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Kant Was Wrong

Understanding Karl Rahner: Vol. I, A Theologian in Search of a Philosophy; Vol. II, The Mystery of Man and The Foundations of a Theological System

By George Vass, S.J.

Publisher: Christian Classics and Sheed & Ward

Pages: 153 (Vol. I) and 200 (Vol. II)

Price: $12.75 (each)

Review Author: Thomas W. Case

Thomas W. Case is a Ph.D. student in Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

Also reviewed:

The Church with a Human Face: A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry. By Edward Schillebeeckx. Crossroad. 308 pages. $19.50.

The Von Balthasar Reader. Edit­ed by Medard Kehl and Werner Loser. Crossroad. 437 pages. $14.95.


I came to the conclusion that God exists through a chain of reasoning: everything is caused by something else, cause must lead to prior cause, and that pri­or cause must have a first cause. It took 10 more years for me to admit that the first cause is a per­sonal God who is interested in us, and 10 years more before I surrendered to Jesus and joined the Catholic Church.

Since I came to faith by way of reason, I sift through and worry around and wonder just what theory of knowing and be­ing can best underpin that faith. It has to be a kind of Realism, a true (if mediated) correspon­dence of the human mind to what is real. If this is not so, our knowledge remains only a reflec­tion of ourselves and faith is nothing more than a conspiracy of human minds.

Just such a subjective con­spiracy undergirds Karl Rahner’s “anthropological theology.” It is hugely self-centered. It describes God as if He were inside the functions of the human mind. I discern in Rahner no God who is prior to the world or to human beings.

This is the strained focus of all Rahner’s work: my thought, my mind, my self. But it has a cause: Rahner’s theory of know­ing is circumscribed by Immanuel Kant’s “critical idealism.” Ac­cording to Kant, we do not look upon the world as it is, but upon an appearance of the world pro­jected by the structures of the human mind.

This is no place to develop a rigorous examination of Kant’s Critique; suffice it to say that his limiting of the mind’s knowing to a world of appearance is based on his denial of the notion that cause operates in the external world. Yet he sneaks that notion back into his philosophy when he says that “things in them­selves” cause the appearances we see. That being the case, there is no reason in the first place to erect an absolute barrier be­tween what appears and what is. But Rahner accepts Kant’s “cri­tique” and imposes it like a drag­net on what he wishes to be a “full openness” of man to reali­ty, an “openness” that also is central to Rahner’s epistemology.

Vass timidly points out this inconsistency, but his solution seems to be to move toward a more extreme agnosticism. One might call it “personalist”: a per­son finds reality with and through other persons, but no more than Rahner does Vass find a reality external to human minds. In this community of un­knowing, we are “challenged by the Revelation of Christ.” Vass suggests that one cannot impose Kantian categories on St. Thom­as without cracking both systems at the foundation. This Rahner has tried to do. But Vass does no better, for he believes in Kant’s system and carries it to a subjectivist conclusion.

How indeed can one be “challenged by the Revelation of Christ” if that revelation takes place according to the (likely as not) deceptive structures of one’s own mind? How can one encoun­ter the Wholly Other if what one encounters is shaped by the bub­ble of human consciousness?

The fundamental error, be­ginning with Descartes, is to start with the self as ground zero. Let us imagine a child coming to the sense of the “self.” I say “com­ing to” because he does not start there. First there is only experience and no self, and no question of real or unreal (these doubts come later). Then, perhaps through the opposition of his will by another — his mother, say — he recognizes “otherness.” At that moment he begins to attain a recognition of “self.” But since that “self” is consequent to that “other,” the process of knowing flows always from reality to the self, and not vice versa. The start­ing place of knowing and being is reality. Step two is “external re­ality.” Step three is “self-as-op­posed-to-external-reality.” Ger­man Idealism begins and ends with step three.

In short, St. Thomas was right and Kant was wrong.

As for Vass, I can only ex­press sorrow and sympathy for a man who has spent much of his intellectual life trying to come to grips with a theologian whose work is a mare’s nest of tortured equivocation.

Does Fr. Schillebeeckx’s The Church with a Human Face offer something better? Alas, no. Here one finds not only equivo­cation but what appears to be downright sneakiness. The fol­lowing passage encapsulates the book:

One can say that the com­munities of God which came in­to being on the basis of the res­urrection of Jesus are what is meant at the deepest level in the New Testament by “the appear­ances of Jesus.” The crucified but risen Jesus appears in the be­lieving, assembled community of the church. That this sense of the risen, living Jesus has faded in many of them can be basically blamed on the fact that our churches are insufficiently “communities” of God (though of course there are other fac­tors). Where the church of Jesus Christ lives, and lives a liberating life in the footsteps of Jesus, the resurrection faith undergoes no crisis. On the other hand, it is better not to believe in God than to believe in a God who mini­mizes human beings, holds them under and oppresses them, with a view to a better world to come.

Come now. I thought the reason that the risen Christ no longer appears is because He ascended into Heaven 40 days af­ter the Resurrection. Does Schillebeeckx believe that the risen Christ “appeared” only in the hearts and minds of the “believ­ing community”? Far be it from me to accuse Schillebeeckx of such heresy. Let Cardinal Ratzinger try if he can to decipher the meaning.

But I must admit I smell a rat. Look again at the last sen­tence of the quote. I do not think the concept of “a better world to come” requires an op­pressive God, or one “who mini­mizes human beings.” A redemp­tive God will do just fine.

Schillebeeckx contends that a pure, Holy-Spirit Christianity existed (especially among the “free Christian women” in Cor­inth) before the dastardly St. Paul, and then the Church (read: a male hierarchy) clamped the lid on that delicious anarchy of the spirit. The clergy must then re­turn to this “pure” Christianity of assembled believers (believers in what?) and minister to it. This is the raison d’être of the priest­hood. But even to use the word “priesthood” is to succumb to “supernaturalism,” a bad word in Schillebeeckx’s lexicon. He at­tacks priestly celibacy, throws sops to feminism and liberation theology, and exalts everything that grabs headlines.

Since limitations of space prevent a full treatment of Fr. von Balthasar, I will simply quote a passage from The Von Balthasar Reader to answer im­plicitly Schillebeeckx’s theory of the priesthood:

If we are not wholly mistak­en, the near future [this was written in 1968] will try to split apart the synthesis toward which the presbyterate is constantly striving. Some will place a one­-sided emphasis on office and function (consistent with the present-day inclination to functionalize the human being) and see in office nothing more than one functional charism among others in the people of God, compatible with marriage and with secular vocations and to be exercised according to the need of the community [a fine characterization of Schillebeeckx’s standpoint!]. These will lose sight of the connection to the special calling found in the gos­pel and have a tendency to de­ny its existence. Others will hearken to the call to imitate the poor, obedient, and, for the sake of God’s kingdom, unmar­ried Christ, and see their en­trance into office under the sign of a dedication of their lives for the brethren.

Anything and everything by von Balthasar, a theologian of real importance, is worth reading in this day of spiritual disarray.


© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

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