I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.
These words of Jesus Christ, in John 14:6, constitute one of the most forceful expressions of what could be called the scandal of particularity. One Dominican priest summed it up best this way:
It is tempting to imagine that something, to be universally valid, is only universal to the extent that it is free from the particularities of time, place, experience, culture, etc. The attractive idea is a kind of free-floating truth which then can embed itself in anyone, anywhere.
The scandal of Christianity is that our claim to universal truths is grounded in particular realities. This is, of course, a reality lived out by the Church. We are Roman Catholics. We are Roman in the sense that we define ourselves as Catholic by being in communion with the Church of Rome, the ancient center of an empire that died out more than a millennium ago and now lives on as a great city, but only one among numerous—ranking a distant 92nd place in terms of population size. Talk about being particular. Of course, we are also still catholic, which is taken from the Greek word for universal.
And nowhere is this scandal of particularity more acute than in the person of Jesus Christ. It is, after all, the scandal of the Incarnation—the historical reality that the Second Person of the triune God assumed a fully human nature while retaining the fullness of divinity.
The universal appeal of Christ
In his book, Foundations of Christian Faith, the Catholic theologian Karl Rahner demonstrates in a new way the radical universality of Jesus Christ. Now Rahner, whose orthodoxy has been questioned, might have intended to go as far as to claim that people who had never met a preacher, picked up a Bible, or even heard the name Jesus Christ still could find Him in such a way that they were saved—a claim that is rightly controversial to some.
There is, however, another way to read this limited section of Rahner’s book. Rahner posits three ways to Christ. Instead of reading these as ways of finding Christ, one could read them as three ways all people are seeking Christ. In this light, Rahner’s text becomes immensely important for Christian apologetics.
A common approach of apologetics is to establish the universal desire for God—for example in our experience of beauty and order or our search for meaning. Rahner, on the other hand, provides a basis for a Christ-centered apologetics, whose importance should be self-evident.
It also speaks to the most faithful and devout of believers, showing us Christians ways in which we are seeking Christ in our lives even when we feel alienated from our faith.
To restate Rahner’s claim, we could say that all men and women—at least those who take their existence seriously and live honestly—are searching for Jesus Christ, the Jewish carpenter who spoke Aramaic and was executed by a provincial governor using a now-outdated torture technique two thousands years ago.
Three ways all are seeking Christ
Here are three ways everyone is seeking Christ (according to this interpretation of Rahner):
1. Through absolute love: That we encounter God in love is implicit in the Christian understanding of God as love (1 John 4:8), a biblical teaching that was given new expression in the encyclical Deus Caritas Est. Love arouses a desire for God when we yearn to experience it absolutely, according to Rahner. Absolute love is not an unfamiliar idea to us. It’s the stuff of countless movies, stories, and other tales about young lovers who give themselves wholly over to the other person, who long for their union to be an eternal one.
But, according to Rahner, such love experiences a dilemma: how can such absolute love be shared between finite beings? This is where God enters the picture, as a guarantee of absolute love. But love knows and lives the truth only by uniting itself with it. What we are really seeking, then, is a unity between our love of neighbor and our love of God, according to Rahner. This is what happens in the Incarnation. Only in the Incarnation does our love of neighbor (Jesus) become a love of God (Jesus).
2. Readiness for death: Death, says Rahner, is the one universal, defining constant of human existence. In language that echoes the philosophy of existentialism, Rahner writes that the way free and rational beings can have control over death is, ironically, by accepting it, by coming to terms with our powerlessness. But if this is not to be an existential acceptance of the absurd, then we must find some death, in history, the present, or the future, in which this tension between “doing and enduring powerlessness” is resolved. By modeling our death on this one, or perhaps even uniting ourselves in some way to it, can we achieve power over what is the ultimate experience of powerlessness.
Rahner does little to elaborate on his insight, but Christian readers can see where he is going with this line of thinking: the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the paschal mystery that is both the foundation of our faith and a reality in which we even participate through the Eucharist.
3. Hope in the future: Like love and death, hope is a universal experience. But Rahner discerns a twofold aspect to hope: we make “concrete” plans for the future, but hope also entails being open to the unknowable (or the “incalculable,” as Rahner puts it). Hope for the future, according to Rahner, ultimately becomes hope in God. But Rahner seems to suggest that there remains a tension between ourselves, as finite beings, and God, who is infinite being. Only the Incarnation resolves this tension while giving us a solid ground upon which to base our hope for the future reconciliation of all things.
It may seem strange, but there is also something deeply familiar about seeking the universal in the particular. It is, in a sense, a fundamental character of human existence. We all seek, in various ways, to experience universal things—love, truth, justice, beauty—within the particular, whether that be our homes, our neighborhoods, or even the nation-state. Even the boldest empires of history have never been able to escape the trappings of the particular. The Roman Empire, after all, even in its grandest and most global moments, never ceased to be Roman.
In the Incarnation, the particular and the universal are truly united. Put another way: the fundamental claim of Christian faith is that all universal human desires and strivings are fulfilled most deeply in the particular person of Jesus Christ.