Gracious Mystery, Ever Greater, Ever Nearer
The Winter Tree
(1) The context: In our modern, secular world the Christian faith is in crisis. Since the 18th century, science and many other disciplines have challenged or rejected traditional ideas of God. In addition, modern democracy gives people greater freedom to govern themselves – and to make up their own minds about their faith.
(2) Winter: Catholic Theologian Karl Rahner chose the metaphor of a ‘wintry season’ to describe faith in our modern culture. In Rahner’s metaphor of the winter tree, fruits and leaves that unfurled when Christianity was dominant have now fallen away. In this winter season, belief must get back to basics; but the preaching and teaching of the church still draws on primitive ideas of God unworthy of belief. So Rahner sought to describe a living God who provides warmth and sustenance in winter.
(3) Mystery ever greater: Rahner began his thinking about God by focusing on human beings – especially on our questioning nature, and our drive for truth. ¶ Starting with the human: The human spirit is driven towards transcendence, to reach beyond ourselves. We might picture ourselves surrounded by something like a horizon, a horizon that encircles our lives even though we can never reach it. In Rahner’s metaphor, the surrounding horizon is the infinite holy God. ¶ The whither of our self-transcendence: This God is “holy mystery,” so radically different that we will never fully understand it. But even though we cannot grasp the mystery – “present yet ever distant” – the mystery can grasp us.
(4) Mystery ever nearer: At the heart of Christian faith is the idea that the infinite and holy mystery of God does not remain forever remote, but draws near to the world. This holy mystery touches us through incarnation and through grace. ¶ Incarnation: in God’s self-communication through Jesus Christ, we see a God of prodigal love. ¶ Grace: in Christ, the horizon approaches us and bids us approach it, enfolding us in an ultimate and radical love. Grace is the animating force of all human history, the Spirit of God dwelling at the heart of our existence.
(5) Holy mystery: Rahner believes there is only one mystery in Christian faith; and that mystery does not reside in doctrinal statements but in the reality of God’s own being as self-giving love. This love, which will endure forever, nourishes and warms the spirit in the winter season. This God is not limited to a particular human tribe (or even to Christian believers), but dwells within and around the whole creation. So while we don’t know the outcome of our own lives, or of our world, we can still have confidence that the love of God will prevail. Faith becomes an act of courage; we can dare to hope.
(6) Love of God and neighbor: Rahner says “the devout Christian of the future will be a ‘mystic,’ that is, a person who has ‘experienced’ something…” But what is this mystical experience? Elizabeth Johnson summarizes this experience: “Christianity at heart proclaims a simple message: we are called into the immediacy of God’s own self. If we accept the silent immensity that surrounds us as something infinitely distant and yet ineffably near; if we receive it as a sheltering nearness and tender love that does not make any reservations; and if in this embrace we have the courage to accept our own life in all its concreteness and yearnings – which is possible only by grace – then we have the mystical experience of faith.” For Christians, the living Christ is at the center of this mystical experience; every Christian community is meant to be the sacramental presence of God’s promise to the world – to demonstrate that God’s self-gift is offered to the whole world, expressing this through unconditional love of neighbor. The question facing us, Rahner urges, is which do we love better: the little island of our own certitude, or the ocean of incomprehensible mystery?