Section 2: Christian Faith: Deliverance of the World

Grace in Freedom
by Karl Rahner

Section 2: Christian Faith: Deliverance of the World

Faith and Culture

Today faith and religion are often judged by their usefulness. Our contemporaries demand instinctively that faith should prove its value in the world of our experience, it should produce a better world, foster peace, mitigate or abolish social tensions and generally make life more bearable. Otherwise, It is thought, it need not exist at all. In view of this naive prejudice we would first ask quite simply: why must faith do all this in order to be acceptable? Is not man precisely the being that also has other aims? Does he not want truth, even if it causes suffering, beauty, even though it is useless, the holy in order to adore it? Does he not find the right relation to consumer goods and luxuries just when he is detached from them because he is aware of another sphere and selflessly worships that which is of no direct "use" to him?

We had to make this brief reservation before discussing "faith and culture". For though the sphere of culture Itself belongs partly to the realm of truth, beauty and holiness which ultimately has no need to defend itself before the court of utilitarianism, faith and its object transcend even these good things. For they are concerned with God and his salvation, which men can receive only if they adore him who is the first and last mystery of their existence in selfless hope and love.

Keeping in mind this reservation, we may now, however, discuss a positive mutual relationship between faith and culture. Without quoting too extensively we here follow particularly section two of the second chapter of the Pastoral Constitution of Vatican II on the Church in the Modern World. For this chapter deals precisely with this subject, namely the proper development of culture and the importance of the Christian faith for this development.

We cannot here answer the question of what culture is. We can only just mention the cultural inheritance received by the individual such as scholarship, art in all its forms, morality and religion, which transcends morality and which despite its superior nature is also a cultural phenomenon, determining and being determined by the culture of a nation and an epoch. Culture may be defined as an element of tradition which helps to determine a man's surroundings and which man himself not only receives and accepts, but also develops through his free creative work as something that is specifically human. Such cultural work is not a luxury in which a man indulges, because without it a man could not even exist as a natural being. In this context we should like to warn against the snobbery of certain circles who imagine that natural science, technology and social planning have nothing to do with culture, which in their view can only be created by individualistic elites. We would add to this that one must distinguish between culture such as it is and as it ought to be. For culture can be judged by critical standards: indeed, such a critical attitude which demands change is an essential element of culture itself. Further, the ideal culture, too, is no timeless entity but has itself a history in time and space, so that many ideals of culture exist beside the actual cultures. Hence we are justified in restricting our subject to the question what the Christian faith could and should achieve for a contemporary culture such as it ought to be.

Faith demands responsibility before God also for the culture which is and remains secular. At first sight this statement seems to be valid for all time. But we should remember that a specifically secular culture exists only today, and that Christianity does not claim to design this culture directly according to the principles of the faith, let alone of the teaching office of the Church.

Hence there is the acute danger that the believer will no longer consider this secular culture as his religious responsibility before God, but will regard it as something that interests him as a human being, but no longer affects him as a Christian. The Council, too, recognizes the danger (op. cit. 43ff.) that

Christians are only seeking "heavenly things" and think that earthly matters do not concern them and have no bearing on their salvation, because these things have become exclusively secular and human. But the Council says: "The Christian who neglects his temporal duties neglects his duties toward his neighbour and even God, and jeopardizes his eternal salvation." Now the words about the temporal duties should be read within the context of the Council statements about the relative autonomy of the secular culture (art. 59), for only thus will the sentence just quoted receive its full weight. For precisely that culture which cannot be materially given by faith and the Church is nevertheless the earthly duty that determines our eternal salvation. In lonely responsibility the Christian is confronted with these secular cultural activities, and these, though not only these, are his Christian vocation and mission.

Unified mass culture is a Christian concern. The Council document does not regard culture as the preserve of a small elite of individuals or nations who would have a monopoly on its development. It speaks quite simply of a "mass culture"; it favours the cultural development of all men and nations. True, it desires that most legitimate civilizations should be preserved, yet it approves of the development of "a more universal form of human culture. . . one which will promote and express the unity of the human race" (art. 54) and favours a powerful international organization which, despite the United Nations, does not yet exist (art. 84). The Council wants both sexes to cooperate responsibly in this culture, and men and women of all social classes as well as all nations, whether rich or poor, to have as active a share in it as possible through education, means of communication, tourism and so forth. The Council fathers knew, of course, that there would always be differences of social status, talent and national character, but in their view great genuine culture does not presuppose the existence of a large number of men who are poor, socially weak and exploited. For them culture is not aristocratic and they do not favour the existence of those who, themselves without culture, make possible the culture of others. This almost socialist (to use an inexact term) characteristic of the Council's idea of culture is certainly in a sense contemporary, because in former times such a programme could not have been realized. Nevertheless, in the last analysis this tendency is determined by the Christian view of man as a creature and child of God destined for eternity. For precisely this reason every human being has the right, in principle, to share in the economic and cultural possessions of mankind. In the opinion of the Council the poor have been promised the kingdom of heaven not in order that others, whether individuals or nations, should alone be and remain rich. Mass culture is not ultimately a goal to be welcomed with enthusiasm. It is fundamentally a very sober programme lacking the charm of many contrasts, indeed it may be regarded as "levelling down". But such a programme is a demand of contemporary Christianity, while we are not going to prejudge the sociological justification of the mostly perjorative term "mass". The Christian faith decisively helps the individual to overcome the difficulties of the cultural situation of our time. The Council document says quite freely that it is impossible to guarantee food and peaceful existence to the immense and fast-growing population of our globe without more socialization, powerful international organizations and public intervention in the economies of individual states as well as of mankind as a whole. This greater socialization is not necessarily a good thing in itself, it is simply a necessity. It certainly involves also, though not only, new ties, very real dangers of men's manipulation by others, new restrictions, growing technologically planned uniformity, an ever-increasing fragmentation of man's work. All this is not necessarily compensated by greater freedom; but it is inevitably part of the guilt, which man ought not to have incurred, but which is now part of his life. Thus the so-called progress will also ever increase or at least alter the burden of existence. Faith can help to bear the burden which the contemporary mass culture imposes on us. This does not mean that faith could be manipulated into becoming such a help. But if we unreservedly believe in God, accepting our responsibility to him and hoping in eternal life, this faith will also help us to bear the narrowness and boredom of our life, which has today become worse rather than better. This faith helps us to carry on, without despairing and trying to make up for the greyness of our present world by escaping into the idolatry of superficial pleasures. Sobriety and resigned acceptance of the inevitable are certainly virtues of contemporary man and his humanism. But they either do not suffice without being founded on faith, or they are already filled unconsciously with what the Christian calls faith.

According to the Council Christians have the duty to impregnate the structures of secular life with their eschatological hope (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, art. 35, and the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, art. 38).This is an important statement about culture and the Christian's relation to it, for this "secular life" is actually identical with what we call culture. Now this certainly does not mean that the Christians could cause and help to establish their eschatological hope, which is the kingdom of God and ultimately God himself, by their cultural activities. The fulfilment of this hope which God himself freely gives to human history is his own deed and grace. Yet, though the absolute future is not in human hands, precisely its hopeful expectation becomes the driving power in man's cultural activities: the Christian hopes through creating culture and vice versa. He fashions the future of the world by hoping for the absolute future. Or, to express it more cautiously: he ought to have this hope and thus also do cultural work. This includes a statement about an essential element of hope itself. This hope for eternity is realized in the constant transformation of the structures of secular life. Leaving aside the fact that "revolution" is a very vague and many sided term, we might say:

Here Christian hope is declared to be the ground of an always revolutionary attitude of the Christian to the world. If Christianity be rightly understood and if Christians understand themselves correctly, things are exactly the opposite of what most Christians and non-Christians imagine: hope in the absolute future of God who is himself the eschatological salvation does not justify a fossilized conservatism which anxiously prefers the safe present to an unknown future; it is not a tranquillizing "opium for the people" in present sorrow; it is, on the contrary, the authoritative call to an ever-renewed, confident exodus from the present into the future, even in this world. Indeed, historical man does not realize even the ultimate transcendental structures of his nature in the abstract "interiority" of his own mind, but in communication with the world and his surroundings. And true "practice" in radical opposition to theory is not the mere execution of something planned and hence merely theoretical, but opening oneself to and risking the unplanned, so that the true possibility of what is risked appears only in this practice. True practice implies that the necessary and justifiable planning which manipulates the material world by technology, the human world by socialization and thus man himself, does not depreciate the insistent area of the unplanned. It does not reduce it to a defined residue merely waiting to be worked out. It rather increases the area in question and displays it more clearly as the result of praxis itself, since man, as he breaks down the unforeseen data, builds up his own unforeseeable product. Hence in the practical risk of the unforeseen inner-worldly future man realizes his eschatological hope by looking away from himself to the absolute which is not in his power. It is therefore true that man must impress his hope on the structures of the world. This, of course, does not mean precisely that certain permanent structures of his secular world could ever be the permanent objectivation of his eschatological hope. On the contrary. Every structure of secular life both present and to come is called into question by hope, because this is the anticipation of what is not in our power, and the historical and social act of hope is realized in this calling into question, though not entirely. For the Christian also accepts the passing away of the "form of this world" in his individual life, in death and the renunciation that anticipates death, and realizes his hope even in them. This is anything but wild revolt. For the spirit of revolt either elevates the immediate future of the world into an absolute and thus is the opposite of hope, namely a form of pride, or else it does not hope for anything, but denies everything because it is not permanent, and thus is despair. But constant criticism also of the secular structures is one of the forms of Christian hope. For it does not hold on to anything in this life as if without it man would fall into an absolute void; and at the moment when he is becoming more clearly than before the master of his world it orders him not only to let go what is taken away from him, but also actively to surrender what, in view of the infinite future of hope, he realizes to be transitory and thus replaceable even in time. It is strange that we Christians who must take the radical risk of hope in an absolute future should have acquired the reputation, among others as well as among ourselves,

that our principal virtue is the will to preserve the existing order. In fact, however, the Christians as the pilgrim people of God have been given the absolute command to hope, and this includes that they must always abandon also fossilized social structures. "Theoretical faith cannot simply deduce how the Christian is to realize this hope despite such ever renewed exodus, and to what he clings (as is also possible) because his hope takes away the semblance of the absolute also from the temporal future. This concrete imperative is not the result of the applied theory of the faith, just as little as faith as such changes the general promise into a special one which is grasped only by primeval hope. But this hope commands individual Christians as well as Christendom to risk these ever new decisions between the defence of the present and the exodus into the unforeseeable future. And hope can do this, for it has already done the greater thing. Through it man has abandoned himself into the eternal absolute over which he has no power. And in the power of this greater hope he also possesses the lesser hope, which is the courage to change the secular structures of his life, as the Council says. The greater hope is realized in the lesser, and eternal life in the creation of ever new forms of culture.


Faith and Culture: Text of a broadcast, South-West German Radio, II June 1967.


The Christian Character of the Secularized Ethos

We ought to be very careful in our judgment about the "secularization" of contemporary life. The plough and the sickle of former times were also secular objects. Today they have been replaced by tractors and treshing-rnachines, and thus there is not only a change in image and proportions, but there are also more objects in this world which can obstruct the religious view because they are so fascinating and so large. But they are there by rights, and as Christians we must simply accept the fact that there will be ever more man-made reality which is neither "numinous" nature nor is profane in the bad sense. To say it quite simply: the loaf of bread has become much bigger, thank God, but man can still realize that he does not live by bread alone, for he has always been tempted, not only now, to think the opposite. We make secularization only more dangerous if we dramatize it. And, let us be frank: is it really so certain that formerly, when religion and the Church played a greater part in public life, men really had more true faith, hope and charity, which, after all, are more important than anything else? God alone knows. The faith that is attacked by our secular world and is left to the free decision of the individual may well be more genuine. Further: is the seemingly secularized ethos of our time which speaks (and, let us hope, not only chatters) of the freedom and dignity of man, of responsibility and the love of one's neighbour, is this ethos a result of Christianity or not? It is its legitimate son, even though it is often a prodigal son -who squanders his property far from his father's house. How could this ethos remain alive unless men still believed, even without admitting it, that they are children of God destined for eternal life? Is not this belief genuinely Christian, and could it remain alive at all apart from Christianity? And would this ethos still be so alive, indeed propagating itself, unless it were still living by the side of explicit Christianity? Surely the secularized ethos of our society receives its power from Christianity. Perhaps this, too, may be a case of living on the money of one's parents, but not wanting to admit that one did not earn it oneself. By the way, the United States is often regarded as a prime example of a secularized country. But on closer inspection we shall find that many heterogeneous elements do, indeed, exist there side by side, but that the Churches are nevertheless extraordinarily "present" in public life. Apart from the social services run by the state in which, after all, Christians have as much a share as every one else, it must be said that the participations of "humanists" in private charitable enterprises for the poor, the sick, neurotics, lepers, etc., is relatively modest. All honour to Albert Schweitzer, for example. But most private works of mercy, it seems to me, are done by practicing Christians. Humanists attach too much importance to their own emancipation from Christianity and its "social power", and this prevents them from actual positive engagement. And finally, if we do not want the world to be submerged by a pagan secularism without God and without hope, we ought not to compile statistics and make forecasts, but should bear our Christian witness in the market place by word and deed. Everything else we can and must leave to God.


First published under the title "Das eigene Zeugnis" in Spektrum, supplement of Pressc, Vienna, 24/25 December 1966, p. 3.