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An orientation towards humanity and the seemingly mundane problems encountered in the process of living rendered Karl Rahner sensitive towards the hopes and desires of everyday individuals. From the early-to-mid-1960s onwards, doubtless under the influence of actually developing social movements and the mystique of Vatican II, Rahner increasingly coupled his reflections on the production of ever-greater knowledge with considerations on the necessity to bring about ever-growing freedom and autonomy for human beings.[1] ‘Christendom is the religion of the future. It conceives of itself—and it can solely be understood—from the vantage point of the future, which it knows as an absolute future coming towards individual human beings and towards humanity as a whole. [... ] Christian belief is thus the religion of becoming, the religion of history, of self-transcendence, of the future.’[2] Yet this absolute future, the ultimate salvation and the final experience of the state of grace, should not be viewed as a utopian goal which will arrive by itself regardless of human actions in the present. Belief in the coming of the absolute future must be coupled with the striving for a better future in the here and now.

The hope for the absolute future of God, the hope for eschatological salvation, which is nothing other than the absolute God itself, does not legitimate a conservatism which—petrified and petrifying—prefers the safe present over an unknown future; it is not the ‘opium of the people’ which assures a passive attitude vis-a-vis present-day realities, even when reality is full of pain and suffering. It enables and commands the exodus out of the present into the future, notably including a better worldly future, something which can be trusted in and which must be constantly embarked upon.[3]

Improvements within the world we live in and belief in the reality of the ultimate state of grace are intimately related elements that must guide Christian action. ‘Thus, where Christianity means genuine commitment to this world and, at the same time, an affirmation of the absolute future, both necessitating each other, it creatively generates utopia, which criticizes present-day conditions and spurs us on towards a new historical future.’[4] ‘The Kingdom of God will only come to those who are constructing the future worldly kingdom, always utilizing the means given to us within a given historical epoch, and thus changing the overall design continuously.’[5] ‘It is strange that we Christians, who are engaged in the radical attempt to link concrete hope with the intangible absolute future, cast suspicion on ourselves—and are suspected by others—that, for us, the desire to conserve constitutes the fundamental virtue of life.’[6] Instead, it is precisely ‘the hope for the absolute future, which we cannot fashion ourselves, which requires of us an engagement with concrete historical utopia, whose critical spirit makes history restless and moves it forward, thus generating the concrete societal manifestations’ of utopian longing.[7]

It needs no further comment to realize the inspirational value of Rahner’s seemingly esoteric and weltfremd transcendental theology for an activist generation of Christian students and others, who, by the mid-to-late-1960s, were coming into their own and, in a virtuous circle, in turn influenced the further development and radicalization of Catholic theology in the aftermath of Vatican II. The colleague and biographer of Karl Rahner, Herbert Vor- grimmler, repeatedly stressed Rahner’s ‘daring [and] courage to engage in dialogue’[8] or ‘courage to engage with utopia’.[9] Rahner, perhaps more than any other German-speaking theologian active at Vatican II, thus performed a crucial role as intellectual pathfinder to create a situation in which the spirit of Vatican II soon became image, myth, and reality all at the very same time. Given the Zeitgeist of the 1960s and 1970s in particular, it comes as little surprise that some of Rahner’s students soon began to embark on even more unorthodox and non-traditional pathways.

  • [1] The caesura of the mid-sixties as the moment when Rahner’s eschatology of hope takes onever-more concrete contours is stressed by Walter Schmolly, Eschatologische Hoffnung inGeschichte (Innsbruck: Tyrolia, 2001), especially on pp. 261-88.
  • [2] Karl Rahner, ‘Marxistische Utopie und christliche Zukunft’, in Karl Rahner, Schriften zurTheologie, Vol. VI (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1967), p. 78. ‘Absolute future’, for Rahner, denoted theultimate destiny of humanity, the state of grace, utopia or the Kingdom to Come.
  • [3] Karl Rahner, ‘Zur Theologie der Hoffnung’, in Karl Rahner, Schriften zur Theologie,Vol. VIII (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1967), p. 576.
  • [4] Karl Rahner, ‘Die Frage nach der Zukunft’, in Karl Rahner, Schriften zur Theologie, Vol. IX(Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1970), p. 537.
  • [5] Karl Rahner, ‘Christlicher Humanismus’, in Rahner, Schriften, Vol. VIII, p. 256.
  • [6] Rahner, ‘Zur Theologie der Hoffnung’, p. 578.
  • [7] Rahner, ‘Die Frage nach der Zukunft’, p. 538.
  • [8] Herbert Vorgrimmler, Karl Rahner. Gotteserfahrung in Leben und Denken (Darmstadt:Primus, 2004), p. 263.
  • [9] Vorgrimmler, Rahner, p. 235.
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