The Silent Treatment

Should God, of his free choice, wish not to reveal himself but to remain silent, man would attain the ultimate and highest self-perfection of his spiritual and religious existence by listening to the silence of God. (Karl Rahner, Hearers of the Word, pg. 16)

Rahner’s point here is to emphasize that finding the conditions of possibility for humankind receiving revelation (the task of “philosophy of religion”) is separate from the question of whether revelation has “empirically” happened (if it has, it is the subject matter of “theology”). Elsewhere, he lines up the speech or silence of God as two seemingly parallel possibilities. But does this really make sense in his scheme? After all, Rahner determines that the “place” where we receive revelation is in human historicity and specifically in human language — hence we can expect revelation to have a determinate content and to have taken place at a determinate time (for example, the content could be Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom, and the time could be around 30 A.D. — for example).

If the Anknupfungspunkt were something like the pineal gland, then it would make sense for it to remain idle — but if the “pineal gland” here is the existential structure of humanity, then “listening to the silence of God” doesn’t seem to be a coherent possibility. God would somehow have to let us know, at a determinate time, that he intended to remain silent — as it were, to open his mouth to speak, then think better of it. Silence as sheer silence would not be revelation at all. The highest calling of humanity, in the event of a “null” revelation, would be to live as though there were no God — something the human beings in such a hypothetical situation would presumably do quite naively, without knowing or being able to know that they were doing so.

Or is Rahner thinking that at some point, someone would begin to feel awkward and ask his neighbor, “Do you feel like someone’s mad at you? Like there’s someone with their back turned, their arms crossed, really wanting you to notice that they’re not paying attention to you?” The “silence” of the null revelation would be the sound of God tapping his foot, furiously waiting for someone to ask him what’s wrong.

10 thoughts on “The Silent Treatment

  1. Here’s my question: aren’t we supposed to interpret this as something like “God’s relationship to a perfect understanding of a perfect creation”? When Jesus makes his proclamation, it takes place in human time, but it is a declaration of ahistorical reality — the Kingdom of God is now, and has always been, within you. God does not intervene here because human history, by necessity, falls short of Him; specific times are privileged for human beings, not for God.

  2. I think this is a really interesting observation that gets at the heart of what Lubac and Balthasar dislike about Rahner. That is, Lubac would say that this “listening” to God’s silence is, first, not the situation we find ourselves in, but, second, does make sense for precisely these reasons.

    I have to admit I remain divided on the issue precisely because Rahner says that the concept of a “pure nature” (which is here invoked under the trope of God’s silence) is nothing more than a residual concept, a necessary, but only hypothetical, category of thinking about humanity in relation to the divine. That is, it is an excessive, though wholly negative, thought. At the moment, for various reasons, I think am leaning in Rahner’s direction, but I could be swayed. I do, however, think that this “hypothetical” context is important for understanding the (rather poetic) register of this observation.

  3. The observation is poetic — and rather striking. My first thought on reading it was, “Wow, this is really cool.” But I wonder if the idea of the “silent revelation” shows the concept of pure nature to be less negative than incoherent.

    If he just brought it up once, I would be more inclined to read it merely as a poetic statement, but it does come up elsewhere as well.

  4. Right. The point I was making was that I think that Rahner’s emphasis here might work more strongly in that direction precisely by preserving “pure nature” as a hypothetical residue of the actual exitential situation human beings find themselves in. That is, I am not sure the point you are making here would have the same force without positing the idea. I think it might be similar to the idea of thinking about a system of life that flourished without a sun, or something along those lines. Even entertaining the idea is only possible becuase a sun actual is, so it seems ridiculous, and yet the hypothetical is instructive when seeking to conceive certain aspects of interconnections between life, light, nourishment, etc. Like I said, I’m still sorting through it.

  5. Now I’m envisioning this whole wasteland of derelict residual concepts, produced by the onward march of actuality. We may need to assign Whitehead’s God the task of remembering and treasuring them all.

  6. (Joseph K’s comment was originally marked as spam, because he wrote about pornography on his blog.)

    At least in the 20th century, the most prominent theologians have been pretty clear that “the kingdom of God” is an historical notion. Exactly how to construe that is a matter of controversy, but Rahner certainly wouldn’t sign onto the idea that the Kingdom of God is just Jesus telling us about some “always-already” thing. The whole notion of sin militates against such an idea.

    That said, there are probably liberal theologians who would agree with your basic premise. I just don’t find that strain of theology to be very fruitful. (And just to clarify for anyone who may not know this — “liberal” in theology means something different from, though not entirely unrelated to, “liberal” in politics.)

  7. I read that book back in January and was awed. It is beyond my capacity to critique now. However… I understand the establishing of the ‘condition of the possibility’ of revelation, but Rahner also seems to posit a condition of the necessity of searching for it. Is this not self-defeating to the nature of actual (so-caled) revelation in history? If asking an ultimate question is the subconscious operation of all human being and action, would not Lubac say that this would cause one to look for the wrong kind of Ultimate? Lubac invokes Scotus (very funny! Scotus!) saying we know not what we search for; the answer to what we are looking for comes with the revelation. This is why the giving of revelation and the transformation it requires finds its best analogy in DEATH. Who is really searching to pick up a cross and be crucified?

    My question is this: if Rahner establishes the condition of the possibility of revelation without the correlation with specific revelation, does this not violate the content of the specific revelation he is hoping to establish the possibiltiy for? (At least for Lubac?) To think parallel to Lubac’s critique of the hypothetical pure nature (he says an hypothetical world does not matter – we need to show how the gift of the supernatural is gift in THIS world), does not Rahner need to show the condition of the possibility of THIS (Christ) revelation, rather than some general category of “luminosity”/searching ? Maybe I am only repeating what JD had said more accurately.

  8. This is fascinating to me. Rahner is one of those figures I have been very engaged with, and yet unable to pass any judgment on at the same time. But, I have always liked him (probably a residual Heideggerianism).

    I think it is important in the context to consider that (as JD reminded us) this is indeed a hypothetical question for Rahner–in other words, there really is a specific revelation to which Rahner correlates the graced search for meaning (the revelation of Jesus Christ is the answer to the quest(ion) of being); but, he is considering the possibility of there being no revelation, simply to raise a point about the mystery of God’s being…this is what is really at stake here for Rahner, I think. “Listening to the silence of God” is analogous (and nothing more) to the mystery which is the fulfillment of the “graced search for meaning.” One reaches such fulfillment by penetrating into a darkness that is infinite, chasing the back of God deep into a mystery which is inexhaustible (in this sense the Heideggerian overtones of Rahner show their true colors as overtones of the mystics). And so this “silence” is not ontological, but analogical for Rahner. He says exactly this in the Foundations of Christian Faith: “God becomes known only by analogy as mystery, insofar as God becomes known only negatively by way of a preeminence over the finite, and only by mediate reference, but God does not become known in God’s self by direct immediacy to God. God’s ultimate and unambiguous relationship to spiritual creatures cannot be known in this way. For in this kind of a natural, treanscendental relationship to God the question is still unanswered whether God wants to be for us a silent and impenetrable mystery keeping us at a distance in our finiteness, or wants to be the radical closeness of self-communication; whether God wants to confront our sinful rejection of God in the depths of our conscience and in its categorical objectifications in history as judgment or as forgiveness.” This is the question of what Rahner calls “natural revelation” (and is what is often used to mischaracterize Rahner as a neo-Kantian agnostic)…but this is the hypothetical part. Rahner follows this up with the following: “Whether the possibility of a self-communication of God in grace could be known from human beings and their transcendence, whether they could interpret their transcendence as the realm of a possible self-communication of God in God’s own self, or whether God would have said that this realm is indeed given as the condition of possibility for a relationship to the absolute mystery, but could not be fulfilled by God’s self-communication without being shattered, these are all questions which we will not treat here. God has in fact revealed God’s self in this way. And at least from this we know that such a revelation through God’s self-communication is in itself possible.” I think Rahner is much more complex than he is often given credit for.

    The question that fascinates me more in all of this, though, is the connection with how Rahner works this out and how Schleiermacher works this out.

  9. I know I was horribly unclear in my last comment–my main point is that Rahner is more complex on the issue of revelation to begin with: or, that “revelation” has a “natural” aspect (in the hypothetical mode) as well as a “real” aspect, but both are objects of philosophical/theological thought (the acts of philosophy and theology aren’t quite so separated for Rahner that they are dichotomous), and that “silence” and “speech” are not poles between which we must decide, since God reveals Godself to be the God of Jesus Christ, but also the God of mystery. Knowing the revelation of Jesus Christ does not attain a fullness of knowledge because God is mystery which exhausts finite knowledge (this is not simply to reduce to a Kantian agnosticism that pits finite against infinite, but is much closer to the Milbankian use of the term “excess,” where God’s being [esse] overflows all human knowledge–only God knows Godself in God’s fullness…there is still knowledge of this mystery for the one who has received and entered into the “real” revelation of Jesus Christ, but because God’s being is excessive, this being remains mysterious…even into the darkness). To consider a “hypothetical” question of revelation such as God’s revealing Godself in God’s silence is to complexify the question of human knowledge of the divine, and thus to dig deeper into human subjectivity. I think if we simply pit “speech” against “silence” here we miss Rahner’s real theological point. The wholly “negative” aspect of God’s silence correlates to God’s Logos in Jesus Christ, and is meaningless outside of it, but these do not cancel each other out…they are held together as paradox (much like Lubac’s own paradoxes) by the bond of God’s infinite mystery.

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