Anonymous Christians

In his Theological Investigations Karl Rahner explains that “pluralism is a greater threat and a reason for greater unrest for Christianity than for any other religion. For no other religion – not even Islam – maintains so absolutely that it is the religion, the one and only valid revelation of the one living God, as does the Christian religion” (POR, 607). Pluralism is a force of opposition working against Christianity and is therefore not something Christianity can reconcile with. There is not a way for Christianity to acknowledge the legitimacy of other religious worldviews while also maintaining its own identity as God’s exclusive revelation to mankind. In response to the fact of pluralism in today’s world, Rahner’s proposes a so –called form of inclusivism called “Open Catholicism” whereby Christianity is seen as the “higher unity” of the opposition between Christians and non-Christians. Rahner acknowledges that there are “supernatural, grace-filled elements” in non-Christian religions, but for Rahner these supernatural elements arise “out of the grace which is given to men as a gratuitous gift on account of Christ” (POR, 609). Hence, to the extent that any person, at any point in history, encounters the supernatural, this experience, according to Rahner, is obviously and necessarily of Christian origin.

Does it not occur to Rahner that such a position constitutes an affront to the intelligence of the average non-Christian? It is of course within Rahner’s right to make such a claim, but the argument itself is no more effective than that put forth by the Christian fanatic who shouts biblical verses to indifferent passersby on the street corner while holding a sign which says “Jesus is Savior.” Furthermore, Rahner, in a statement that reveals a profoundly judgmental attitude, puts forth that “we will not hold it impossible that grace is at work, and is even being accepted, in the spiritual, personal life of the individual, no matter how primitive, unenlightened, apathetic, and earth-bound such a life may at first sight appear to be” (emphasis mine) (POR, 610). Rahner, blinded by his own conceptual framework, seems to ignore the derogatory nature of this characterization of the spiritual lives of non-Christians.  After all, it is only from a Christian standpoint that such other lives can be deemed primitive, unenlightened and apathetic.

Rahner furthermore speaks of the “gratuitous influences of properly Christian supernatural grace” to convey the utter generosity of Christians who, having appropriated supernatural grace for themselves, subsequently redistribute it to the rest of mankind. Again, this line of thinking is strictly unintelligible to the rational mind. How is it in any way reasonable to suppose (even at a strictly theoretical level) that the supernatural, in all its worldly forms, is ultimately an expression of Christian grace?

Finally, Rahner will have us believe that the world is filled with “anonymous Christians,” that is to say spiritual, non-Christian beings who are merely waiting to be reached by the Church’s message. According to this line of thinking, without even realizing it these anonymous Christians are already well on their way to the self-realization of the Christianity demanded by their being (POR, 613). To this Rahner adds that “the individual who grasps Christianity in a clearer, purer and more reflective way has, other things being equal, a still greater chance of salvation than someone who is merely an anonymous Christian” (POR, 613). While these notions may find support among Christian missionaries and other interested parties, there is very little here that a rational outside observer is likely to find convincing. Rahner himself admits that non-Christians “may think it presumption for the Christian to regard the non-Christian as a Christian who has yet to come to himself reflectively” (POR, 613).

While it is fair to assume that a certain level of spiritual openness is necessary for an individual to become a professing Christian, it is far less obvious that the human spiritual impetus seen everywhere in all its various social forms is Christianity in some under-developed form. Finally, it seems unreasonable to assume on the one hand that anonymous Christians already have within themselves the potential for salvation in the form of the Christianity demanded by their being, while on the other hand to adopt the position that salvation is ultimately dependent on objective reflection and the outward profession of faith through the social form of the Church.

Works Cited:

Rahner, K. (1961). Theological Investigations. Baltimore: Helicon Press.


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