Karl Rahner is inscrutable. Like all the midcentury Germans, reading him is equivalent to walking through muddy pit. As fast as you’d like to go, you can go no faster than the prose will allow, and Rahner’s infamous multi-clause paragraphic sentences force you to take your time. This would be fine and dandy on its own. Unfortunately, Rahner makes extensive use of terminology born in the continental philosophy of Heidegger and Friends, which forces even the most voracious readers of philosophy and theology to take their time reading him.
All of which makes Brandon Peterson’s Being Salvation: Atonement and Soteriology in the Theology of Karl Rahner such a delight. Peterson writes with such clarity and depth of insight that you may even begin to doubt your facility with the English language. How could you miss these features? Or, how is Peterson able to so simply spell them out? The infamously opaque Rahner is opened up, and prominent contours of his project are distilled.
One often neglected aspect of Rahner’s work that Peterson draws out is Rahner’s absolute reliance on the Jesuit tradition. Frequently misrepresented as a baptizer of philosophical discourse, Rahner was in truth deeply committed to Ignatian spirituality, and Peterson demonstrates the centrality of this spirituality quite adequately–not merely as a stand-alone trivium but as an explanatory characteristic of Rahner’s work in toto.
Being Salvation is concerned chiefly with Rahner’s take on soteriology, the doctrine of salvation. To get there, Peterson establishes the fundamental importance of Ignatian spirituality and disentangles Rahner’s notion of “Realsymbole” (symbolic realities) from our vernacular use of “symbol” as well as the more theologically-oriented notion of “Vertretungssymbole” (symbolic representations). Whereas the one is an intrinsic, self-expressive mediation of one’s “very presence,” the other is extrinsic and arbitrary. In understanding the Logos as the Realsymbol of the Father, Rahner understands Jesus not merely as a happenstance revelation of the Father but the “very presence” of god among people; there could be no other mediation, in other words.
One interesting extension of this argument, which Rahner makes, is that inasmuch as the Father’s Realsymbol is the Logos, the Logos’s Realsymbol is the Church, and the Church’s Realsymbole are the sacraments–baptism, communion, marriage, etc. These each mediate the “very presence” of their realsymbolisch counterpart. Of course, such line of argumentation may very well be the reason this work is warranted, as Protestants tend to accuse Rahner of understanding the Logos as a “mere symbol” of god rather than a “symbolic reality,” the distinction between which is blurred in part thanks to Protestant conceptions of the symbolic nature of the communion elements.
Nevertheless, that Jesus mediates the very presence of god on earth is central to Rahner’s soteriological account. Rahner rejects substitutionary models of atonement/salvation in favor of representative models, which he developed from his work in the patristics. Borrowing extensively from Irenaeus (specifically, his account of recapitulation), Rahner works from three basic principles to articulate his representative soteriology:
- Christ represents his people to god. Corollary: we reciprocate through participation in Christ. The account Rahner gives seems to suggest that all people are god’s people; such would be an interesting concept.
- Christ represents god to the world. He does this through two mechanisms:
- Eternal mediation–in Rahner’s words, “The ‘heaven’ to which the saved attain is not a pre-existing place or even state, but a reality which comes into being with Christ’s own resurrection, for he is himself salvation’s content, god made present to creation.” The Logos is and has always been the Realsymbol of the Father, and as such is “god made present to creation.”
- Basileia–Jesus Christ is the manifestation, instantiation, ground, potentiality, and actuality of god’s kingdom on earth. There is no other realm for it; it exists purely in and through the Messiah.
- Salvation exists constitutively (rather than merely normatively) in the person of Jesus. Without Jesus, there can be no salvation. Jesus as the mediation of the “very presence” of god serves as the only possible means through which god’s presence could be manifest in the world, which is to say salvation.
Rahner’s corpus is certainly not an easy one to tackle. Peterson’s Being Salvation, however, provides a helpful scaffolding for students. Peterson dismisses Balthasar’s critiques of Rahner and, over the course of the book, illuminates some of the more difficult aspects of Rahner’s thought. I look forward to jumping back into Rahner’s work with Being Salvation under my belt.
I received a complimentary edition of this work in exchange for an honest review.