Rahner & St Ignatius


From an article “Ignatian dimensions of Rahner’s theology”published in Louvain Studies 29 (2004), 77-91.





In an interview of 1979 Karl Rahner distanced himself from any “great influence” of Heidegger on his theology and insisted that Ignatian spirituality was “more significant and important” in shaping his approach than “all learned philosophy and theology.”[1] It was far from the only occasion when he made such a claim and indeed several commentators on Rahner in recent decades have followed this line. What is striking is that these self-interpretations, highlighting the impact of Ignatius of Loyola on his theology, come relatively late in his career. They are frequent in interviews from the seventies onwards. The key issue, repeated in practically every reference to St. Ignatius in these years, is captured in these words: “Ignatius presupposes as both possible and actual an experience of God which . . . is not identical with a verbalized, conceptual knowledge of God.” [2]

In these later years of his life Rahner often suggested that theology needed to re-build bridges with spirituality, to learn from the implicit theology of the saints, and thus to rescue itself from narrowly dogmatic horizons. Should we view his retrieval of Ignatius as a primary source for his work as an old man’s re-reading of his career in a different light? Or perhaps as a deliberate attempt to steer people away from highly philosophical accounts of his theology? Certainly it seems reasonable to see his explicit claims of an Ignatian influence as a recognition of what had often been present but, as he himself might say, had remained “anonymous”. Moreover, as we shall see, he tended to link this perspective with the pastoral needs of an increasingly secular culture: only with some initiation into spiritual experience could the Christian vision survive in a time of fragmentation and complexity. Insofar as “the societal supports of religion are collapsing and dying”, faith will need a less external and less sacramental language, one that fosters “an ultimate, immediate encounter of the individual with God.”[3]


Priority of Spiritual Experience


Apart from his more explicit comments and borrowing from Ignatius, some fundamental characteristics of Rahner seem to have an Ignatian origin. In the life story of Ignatius it is striking that his advice to his companions, faced with the challenges of the Reformation, was to avoid theological confrontation and instead to deepen the pastoral agenda through experiences of spiritual renewal. Indeed this experiential preference was already present in the second paragraph of the Spiritual Exercises, in the well-known distinction that “it is not much knowledge that fills and satisfied the soul but an inner feeling and tasting of realities” (“el sentir y gustar de las cosas internamente”).[4] In this light we can appreciate Rahner’s characteristic tendency to approach religious truth from the springboard of human spiritual experience – as shown in an eloquent summary from 1973:


Bore down, as it were, into the depths of human existence and make a real effort to grasp the meaning of dogmas… [so that] the human existential question and the concrete answer of revelation come together…arousing an inner experience of faith… [In this way grace] possesses an inner point of connection with human existence.[5]


This emphasis on the humanist preambles of Christianity involves a prioritising of the existential dimension that would be a surprise to Ignatius in his more faith-saturated context. In his own way Rahner interprets and modernises Ignatius as inviting people to trust their experiences of self-transcendence as encounters with God. Ignatius dares at the outset of his Exercises to instruct the retreat director to get out of the way in order to foster an “immediate working” of God who “embraces the soul in love” (“inmediate obrar” and “abrazandola en su amor” are the phrases in Spanish).[6] This was risky language in the sixteenth century, especially for someone who offered spiritual direction to people before he had studied theology and hence had several times been imprisoned by the inquisitors on suspicion of heresy, and in particular of being infected by the school of alumbrados or enlightened ones. Rahner will see this centrality given to prayerful experience as an expression of early modernity’s new sense of self.

Another core element that he takes from Ignatius and, in various texts, develops in more existential language is the focus on a discerned decision in faith as the goal of the Spiritual Exercises. He often speaks of the privileged role given to freedom by Ignatius (even in his famous prayer, “Take Lord and receive my liberty”). In this sense Rahner’s theology tends to transpose questions of God into the transcending adventure of human freedom rather than speaking of faith as primarily an assent of truth. Again, as will be seen later, the Ignatian highlighting of spiritual experience as a path towards Christian commitment, underlies Rahner’s proposal to substitute old-style apologetics with a more personal journey of initiation and discovery called “mystagogy”. This means helping people to accept and recognise an immediate closeness of God within the ordinary and extraordinary drama of their own life.


Imagining Ignatius for today

In 1978 Rahner published a lengthy monologue which he places in the mouth of St Ignatius and which he later described as his spiritual testament and indeed as a summary of his whole theology.[7] This last major attempt to capture what he saw as the relevant features of Ignatius contains some jewels, but within a meandering and often obscure text. In the words of one French theologian, “c’est un Ignace trŹs rahnérien qui s’esprime!”[8] For present purposes, having already reviewed some of the principal elements in Rahner’s retrieval and re-reading of Ignatius, this 1978 text contains few real novelties and hence its key issues can be summarised briefly.[9] References to the possibility of an immediate experience of God occur almost like a refrain, especially in the early pages. Central once again is the urgent need to foster experiences of “grace from within” (16), and so to guide people of today “to meet God directly” in a measureless and silent space of “love and joy” (14). As in previous texts, here the voice of Ignatius highlights “the sphere of our freedom and of our decisions” (17) as the crucial zone for helping people towards faith. We are told that “everyday life” is the theatre of our living out a love of God and of neighbour (19) and we are warned, more strongly than in earlier Ignatian texts, that Christianity cannot “bypass Jesus”, as crucified and risen Lord, in its quest for “the incomprehensible God” (20, 32). However the urgent need of the future, says Rahner, will be the ability to “speak of God” in a way that does justice to the mystery of God’s “inexpressible nearness” (38).

It is clear that Rahner’s courage in exploring grace as a fundamental experience of God originated, at least indirectly, from both his study and practice of Ignatian spirituality. During the period of his early training in theology, a certain suspicion of modernism made people wary of any talk about religious experience. Grace was made to seem extrinsic, highly supernatural, to be believed as mystery, but as having little of nothing to do with conscious experience. Rahner seems gradually to have found in Ignatius a way of rebelling against this narrowness and eventually overthrowing it. His version of the turn to the subject becomes increasingly contemplative through the inspiration of Ignatius and this in turn gives a more pastoral tone to “the pivotal role of human inner experience” in his theology.[10] On this point a provocative corrective is offered by a recent book on Rahner: experience “is best construed not as the starting point of his theology, but as its conclusion.”[11] His emphasis on experience is less what Newman might call a “notional apprehension”. It is much more connected with his passionate desire to make God a source of “real assent” in a culture allergic to abstractions and hungry for authentic experiences.


Pastoral urgency

In these various writings from different decades it is clear that Rahner reads Ignatius selectively, highlighting themes congenial to his own theological horizons. His tendency, as seen at the outset here, to distance himself from philosophical influences and to assume a more Ignatian mantle, offers an important light on his work, but could also be a source of over-simplification. The speculative side of Rahner remains a major part of his unique contribution as a theologian, but one that is ultimately rooted in a pastoral passion. He seems to have found in Ignatius a classic text that encouraged his key pastoral intuition: that the nourishment of faith in a more complex culture needs a radically different approach to the discovery of God. In what he called the diaspora situation, socio-cultural belonging and belief gives way to an equally socio-cultural non-belonging and non-belief. In terms of the parable of the sower, the roots are shallow and do not last the onslaught of confusing new worlds. Increasingly aware that explicit atheism was becoming rare and religious indifference widespread, Rahner pondered the pastoral issue of how to ground faith for the secularised settings of post-war Europe in particular. And he answers this cultural challenge in frequently Ignatian terms. Just as Ignatius in his time, as already mentioned, preferred to give priority to spiritual renewal as an answer to the Reformation rather than to engage in militant disputes, so Rahner shifts the agenda of faith from issues of truth to issues of freedom, from doctrinal content to spiritual experience, and more specifically to a mystagogic initiation for people today into an awareness of grace at work in their own humanity. 

In Harvey Egan’s words Rahner “attempts to evoke [and] to awaken” the ever-present experience of God “which haunts the core of every person.”[12] Elsewhere Egan has argued that the much-quoted prophecy that only a mystic could survive as a believer in the future can also be linked with Ignatius.[13] Rahner’s mystagogical theology develops the Ignatian  emphasis on God’s presence-in-mystery as discernible within the lived experiences of each individual. It fitted his pastoral hunch that in today’s fragmented lifestyle we have to move from external belonging to an interiorised faith that he characterises as mystic. He is not of course asking that all believers should enjoy intensely high mystical graces. Rather he wants them to learn to recognise the ordinary presence of grace in their lives and that spiritual sensibility or skill is what he terms mystic. It really means an alertness to God’s guiding calls in daily experience. In this sense he is close to the Ignatian practice of examination of conscience, an exercise interpreted now as reflection on daily consciousness, a situated prayer designed to read the movement of the Spirit in the moods and responses of each day’s small drama.

The everyday “mystic”

What does all this mean for today’s postmodern scene? Did Rahner limit himself too much to his own context, responding only to the challenges of modernity? If so, will his work date more quickly than was imagined? Whatever about the future evaluation of some of his transcendental method, his more Ignatian and pastoral insights will probably have lasting relevance. If, in the years since his death, the cultural landscape has changed drastically, it has opened new religious horizons. “Spirituality” has returned to centre stage in ways that might both delight and alarm Rahner. The contemporary focus on spiritual experience could initially seem in tune with what he proposed and with what has been explored in these pages. But it can easily fall into both the “despotism of the sacred” and the “narcissism of the self”, whereas what is needed is a genuinely personalised religion that unites affectivity, intelligence and social responsibility in the light of faith[14].

Rahner was surely accurate in his diagnosis that the crisis of faith lay more in the spiritual and existential preambles than in the world of philosophy or doctrine. The main blockage to faith in the postmodern situation comes from fragmented life-styles than from ideas. The rhythms of our hyperactivity can keep us adrift on the surfaces of ourselves and unable to reach deeper levels of desire. If so, our culture encounters difficulty mainly with the antechambers or spiritual dispositions that can open onto the possibility of faith. And it was to remedy such a blockage that Rahner gave so much emphasis to the formation of ordinary mystics[15].  

His everyday mystic is someone whom we can imaging saying: “In the adventure of my humanity, I have sensed the guidance of God’s mystery, close to me and creative in me. I have come to discover God as an artist’s presence in the adventure of my life. In the flow of my daily choices, I have recognised the healing spur of Christ, eroding my ego into generosity in hidden ways. In the silence of my heart I know something of the artistry of the Spirit, shaping my life towards a love beyond my imagining. And all this conscious experience of grace, in the theatre of the ordinary, is a pull towards newness that my words can never capture. Or at least tired unambitious words”.

[1] Karl Rahner in Dialogue: conversations and interviews 1965-1982, ed. Paul Imhof & Hubert Biallowons (New York: Crossroad, 1986) 190-191.

[2] Ibid., 175.

[3] Ibid., 176.

[4] Ignacio de Loyola, Ejercicios Espirituales, ed. Cándido de Dalmases (Santander: Sal Terrae, 1987) 2. References to paragraphs of the Spiritual Exercises will be given in my translation from this edition with the abbreviation SE. 

[5] Karl Rahner, “The Foundation of Belief Today”, Theological Investigations 16 (London: Darton Longman & Todd, 1979) 9-10.

[6] SE 15

[7] Endean, Rahner and Ignatian Spirituality, 5.

[8] Bernard Sesboüé, Karl Rahner (Paris: Cerf, 2001) 36.

[9] Karl Rahner, “Ignatius of Loyola Speaks to a Modern Jesuit,” Ignatius of Loyola, ed. Paul Imhof (London: Collins, 1979). References to this essay will be given in parenthesis in the text of this paragraph.

[10] Gerard O’Hanlon, “The Jesuits and Modern Theology – Rahner, von Balthasar and Liberation Theology,” Irish Theological Quarterly 58 (1992) 27.

[11] Karen Kirby, Karl Rahner: theology and philosophy (London: Routledge, 2004) 70.

[12] Harvey Egan, “Mysticism and Karl Rahner’s Theology,” Theology and Discovery: Essays in Honor of Karl Rahner, S.J., ed. William J. Kelly (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1980) 142.

[13] Egan, “Karl Rahner: Theologian of the Spiritual Exercises,” 261. One version concerning the “mystic” of the future as needing to ground faith in spiritual experience can be found in “Christian Living Formerly and Today”, Theological Investigations (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1971) 15.

[14] Pierangelo Sequeri, “Il sentimento del sacro: una nuova sapienza psicoreligiosa,” in La religione postmoderna (Milan: Glossa, 2003) 55-97. Quotation from 95.

[15] In this paragraph I echo some sentences in the opening section of my book Dive Deeper (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 2001).