Karl Rahner on the Word “God”

The word “God” exists. Thus we return to the beginning, to the simple fact that in the universe of words with which we build our world and without which even the so-called facts do not exist for us, the word “God”, too, occurs. Even for the atheists, even for those who say: God is dead, God exists, at least as the God whom they declare dead and whose ghost they must chase away, of whose return they are afraid. They would be at rest only if the word itself ceased to exist, that is if the question of God would no longer have to be posed at all. Nevertheless, this word is still there.

Even Marx thought that atheism, too, would have to disappear, so that the very word “God”, whether affirmed or denied, would occur no more at all. Is such a future conceivable? Perhaps the question is meaningless, because genuine future is that which is radically new, which cannot be foreseen. Or the question seems to be merely theoretical and immediately changes into a question of our freedom, whether we shall also challenge one an- other in future by saying “God”, be it affirming, denying or doubting him. In any case, the believer sees only two possibilities: the word will either disappear completely, leaving no trace, or it will remain as a question for all men.

Let us consider these two possibilities.

Supposing the word “God” had disappeared without leaving any visible gap and without being replaced by another word which would have a similar effect on us, which would pose at least the one fundamental question, even though we do not want to give or hear this word as an answer. What will happen if this hypothesis is to be taken seriously? Then man will no longer be confronted with the one whole of reality as such nor with the totality of his own existence. For this is done only by the word “God”, whatever its phonetic form or origin.

If the word “God” really did not exist, this twofold unity of reality and of human existence would no longer be there for man. He would forget himself completely, being wholly immersed in the details of his world and his existence. He would not even be confronted with the whole of the world and himself in silent confusion. He would no longer be aware of being only an individual, not Being itself; he would only ask questions, but not consider the basis of all questioning, he would only manipulate ever new single moments of his existence, but would never confront it as one whole. He would remain stuck within the world and himself, no longer able to think of himself as a unique whole and thus to transcend himself, entering the silent strangeness from which he now returns to himself and his world, differentiating and accepting both.

He would forget the whole and his own ground, and at the same time forget, so to speak, that he has forgotten. What would happen then? We can only say he would have ceased to be a man, he would have returned to the state of the animal.” *


* Karl Rahner, Foundations of the Christian Faith: An Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, trans. William V. Dych, (Seabury Press, 1978), p. 45

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