Below is the conclusion of an address given by theologian Karl Rahner at his 80th birthday celebration, held on February 11-12, 1984, about six weeks before his death. I am indebted to Rudolf Goetz, MD, for this translation made from a tape recording of Rahner’s speech and supplemented with the help of a translation of the text of the whole address that appeared in Theological Studies, No. 61, 2000.
If we Christians profess the eternal life we hope to partake in, then this expectation of the coming is nothing strange. Usually, one speaks with a certain unctuous pathos about the hope of eternal life; and far be it from me to find fault in that, as long as it is meant genuinely. Yet, I am touched strangely if I hear such a talk. It seems to me that the schemes of imagination, seeking clarification of the eternal life, fit very little to the radical incision that death actually is. The eternal life is so tellingly called “on the other side”, and as continuing “after” death. One imagines that eternal life too much equipped with the realities that are familiar for us here: as joy and peace, as festival meal and jubilation; and all that, and similar, never ending and continuing on and on. I am afraid that the radical incomprehensibility of what is really meant by eternal life is made harmless; what we, in this life, call the immediate vision of God is degraded to one pleasurable occupation among others that fill that eternal life. The ineffable enormity is not truly perceived; that the absolute God-head Itself, naked and bare, breaks into our narrow “creatureliness”. I confess that it seems to me to be an agonizing, not yet mastered, task for a theologian of today to discover a better imaginative model for this, one that would exclude, a priori, these ineffective ones just described. But how, but how?
Once the angels of death have cleaned out from the spaces of our mind all that insignificant rubble that we call our human history—even though, of course, the true essence of freedom remains; once all the glowing stars of our ideals (that we used, in our pride, to drape the sky of our existence) have faded away in their glow, and are extinguished; once death has erected a huge silent emptiness, and once we have accepted this silently, in faith and hope, as our genuine essence, then our past life (even as long as it may be) appears only as a short explosion of our freedom that had seemed to us stretched out like in slow motion, an explosion in which question turns into answer, possibility into reality, time into eternity, freedom offered into freedom done. And once it becomes apparent that the gigantic shock that we sense as death [will become] ineffable jubilation, that this gigantic silent emptiness, is, in truth, full of the central basic mystery that we call God, full of His pure light, of His love that takes and gives everything, then [perhaps], out of this mystery, also the countenance of Jesus, the blessed one, appears and looks at us. It is in this concreteness [of Christ] that we have a divine surpassing of all our usual ideas regarding the incomprehensibility of the infinite God.
I don't want, really, to describe vaguely, what comes, but rather, still hint at, with stammering, how one can expect, preliminarily, this coming, by experiencing the sinking in death, as the rising of that what comes. Eighty years are a long time. For every person, however, the allotted lifetime is the short moment in which becomes what has to be.
And now, very honorable audience—I don't want to speak again after the celebration—I thank you already now, very cordially, for your participation in this little history… that is [?] an 80th birthday. I thank you from my heart and ask you that I may be dispensed from rhetorically elaborating on this “thank you”. I thank you, cordially, and ask you, as an ordinary Christian …who knows what is important, possibly to carry once a small prayer before God that His love and His mercy may be my part in finality.
Rahner, S.J., born on March 5, 1904 in
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