Karl Rahner’s Anthropocentrism

by Eric Daryl Meyer

One unavoidable aspect of attending a Jesuit school is an ever-greater familiarity with the thought of Karl Rahner. While Rahner is not a theological hero or guiding light to me, I am quite glad to have gotten to know him. However, while there is much to appreciate, and much of Rahner’s legacy that has gone unnoticed both by his theological fanclub and by his detractors, I’ve repeatedly found myself coughing at his narrowly anthropocentric approach.

Karl Rahner’s essay “Christology within an Evolutionary View of the World” attempts to reconcile Christology and evolution through a narrative of formal necessities that draws parallels between the two, apparently unrelated (or worse, divergent) story lines. The starting point of this extended narrative is the deep interconnection between consciousness (or “spirit”) and matter in the one world. Rahner reflects on what it must mean that matter has come, through the course of evolution, to become self-aware in very complex ways, and thus self-transcendent—human beings wonder at beauty and grapple with expansive questions about life’s meaning. Because the teleology of creation’s self-transcendence points to an ultimate, deeper union between Spirit and matter, and ultimately to the union of matter and spirit with their creator and sustainer, the Hypostatic Union (understood formally as the self-communication of God within creation) fits naturally into “the history of the cosmos,” which is “always basically a spiritual history” (172). His essay concludes by “plugging in” the particulars of Christian faith (e.g. Jesus Christ, Israel, church) to the abstract culmination of evolutionary trajectories in Hypostatic Union and expanding on this narrative by connecting it to the more traditional narrative of sin, alienation, redemption, and reconciliation.

The great strength of Rahner’s essay, and perhaps its deepest contribution to an explicitly ecological theology, is his effort to make the “matter/spirit” binary that pervades Western thought (in many permutations) comprehensible within the theological binary of nature and grace (and particularly the Thomistic understanding thereof). Spirit is an emergent quality of matter that is “really effected by what was there before” and yet represents “the inner increase of being proper to the previous existing reality” (164). Consciousness does not abolish matter, nor should it seek to flee from it, but rather perfects matter. Consciousness is to be understood as the natural “becoming” of matter (166). Rahner points out that even though science presupposes this transcendence, it cannot quite think in these terms (qua science) because science’s approach to consciousness is always to consciousness as an object of study; the observer herself always remains invisible (transcendent!) (169). This connection is fertile ground for ecological thinking because it de-mythologizes detached, instrumental reason and encourages a more organic understanding of the connection between spirit and matter. In humanity, matter has indeed come to reflect upon itself and to radically manipulate matter (both human matter and other kinds) according to its own interests. Yet, if consciousness is the perfection of matter in an inseparable way, then matter (all matter) must be seen as the natural ecosystem of consciousness, and therefore deserving of careful attention and care. Consciousness, in this regard, is not set over-against matter as master to slave, but belongs to it. Human perfection, subsequently, cannot be thought of in isolation from the care of all earthly matter—and provision for the flourishing of all life.

Rahner’s essay, despite efforts to marry consciousness and matter together more closely, falls prey to the critique of anthropocentrism in that he tells both stories, the evolutionary and the soteriological, with the union of matter and spirit in humanity at the center, while matter elsewhere plays a secondary role. Anthropocentric thinking may be inevitable for human beings, but—to be more precise—perhaps anthropological exceptionalism is not. Anthropological exceptionalism is the belief that humanity has a unique vocation and destiny that the remainder of creation does not share (or only shares through humanity’s administration). Rahner employs this sort of thinking when he says, “natural history develops towards man, continues in him as his history, is conserved and surpassed in him and hence reaches its proper goal with and in the history of the human spirit” (168). The created world fades into the background as the shining destiny of humanity comes to the foreground! Rahner’s construal of the culmination of creation’s history in divine self-communication—essentially a verbal metaphor—rather than in divine communion essentially limits the experience of salvation to human beings (or any other creatures capable of “knowing”). This way of telling the story risks making the rest of nature unnecessary as soon as it plays its part in producing humanity through evolution; humanity becomes the central location of redemption. Rahner evidently feels this tension, because he qualifies his account of divine self-communication by saying, “God’s communication of himself does not suddenly become uncosmic—directed merely to an isolated, separate subjectivity—but is given to the human race and is historical” (174). Despite Rahner’s hedges, however, depicting the telos of creation as the immortality of the emergent spirit/consciousness, through divine self-communication (primarily an interchange of knowledge—coming to know and being known) leaves the rest of creation aside. The most ecologically prescient aspect of the concept of self-communication is not the verbal metaphor, but that part implying coming and indwelling—“communication” understood as “transfer”. Humanity might still fruitfully be thought of as the center of creation’s knowledge of God, and even as a mediator of divine blessing, but a more robustly theo-political account of creation’s destiny (i.e. Jubilee, cosmic Sabbath, shalom, Day of the Lord) would depict peace for all of creation as integral to peace for any part of creation.

All paranthetical references are to: Karl Rahner, “Christology within an Evolutionary View,” in Theological Investigations 5, (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1966), 157-92.