Posted by: Harold Knight | 02/08/2010

“Behold, I tell you a mystery. . .the dead shall be raised…” (I Corinthians 15:51).

Anyone who claims to understand Karl Rahner might as well claim to understand why JS Bach wrote the D major  (the relative major)cadence two thirds of the way through the B Minor Prelude and Fugue (BWV 544). 

Give me a break.

I learned an important theological lesson when I was a kid and annually exposed to Handel’s Messiah as the summum bonum of music.

Behold, I shew you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.   In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. 
                                                 –Aria for Bass from Messiah, Second Part.

Sitting in the ugly auditorium of Scottsbluff (Nebraska) High School, the red curtain and all the fly curtains, too, pulled back so the community chorus fit on the stage, we heard the bass du jour wobble these words from St. Paul to Handel’s music. I took it in, not as theological truth, but as musical meaning. These words came far into the concert, long after the soprano du jour wobbled the story we had come to hear, “And there were shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch. . . .” Dad sang tenor in the choir, and the event was meaningful and cozy. Never mind that Handel (or rather, Charles Jennens, his librettist) switched the words of the Corinthians passage around. Meaning.

Let me say I’m at least as modest as any preacher who claims to understand Rahner. I have no idea what Rahner’s writing eventually adds up to; all of that theology. I can, however, use little snippets of his writing to proof-text what I’m going to say anyway—just the way the preachers do.

Rahner wrote,

For the theologian all these human experiences speak of God even if the individual theologian knows very little about them. Thus one’s theology—despite all existential engagement theologians like to refer to—is so abstract, so colorless, so far removed from revealing the human person and the world. To be sure, the theologian has in the last analysis, only one thing to say. But this one affirmation should comprehend that mysterious core of all reality. (1)

When I used to practice the organ, the process felt mad, incomprehensible. How on earth would I ever get my fingers and my clumsy feet to play perfectly so people would think I was wonderful?  I wanted to be a concert artist. I wanted the accolades from the world at large that I got from my friends and family. I always played under duress—self inflicted duress, to be sure, but nonetheless uncomfortable and stressful. I was totally “removed from revealing the human person in the world.” Reality was the farthest thing from my mind.

The problem was the notes. I have never been able to play flawlessly, and, for a perfectionist, a raging addict for whom, if I can’t do it perfectly, I won’t do it at all, that is an obstacle that can barely be overcome. Since 1992 I have played only enough to get through a Sunday church service. Learning the notes has simply been too much stress. There are some [physical] extenuating circumstances regarding playing the notes perfectly. That made no difference. I was determined to play perfectly (to remove the reality of who I was from the process) and when I never could, I gave up.

The theological lesson I learned sitting in the Scottsbluff High School auditorium is quite simple. It’s hardly worthy of Karl Rahner’s notice. “Behold, I tell you a great mystery.” That’s it. Eugene Peterson should have been around instead of Charles Jennens. Handel’s music wouldn’t have that King James Version lilt, but it might be easier to understand:

But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I’ll probably never fully understand.

But I do understand. That’s a lie, of course. I don’t understand Karl Rahner or Bach’s D major cadence. But the mystery is beginning to unfold as I practice:

 The notes are not the problem.

The problem is, “. . . we shall all be changed.   In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible.” As I have been practicing in a way I was never able to twenty years ago, I have stumbled (in my playing, stumbling is a good word for it) upon an unfathomable mystery that makes the process exhilarating, frightening, impossible, and absolutely necessary in a way it never was before. Chalk it up to old age (perhaps some attendant wisdom). Or to years of sobriety. Or to. . . (don’t, please, invoke angels or the Holy Spirit and spoil the moment).

But let me tell you something wonderful, a mystery I’ll never fully understand.

Even if I cannot play the notes perfectly. Even if I get lost and botch a whole section of one of the pieces I’m playing, here’s the mystery (don’t, please, get all squirrelly and accuse me of being in league with Shirley McClain). The mystery is that the dead shall be raised incorruptible. Well, not incorruptible, not in my playing. But I have been communing with JS Bach and Felix Mendelssohn, and a couple other guys. That is, their minds, their spirits, are informing my mind, my spirit in a way music never has before. Or it always did and I didn’t even begin to understand.

I am, like many depressive people, obsessed with thoughts of death. I don’t get Christian theology at all. It seems to me absolutely to ignore reality. I’m not saying the god of my understanding couldn’t, if she wanted to, keep me around for eternity. But what would be the point of the universe? I won’t get into the stuff about the Big Bang and such ideas that my mind can’t understand but can’t let go if.

I’ve been in conversation with Bach and Mendelssohn. Oh stop! I don’t mean anything supernatural or spooky. Just a conversation. Karl Rahner says

. . . It seems to me that the conceptual models used to clarify what is meant by eternal life are for the most part insufficient to deal with the radical break that takes place at death. Eternal life. . . is clothed too much with realities with which we are familiar . . . Yet I fear that the radical incomprehensibility of what is really meant by eternal life is in this way trivialized. . . Death will have erected a huge, silent void. And we will have silently accepted this state in a spirit of faith and hope as corresponding to our true destiny and being.

That’s what I mean about conversing with Bach and Mendelssohn. They’re teaching me hope. And maybe a tiny bit (oh, so small) of faith. And the notes don’t matter (well, of course, they do). It’s the spirit of hope and faith. Something  in me understands something of that in their music.

I feel like Rod Sterling inviting you into the twilight zone. Take what you like and leave the rest.
( 1) All Rahner quotations from: Rahner, Karl. “Experiences of a Catholic Theologian. ” Theological Studies 61.1 (2000): 3. Trans by Declan Marmion and Gesa Thiessen.


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