Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Future of Christianity

My master’s thesis began with a cryptic quote from German theologian, Karl Rahner:

“The Christian of the future will be a mystic
or he will not exist at all.”[1]

But what does this enigmatic statement mean? What is a “mystic” and what does it mean that some Christians of the future “will not exist at all”? Interestingly, when we fast-forward fifty years from Rahner’s statement and ponder the “Christians of the future,” we find ourselves looking into the mirror. He is talking about us! We only need to stop and look around to see if what he said was true.

Now most people get tripped up by one word: mystic. Most of us hear the word mystic and think of levitating bodies and divine visions. We think of those superhuman holy men and women, those elite few whose privileged personal intimacy with God yield mysterious powers from another world. Yet for Rahner, the mystic is something far more accessible, more practical, more human.

To understand what Rahner is talking about, we need only look at one story from the gospel of John. At the very end John’s account, Mary Magdalene, downtrodden and deflated by the crucifixion of her Savior, went out to search for his body. “They have taken my Lord away,” she cried, “and I don’t know where they have put him”(Jn 20:13b).

What she didn’t realize was that Jesus was right in her midst. The living water to quench her thirst, the heavenly bread to satisfy her hunger, was standing right in front of her. Lost in sorrow, she was looking for the way. Confused and disoriented, she was searching for the truth. Lifeless and broken, she was looking for the only life that really mattered. Quite unknown to her, the object of her longing was right there in front of her. Matter of fact, Jesus spoke plainly to her and what he said changed her life forever.

Addressing this wounded woman, Jesus answered her need with one word:


Jesus, the Lord of the universe, spoke her name. Jesus, the name above all names, addressed the end of all of her desires in a single word. He spoke her name with love and tenderness. And with this a "new horizon and a decisive direction" to her life was born (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, 1).

“In essence, that is the whole gospel,” notes Ronald Rolheiser.[2] “What are we ultimately looking for? What is the end of all desire? What drives us out into gardens to search for love? The desire to hear God pronounce our names in love. To hear God, lovingly say: “Mary”, “Jack”, “Jennifer”, “Walter”.[3]

This is the core of mysticism and the heart of Rahner’s statement about the future of Christianity. It is about experiencing the person of God personally. "We are all about a person," noted Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, "the greatest person who ever lived, who also happens to be my best friend, who knows me and calls me by name, who invites me to spend eternity with him." "We are not saved by a formula but by a Person," exclaimed Pope John Paul II. We will rise or fall on our personal encounters of the living God who speaks our names in love and changes our lives over and over again. The enduring presence of Jesus Christ is made manifest in the lives of those who have experienced God as Abba, a loving Father who holds, protects and loves his children as only a parent can.

“What is important is our encounter with Jesus, our encounter with him,” Pope Francis extolled in his 2013 Pentecost Vigil message.  “This is what gives you faith because he is the one who gives it to you!" The future of Christianity does not rest on the moralists or the scholars, the powerful or the privileged (as important as they all are), but on those who have encountered the person of Jesus, who have heard his voice, and who follow him with love and trust.

The mystic that Rahner was talking about is us.  All of us.

“I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,” Jesus said to Mary.[4] Without this deep and personal encounter with God, it is impossible for us to understand the life of Christ and the mission he asks us to carry on in his name. Without this transformative encounter with the very Word of life, we have nothing to pass on to the next generation. Without hearing our own names on the sacred tongue of God, we will never be able to speak the names of others in the intimacy and power of our loving Father.

Open your ears and hear afresh the power of one word, your name, spoken lovingly by a God who is closer to us than we are to ourselves. The future begins today.

"The Lord called me from birth,
from my mother's womb he gave me my name."
Isaiah 49:1

[1] Karl Rahner, The Practice of Faith: A Handbook of Contemporary Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1986), 78.
[2] Ronald Rolheiser is a Canadian-born systematic theologian, priest of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), and president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.
[3] Ron Rolheiser, “Mystic or Unbeliever,” April 20, 2008, accessed June 24, 2014 at: http://ronrolheiser.com/mystic-or-unbeliever/#.U6mgxxYdLfJ.
[4] Jn 20:17.

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