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The History of Human Salvation and the Natural History of the Entire Cosmos


Theological Investigations, vol. 21 

A final word must be said as to whether and how the history of human salvation as conceived by faith and theology can be integrated into the evaluation and natural history of the entire cosmos. We have already touched on some aspects of this problem; many of them cannot be dealt with here in much greater scope. We shall, however, attempt to offer a few ideas.

Within evolution as a whole and history there is also a history of freedom of personal creatures consisting of a bodily and spiritual nature (known as human beings) for whom the entire cosmos is the presupposition and place of their existence and (in different degrees) even the inner element of this existence (because of their corporeality and sensory characteristics). This fact causes no difficulty if matter and spirit are conceived not as absolutely disparate and contradictory, but rather if matter is conceived as ultimately spiritual and oriented toward spirit (consciousness) and furthermore (albeit in essentially different degrees) as an inner constitutive element of the spiritual nature of created beings, all of which Christian faith requires, rather than forbids us to do. The Christian understanding of the history of human salvation as the apex of the history of the cosmos toward which the cosmos is tending in the normal course of its development , even if this apex has a specific quality of its own, presents us with this difficulty: the "result" of this salvation history can today no longer really be located in the cosmos (of the modern natural sciences, or so, at least, it would seem); yet on the other hand, Christian faith, rooted in the dogma of the "resurrection of the body," seems to prohibit a simple shifting of this result of salvation history to a point outside of this material cosmos.

The old theology had it easy. In the cosmos, which was viewed in principle as being accessible to empirical observation, it had a place for the risen Christ, for the angels, for those who had reached beatitude, for the evil spirits and for hell. Places like these are no longer conceivable in the modern cosmos considered in the light of an evolutionary world view. At this point, of course, one can appeal to the principle which has often been mentioned and which states that, given the original multiplicity of the elements of human knowledge, the ability or the obligation to achieve in every case a positive synthesis of our affirmations, which are at first disparate, cannot be expected from the outset; that the absence of such a synthesis is therefore no reason for denying a part of what has not been synthesized; and that consequently legitimate affirmations of an existentiell eschatology may not be rejected just because we do not know how to synthesize them positively with our ideas of history and the cosmos.

But this does not mean that the Christian view from the outset rules out the possibility that these eschatological affirmations about the eternal life of the individual, the glorified body, and so on, might be in some way related to the material cosmos, since, after all, those who have reached beatitude are not different persons from those that they were on earth, and there is a belief in the resurrection of the body and hope for a "new earth." But in affirmations of this kind one cannot "demythologize" in such a way that the ultimate meaning intended by the affirmation is turned into the opposite of what the affirmation really intended to say. Doing this only adds to the difficulties. That much should be said. Eschatological realities which faith affirms cannot be made acceptable to Catholic theology by simply declaring them to be there as something in the future, only at the end of the history of the cosmos or of humanity. At least the risen Christ (and Mary) must be considered as a glorified element in the reality of the world which is present even now. But is it possible and is it permitted to conceive this as separated from the cosmos and its material character here and now? In today's conception of matter in its unity, which is viewed as a field, new questions have certainly arisen for theologians which they must somehow or other face up to, even if they might not really be able to give a positive answer to them, and have to admit this frankly.

But on the other hand, one must say the following. The history of freedom in the free subject's presence to itself, and the world's self-presence that is implicit in this, is an empirical fact. Those who maintain that universal evolution is the basic pattern which underlies the reality of the world and is the key to its understanding must integrate this fact into this conception of the world. They must recognize that the whole of reality has developed toward this history of freedom in an evolutionary process which, despite all the elements of accident, has followed a consistent line of development toward this goal, and that the previous phases of the world's evolution have developed, by virtue of self-transcendence, into this history of freedom (which, at least in many respects, cannot be surpassed). In this light the possibility of defective developments, dead ends, and calamities as conceived by the theological history of salvation no longer comes as a surprise.

Furthermore, the question can remain open as to which spatial and temporal points this self-transcendence of the world's evolution into the history of freedom has reached. In any case, this self-transcendence has been achieved in our realm of experience. If, then, given these premises and in this framework Christian revelation (the more precise formal nature of which need not be discussed here, but which does not postulate an additional miraculous intervention of God, but rather, in the realm of our own experience, actually occurs freely wherever the created spirit's unlimited transcendentality is present) maintains that this world evolution, which at the highest point of its development evolves into spirit, once again actually moves beyond itself (in what is called grace and glory) toward an immediacy to the absolute God, then that can be understood, even when it is nothing more than a datum of revelation, as a prolongation of the world's evolution which, through the power of God himself, tends toward that spirit which has an immediacy to God himself.

In a world evolution of this kind matter cannot be conceived as a mere launching pad which is left behind, or the first stage of a movement which is simply cast off. The dogma of the resurrection of the body prevents the Christian thinker from subscribing to this idea. Even though it is not possible to have much of any positive notion as to what function the material element itself will have and what part it will still have to play in this kind of a final phase of spirit in its immediate unity with absolute spirit, still this dogma which says that matter will be taken up into the finality of the unsurpassable perfection of created spirit, is an apotheosis of matter the likes of which a wretched materialism does not even dare to conceive. (Incidentally, if one conceives the angels in a Platonic but not unbiblical way as having some sort of relationship to matter, then their glory is still no argument against what we have said.) From this, natural scientists would have to take warning that they do not have the right to let the material world disappear at the end, for example, through a gravitational collapse in the black hole of nothingness. Just as they have no right or obligation to "inquire beyond" the big bang, so too it is not their part to speculate about an absolute end of all material reality.

In this kind of integration of salvation history into the entire evolution of the cosmos, something which is at least conceivable there is a further element for Christian faith. In an evolution of this kind, properly understood, one must allow for surprises, defective developments, dead ends, for a total halt to progress as such. It is precisely for this reason that Christian faith goes on to affirm, with an optimism which stems from God's grace and goes beyond all conceivable pessimism, that this world evolution in the phase of its spiritual history is not only capable of arriving at an immediacy to God, but that even now it has entered upon a phase through which, in a way that is irreversible for the totality of the history of freedom (prescinding from a theoretical affirmation about the individual person), this goal will actually be attained, and that the catastrophe, which in itself is possible, and the total halt to progress will not come to pass. This irreversibility and this orientation toward a future goal that will actually be attained, which are characteristic of the world's evolution and its history of freedom, are present for Christians in the Christian dogma of Jesus Christ as the "Logos of God made flesh," as God 's irrevocable promise of salvation in Jesus of Nazareth.

In our context it is especially worthy of note that the point at which God in a final self-communication irrevocably and definitively lays hold on the totality of the reality created by him is characterized not as spirit but as flesh. It is this which authorizes the Christian to integrate the history of salvation into the history of the cosmos, even when myriad questions remain unanswered, as can happen. No matter how clearly and precisely theology and natural science have to be distinguished from one another and the line of demarcation drawn between them, they both have to do with one another, because human beings in all their dimensions, who are nature, endure nature, and pursue the science of nature, are called to that salvation which is the incomprehensible God himself.

K. Rahner, Theological Investigations, vol. 21 (Darton: Longman&Todd, 1988), pp. 52-54.