Rahner on Original Sin

Karl Rahner by Letizia Mancino Cremer
(c) Letizia Mancino Cremer

Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner first published his landmark systematic work, Foundations of Christian Faith: an Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, in 1976. Although the title may seem to indicate that the material is simple or easily accessible, Rahner draws on every aspect of his German Catholic heritage to write it, which is to say that this is not a book for somebody who hasn’t dealt extensively with continental philosophy or Catholic theology. He sets out to articulate many of the basic features of Christian theology, beginning with man in his transcendental subjectivity, freedom, guilt, and the like. Perhaps spurred on by the recent interest of Bobby Grow, one of my long-time follows, in the doctrine of sin–I found Rahner’s treatment of “original sin” unique and worth considering.

Rahner posits that everybody acknowledges that the world in some manner exists in a state of disrepair. However, the Christian perspective on this disrepair isn’t identical with other views. He writes about “the pessimism of Christianity”:  that although all are touched by sin and although most do attempt to alleviate “this situation of guilt,” all our virtuous acts are tainted by guilt, and yet Christianity’s “radical realism” concerning the fundamental state of humanity promotes “the best service” for creating better people, societies, etc.:

But this human experience, which is really quite obvious, is prevented from becoming innocuous by the message of Christianity and its assertion that this co-determination of the situation of every person by the  guilt of others is something universal, permanent, and therefore also original. There are no islands for the individual person whose nature does not already bear the stamp of the guilt of others, directly or indirectly, from close or from afar. And although this is an asymptotic ideal, there is for the human race in its concrete history no real possibility of ever overcoming once and for all this determination of the situation of freedom by guilt. Throughout its history the human race can indeed, and always will strive anew to alter this situation of guilt, and even do this with very real successes and as an obligation, so that to neglect this obligation would itself be radical guilt before God. But according to the teaching of Christianity this striving will always remain co-determined by guilt, and even a person’s most ideal, most moral act of freedom enters tragically into the concrete in an appearance which, because co-determined by guilt, is also the appearance of its opposite.

By rejecting an idealistic as well as a communistic optimism about the future, Christianity believes not only that it is giving witness to the truth, but also that it is performing the best service for a “better world” here and now. It believes that it has offered the world adequate moral imperatives and obligations extending all the way to responsibility before God and to the risk of eternal guilt. It believes that its historical pessimism is also the best service towards improving the world here and now, because the Utopian idea that a world functioning in perfect harmony can be created by man himself only leads inevitably to still greater violence and greater cruelty than those which man wants to eradicate from the world. Such a pessimism, of course, can become the excuse for not doing anything, for offering people the consolation of eternal life, and really for offering a religious attitude not only as the opiate of the people, but also as an opiate for the people. But this does not alter the fact that the radical realism which comes to expression in the pessimism of Christianity as we have formulated it with respect to the situation of our freedom is true, and that therefore it may not be disguised.[1]

He goes on to suggest that the original sin is rooted at heart in “a rejection of God’s absolute offer of himself in an absolute self-communication of his divine life.” He distinguishes this with the view that original sin was a rejection of a “divine law within the horizon of God himself.” Because we ourselves have an apprehension of our own guilt, and because we can reasonably infer that all those around us are also guilty, we are forced to the view that there was an original instance of freedom awry, for otherwise the current environment of universal guilt is inexplicable. Furthermore, the character of our present guilt “must be measured by the theological essence” of our original sin–the rejection of god’s “absolute offer of himself.” Note below:

What is specific about the Christian doctrine of original sin consists in two things:

  1. The determination of our own situation by guilt is an element within the history of the freedom of the human race, an element which is imbedded in its beginning, because otherwise the universality of this determination of the situation of freedom and of the history of the freedom of all men by guilt is not explained.
  2. The depths of this determination by guilt, which determines the realm of freedom and not freedom as such immediately, must be measured by the theological essence of the sin in which this co-determination of the human situation by guilt has its origins.

If this personal guilt at the beginning of the history of the human race is a rejection of God’s absolute offer of himself in an absolute self-communication of his divine life …, then the consequences as a determination of our situation by guilt are different than they would be if it had merely been the free rejection of a divine law within the horizon of God himself. This divine self-communication, which is called the grace of justification, is what is most radical and most deep in the existential situation of human freedom. As divine grace it lies prior to freedom as the condition of possibility for freedom’s concrete action. Self-communication of the absolutely holy God designates a quality sanctifying man prior to his free and good decision. Therefore the loss of such a sanctifying self-communication assumes the character of something which should not be, and is not merely a diminishing of the possibilities of freedom as can otherwise be the case in the instance of a ‘hereditary defect.’[2]

Rahner’s note that god’s (holy) self-communication was “prior to [Adam’s] free and good decision” makes the first sin a far more serious matter than it would otherwise have been. By rejecting god and not simply a command of god, man suffers on an ontological rather than merely experiential level. Of course, one has to wonder the degree to which one can drive a wedge between god’s self-communication and god’s “divine law.” In the degree to which “do not eat” reflects and comes from god-in-himself, god in his essence–it seems as though to reject that law would be to reject god. It remains to be seen if Rahner clarifies this point further in the work.

In any event, Rahner continues, articulating a brief positive account of the original sin:

Original sin, therefore, expresses nothing else but the historical origin of the present, universal and ineradicable situation of our freedom as co-determined by guilt, and this insofar as this situation has a history in which, because of the universal determination of this history by guilt, God’s self-communication in grace comes to man not from ‘Adam,’ not from the beginning of the human race, but from the goal of this history, from the God-Man Jesus Christ.[3]

For Rahner, the doctrine is an explanation of the current state of affairs–indeed, the only adequate explanation for our “universal and ineradicable” position. However, and this point seems to be muddled a bit by the grammar–Rahner argues that original sin cannot be an explanation for our present situation unless it is that “God’s self communication in grace comes to man … from the goal of this history, from the God-Man Jesus Christ.” He seems to suggest that our descent into freedom to choose absurdity is explicable only by virtue of its resolution in time–by the Epiphany, by the Incarnation. The historical origin of sin works toward the “self-communication in grace” of God-in-flesh, without which it’s meaningless and properly absurd.


[1] Rahner, Karl. Foundations of Christian Faith: an Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. Trans. William V. Dych. Seabury Press: New York, 1978. 109 – 110

[2]112 – 113

[3] 114

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Pannenberg on Secularization and Orientation

In 1988, German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg published a fascinating and brief study that traced the concept of “secularization” and the Christian faith’s changing relationship to a world becoming increasingly “secular.” He intended to critique secularization as such with the hope of “a new definition of the relationship between religion and society. But for that reason it need not just be seen as an expression of mere nostalgia or of a conservative disposition.”[1] Which is to say that Pannenberg’s critiques are not reducible to a mere “good ol’ days” narrative–when society was more or less “Christianized,” an idealized vision of the past that almost certainly never broached reality. I touch on that idea briefly here, if you would like a more cogent argument to that point.

Pannenberg puts forward a few consequences of secularization that deserve critique, which in turn raise a few questions of their own. Although the scholar wrote for his culture specifically, i.e. late twentieth-century Germany and Europe, the critique holds for a similar process that has been underway in the United States nearly since its inception. Cone addresses this from another angle when he writes that “[t]here was the temptation to let economics, rather than religion, determine one’s actions.”[2] For Cone, two competing narratives–a gospel in which all men are equal and a proto-capitalism in which all men are expendable–coalesce to form the substratum on which American culture was built. Pannenberg’s section is quoted below:

[Secular society and culture’s] great defect, to which Berger has constantly referred, is the loss of any meaningful focus of commitment in the spheres of public culture and private life. In former cultures a meaningful focus of commitment was provided by religion. The loss of such a focus as a result of the detachment of public culture from ties to a particular form of religion initially brought individuals great freedom and thus also introduced a phase of cultural flowering. However, this cultural flowering in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still lived on the aftermath of the cultural tradition, the basic elements of which were all present, even though the age itself had diverged from its norms. In advanced secular society, the presence of these basic elements has faded in human consciousness. That applies not only to Christianity but also to the legacy of antiquity and its influence on European culture. True, information about these elements is still available, but as a culture to be consumed, along with a variety of other items on offer. Whether to make use of them is left to individual preference, especially as the education system no longer presents them as being binding. The arbitrariness of the consumption of culture destroys any sense of the binding nature of the cultural tradition and especially the religious tradition. But people need to be oriented on that which gives binding meaning. Erich Fromm has spoken of the need for a referential framework to provide orientation on the world, and along with this of the need for respect towards the sources and vehicles of such an orientation. Without such an orientation that is binding on the individual everything can become a matter of indifference. And in that case hopelessness and feelings of alienation spread under cover of succumbing to the pressures of the consumer society.[3]

What one ought to note immediately is that Pannenberg does not attribute this sense of loss simply to a cultural abrogation of Christian roots, although that is included. Such a simplistic account will not do. He cites also “the legacy of antiquity,” which ought to recall individuals such as Aristotle, Cicero, and the like. However, a “religious tradition” stands at the forefront of his analysis, and this is likely because of the demands that religion places on its adherents, the “focus of commitment”–especially when such a religion is diffused broadly through a culture. This sort of religion, further, draws individuals into a communal life that a purely secular association (that is, until it itself becomes a kind of sacred association) cannot accomplish. By uniting a society in a mostly shared vision, and by providing a community and a common set of rituals, a religious tradition offers an interpretative grid that often functions more subliminally than consciously. One mischaracterizes Pannenberg if they attribute a base traditionalism to this critique. He welcomes the opportunity to reimagine the place of the church in a new diaspora, prefiguring the present ventures of James K.A. Smith and Rod Dreher.

Nevertheless, the vestiges of the former foundation continue to recede into the background while losing their “binding,” normative force for most individuals, except those who consciously choose to embrace the old ways. It would be foolish to suggest that one could simply retrieve the antiquated ethos and replant it in our present time. It must be rejiggered to some degree, if only because the Christian “orientation” no longer serves as the major interpretative grid for most. Part of such a recovery would necessarily entail, by Fromm’s addition to Pannenberg’s critique, a parallel reconstruction of “respect towards the sources and vehicles” of that orientation. In practice, reconstructing this respect involves re-centering the church-as-holy-fellowship in the lives of Christians, suggesting two things:

  1. The church as holy place, which functions as the locale for sacramental practice. These sacraments instruct their practitioners cognitively, affectively, and manually.
  2. The church as fellowship, which identifies this collection of people as especially my people. “These are my people” provides a concrete place in a bifurcating society–and also an orientation.

Which brings us to our final point. Pannenberg’s emphasis here is certainly on the individual’s response to secularization. Little attention is paid to how the collective functions when a society has lost its moorings. In the absence of a positive vision provided by the church, society seems to have shifted towards claiming a negative vision, in which (almost) all are free to pursue whatever end they wish without an overarching good or telos for the whole of society. Not to suggest that modern liberal societies are libertarian utopias, but on both the left and the right[4] an emphasis has grown in recent years to let certain groups (usually my group rather than your group) live as they would like, without interference. Whether this involves choosing for whom you would like to bake a cake or choosing for yourself what kind of bathroom you would like to use, a narrative has popped up concerning this freedom of choice.

Without denigrating that narrative,[5] it does fill a vacuum created by the loss of an ostensibly majority-Christian culture. Even though most Americans at any one time have not been practitioners of the faith, there was to some degree a general self-understanding of this being a religious, perhaps even Christian, nation, and that self-understanding permeated the institutions and provided a glimmer of a shared vision to those even outside the religious organizations. As secularization continued further into the churches, what one witnessed among Protestant bodies especially was either a capitulation into secular culture or a total entrenchment against it. In recent decades, movements have sprouted among evangelical circles that seek to correct both impulses. To what degree they are successful depends in large part on their defined ends, but the notion that the sacred has a responsibility to the secular has grown. Talk of “mission” and “vocation” as Christian duties to the world exemplifies this quality as well. In the degree to which Smith’s critique of Dreher’s Benedict Option is fair,[6] I would have to agree that a retreat from the culture would be neither prudent nor wise. The suggestion that the historically marginalized church should cower in the face of increasing pluralism doesn’t seem correct. Rather, one should find much to like in Moore’s conception of the church as a prophetic minority, challenging injustice and abuses of power. Perhaps it would be more pertinent to suggest that the church act as a gadfly, constantly calling the world to account and exhorting it to be better than it is with a view toward the coming Kingdom.

It’s unlikely that the church will reclaim a fundamental, normative voice for the broad swath of Western, particularly American, culture. What must be reclaimed, however, is the church’s fundamental position for the broad swath of Western Christians. It must become again that place where communal bonds are formed and strengthened; where an orientation to the world is fostered; and where individuals find their place in the world. Only when her own members are united in a shared purpose can the church hope to enter its local community, and national conversation, with a voice to be heeded. And only from that position can the church hope to exercise her commission faithfully.


[1] Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Christianity in a Secularized World. Translated by John Bowden (New York: Crossroad, 1989), ix.

[2] Cone, James H. Black Theology and Black Power. New York: the Seabury Press, 1969. That is to say, whereas many of the early American settlers did come in search of religious freedom, many others (and many of those who did come for religious freedom) capitulated to an anti-gospel anthropology that permitted slavery.

[3] Pannenberg, 32 – 33.

[4] Convenient shorthand for mainstream democratic and republican platforms. Acknowledged that democrats are not particularly “left.”

[5] Indeed, there’s much to applaud about a free and open society. The problem today is that choice is entirely politicized such that one’s choice must by necessity be at the expense of another’s, or so the argument goes. In any event, I don’t intend to articulate much beyond this point. This is a very complicated matter and beyond my purview.

[6] Without having read Dreher’s work, I cannot comment on its veracity. However, for what it’s worth, Dreher and Smith have had a recent public spat, and here is Dreher’s response to Smith’s Washington Post editorial criticizing the work. Make of it what you will.

In Defense of the Loaf and the Cup

The Eucharist, Communion, the Lord’s Supper—however you refer to it, the communal celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ through the bread and the wine has been one of the central aspects of Christian worship since the first days of the church. As early as 1 Corinthians, we have textual evidence concerning normative and aberrant practice of the κυριακον δεῖπνον.[1] The prominence of place given to this practice seems to far outweigh the other rituals of the early church, which points to the importance of this particular sacrament as well as to its potential for being abused.

It’s no secret that Christians—especially in the West—have crafted a fair number of theologies and practices of Communion. In fact, the different titles given to the tradition reflect this. I won’t spend any time delineating the differences between these various streams. A quick google search will alleviate your curiosity. However, the current practice of evangelical, mostly non-denominational churches, in which the wine is grape juice and the elements are individualized,[2] is so out of step with ancient, apostolic practice that Jesus likely would have given the side-eye to these pragmatic teetotalers who thought the received tradition just wasn’t good enough.

Irrespective of the spiritual realities granted (or denied) to the elements of Communion, how one practices the sacrament speaks just as loudly (if not more so) to the congregation than any sermon or series of sermons. Practice whispers to the soul in a way that rhetoric cannot. The laity can look at how a church goes about fulfilling the mandate to practice a “Lord’s Supper” and discern as much about its relative importance to the leaders as any theologian. Relegating Communion to a service that occurs separately from the ordinary Sunday worship, or hosting it for the congregation only once per quarter, whispers that it does not pertain to day-to-day Christian praxis nearly as much as regular preaching, worship, and fellowship. Whether or not this is the case, whether or not Communion is far outstripped by other means of grace—this kind of scheduling is at a serious dissonance with the regular practice of “bread-breaking” that the earliest churches exemplified[3] and abused.[4]

Scheduling aside, how the church presents the elements communicates additional propositions to the congregation. I have attended Mass where the priest comes to the people and places a wafer on their tongues, and everybody shares wine from the same goblet. I have attended Sunday worship where the members of the congregation all share from the same loaves of bread and from the same glasses of juice and wine. I have attended worship services where the elements come in individual pre-packaged, vacuum-sealed containers.

What does this final praxis communicate to the participants? It would be hard to argue with the notion that such a giving of the elements engenders a sense of one’s standing alone before god. When these grotesque packages are coupled with sermons and music centered on one’s inadequacy and forlornness before the face of god, the attitude is unmistakable—one partakes of Christ’s death alone and without comrade. However, this steady drumbeat of spiritual forsakenness runs counter to the general sense of jocund community and felicitous fellowship that runs through the New Testament. Bonhoeffer gets at this idea of communal supping when he wrote, “In the Lord’s Supper the church-community manifests itself purely … as a community confessing its faith, and is summoned and recognized by God as such.”[5] The liturgical call of “This is the body of Christ; this is the blood of Christ” to the response of “Thanks be to god” functions not merely as a private moment of reflection but as the church’s public testimony that this sacrament is our faith, and we are “summoned and recognized by God” on this account.

It is quite true that one comes to god out of the darkness of sin alone and without companion, much like how the man and the woman are compelled to stand before god in the garden and account for their own sin—apart from their partner’s contribution.[6] However, once one has come into this community, one no longer confronts god on her own account. At the very least, Christ whom she ingests or recalls in the wine and the bread accompanies her. As well, the church members who share the loaf and the cup and all who have made this confession throughout time accompany those that partake of this sacred tradition.

One may find that, as a church becomes larger, it becomes increasingly more difficult to retain the “authentic sense” of Communion that those pre-packaged elements excoriate. However, this would again point to a problem of the relative place of importance that one grants to Communion specifically and to Sunday worship generally. Where the regular gathering of the people of god as the people of god is treated with contempt, of course one ought to expect that Communion would be given a curt and unceremonious departure from weekly worship. When Sunday worship has become, in essence, an evangelistic opportunity, in which the elements are no more sensible than the waters of baptism—the loaf and cup will be relegated to something non-essential for Christian living.

On the other hand, where a church believes that its Sunday gatherings are for the Christian, one should hope that the regular practice of communal supping would retain a pride of place alongside worship and preaching and fellowship. Indeed, the shared elements and liturgy provoke a sense not merely of shared fellowship between Christian siblings but also between these siblings and their god and father. Rather than a merely horizontal fellowship, one finds a fellowship between both man and god simultaneously and concretely in the loaves and cup from which all have partaken of Christ together. The church that maintains this perspective on Communion will necessarily carve out a space in both its monetary and scheduled budget, spending both time and money on the regular practice of church members breaking bread together to the glory of God.


[1] 1 Corinthians 11.17ff, especially 20

[2] Indebted to the work of Luke Harrington who highlighted the Methodist de-fermentation of wine as well as the invention of individual servings of Christ’s blood and body.

[3] Acts 20.7, et al.

[4] 1 Corinthians 11.17ff

[5] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Sanctorum Communio: a Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. Translated by Joachim Von Soosten. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works. Volume 1. Edited by Wayne Whitson Floyd, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), 247.

[6] Genesis 3.8-13