Chapter Six: Jesus Christ

Part 3: Transcendental Christology

Transcendental Christology is the central concept of Chapter VI. It refers to Jesus as the human being who first entered into a union with God so completely that God finally and irrevocably affirmed Jesus' transcendence. And it refers to Jesus as the one to whom we look for a sign that God's offer of transcendence is real. Rahner begins by overcoming the objection that his Christology substitutes a reflection on Jesus for a relationship with him (A). He then argues that such a transcendental Christology is important to our age because it enables us to distinguish the truth existing within the mythological expressions of Jesus' encounter with God (B). The presupposition is that all human beings are oriented toward this encounter and able to experience it in their concrete lives (C). Finally, Rahner traces the development of transcendental Christology. It springs from our unsatisfied longing for an ever-deeper encounter with God.

A. Some Objections to Transcendental Christology (VI.3.A, p. 206). Some will object that a transcendental Christology cannot supply the lack of a relationship with Jesus Christ. That is as true as to say that a theology cannot supply the lack of faith. One cannot deduce a relationship from a reflection. But there is more to the objection than that. By asking about the difference between Christology and faith, we raise a transcendental question. It is the question of how we can transcend a merely theoretical approach and enter into a more genuine relationship.

Transcendental Christology inquires about how a person can hear God's Word and obey its summons. To be sure, this question is logically prior to an actual relationship with Jesus Christ. There must be the possibility of a relationship before the relationship itself. That is a valid objection to transcendental Christology. But the question of logical priority is misleading. One cannot even understand such a thing as transcendental Christology until one has a concrete relationship with Jesus.

It is true to say that the incarnation is an event of grace. We cannot summon this event by an effort of intellectual speculation. The Christian, however, starts with an experience of a relationship with Christ. Then he or she can ask how the relationship developed. He or she can ask how human nature was “elevated” so as to enjoy the relationship.

B. The Importance of Transcendental Christology in Our Age
(VI.3.B, p. 207). In this brief paragraph, Rahner states that traditional theology lacks a transcendental Christology. Traditional theology may seem to the modern person a merely “mythological” overlay to historical events. In other words, the modern may object that Jesus of Nazareth was “just a man” who was proclaimed Son of God after his death. Transcendental Christology enables us to distinguish between the genuine reality of faith and inadequate interpretations of it. It enables us to say what “Son of God” really means and to distinguish it from mythological images of Jesus, depicted (for example) with a halo.

C. The Presuppositions of Transcendental Christology
(VI.3.C, p. 208). Transcendental Christology presupposes that all human beings are oriented toward and hope for an absolute saviour. Further, it presupposes that the nature of human beings has been elevated by the grace of God’s self-communication. The human being is also, as a spiritual being, open to a dialogue with God. The person can hope for God to offer God’s own self. We cannot say whether this orientation of the human being is due to an “elevated nature” or to his or her own “spiritual subjectivity.” But at any rate, a transcendental Christology presupposes both (1) what is necessary for human transcendence in general as well as (2) the concrete and historically contingent experience of individuals.

D. The Development of a Transcendental Christology
(VI.3.D, p. 208). Transcendental Christology can never be satisfied with merely conventional experiences of Jesus Christ and of the Church. Why not? Because no finite experience can satisfy the human longing for absoluteness and absolute fulfillment. Rahner expands this thesis under five points:

1. Unsatisfied Longing. There is a transcendence for which we all long. We try to represent or mediate transcendence by means of an object, image, or person. In the gap between our longing for transcendence and the mediation of it, we experience God. Another way to express this is to point to the gap between the unity we seek and the plurality we experience.
2. The Experience of Hope. Human beings dare to hope that God cares for them. We see God’s care in experiences which are themselves finite but which enable us to participate in “the infinite itself, in the unity of the fullness of meaning, in a Thou who is absolutely trustworthy” (209). As we reflect on the hope for transcendence, we begin to see that hope itself is a manifestation of the hoped-for encounter with God. Yet we concede that hope is not enough. The hoped-for goal is not yet in our grasp. We may even refuse the goal of hope.
3. Transcendent Promise. Our hope takes place in history. Although we express this hope in words and actions that are finite and contingent, nevertheless the object of hope (the mystery of God) itself never becomes finite. God is revealed as a promise. The promise is not to be fulfilled in our merely human expressions of God. God is also revealed in the event of death. In the presence of death, we still can hope for eternal life – or we can resign ourselves in despair.
4. Historical Promise. Our hope searches in history for God’s promises. These are promises of something final, irreversible, eschatological, promises such as the proclamation of the kingdom of God.
5. Finality of God’s Offer. God’s offer of the divine self can only be made complete to a person who “surrenders the future” in his or her death. By dying, the person reveals a final acceptance of God. God’s offer can only be “final” when the human being accepts it in an irrevocable way.

In summary, Rahner’s development of a transcendental Christology has a limited goal. It cannot create faith by showing that the absolute saviour is found in Jesus of Nazareth. But such a Christology allows the Christian to understand what one has found in Jesus.

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