4 This “christology” could be made to seem more adequate by prolonging evolution, with its ontological leaps and emissions, into history. As man progressed through history, man could come to be this presence-of-Being to a higher degree (cf. Voegelin’s leaps-in-being). Then for Christian faith the supreme degree would be the presence-of-Being that was in Jesus. Thus Rahner could make Jesus the supreme self-emission from God precisely by making Him the highest degree of man, who was a higher degree of creaturehood. Even so, the fifth application of the stencil would reveal the hidden meaning of the fourth: any alleged difference in kind between the Incarnate Word and the creature is abolished in favor of a (supreme) difference of degree. This can hardly be surprising since the alleged difference in kind between God and the creature has been abolished and replaced by a difference of degree. Every “creature” is what god is (Being) to a lesser degree.
5.5 Since God and the creature were no longer qualitatively different, and since God no longer produced the creature by efficient causality but communicated Himself by (quasi-)formal causality, letting the creature be (with limit) what He Himself is without limit, the distinction between divine processions ad intra and divine actions/missions ad extra was no longer a hard-and-fast distinction; it, too, was a matter of degree. The procession of the Son, the creation of all things through the Son, and the incarnation of the Son could become three degrees of the same “process” within Being. Then Rahner could say (with hidden depth of meaning), “The economical trinity is the immanent trinity.” For the “Father” could become that logically primordial “moment” of Being in which Being simply possesses Itself (cf. Hegel’s Absolute); the “Son” could become the “moment” of Being in which Being releases Itself to become the other (cf. Hegel’s world as the Absolute becoming), and the “Holy Spirit” could become the “moment” of Being in which Being possesses Itself as Itself even in the other (cf. Hegel’s return of the Absolute to Itself). In such a scheme, every case of creation became a deficient incarnation, because every creature was a deficient man, and every man was a deficient Christ (using his freedom, whenever he used it, to overcome his deficiency). From one perspective, all creation has been a process of creaturely self-transcendence through the Holy Spirit aiming at Christ; but from another perspective, all self-release of Being as Its “other” has been Incarnation aiming at creation. And so we see the final banality of the stencil’s second application: the being of the beings (Heidegger’s Sein) concurs “graciously” in the actions of the being who manifests being (Dasein, man).
5.6 In each of the above applications of the stencil, mention has been made of revelation. Rahner often spoke of revealed things as “guaranteed signs.” Thus many religions speak of God, but the Christian Scriptures and the dogmas of the Church are guaranteed signs. The graced character of authentic human action has many signs, but the Sacraments are guaranteed signs. Man’s self-transcendence has many signs, but Christ is the guaranteed sign, the Word spoken by the Father. As seen above, Rahner made everything in Christianity refer to “mysteries” which were just transcendental banalities. This was in fact his strategy for apologetics (or, as he called it, fundamental theology): in the end, what Christianity claims is profoundly banal, so you may as well believe it. But if this talk of guarantee is worth anything, Christianity would at least be a special, uniquely revelatory, God-protected sign of these banalities. Unhappily, Rahner’s theology of revelation amounts to nothing more than another application of his stencil.
6.0 God gives truth to man on the occasion of r (man’s being ready to receive it). So God has spoken at diverse times and in diverse manners under an economy of revelation in which, when man reaches r, God reveals. The revelation is the cause of the readiness. Call this economy Cr. As man’s history unfolds, man within Cr reaches a point of readiness which (a) carries revelation in its meaning and (b) calls for revelation to occur. So God reveals. The readiness is the cause of the revelation.
6.1 Traditional orthodoxy spoke of a God-given message, guaranteed by the infallibility of God Himself, communicated through a series of divinely inspired persons culminating with the Son Incarnate and His apostles. Modernism spoke of an evolving “religious sense” in man, achieving new articulations (new conceptual, propositional forms) in higher cultural settings. Rahner’s stencil allowed these adversary positions to be reconciled as partial truths, each coming from a different perspective. The ambiguity of causal direction in his stencil allowed divine emissions to “cause” human understandings and allowed leaps forward of human understanding to “cause” divine emissions.
6.2 The background to this move was quite simple. Traditional Thomism had said that in God esse and intelligere are identical. Rahner made every creature to be what god is (only less so), and thus he made esse and intelligere identical in every creature. In fact, he defined being (“das Wesen des Seins”) as a primordial unity of being-and-knowing (bei-sich-Sein). This forced him to say that all being is inherently spiritual (so that matter is “frozen spirit”) but also allowed him to say that esse and intellectus agens are identical in man. This allowed every leap of understanding to be a leap of being, and vice-versa, so that the Christian talk of revelation would have nothing to be “about” but the Heideggerian emissions-process, which in turn was just a transcendental (and fanciful) description of the intellectual history of mankind.