Rahner’s Anonymous Christian in the Light of Mystical Thought

By Fadi Abu-Deeb




            Is there such thing as an anonymous Christian?  What does that mean and how can this concept be justified?  It is, in fact, an important thing to search into this concept to figure out if this can be replacement for a Christian exclusivistic message.  The idea of anonymous Christianity imposes a theological reality that makes it inevitable to reconsider the granted ideas about human nature and potentialities, salvation and faith and its purpose.

            This paper demonstrates the Rahnarian concept of anonymous Christian and anonymous faith.  This concept will be also explained by means of Romantic perspective taken from German Romanticism.  But defining the anonymous faith cannot be done properly without passing by the description of the meaning of the culpable rejection, that is, when is a person considered to be outside the domain of both the anonymous faith and the explicit Christian faith?  It is interesting also to take into consideration the opinions of ancient Eastern Christian theologians, whose spirituality could give the faith of the modern times new dimensions, cautions or affirmations.

What is Rahner’s anonymous Christian?

            The anonymous Christian according to Rahner is any person who does not reject the guidance of his conscience which expresses his reality as a finite dependent being on God.  Bryson Arthur summarizes what Rahner means by this concept:

…all men, provided they have not culpably rejected the thematic, explicit, expression of anonymous faith in the historical Christian revelation, are living in anonymous faith as anonymous Christians.  They are, in effect, justified pagans.[1]

            So, this Rahnarian proposition of anonymous Christian contains two important suppositions that need to be probed.  The first is the concept of culpable rejection, and the second one is the idea of the anonymous faith in the historical Christian revelation.

The culpable rejection

            The culpable rejection is explained by Rahner as a state of consciousness whereby the person acts freely in a way that makes the “transcendental dependence on God is itself simultaneously denied in a free action by a gravely sinful unfaithfulness to conscience.”[2]  And of course this demands then that the conscience is not corrupted totally by the original sin or the fall to the extent of untrustworthiness.  In other words, the conscience is still a trusted guidance for the human being, and it is a valid referent to be obeyed without any extraordinary or exclusive intervention from God in a certain point in time.  Nevertheless, Arthur questions this consideration about conscience.  The question here is “Is there any person who has ever lived, apart from Christ, who has not offended his conscience in this way?”[3]  But being dogmatic on this issue is probably inappropriate if it is to be judged metaphysically (i.e. logically). Because how can it be asserted that an unchristian would inevitably violate his conscience as a way of life.  And if it is something determined for the unbelievers, so then why do Christians expect them to hear the Christian message and believe it?  This requires then an absolute passivity from their side, waiting for a full work by the Holy Spirit.  Human beings then are irresponsible for their calamities.

In the history of the church there is evidence that the belief in the possibility of connect to the good human nature created by God.  Maximus the confessor, a seventh century eastern theologian, prompts his readers to direct their souls to behave according to its original and beautiful nature (according to an Arabic translation)[4], so that it can despise the passions:  “A culpable passion is an impulse of the soul that is contrary to nature.”[5] 

Symeon the New Theologian (949- 1022 A.D.) emphasizes also that the pure conscience is the only and indispensable stage of the knowledge of God for it is the first and necessary stage that leads the person to experience the energy of the Holy Spirit, and “through the grace of the Holy Spirit he would recover his spiritual vision and would see the Lord”.[6]  The pure conscience is also the indispensable beginning of any true method of prayer.[7]  Therefore, it is obvious that the conscience has been an issue of great importance in the history of the church through centuries, and it was considered, not just as trustworthy, but as a core of the spiritual life for a Christian.  Although Rahner speaks about a universal role of conscience, i.e. for Christians and non-Christians, but the historic attitudes give examples of a primordial role of conscience, which leads a person even to become a real Christian.  On the other hand, a question may be posed:  “Is it a fallacy to appeal to an authority in this matter?”  Actually, it depends on the domain to which the issue belongs.  As this issue does not belong to empirical science, nor it is a part of logical proposition, then it is probably valid to go back to some old authorities and founders of the Christian theology to hear from them.

This non-culpability must be accompanied then with an anonymous saving faith that dwells in the person without knowledge, so that it makes him inculpable.

Anonymous faith

On the other hand, the anonymous faith is a requirement for a salvific work that would save an unbeliever in the historical Christian revelation.  Arthur describes this faith as a “kind of vague empty faith which God mysteriously elevates by His own supernatural will and act, to that of saving faith.”[8]  And Rahner himself depicts the salvific work as follows:

[B]ecause the universal and supernatural will of God is working for human salvation, the unlimited transcendence of man, itself directed of necessity towards God, is raised up consciously by grace, although possibly without explicit thematic reflection, in such a way that the possibility of faith in revelation is thereby made available.[9]

            So it seems that a person can have a faith without being familiar with it according to Rahner.  And the content of this faith is as explained above by Arthur is a kind of a vague one.  But if it is that vague and empty, how could it have any kind of salvific quality?  What would be the significant factor that distinguishes it from a culpable attitude?  It is then summarized in one concept, which is the correspondence to the conscience.

The concept of an anonymous Christianity (and thus an anonymous Christian) was not strange in the Romantic and mystical realms in Europe.  Jacob Bohme, a German mystic, was really a pioneer on this matter.  As Ricarda Huch demonstrates, he went as far to proclaim that even the pagan religions was really undeveloped Christian ones.  For Novalis, Christianity and religion are synonyms.  Schleiermacher on the other hand used to say in his sermons that Christianity was the universal religion that included every possible religion.[10]  This must connote then that Christianity- and being a Christian- is taken to another dimension, and it is understood in the light of a whole different context.  It is the universal timeless context, not in a sense that it neglects history, but that it pursues to reach to the ultimate meanings, connotations and goals of the historic events.

The Romantic philosophers sees Christianity as identified with the idea of religion in general, as obvious in Novalis above.  Religion is also identified with love therefore the love in the human life is the ultimate purpose.  Everything in religion is for the sake of the human being in the end.[11]  This may indicate then why Christianity is the universal realm that can include all the other religions.  According to the Romantics, Jesus Christ is the highest ideal of friendship.  He is a kind of an enlightened brother that demonstrates how much he resembles the human and how he is higher in the same time prompting the person to imitate Him and to be just like Him.[12]  That does not neglect the divine nature of Christ, nor it dismisses His historicity, but it takes the historical fact to its primary ultimate goal which is the human being and his approach to the divine.

Following this new dimension of Christian faith, it can be understood in what context does the anonymous faith reveals itself as valid and worthy of consideration.  That is, if Christianity is the highest transfiguration of the divine love, and if Christ the, historic figure, is in the end the most intimate mediator between the transcendent and the human, then the core is moved to the human being as the goal, i.e. salvation is to recapture the divine, not to comprehend it or to deal with it according to specific conditions.  It is not even to satisfy Him.  Christ is the helper, the most enlightening channel of the divine as John Macquarrie would have said, for Christ was “a new and decisive revelation of an activity that had always been going on…”[13]

Boris Mouravieff elaborates this picture by speaking about the cosmic Christ.  Although he admits that the Way to salvation is one, he states that there are many tracks and paths:

…whoever succeeds in reaching the Truth will gain access to the same singular Truth whether he is Christian or non-Christian, believer or atheist. The Way to Salvation is One, and it is open to all; but many are the tracks and varied are the paths of access which lead to it. Christ is cosmic, and whoever is united to him becomes a Christian, whatever the faith he confesses. King David had reached Christ, and Christ incarnated in Jesus was called the Son of David.[14]

            Here Mouravieff undoubtedly understands Christ as the eternal Logos.  His conception is very close to the Romantic one mentioned previously, whereby Christianity is equivalent to truth, and thus the Christian is everyone who pursue this truth and adhere to it.  Christ is the only Way according to this concept, but He is taken as the Logos or the cosmic Christ who incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth once upon a time, thereby Jesus is the Way, but many tracks are reaching to it.

            The Romantic philosophers insist that the Nature also can be a mediator between the divine and the human.[15]  This can be understood now in the light of the anonymous faith in the cosmic Christ which is the Logos that reveals the truth through many means including the Nature or the other human beings.

A practical perspective

Perhaps most of people will grant the fact, or the observation at least, that most of the religious realms witness testimonies of conversion, claims of increasing awareness, and also various descriptions of experiencing the divine, although they still have a common ground of experience. These experiences that are met everywhere can be taken as allusions to an anonymous faith that dwells in the souls of so many persons consciously (concomitant of a clear religious doctrine) or unconsciously (built on a vague feeling of the transcendent).  Certainly this does not prove the salvific qualities of such faith, but it nevertheless denotes the validity of the proposition of the existence of common anonymous faith that longs to the transcendence, employing- in so many cases- metaphors and signs that are closely denoting, and presenting similar picturesque experiences and results.

Yet it is always possible to doubt the similarity and motives, but nevertheless it may be not wise to judge matters of conscience and internal life, whilst the phenomena during centuries and millennia tell something different and simple, which is the awareness, faith, salvific and redeeming events, and incidents of conversion and transformation of lives, exist in many and diverse religious domains.

These considerations though seemingly quite compromising but they can be, in the same time, a connotation to a very special quality of Christianity which has the passion for ecumenism as Mouravieff would regard that

…no other religion or philosophical system apart from Christianity has ever aimed at ecumenism. Even the fierce proselytism of Islam has stabilized, and that religion has suffered a set-back. The same fate is occurring to all the great religions of the world, living or dead.[16]

            Dangerous as it may seem, this particularity of Christianity is one of the rare ideas in the world that has the real intention and capability to build bridges with others.  Built on a faith in an incarnated Logos, Christianity has the capacity to believe that its God the Logos can be manifested in many ways.  He is not bounded- by the virtue of His divinity- to any place or time, but He is able and has the will to reveal Himself – even anonymously – to people no matter the context and the historical situation in which they live and act.

            Contrary to what might be thought by many, the universal thinking is the thing that requires real courage, for it is easy for any believer, philosophy or religion to claim the absolute truth, and to surround themselves with whole lot of fences and barriers.  But the real courage and sacrifice is the will to take responsibility to be engaged in serious dialogues with all of the obstacles, vagueness and ambiguity which could be involved.


[1] J. Bryson Arthur, “Revelation and Religious Pluralism,” (Ph.D Thesis, University of Glasgow, 1993), 287.

[2] Ibid., 284.

[3] Ibid., 286.

[4]  مكسيموس المعترف، المئويات الأربع، ترجمة منيف حمصي، 1: 35.

[5] Maximus the Confessor, “The Four Hundred Texts on Love,”  Philokalia, V2, 1: 35.

[6] Symeon The New Theologian, “On Faith,” Philokalia, V4, 17.

[7] Symeon, “The Three Methods of Prayer,”  Philokalia, V4, 70.

[8] Arthur, 286.

[9] Ibid.

[10]  ريكاردا هوخ، الرومنطيقيون الألمان، الجزء الأول، ترجمة عبود كاسوحة، 157.

[11]  نفس المرجع السابق، 211.

[12]  نفس المرجع السابق، 158.

[13] John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology, 269, quoted in Arthur, 113.

[14] Boris Mouravieff, Gnosis:  Study and Commentaries on The Esoteric Tradition of Eastern Christianity- Book II: The Mesoteric Cycle, 154.

[15]  هوخ، 158.

[16] Mouravieff, 154.


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