Karl Rahner – A Theologian Grapples with the Reality of Non-Christian Religions

Karl Rahner (1904-1984) was an influential Catholic theologian of the twentieth century who evaluated “non-Christian religions” in his Theological Investigations (1).

Rahner’s effort was the attempt to engage in comparative religion by acknowledging the fact that religions other than his own exist and that, from his Christian perspective, they have some measure of legitimacy. Christians live in a religiously pluralistic context and this demands that they come to familiarize themselves with other religions. Rahner was particularly interested in assisting his fellow Christians in coming to understanding and regard people of other faiths.

Rahner sees Christianity as being open to all people who wish to believe in it. However, he also acknowledges that it is exclusive in its claim on truth: “Christianity understands itself as the absolute religion, intended for all people, which cannot recognize any other religion beside itself as of equal right” (2). Christianity is, for Rahner, the exclusive product of God’s self-revelation to humanity. But Rahner says that “non-Christian” religions can also be recognized as proper or lawful religions. They can be viewed as such because they have formed through a natural knowledge of God. Non-Christian religions are thus not illegal or exist in violation of Christianity’s view of God’s will. All religions are, in fact, the recipients of supernatural grace. To Rahner, this grace is confirmed in the fact that these religions exist. This does not mean that non-Christian religions are valid, but rather that they are not violations of God’s divine providence. By referring to religions as lawful, Rahner claims,

“A lawful religion means here an institutional religion whose “use” by man at a certain period can be regarded on the whole as a positive means of gaining the right relationship to God and thus for attaining of salvation, a means which is therefore positively included in God’s plan of salvation” (3).

This informs Rahner’s view of how Christians are to see non-Christians,

“Christianity does not simply confront the member of an extra-Christian religion as being a mere non-Christian, but as someone who can and must already be regarded in this or that aspect as an anonymous Christians” (4).

According to Rahner, the devout of the non-Christian religions should be seen as “anonymous Christians”. These people are really Christian even if they are not consciously and deliberately aware of it. Rahner still sees the importance of missionary activity in this, which is essential to the transformation of the anonymous Christians into “someone who now also knows about his Christian belief in the depths of grace-endowed being by objective reflection and in the profession of faith which is given a social form in the church”. Missionary activity is essentially reaching out to the anonymous Christians who populate the world.

Rahner posits that there will be a culmination in human history when the distinction between Christians and non-Christian will cease to exist. There will be no longer be those “who have not yet recognized what they nevertheless already really are”. On this day, tensions between Christians and non-Christian in the world will no longer exist. For Rahner, this means that rather than Christians viewing non-Christians in a hostile and antagonistic manner, they ought to view them as anonymous Christians who are yet to recognize their true identity. This must be seen in light of the coming culmination of human history when everyone will recognize their true Christian identity.

Rahner’s engaging of comparative religion is an attempt for a convinced Christian to grapple with the reality of non-Christian religions in the world. This is the primary value that Rahner’s view has in the field of religious studies. Less favourable, at least from the perspective of secular scholars in the field of religious studies, is that Rahner’s view works with the assumption of Christianity’s superior status, which is a conviction he theorizes from. As noted, Rahner believes that everything validly religious is essentially Christian, even if it can be found in non-Christian religions. This will lead most scholars to consider Rahner’s work primarily theological, thus impartial, and therefore unacceptable.

But despite such criticism, the twentieth century has witnessed valiant attempts by scholars from various worldviews to grapple with living in a religiously pluralistic society while holding onto their convictions. Rahner’s, in particular, is an attempt for a convinced Christian theologian to view other religions and their devout in a friendly and generous manner.


  1. Capps, Walter. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
  2. Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 277.
  3. Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 278.
  4. Capps, Walter. 1995. Ibid. p. 278.

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