Chapter Six: Jesus Christ

Part 10: Jesus Christ in Non-Christian Religions

(VI.10, p. 311). Jesus is limited in time and space, Rahner says. Non-Christians find it scandalous when Christians claim that Jesus has universal salvific significance for all times and peoples. Rahner takes up this question from the view of dogmatic theology. He asks how the Christian theologian (rather than the historian of religion) is to understand the significance of Jesus Christ for all people (A). He presupposes God's salvific will for all people and the positive role played by non-Christian religions (B). Making his question narrower, Rahner then asks how Christ is "present" in the faith of non-Christians (C). Christ is present through his Spirit, the very Spirit who was the "efficient cause" of Christ's incarnation and cross, so that Christ himself might be the "final cause" of God's self-communication to humanity. Just as the two causes are united, so the explicit Christology of Christians is united with the implicit Christology of the non-Christian responding to God's transcendental call (D). All humanity, insofar as it seeks an absolute saviour, embodies a "searching Christology" (E). This searching memory articulates itself in the many "saviours" sought and found by humanity throughout its history. All of them express a hunger for the absolute saviour we encounter in Jesus Christ.

A. The Question Within the Limits of a Dogmatic Reflection (VI.10.A, p. 312). A history of religion looks at Jesus Christ in an “a posteriori” fashion – namely, from the viewpoint of history. In that history, Jesus Christ is not the only religious figure of universal significance. The Christian dogmatic theologian, by contrast, looks at Jesus Christ in an “a priori” fashion. The dogmatic theologian looks from the viewpoint of those binding sources of faith (the OT and NT) that arose without immediate contact with most non-Christian religions. Such a dogmatic theologian begins with the testimony of Christ’s universal significance.

Given this significance, it is a fair question to ask how Christ is salvific for all. In asking this question, the Christian presupposes that non-Christians are people of good will. Their own religious beliefs testify to their good will, and God's Word may be at work in those beliefs themselves. If Christ has significance for the entire history of salvation, says the Christian, then his significance must have a place where human beings have an explicitly religious, but non-Christian, faith.

B. Two Presuppositions (VI.10.B, p. 313). In order to describe the role of Christ in non-Christian religions from a dogmatic theological standpoint, Rahner presupposes two things. First, God has a universal and salvific will that is present in the world. One sees a testimony to this universal and salvific will in the Letter to the Hebrews. Rahner treated this point in Chapter V (p. 153 ff.). There he speaks of the possibility of a genuine history of revelation outside the OT and the NT. Here he speaks of the elevation of human transcendental experience in grace. He says that this elevated transcendental experience, along with the supernatural object of that experience, are indeed supernatural revelation.

But does the notion of transcendental revelation in non-Christians actually "reach" Christ? That is what Rahner asks here. If the non-Christian's experience does not "reach" Christ, then his or her faith lacks a Christological character. But if it does reach Christ, if it does have a Christological character, then non-Christian religions may well have a positive significance, even for Christians. That is Rahner's first presupposition.

The second presupposition is that, when a non-Christian attains salvation in faith, hope, and love, then the non-Christian religion plays a role in his or her justification and salvation. If this were not the case, if the non-Christian religion had no significance, then we would be guilty of viewing salvation in an a-historical and a-social way. To postulate special revelations is arbitrary and improbable. The human being is social, and his or her decisions are mediated by social and historical life. The decision to respond to God's call to transcendence must be mediated by the non-Christian religion.

Dei Verbum 3 passes over the interval between Adam and Moses "too quickly," says Rahner. He suggests that the religions of this vast and ancient period kept alive "man's relationship to the mystery of existence" (315). To be sure, the ancient religions may have kept alive the transcendental relationship in an incomplete and possibly depraved way. But they did play a role in the history of salvation. We cannot do justice to these ancient religions, for we do not know much about them. But we may suppose that they might have had a positive function.

C. Christ and Non-Christian Religions (VI.10.C, p. 315). The two presuppositions – namely, that of God’s salvific will and that of the positive role played by non-Christian religions – prepare the way for Rahner’s next question. How, he asks, is Christ present in non-Christian religions from the viewpoint of dogmatic theology? How is Jesus Christ operative in the faith of individual non-Christians? To that question, says Rahner, he will confine himself. A broader question, how Christ is present in the religions themselves, is a topic for historians of religion.

D. The Presence of Christ in the Holy Spirit (VI.10.D, p. 316). Rahner begins this highly compressed section by asserting his thesis. It is that Christ is present in non-Christian believers by means of his Spirit. Even traditional dogmatic theology would affirm that the Spirit of grace and justification, present in the non-Christian, is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, the Spirit who proceeds from the Father and the Son. This Spirit is present, according to Christian tradition, “in view of the merits of Christ” (316).

Then Rahner proceeds to point out the two difficulties which this thesis entails. First, he says, the whole question of Christ's merits can be misinterpreted. People can mistakenly believe that Christ's death changed the supposedly immutable will of God.

Second, there is even a problem when one retreats from the theory that Christ's death "influenced" God. The supposedly easier claim is that the sufferings of Christ are connected with the grace of the Spirit, as in our prayers of petition. We say that the prayer of petition does not "cause" God to hear us, but is rather "the moral cause of the reality which is given by God in hearing it" (317). This is problematic, because the moral cause is later than the effect. In other words, our prayer comes after God has created a world in which creatures communicate with God. Who would pray for a reality, Rahner asks, which has already taken place?

After laying out the two difficulties, Rahner answers them. He says that incarnation and cross are the "final cause" of God's self-communication. They are the final cause of what we name the Spirit, the Spirit which proceeds from Father and Son. Incarnation and cross are "causes" (see p. 283) in the sense that they have as their goal or entelechy the communication of Spirit. In the incarnation and the cross, the communication of the Spirit becomes tangible and irreversible. So the event of Christ is the final cause of the communication of Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus Christ. This Spirit is intrinsically related to Christ. Their intrinsic relation must be distinguished from extrinsic relations, as if Christ were not essential, as if the relation were merely an intention of God which transcends the world and history.

Of course, says Rahner, the opposite is also true. Spirit is the efficient cause of incarnation and cross. Final and efficient causes are united if distinguishable. The goal of Spirit (the cause of incarnation and cross) is an "intrinsic entelechy" or goal. Spirit is the efficient cause of the Christ Event. The justifying faith brought by the Spirit comes to be in the Spirit of Jesus Christ, which is the final cause. Christ is present, by means of his Spirit, in all faiths.

E. The Searching "Memory" of All Faith Is Directed Towards the Absolute Saviour (VI.10.E, p. 318). The faith of all religions, insofar as it is a faith brought by the Spirit of God, is a justifying faith. It justifies in that it enables the believer to participate in the justice to which God invites everyone. This justifying faith, says Rahner, is “the searching memory of the absolute saviour” (318). It is a searching memory in the sense of the Platonic anamnesis or the Augustinian memoria. Although the non-Christian cannot be said to explicitly remember Jesus Christ, he or she has had a transcendental experience of hearing God’s Word and responding to it. So the inexplicit memory of every person who has responded to God’s transcendental call is a memory of God’s Word, a memory of the absolute saviour, Jesus Christ.

What does it mean to call this memory a "searching" memory? Rahner answers in this way: "We can find and retain something which encounters man in history only if there is present in the finding and retaining subjectivity of man an a priori principle of expectation, of searching, of hoping" (319). It is memory because it causes us to expect something. We have been given reason to expect that the God who calls us may have called another who responded to God's call in the fullest possible way.

Rahner develops this in yet another way. He says that there is something in the structure of history itself which enables persons to realize that their free decisions shape history. In their decisions, they move the course of history from a contemplation of mere possibilities to the actualization of something final and definitive. The structure of history invites us to search history for an event in which the salvation has become tangible. What memory anticipates is the absolute saviour.

F. The Question about the Concrete History of Religion (VI.10.F, p. 321). Can we demonstrate the existence of a “searching memory” in mythology or history? This is a question for the historian of religion. The historian can show how humanity’s searching memory for an absolute saviour has been projected on historical figures (for example, the “divine” Caesars or Alexander the Great), who are then acknowledged as saviours. Dogmatic theology can recognize that human beings in their search for an absolute saviour create such saviour figures.

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