The Anonymous Christian
Posted On June 23, 2008
I had been visiting the Lonergan workshop in Boston this last week, well really only about 1.5 days of it. I had to return home for family reasons, however I enjoyed my short visit and the talks I was able to attend.
In one of the talks, Karl Rahner’s notion of the anonymous Christian was raised and I would like to highlight something that seems to be missing from discussions of this Christian. The anonymous Christian, at least in its best form, is the person who has never had a true encounter with Christianity, yet, God has moved this person’s heart, and this person has responded positively to God. Hence, this person is in a graced stated. But he or she does not really know it.
There are many advocates of the anonymous Christian (which the speaker was quick to point out is not Anonymous Christianity — Christianity is a believing body that is deliberate and knowing. Christianity cannot be anonymous). And there are many detractors. I probably stand a bit toward the detractors, though I would side with Augustine on all counterpositions (or heresies). As Augustine notes, all heresies possess some truth, and manytimes a profound truth. Likewise, all counterpositions advocate some truth. Now, I am not saying the Anonymous Christian is a heresy. But, the way it has come to be used by many certainly verges on one. I would argue that there are some elements of it as a position that need to be purged.
So what is it that needs to be purged? The key purging in my mind needs to take place upon a further conclusion that regularly follows the idea of an anonymous christian. If one can be a Christian without Christianity, then there really is no pressing need to become or be a Christian, let alone a Catholic. Karl Rahner himself I do not think can be rightly accussed of this position. And there are others who avoid it as well, and they argue that it is better to become explicitly Christian because then at least one knows a bit more about what one is.
However, there is a more subtle argument rooted in a philosophical framework for which Rahner is partly responsible and which does seem to lead to this conclusion. Life is really about a transcendental response, not a categorial one. Categories define, delimit, judge, and these are all finite. These are not what life is about. In fact, if one overly adheres to the particular categories that define our experiences and judge our insights, then one has become derailed. This includes overly adhering to any type of faith, whether Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, or any other religious set of beliefs. The categories never can be made into anything definitive, anything that will hold one’s trust in any obligatory or mandatory fashion. Categories are mere pointers, suggestions, and if they take one away from the transcendental eros of the spirit, then they have become gods.
If one holds this basic position on the transcendental ground of the soul and its contrast with the categorial, then one must say that the aim of our beings is beyond all that we know, believe, and to which we respond. It is even beyond the other whom we love, because we know that other and love that other in categorial ways. Hence, the endpoint of humanity and history really is not the Catholic faith. The end point is beyond the Church, beyond Christianity, beyond all the names and person’s who we categorize in this world. Could Rahner be responsible for this ultimate rejection of Christianity and the Catholic faith?
Hence, it is not only the conclusion that needs to be purged, but a key premise. It is this categorical minimization of all categories that I would argue needs to be purged and replaced with a substantially different understanding of the relation of the transcendental element of the human soul and its realization in answers.
So, what is a better understanding of this relationship between the transcendental basis of the soul and its categorial realization? It is true that fundamental in all human beings is this transcendental ground of our being–especially if one generously understands this transcendental nature as rooted in the transcendental notions as Lonergan comprehends these. At the same time, these transcendental grounds are merely a beginning. They have aims, and these aims are answers.
In addition to the orientation of the transcendental to answers, thinking of the answers or categories as merely provisional pointers also needs to be recast. Can some insights be true, forever true? If one says yes, has one rejected transcendence? Notice, that there exists a bit of a confusion. The fact that I went to the bank today is forever true. God is three persons is forever true. God is unrestricted being, goodness, and love, is forever true. What does it mean to transcend these statements? Have I derailed my being into a categorial abyss in holding such claims?
At times, old categories do need to be released for new. Old wineskins cannot hold the new wine. Sometimes, the categories are not released and discarded, but merely transformed like Newton’s notion of mass for Einstein’s. Other times however, the old categories simply remain old, and never need to be revised or rejected. It will always be true that I wrote this blog.
Self transcendence does not require that all categories and all answers necessarily be overcome and rejected for something better, even if self-transcendence require that one continue to develop.
I guess, in the end, I am trying to make the case that the virtually unconditioned can be reached in certain contexts. Thus, I am trying also to make the case that there exists not only a permanence of the trancendental ground of the human soul, but a permanence in the meaning of some answers, such as dogmas (Lonergan argues this point).
Adhering to these permanent answers results in a departure from the exclusive devotion to the transcendental and thus from the anonymous Christian, and calls one to move to the sanctified soul that is increasing its sanctification via divine gifts that transform us. One can argue that we are in dire need for upholding the belief in an explicit outer Word. The outer Word mutually self-mediates the life, health, healing, and growth of the inner word and the capacity for self-transcendence. However, for this to work, we need to know that Word and its manifestation in words. This manifested Word needs to have a permanence to it. And though the manifested Word belongs to the categorial, it never needs to be rejected for something better. It can command obiligatory and mandatory trust, for the duration.
To put this a bit more descriptively and concretely, a soul animated by the Holy Spirit, moved by the heart of flesh will not go far without the mediation of the true outer Word. In other words, without being mediated by God’s entrance into the world mediated by meaning, then one will remain at best, anonymous, and probably not even that for long. Only in the united missions of the Son and of the Holy Spirit does one thrive. It is difficult enough remaining faithful to the inner call when one knows this explicitly. As well, the anonymous Christian is not going to embark on the great mission of evangelization. He or she is never going to proceed to speak or write about the profound wisdom that reorientes one’s soul. Prayer will barely be intentional and disorientingly existential. One will never write theological treatises upon the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Church, salvation history, the City of God, nor on spiritual development. One will be forever in ignorance of one’s own self and of the meaning of life and of history in any but the most rudimentary fashions. It really is a dangerous place to be, and a rather unfruitful place as well, save that it will respond with great joy at finding the true outer Word of God. This person will not be able to benefit from all the profound insights that have linked the way of achievement with the way of gift, the way of reason with the way of true faith. Thus, such individuals will be shut off from the Tradition and its catholicity. The purpose of such gifts of the Holy Spirit is to draw us to an authoritative outer word that can bring us along to our true destiny. As John Henry Newman noted well, the fact of Revelation implies the need for an authoritative carrier of that Revelation. Without that authority, no one, not even the genius of earth, will find that Revelation in the end. One will be left on the verge of despair, wondering whether there really is an answer. Without the permanence of some of these key answers, at least those rooted in the Divine entrance into the world mediated by meaning, then we really are lost. And we too can ask with Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” It is the permanence of some answers that is missing in many of the discussions about the anonymous Christian. Anonymity needs a dressor of sycamores like Amos if it is going to bear fruit.