Karl rahner and the heart of christ

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Philip Endean, S.J.
We do not talk much these days about the Sacred Heart. The old-style devotions seem dubious; the statues appear tasteless; practices like the nine First Fridays have come to feel vaguely embarrassing. But a power remains in the idea nevertheless. I once attended a house mass, celebrated for a man in his eighties, dying painfully of cancer. Gasps often drowned the words of the liturgy:‘O Jesus, O Sacred Heart of Jesus’. The situation was obviously a stressful one, and perhaps the cries were partly neurotic and regressive. But it would be perverse to say that that was the whole story. Perhaps, indeed, the devotion only makes sense in the context of poverty, of limit-situations, of the struggle to accept suffering and make it fruitful. We who can read and write articles about theology are often in secure, if not comfortable, circumstances. If we find the rhetoric and iconography of the Sacred Heart embarrassing, this may be because it speaks primarily to a level of human pain from which we seek to be insulated.

For the theologian Karl Rahner, (1904-1984) the Sacred Heart was important. Some of the devotional practices associated with it, admittedly, he could damn with faint professorital praise;1 but the reality itself was another matter. One of his most influential essays, ‘The Theology of the Symbol’ (1959),2 was originally published in an anthology on Christ’s heart. It touches on the whole range of dogmatic theology, and many commentators—including Karl Rahner’s own brother Hugo3—see it as central to his work. For Rahner, one could not understand Christ or do Christology properly without encountering the Sacred Heart. My first aim in this piece is to explain why this was so.4 Then, drawing on Rahner’s ideas, I want to reflect on why we now talk so much less about the devotion than we once did. My suggestion is that authentic devotion to the heart of Jesus may be no less present in the Church than ever it was: it is just that the forms it takes have become more difficult to recognize.

Revelation, Hearts, and Symbols
Central to Rahner’s theology is the idea of God as eternally self-giving. The only God who actually exists is God-with-us: the God of incarnation (in Jesus) and grace (in the human race at large). Though Rahner is no pantheist, he also insists that God’s relationship with us is part of God’s very identity, not just an afterthought. As he put it once, God has ‘lost himself—in his own reality—as love in his creation, and never turns back from that’.5

The New Testament offers us a distinctive vision of who God is and who we are. Within this vision, the heart of Jesus is important because the term ‘heart’ expresses Jesus’s special function as revealer of God’s grace. To put the point sharply, revelation is heart-shaped. To explain this statement, we need to consider, with Rahner’s help, what we mean by revelation, and what we mean by heart.

We begin with revelation. God is with us, always. There is no God absent from us. It follows that what we call divine revelation is not about another world, but about this one. The New Testament tells us about how our present existence may be transformed (albeit radically, unimaginably so), not replaced. It follows that revelation is always symbolic in structure: in revelation, particular elements in the world—this world—disclose the meaning of the whole. And—to anticipate for a moment—we can say that more poetically. When revelation occurs, the heart of all reality is disclosed.

But back to the idea of revelation. Christianity involves particular realities with universal significance. We often talk about God being everywhere, about God being present in all that exists. This must affect the way we think about Jesus Christ, and about the revelation in scripture and tradition that stems from him. One cannot simply say, ‘Jesus makes God present’, if God is already present in all things. One cannot say that Jesus is the only Son of God (without qualification) if we hold that all human beings are truly God’s daughters and sons. Equally one cannot be a Christian without believing that in some way Jesus is uniquely important. What you have to say is that revelation is symbolic: it occurs through particular parts of the world that disclose the significance of the whole. Jesus’s specialness consists in what he reveals about everything and everybody else.

From this it follows that Christianity always involves an interplay between the whole of creation and particular symbols—revelatory, canonical symbols, centring on the story of Jesus. We are Christians, not in order to be fixated on the story of Jesus, but to be inspired and empowered by it—inspired and empowered to live out our own distinctive intimacy with the one whom Jesus called Abba.

Which brings us to the idea of the heart. Each of us has a heart. That sentence, while stating more than an obvious physical truth, is nevertheless not a claim that each of us is warm and affectionate. Rahner is well aware that our hearts can be empty of love.6 Each of us has a heart, rather, in a more speculative sense. Human beings are not just material objects or animals: we are self-conscious, spiritual creatures. Yet we find our identity, our sense of who we are, only gradually. And this happens through interaction with others, and in no other way. Here, then, there is a parallel with what has been said on revelation. Just as revelation involves an interplay between particular symbols and an indefinite range of created reality, so our personal identity involves an interplay between our silent centre and the indefinite range of our encounters with the other.

‘Heart’ names what holds the diversity of our lives together as ours, the silent centre from which all our interactions flow. If you ask what makes Algernon the person he is, you will point to many things which Algernon says and does, and perhaps too to what he looks like. All these are ways in which Algernon’s identity impinges on others, ways in which his identity is revealed. But Algernon’s identity is not strictly identical with any one of these: the centre of his self, that which integrates Algernon’s diverse public faces, will always be hidden.

Now, if Jesus is the revealer, and if revelation is heart-shaped, it follows that to talk of Jesus’s ‘heart’ is to name his special, revelatory significance. Jesus’s divinity, Jesus’s divine sonship, Jesus’s mighty deeds and powerful teaching—these are not there simply as objects of admiration or devotion, but rather as resources for our transformation, for us to appropriate ever more deeply our identity as God’s children. Moreover, if Jesus’s heart is pierced, this reminds us that his own identity is bound up with the mystery of sin and cruelty.

Let me set out the argument schematically:

(1) If God is in all things, then revelation is symbolic: an interplay of particular realities with the all-pervasive realities they disclose.

(2) According to Christian tradition Jesus is the focal point of revelation.

(3) Jesus’s revelatory significance must therefore also be symbolic: an interplay between himself and the all-pervasive presence and love of God which he reveals.

(4) But human identity is also symbolic in structure: we discover who we are in and through interplay with other realities.

(5) ‘Heart’ is the term used in most Western languages to denote the central principle of our identity integrating our interactions.

(6) Jesus’s revelatory significance can be said to centre on his heart.
Christianity is more than belief in the Incarnation. Theology can tell us that Jesus Christ is a union of one person in two natures, divine and human: a hypostatic union. But if he is to be a revealer, he cannot be a static reality whom we simply behold or know about. He must address us, affect us: the Jesus we know about is also the cosmic Christ who incorporates us. Revelation can only occur if we become fully part of the process. Jesus Christ is the fullness of who he is through everything else in creation, including ourselves, being drawn into the mystery he symbolizes. Christianity is a commitment to growth and transformation, thought our dealings with God’s world. In Rahner’s strict, non-romantic sense, it engages the heart. The heart of Jesus—‘symbol of love’s triumph’—is the guarantee that the process, for all its risk and pain, will end in blessedness.

Watching one’s words
Could we not, it might be asked, use more tasteful, less sentimental language to express what is being named here? ‘Heart’ seems so vulgar. Rahner is well aware that talk of the Sacred Heart has been cheapened by misuse.7 But human beings need some word or other to talk about human identity in its interaction with others, and the term ‘heart’ or its equivalent fulfils this function in many languages. If it sounds cheap, maybe this is because our self-images and our interactions are radically impoverished. The way to address the misuse is not to replace the word, but rather to foster its proper use—a task of moral and cultural transformation rather than semantic education. We need a word for the central principle of human being, and there seems little reason to abandon ‘heart’.

What, then, of the adjective ‘sacred’? Would it not be more attractive to speak of Christ’s ‘human heart’? Such language would obviously not be false. Nevertheless, Christ’s human heart is not just any human heart, and we need some word or other to name its distinctiveness. Nor will it do to invoke Christ’s divinity here, and describe Christ’s heart as divine. For, if the New Testament is true, God’s own self shapes our identity just as much as Jesus’s: our hearts, no less than his, are both divine and human. ‘Sacred’, for all its pious overtones, evokes the promise, the guarantee, represented by Christ’s humanity. Our lives are constantly under threat: our fate we cannot foresee. When we look to Jesus, we find, not someone in whom the interplay of divine and human is necessarily different from that in anyone else, but rather someone who uniquely assures us, in our fragile existence, that God’s presence is irrevocable. ‘The world is charged with the grandeur of God’, as Hopkins teaches us. ‘Sacred’ denotes the power of Christ’s heart to disclose this all-pervasive mystery.

Rahner is famous for having made respectable the idea of the anonymous Christian, the person who lives out of Christ’s grace without knowing it.8 So central is the heart of Christ, however, to Rahner’s christology that the anonymous Christian is also an anonymous devotee of the Sacred Heart. During a talk on Christ’s heart given to some seminarians, Rahner could say,

... it can of course happen that ... adoring veneration is given to that Heart without the adoring lover’s ever having heard of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.9

A person who accepts the bleakness of their experience in saving faith, hope and love may not have heard of Christian beliefs about God’s unconditional acceptance of a sinful creation. But in some way—for example by offering forgiveness to someone who has wronged them or by accepting their death in hope—they are acting in a way that makes sense only in the light of such beliefs. Often this approach to the salvation of the non-believer is presented as a kind of religious sentimentalism or pragmatism: what you believe does not matter, only what you feel or what you do. Rahner, however, insists that our acting and loving are rooted in our beliefs: I cannot effectively love someone unless I believe that they are lovable. The anonymous Christian offering unconditional forgiveness may not be comfortable with ideas about Christ, but they will surely have consciously held beliefs of some kind about the ultimate purpose of life. If they do not, they will not be able to act in the way they do. Moreover, in so far as these beliefs can be true only if God’s self has been unconditionally pledged to a sinful world, the anonymous Christians’ way of acting amounts to an implicit response to the truths of Christianity, and an implicit response to the love focussed in Christ’s heart.10

Theologians argue about the difference between Christ and the rest of us. ‘Is the difference one of degree, or of kind?’ Put as simply as that, the answer has to be ‘neither’. If we say he differs from us ‘in kind’, then we are (perhaps without quite meaning it) denying Christ’s true humanity; if we say he differs from us ‘in degree’, then it is not clear how he can be central to our religious identity in a way that other holy and good people—say Mahatma Gandhi—are not. Christ differs from us, neither in degree nor kind, but in significance.11

Christ’s identity, like that of any other member of the human race, depends on his interaction with others. The truth of Christ is not something given once and for all, but something permanently open-ended, permanently looking into an unknown, mysterious future. Thus we come to know who Christ is, not simply by learning facts, but through gradual appropriation, through our hearts becoming like unto his heart, through an experiential process, through both the maturing and the conversion of the self, through right action and the acquisition of virtues.

Moreover, God’s solidarity in Christ with all creation is most manifest at the bleakest places, the places where we seem alone, and where no other source of hope can be found. Hence the links between Christ’s heart and the passion; hence the importance of limit situations for a understanding the devotion. Only by venturing to the margins of our humanity will we discover the length and the breadth and the height and the depth. It is only the poor who can reveal Christ’s love. Rightly understood, the heart of Christ is more than the object of a dispensable cult. What we call Christianity is impossible without it.

Rahner’s intent was not to destroy Sacred Heart devotion, but to renew it. In the aftermath of Vatican II, however, the Sacred Heart seems to have vanished from public Catholic rhetoric. What can we make of this fact? I want to suggest that first impressions may be deceptive. The Sacred Heart is not something to be talked about too loudly: reticence about it may be a sign that the reality of the devotion is in better shape than it ever was. Moreover, the kind of relationship which Christ's heart symbolizes is something into which we grow. In the Church’s public discourse, it is healthy that all the different stages in the process find expression, despite (or even because of) the contradictions this diversity brings with it.

In 1956, Rahner gave a talk to the members of his then community, in Innsbruck, on the Sacred Heart. Sensitive to his audience as he was, he did not expect them all to be enthused on the subject. One passage in the talk is significant here:

Of course people have always tried ... to organize this devotion, to split it up into a range of practices, to instill it into the masses. This is one of this devotion’s greatest dangers. But it quickly becomes clear that it’s not right, and that the devotion is something for the individual heart, the heart which knows itself really and personally called by God in Christ. It becomes clear that wherever people try to organize as an institution the almost entirely charismatic reality of this devotion, this false embodiment doesn’t just atrophy the devotion—it more or less stops 12

What is at stake is a deeply personal response to Christ’s love. Rahner is here suggesting that such realities resist public expression. One might go further, and suggest that the old-style pictures represent, with the best of intentions, a kind of spiritual pornography. Sexual pornography is objectionable because it brings what should be intimate into the public domain in a quite blatant and inappropriate way. The effect is to trivialize the mystery of human love, and to make it harder for people at large to live that vitally important reality healthily.

Perhaps something similar could be said about old-style Sacred Heart devotion. If so, its decline may not be a bad thing. Against it must be set the new interest labelled ‘spirituality’, a concern for prayer, for what is called ‘religious experience’, and for the internalization of the Christian faith. All these may indicate a growth in the personal love of Christ lying at the old devotion’s heart. That love is essentially intimate: its setting is the individual conversation rather than the pulpit. Moreover, it engages each person in their individuality, heart to heart. My heartfelt response to Christ’s heart is not the same as anyone else’s, and therefore public discourse cannot articulate it except in the most general terms. In the passage just quoted, Rahner was linking the heart of Christ with Ignatian spirituality. In the last thirty years we have discovered how we falsify Ignatius’s teaching if we articulate it only in sermons. Its proper setting is one of intimate conversation, sensitive to the particular needs and situations of the people involved. Perhaps the same goes for Sacred Heart devotion.

It would be wrong, however, to think of what occurs in the public domain as simply irrelevant in the context of the love revealed in Christ’s heart. Our intimate selves are conditioned, for good or ill, by our social experience. The sickly rhetoric of the Sacred Heart may now appear tasteless, and counterproductive: we may need to balance it by a period of silence. But if the silence continues, the devotion itself may die—and that would be a pity. For all its faults, the old rhetoric kept an idea alive. What styles of public discourse, what social structures within the Churches, will encourage and nurture a healthy Christian religious intimacy, an authentic devotion to the heart of Christ?

Such devotion will always have a tendency to subvert convention, and challenge the standards of plausibility within any culture. It will seek and find God in people and places marginal to polite society’s norms, and in aspects of our awareness which we would otherwise repress. The devotion speaks of how God can call forth ever new responses in the intimacy of the heart. Nevertheless, public discourse is just as intrinsic to the human as personal freedom. Advertising affects the heart (for good or for ill) just as much as a tender endearment: our public worship forms part of our response to God no less (and no more) than our private prayer. If intimate devotion to the heart of Christ is to be renewed, the work needed will not be just ‘interior’. On the contrary, it must engage the public dimensions of the human as well, with private and public in a balance of mutual enrichment.

There is, perhaps, another good reason why people talk less about the Sacred Heart these days. The reality of the devotion is not attained overnight, but through a meandering process. The full recognition of who Christ is, the realization that we can rely on God’s permanent and irrevocable solidarity with us—these takes time, and people are at different stages of the journey. We must acknowledge the reality of a pilgrim Church. The truth of the Sacred Heart devotion comes only through the accumulation of experience, and we should not be discouraged if our public Church discourse names the process’s end only spasmodically. Devotion to the heart of Christ is a reality which develops, not something all-or-nothing.

We can indeed illustrate this point by the looking at the devotion in its pre-Conciliar exuberance. There may have been a widespread devotion to Christ’s heart; but this Christ could also be a demi-god, unambiguously omniscient and omnipotent. Even now, a homilist must often think twice before suggesting that some of Jesus’s statements in the Gospels—for example on the second coming—were simply wrong. In other words, the heartfelt devotion to Christ’s humanity was not fully integrated into people’s religious consciousness, and often existed alongside pagan conceptions of God. Take for example the hymn, ‘Sweet heart of Jesus, fount of love and mercy’. Though its central symbol is the pierced heart of the incarnate Christ, the hymn nevertheless encourages an aspiration to leave the earth behind, and seek God elsewhere: That so our hearts, from things of earth uplifted

May long alone to gaze upon thy face.13

A theologian may give the hymn low marks for consistency, and even brand it as heretical. But the clash of theologies reflects the developmental reality. It takes time, effort, and an untidy process to appropriate the truth of the incarnation. The classical early Christian heresies regarding Christ—on the one hand, docetism and Apollinarianism; on the other, adoptionism and Nestorianism—are normally classified under two headings: one group presents a Christ dressed up as a human being, the other a primarily human Christ merely in some kind of contact with God. But they are at one in their most central characteristic: they stop short of the full truth of the gospel, they fail to recognize Christ’s revelation that there is no God without the human, without the human’s ambiguity, fragmentariness, sinfulness, bodiliness, and relationality. They present either a divine Christ who fails to be truly human, or a human Christ who fails to be divine.

It takes time to recognise how God has accepted the human unconditionally, because we find it so hard to accept, and all too easily project our own self-hatred onto God. Sometimes this can happen subtly, with a great show of reverence, through theologies which keep God and the human firmly apart. Our sense of the shambles which is the institutional church leads us all too easily to project a God who somehow stays at a distance from that shambles, whose self_identification with the shambles is only partial. The resulting protest movements and Protestantisms may enrich our sense of God, and supply a needed corrective to ecclesial abuse—but it remains a theological mistake to make protest an absolute. Again our sense of the sheer vastness of the human race, and indeed of the cosmos, leads us all too easily to relativize the self_revelation of God in Christ: when we look at the heavens, the work of God’s fingers, it is really difficult to believe that God is with us, unsurpassably, carnally, in Christ. Proper christology is something we discover only gradually, at privileged moments and perhaps through great suffering.

It should not therefore surprise us, or discourage us, that our public discourse on Christ and Christ’s heart is confused. Growth into Christian life goes through stages, stages reflected in different images and attitudes towards God. A true theology of the sacred heart must make room for this messiness and contradiction, for the alternations and meanderings through which our hearts are made like unto Christ’s heart.

What I have been trying to say is reflected—along with much else—in a poem by the seventeenth-century Anglican priest, George Herbert, entitled ‘Dialogue’. The dialogue is between Herbert and Christ. The poem begins with the soul expressing self_hatred, even if it is dressed up as pious humility and projected onto God. God cannot be expected to accept such a mess. When Christ firmly but gently refuses to collude, Herbert’s resistance to Christ’s love increases both in theological subtlety and emotional frenzy. He hands the matter over to God, but in a spirit of angry resignation rather than loving openness. Then a second reply brings about a moment of conversion: the heart is broken open, and sub_Christian theology finally breaks down. A church fostering devotion to the heart of Christ must not only proclaim the symbol, but also bring about the conditions where growth like this can occur

Sweetest Saviour, if my soul

Were but worth the having,

Quickly should I then control

Any thought of waiving.

But when all my care and pains

Cannot give the name of gains

To thy wretch so full of stains;

What delights or hope remains?

What (child) is the balance thine,

Thine the poise and measure?

If I say, Thou shalt be mine;

Finger not my treasure.

What the gains in having thee

Do amount to, only he,

Who for man was sold, can see;

That transferred th’ accounts to me.

But as I can see no merit,

Leading to this favour:

So the way to fit me for it,

Is beyond my savour.

As the reason then is thine;

So the way is none of mine:

I disclaim the whole design:

Sin disclaims, and I resign.

That is all, if that I could

Get without repining;

And the clay my creature would

Follow my resigning.

That as I did freely part

With my glory and desert,

Left all joys to feel all smart,

Ah! no more: thou break’st my heart.

1 Seefor example, the 1956 essay, ‘Some Theses for a Theology of Devotion of the Sacred Heart’ (3.331-352).

2 4.221-252

3In an open letter written to mark Karl’s 60th birthday, Hugo described this essay as ‘the epitome (Inbegriff) of your basic theological orientation’: ‘Eucharisticon Fraternitatis’ (1964), in’Gemeinsame Arbeit in brüderlicher Liebe’: Hugo und Karl Rahner. Dokumente und Würdigung ihrer Weggemeinschaft, edited by Abraham Peter Kustermann and Karl H. Neufeld (Stuttgart: Akademie der Diözese Rottenburg-Stuttgart, 1993), 59-67, here 63.

4 This essay takes a broad sweep: the aim is to avoid the trees and delineate the wood. For more detailed syntheses see Michael J. Walsh, The Heart of Christ in the Writings of Karl Rahner: An Investigation of its Christological Foundation as an Example of the Relationship between Theology and Spirituality (Rome: Gregorian University Press, 1977); and Annice Callahan, Karl Rahner's Spirituality of the Pierced Heart (Lanham: University Press of America, 1985). Both contain useful bibliographies.

5 Karl Rahner, Meditations on Priestly Life, translated by Edward Quinn (London: Sheed and Ward, 1973), 271. The text was written in 1961.

6 3.327.

7 See especially the 1953 essay ‘Behold this Heart!’ (3.321-330). Rahner’s claim that the term ‘heart’ could not in principle be replaced may need more justification than he offers; to talk of ‘heart’ as an Urwort or ‘primary word’ seems too vague to be cogent. More generally, his position might be strengthened by anthropological or depth-psychological analysis of what is happening when we use the names of parts of the body—head, heart, bile, spleen—to denote personal realities.

8 The best expression of Rahner’s position comes in the unattractively titled 1947 essay, ‘Membership of the Church According to the Teaching of Pius XII’s Encyclical Mystici Corporis Christi’ (2.1-88), especially in the final section (pp.69ff.). For reliable guides to this controversial, often misunderstood idea, see Nikolaus Schwerdtfeger, Gnade und Welt: Zum Grundgefüge von Karl Rahners Theorie der ‘anonymen Christen’ (Freiburg: Herder, 1982); and Eamonn Conway, The Anonymous Christian--a relativised Christianity?: An Evaluation of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s criticisms of Karl Rahner’s Theory of the Anonymous Christian (Frankfurt: Peter Lang, 1993).

9 Karl Rahner, ‘Ignatian Spirituality and Devotion to the Heart of Jesus’ (1955), in Mission and Grace, volume 3, translated by Cecily Hastings (London: Sheed and Ward, 1966), 176-210, here 193. See also the final sentences of the 1953 essay ‘The Eternal Significance of the Humanity of Jesus for our Relationship with God’ (3.46).

10 This paragraph is based on a reading of the 1961 essay ‘What is Heresy?’ (5.468-512), which, even by Rahner’s standards, is an exceptionally suggestive and revolutionary piece.

11 See Karl Rahner, Foundations of Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, translated by William V. Dych (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1978), 202: ‘... (the hypostatic union in Jesus) ... is distinguished from our grace not by what has been offered in it, which in both instances, including that of Jesus, is grace. It is distinguished rather by the fact that Jesus is the pledge (Zusage) for us; we ourselves are not the repetition of the pledge (wir nicht selber wieder die Zusage), but those who receive God's pledge to us.’

12 Published as Karl Rahner, ‘Una orden antigua en una nueva época. La Compañía de Jesús y su devoción al Corazón de Cristo’, Estudios eclesiásticos, 59 (1984), 131-138, here 137. The original, from which I make this translation, remains unpublished: a copy of the typescript is in the Karl-Rahner-Archiv in Innsbruck.

13 In Celebration Hymnal, (Great Wakering: Mayhew-McCrimmon, 1976), this text is described simply as ‘traditional’.

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