For years now, going all the way back to when I was a theology major in college, I’ve studied the work of the great twentieth-century German theologian Karl Rahner. He is notoriously difficult to read, at least that’s caricature, but I can assure you that in light of some more contemporary thinkers, Rahner can be like reading the weekend USA Today newspaper. In addition to his theological omnipresence and strong influence in Catholic (and Protestant) theology over the last fifty years or so, he is worth reading because of his deeply spiritual and, at times, almost poetic style. He was clearly a man of prayer and someone for whom theology was not simply a “mind game” or a pure academic exercise. For Rahner, theology was, as it was for Bonaventure (an influence in Rahner’s famous work on the Trinity, by the way), a path toward holiness and a spiritual, prayerful activity.

Yesterday in one of my seminars we were going over some of Rahner’s work on theological anthropology and a fellow student, really quite in passing, shared an excerpt from the end of his introduction in Foundations of Christian Faithwhere the framework for his transcendental project begins and Rahner, not having yet explicitly identified his thesis in explicitly Christian terms, talks about the human capacity for and grounding in mystery. Later, Rahner will identify mystery (“wholly other,” “absolute mystery,” “ground of our existence,” etc.) as God. With that on the horizon, this little conclusive paragraph strikes me as particularly beautiful, so I thought I’d share it with all of you today.

What is made intelligible is grounded ultimately in the one thing that is self-evident, in mystery. Mystery is something with which we are always familiar, something which we love, even when we are terrified by it or perhaps even annoyed or angered, and want to be done with it. For the person who has touched his [or her] own spiritual depths, what is more familiar, thematically or unthematically, and what is more self-evident than the silent question which goes beyond everything which has already been mastered and controlled, than the unanswered question accepted in humble love, which along brings wisdom? In the ultimate depths of his [or her] being, [the human person] knows nothing more surely than that his [or her] knowledge, that is, what is called knowledge in everyday parlance, is only a small island in a vast sea that has not been traveled. It is a floating island, and it might be more familiar to us than the sea, but ultimately it is borne by the sea and only because it is can we be borne by it. Hence the existentiell question for the knower is this: Which does he [or she] love more, the small island of his[/her] so-called knowledge or the sea of infinite mystery? (FCF 22).

May you have a wonderful day, slightly — if at all — aware of that absolute mystery that grounds our very being and is the condition for the possibility of our existence, knowledge, interaction, and relationships today.

Photo: File


  1. The emphasis on mystery goes back–in my opinion–to the Old Testament reminder that the name of God is–unnameable. When Moses asked, the answer was ehyeh asher ehyah. “iyamwhatiyam.” The implication for prayer always is that God is “thou,” a person, more mysterious than a spouse or newborn baby, more mysterious than a tree or the ocean–or the universe. a Mysterium tremendum et fascinans, as the writer put it–intriguing and overwhelming. That starts us. The rest is revelation.

  2. Dan, I’m giving a workshop on Saturday, where mystagogy will play a big part….What a wonderful quote to have at my fingertips to unpack the word ‘mystery’ at its roots…Thanks for this timely post!

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